The strange tale of the Balaclava Beluga

 (and a new Russian stealth submarine that will operate from the Crimea)

The current turmoil in the Crimea and television news reports from Balaclava reminded me of a trip I made to that part of the world in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Thereby hangs a tale and I thought it worth dusting off, especially as it was an episode that didn’t make it into my new book ‘Hunter Killers’ and deserves not to go ignored. It also appears my encounter with a secret Russian submarine was merely the prequel for a lethal new vessel that will soon be operating from the Crimea (providing another reason why Moscow will never give up Sevastopol).

Elderly men wearing flat caps and clad in frayed polyster zip up jackets queued patiently alongside babushkas swaddled against the cold, empty shopping bags dangling forlornly from their gnarled fingers. Quite what they were waiting to receive from the ramshackle shop was not clear: Potatoes? Tea? Shoes?  In the Soviet Union people waited in line for whatever they could get no matter how paltry it was.

Not far away, an enterprising set of fellows showed similarly heroic (and equally vain) patience, fishing rods poised over the black, gently rippling waters of Balaclava Harbour. They were not likely to hook decent-sized fish in there, more inclined to pull out an old boot.


Shot taken at Balaclava Harbour in the Crimea, late 1991, showing never before seen Russian submarine, called the Beluga. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

The anglers stared miserably into the distance, not seeming to understand that the biggest intelligence catch for many years was actually moored next to a floating dock just a few yards away.

I raised my camera to capture the scene – in the foreground moribund, miserable fishermen and there, almost on the ends of their lines, a sleek, shark-shaped submarine of a kind never seen before by Western eyes.

Rather than being arrested by KGB shadowers, with my camera smashed into pieces, I got away with snapping off several dozen frames. I was part of an official group being shown around Balaclava as a guest of the Russian Navy, so I seemed to have immunity to strong-arm tactics. (As I would find out just under a year later, in another part of Russia, armed KGB agents in those days invariably followed Western VIPs around – to protect them from thugs – and were not afraid to loose off a few shots in the air to safeguard special visitors – but that’s a story for another day.)


View across Balaclava in late 1991, with a solitary elderly Juliett Class diesel-electric cruise missile submarine alongside the Soviet Navy submarine base. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

In Balaclava, a jolly, rather rotund Russian admiral held forth with a booming voice about the harbour – which of course for Britons, as he acknowledged, held great significance. During the Crimean War of the 1850s it had been a major portal of invasion for Queen Victoria’s army. We had just been over to the Valley of Death – now covered in vineyards rather than the corpses of slain cavalrymen – and this was the latest stop on the British diplomatic group’s tour. As a journalist I was a hanger-on, listening and watching from the sidelines.

In late 1991, with the Soviet Union breaking up rapidly – and only a matter of weeks until it was dissolved – the issue dominating the headlines was: What will happen to the nuclear weapons currently residing in the various breakaway bits? The Ukraine in particular was home to many nukes and also a massive Russian Navy presence in the Crimean Peninsula. Yet it seemed amid all the fuss over the warheads somebody had forgotten to hide this submarine at Balaclava away from prying eyes. They could easily have slid it out of sight for, unknown to us at the time, the cliffs at Balaclava concealed cavernous submarine pens – like some Bond villain’s lair for real – but on the day of our visit an order to conceal the submarine failed to come down the chain of command.

Back in the UK, not really understanding quite how much of a scoop the pictures I had taken were, I did some investigating. It turned out the Balaclava submarine was a revolutionary kind of craft called a Beluga. It was an experimental prototype, created to see if the stealthy shape of a nuclear-powered attack submarine could be combined with a new type of propulsion more silent than reactor machinery, called closed-cycle diesel.

Suddenly we were in the realms of Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’ and my humble regional evening newspaper had a world scoop – but I wasn’t the only one taking pictures. There were others there too. Could we beat them to the punch? My paper ran the story big and bold; a front-page lead ‘World Exclusive’ on the ‘Secret Red Sub’, with an inside page carrying more detail and a sidebar on the recent Hollywood blockbuster version of ‘Hunt for Red October’. It explained that the movie featured a fictional submarine with revolutionary propulsion, just like the Beluga (well, not quite, but similar enough).

As for the much-vaunted Beluga, it seemed to be a bit of a dead end, being decommissioned after several years of trials. The Russian Navy struggled to keep even its older, less cutting edge submarines at sea so there was no point back then in carrying on with trying to develop radical new types.

Today the closed-cycle Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarine proliferates across the world, thanks mainly to the Germans, who don’t mind supplying them to whoever has the cash (and a need for patrol submarines almost as deadly, in certain waters, as the nuclear-powered attack boats). The Germans have always been on the cutting edge of submarine technology. One of James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s prime objectives when working for Naval Intelligence at the close of the Second World War was to ensure the British seized German submarines before the Soviets got them, especially high-speed craft with closed-cycle AIP propulsion. The British succeeded but were later forced to share them with the Americans and the Russians, with all three nations basing their early Cold War submarines on the seized Nazi U-boats. Read ‘Hunter Killers’ for more on all that.

New Russian Submarine

An advanced Lada Class diesel-electric submarine constructed by the Admiralty Yard in St. Petersburg, which is also building similar (but even more capable) Varshavyanka Class boats. Photo: Admiralty Shipyards JSC.

In naval technology (and fiction) everything, so it seems, is cyclical. In Ian Fleming’s novel Moonraker (first published in 1955) the climactic sequence features a super-fast Russian submarine that can do 25 knots under the water. The former British naval intelligence officer was there before Clancy – merging fact with fiction.

As for the Balaclava, judging by the news broadcasts, it has changed somewhat in the 23 years since I was there, with what looks like swanky apartments on the cliffs. One thing I did gain an appreciation of during my visit to the Crimea was how deeply embedded Sevastopol and the rest of the peninsula is within the Russian psyche. The Russians shed blood to keep it not only during the Crimean War but also during bitter fighting in the Second World War. Allowing the Ukraine to even nominally keep the Crimea – which was Russian territory until 1954 – and especially after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s really aggravated the Russians. Well, now they have taken it back though it is hard luck on Ukrainians who live there. It is a story that will run and run, for they don’t want to yield the Crimea either.

With President Putin’s interest in building up the Russian Navy again and exerting his country’s hard power presence in world affairs there are said to be new submarines on their way to operate out of the Crimea.

New Russian Submarine

Another view of the Lada Class, precursor to the Novorossisk and her Varshavyanka Class sister vessels, which are destined to operate out of the Crimea. Photo: Admiralty Shipyards JSC.

Last November at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg, a new kind of diesel-electric submarine called the Novorossisk was floated out, with sister vessels soon to follow. Up to ten of the new Varshavyanka Class boats (said to be super stealthy and with exceptional underwater endurance for a conventional type) are reportedly on their way. They may operate from Novorossisk itself, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. It is today Russia’s primary oil exporting port and a burgeoning naval base. However, you can bet some of the new submarines will be based at Sevastopol. Their primary targets, as part of a new task force that will aim to also operate in the eastern Mediterranean, are four Med-based American guided-missile destroyers destined to provide Europe with a ballistic missile defence shield.

Novorossisk and her sisters – no doubt incorporating technological advances pioneered in the Balaclava Beluga all those years ago – will sally forth from their Crimean base to shadow those American vessels. And that’s a major reason the Russians will not give up the Crimea. It is not only part of their soul but also strategically of vital importance in Putin’s grand venture to establish a new world order (in which Russia again challenges Western hegemony).

*‘Hunter Killers’ (published by Orion) is currently available in hardback and ebook format. The paperback edition will be published this summer. More details on ‘Hunter Killers’ here
For a look at the Soviet submarine base inside the cliffs at Balaclava (where the Beluga Class submarine could have been hidden, but wasn’t) there is an excellent video here.

Dawn of Putin’s ‘Golden Fish’: Will the West Tremble?

With the advent of a new class of nuclear-powered attack submarine in the Russian Navy it seems the Kremlin once again has a ‘golden fish’ it hopes will make the West tremble in fear of awesome undersea warfare capabilities.

The first of eight such boats currently planned, Severodvinsk, was commissioned into the Northern Fleet at the turn of the year, having first been laid down as long ago as December 1993. Her construction and completion stalled during that period when the former Red Navy all but withdrew from its old Atlantic hunting grounds.

Today, with President Vladimir Putin determined to project a strong maritime presence around the world – and with the petro dollars to afford it – new submarines are top of the agenda. And so the order was given to get Severodvinsk finished and into service – some sources claim that ultimately a dozen of these new SSNs could be built.

The Severodvinsk Class boats are also designed to be land attack platforms, packed with cruise missiles in addition to being hunter-killers seeking and destroying enemy submarines

The desire to awe the West is clear. When a ballistic missile submarine named Yuri Dolgoruky – the first SSBN completed for Russia’s navy in two decades – was commissioned in January 2013, a former Russian ambassador to NATO no less tweeted: ‘Tremble bourgeoisie! You’re screwed :)’.

While the name boat of the Severodvinsk Class (as NATO knows them, or Yasen if you are Russian) is advanced enough – being a development of the formidable Akula II type – it is the second, Kazan that promises so much.

Currently under construction at Sevmash on the White Sea, rather than being a development of a previous class like Severodvinsk herself, Kazan uses all new technology that aspires to raise the bar. A third in the class, Novosibirsk, was laid down in the summer of 2013 .

Sevrod Submarine 

The new Russian attack submarine Severodvinsk on sea trials. Photo: Sevmash.

Kazan is likely to be the most expensive attack submarine ever (but if the Russians follow Western patterns, the cost will come down the more that are built).

With the final bill for Kazan alone rumoured to be around £3 billion (depending on your sources, it could be ‘only’ £1.3 billion), she exceeds the bill for even the super expensive Seawolf Class boats of the US Navy  (three boats, commissioned 1997 – 2005).

The most recent edition of the US Naval Institute’s ‘Combat Fleets’ guide to the navies of the world suggested Severodvinsk and her sisters will be fast – capable of reaching 40 knots submerged (and with a top stealth speed of 20 knots). Reasonably deep diving, they reportedly have a maximum operating depth of more than 1,500 feet.

The Russians are of course not new to the game of submarine one-upmanship with the West, most notably via the Alfa Class SSNs, which were developed in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Back then – as I explain in book ‘Hunter Killers’ – the Soviet Navy truly shocked the West. For the Alfa could dive deeper and go faster than anything ever seen before. Money was no object for the Alfa either, which is why the type was nicknamed the ‘golden fish’.

One astonished Soviet submarine officer thought the Alfa’s radically streamlined shape was stunningly beautiful – more a work of art than a product of industry. He declared: ‘I felt as if I had just discarded my tractor and boarded a spaceship.’

The amazing acceleration rate enabled the Alfa to go from 6 to 42 knots in just 120 seconds but the use of liquid metal for reactor coolant was extremely radical – and very dangerous. The titanium-hulled Alfa’s reported maximum diving depth was more than 2,400ft, which was twice that of any contemporary NATO or Soviet boat. The problem with such high turn of speed – and the Alfa could actually manage up to 45 knots – was that it created a lot of noise.

The Alfa was fitted with six torpedo tubes and capable of carrying maximum of 18 Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) missiles or torpedoes. However, as pointed out by one of the principal players in the ‘Hunter Killers’ narrative, the likelihood of an Alfa actually being able to fight at maximum depth or speed was slim to non-existent.

Alfa Class Submarine

A port view of an Alfa Class nuclear-powered fleet submarine underway during the Cold War. Photo: US DoD.

In the early 1980s Doug Littlejohns pondered the so-called ‘golden fish’ and asked himself: ‘What was the tactical point of the Alfa?’ At the time NATO worried that its torpedoes would not be able to reach an Alfa at the Russian SSN’s maximum depth, due to pressure crushing the weapons. Littlejohns felt that nobody could deny ‘the Alfa was a huge step forward in submarine design’. There again, while it could go deeper and a lot faster than NATO boats that was nullified by the noise.  Littlejohns asked: ‘What is the point of going down there when there is no one down there? Why spend all that money?’  He decided the tactical advantage for the Alfa was that it could ‘outrun and out-dive a torpedo, but that is about it.’

As soon as the Alfa came back up to actually try and fight NATO boats it would be nailed due to its noise signature. The British response to the Alfa, and other increasingly sophisticated Soviet boats such as the Victor, was the Swiftsure Class – a stealthy, fast submarine that could dive deep and fight well.

As recounted in ‘Hunter Killers’ the honour of bringing the first of the new Swiftsures through trials and into service in the early 1970s fell to Commander Tim Hale. He thought ‘Swiftsure represented an enormous shift in technology, a major increase in the size, endurance and capabilities.’  Having joined his first boat 16 years earlier Hale found the leap forward astonishing, from a comparatively primitive WW2-era diesel, in which water would have to be rationed on patrol and oxygen carefully conserved, to a big nuclear-powered beast that had no limits on either and possessed the power to run sophisticated sonars and weaponry.

Of course the Soviets had to try and equal the balanced capabilities of the Swiftsures and the US Navy’s 688 Class attack submarines (also known as Los Angeles Class). They used espionage to gain the technological leg up to produce the Victor III Class boats, which began to enter service in the late 1970s, and Akula I Class from the mid-1980s.

After the blind alley of the Alfa the Russians achieved their enormous leap thanks to major assistance from traitors in American naval ranks who sold them vast amounts of secrets. They gave the Soviets technical knowledge that was previously lacking to produce submarines that came close to parity with the West’s.

There’s no doubt today’s Severodvinsk Class will be on the cutting edge and formidable vessels. The Russian Navy submarine force has always been the most elite and prestigious element of the Kremlin’s military, so spending billions earned from exploiting oil and gas revenues on new nuclear-powered submarines is entirely in line with that philosophy.

President Putin has made no secret of his determination to build up the Russian Navy to once again act as a powerful global political and military tool in true Soviet style. The fact that his admirals, generals and defence ministers call him ‘Comrade Commander-in-Chief’ is a pretty good indication of how the former Cold War KGB officer sees things.

While they may not necessarily exceed the capabilities of the Royal Navy’s new Astute Class SSNs or the Virginia Class in the US Navy, the Severodvinsks will give the two principal submarine operating nations of the West a run for their money.

The real test of worth for Putin’s 21st Century ‘golden fish’ will, though, reside in the cutting edge sonars and weapons the new boats will be fitted with. If they malfunction and don’t deliver the goods, then Kazan and her sisters will be more bloated whales than killer sharks.

USS Seawolf

The American submarine USS Seawolf, until Kazan, second of Russia’s new Severodvinsk Class boats, the most expensive nuclear-powered attack boat ever constructed. Photo: US Navy.


Cold War Under the Sea: Where Fact Blends With Fiction

An academic reviewing Hunter Killers remarked that it shows how sometimes ‘Cold War fiction and Cold War fact blend seamlessly at the edges’. And he’s right, for the Cold War often threw up strange episodes that inspired Hollywood and novelists to create a kind of faction.

For example, Alistair MacLean – who served in the Royal Navy on the Arctic convoys during WW2 – based elements of his 1963 novel ‘Ice Station Zebra’ on real-life events. These included the 1959 loss of a film container from an American intelligence-gathering satellite over the Arctic. The Soviets were said to have recovered it along with whatever secrets it contained.

In May 1962 the CIA parachuted operatives onto pack ice near an abandoned Russian ‘research station’. It was really a listening post for detecting US Navy nuclear-powered submarines. The CIA men collected valuable intelligence material and were then plucked off the ice in breath-taking fashion by a specially converted B-17 bomber that reeled them in.

In ‘Ice Station Zebra’ a British rescue station in the Arctic is the scene of espionage skullduggery and is set on fire, with a US Navy nuclear-powered submarine sent under the Polar ice to carry out a rescue mission. In the novel and 1968 movie of the same name the American vessel also goes to try and recover a film canister containing spy satellite imagery.

A UK-made movie called ‘The Bedford Incident’, released in October 1965 and starring Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark, depicted the pursuit of a Russian diesel submarine in waters off Greenland.

The Soviet boat is kept down until her air has almost run out and launches a nuclear-tipped torpedo when the destroyer USS Bedford accidentally fires anti-submarine rockets.

Not long after an eerily similar episode occurred in British waters, in my book dubbed ‘The Kosygin Incident’. At 10.30 a.m. on 6 February 1967 – the same day Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin’s airliner touched down on British soil for an official visit – a Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft of the RAF picked up a contact about 100 nautical miles to the north-west of Malin Head. Having already dropped a string of sonar buoys as part of a major Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) exercise with the Royal Navy, the aircraft was able to classify it as ‘probably a submarine’.

Frigates, diesel submarines and the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Dreadnought were soon ordered by a senior admiral to ‘close the [suspected Soviet] submarine’s position for the purpose of hunting her’.

As news of this inconvenient incident reached government circles alarm bells rang and the hounds were called away from their quarry (identified as a Whisky Class diesel that departed the Baltic on January 22). Fortunately reality had not mirrored the catastrophic conclusion of ‘The Bedford Incident’.

The archetypal example of Cold War submarine faction was Tom Clancy’s ‘Hunt for Red October’. This was partly the fruit of the late novelist’s trawling for nuggets of fact to inform his fiction while visiting American naval officers to sell them insurance (his job before he broke through as a writer).

Sean Connery - Hunt for Red October

Hollywood fiction: Sean Connery as Capt. Marko Ramius in the movie version of Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’. Image: Paramount.

Doug Littlejohns – captain of several British submarines during the Cold War and one of the key players in the ‘Hunter Killers’ narrative – got to know the American blockbuster master.

As related in ‘Hunter Killers’, during a trip to the States in the mid-1980s a fellow British submarine officer gave Littlejohns a copy of ‘Hunt for Red October’ to read. Littlejohns consumed it overnight and decided he had to meet Clancy. When they met Littlejohns told Clancy: ‘You’ve put stuff in your book that if I talked about it would see me locked up in the Tower of London.’

The two men became friends, though Littlejohns had to keep a professional distance while still a serving naval officer. Clancy was inspired enough to pay tribute to Littlejohns by basing a character in ‘Red Storm Rising’ (the follow up to ‘Hunt for Red October’) on the British submarine captain. After Littlejohns retired from the Navy he co-founded Red Storm Entertainment with Clancy, specialising in video games.

Nobody should underestimate the impact of Clancy’s Cold War thrillers, which while not works of high literature, offered excitement and also insight into a previously secret world.

The Hollywood movie based on Clancy’s novel, starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, was a major success despite being released after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its powerful imagery and exciting depiction of life beneath the waves still had pulling power. A few years ago I met a young naval officer who responded, when asked what had inspired him to join the Navy and become a submariner: ‘A movie called The Hunt for Red October.’

Hunt for Red October - sonar

Hollywood fiction : A scene from the movie version of Tom Clancy’s ‘Hunt for Red October’. Image: Paramount.

Someone told me recently that they hoped I would not be insulted by the compliment that ‘Hunter Killers’ reads like a thriller. On the contrary, that is the point – to take people inside the Cold War and show them how exciting and dangerous it really was by, where appropriate, using techniques more traditionally employed by the novelist.

Therefore in ‘Hunter Killers’ we have chapters featuring nerve-wracking rides down undersea canyons, dangerous games of chicken and the long distance hunt for the Russian carrier Kiev across the Mediterranean by HMS Sceptre (in the late 1970s the British SSN was commanded by Rob Forsyth, another major player in the book’s narrative).

A chapter on CIA analysts trying to sort out the fact from fiction of a rumoured new Soviet super submarine (a chapter called ‘The Alfa Enigma’) of course rings bells of similarity with some Cold War fiction.

In ‘The Hunt for Red October’ for instance CIA analyst Jack Ryan tries to get to the bottom of the Soviet Navy submarine Red October’s radical new propulsion. In real life it took years for the CIA’s analysts to persuade the Pentagon the Soviets really had built a super fast, deep diving nuclear-powered submarine (with revolutionary liquid metal reactors). It was called the Alfa by NATO and represented a quantum leap in capability that the West did not want to believe the Russians could achieve.

The reality of ‘Hunter Killers’ matches and betters fiction: Soviets depth charging and trying to ram British submarines off Russia; Royal Navy SSNs colliding with Russian submarines and nearly being sunk (incidents which even today, decades later, the MoD insists were bumps with icebergs); Soviet spy ships attempting to run down one of the UK’s Polaris missile submarines and almost sinking a RN diesel submarine just off the British coast.

And there’s much more besides, not least daring up close espionage, with periscopes just inches away from whirling Soviet surface ship propellers and tricky explorations of sun-kissed foreign anchorages in clear visibility waters (with big black submarines dodging nimbly around anchor cables).

In the end ‘Hunter Killers’ is not a tale of big boys and their toys doing daring things for fun, but a deep dive into a nightmarish period of world history.

The warrior-scientists in their submarines waged a covert, silent war with utter dedication. They were handpicked for mental strength and agility, plus their nerves of steel ability to make the right life-or-death decisions when nuclear-powered, and armed, submarines were sliding by within feet of each other.

Some people with the benefit of hindsight perhaps might regard the undersea confrontation of the 1950s – 1990s as an exercise in futility. All that money poured into all that technology, all that intellect applied to creating vessels of war that could snuff out all life on the planet – yet a war without battles that has faded into the deep dark ocean of legend as if it never was.

Submarine in ice

Submarine reality (below): A US Navy attack submarine surfaced through the Arctic ice pack. Photo: US Navy.

But that’s the point. In maintaining the undersea rivalry at such fever pitch, waging it with such dedication and enduring so much hardship to do so, submariners on both sides ensured politicians had to always calculate that it was never worth taking the gamble on waging conventional war in Europe.

In that way the submariners could be said to have saved millions of lives by preventing a re-run of errors committed in WW1 and WW2 when kings and politicians started conflicts that they could not stop without huge blood-letting, social anarchy and wasted treasure.

During the Cold War the leaders of both East and West knew that to begin a hot war would surely end in the deaths of everybody. The submariners had no desire for the shooting to start, or as Doug Littlejohns puts it: ‘ We don’t want to make war – submariners are among the people that least want to make war.’

In Hollywood movies and pulp fiction the protagonists invariably resort to violence as a means to resolve their conflicts. The aim of the Cold War submariner was to threaten the use of force but to never use it, for to do so would represent failure.

The fact that such lethal beasts as submarines were ultimately weapons for peace was surely the greatest plot twist – and the most fascinating paradox – of them all.

HMS TRIUMPH control room under red light.

Submarine reality: The Control Room of a British nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine. Photo: Nigel Andrews.

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