Cold War Rewind (Have Phantom Submarines Come Back to Haunt Sweden?)

A drama worthy of the worst periods of tension during the post-WW2 standoff between the Soviet Union and the West has been unfolding in the Baltic, for Sweden has revealed it is hunting a mystery vessel.

It really is an extraordinary case of Cold War rewind, plunging the Swedes right back into a nightmare they hoped to have left far behind. During the 1980s the issue of foreign submarines allegedly making forays into its waters became intensely political for Sweden. It even stoked paranoia of forces within the country itself favouring one side or the other in the East-West confrontation.

Swedish Visby Corvette

HSwMS Nykoping, a Visby Class corvette of the Royal Swedish Navy, a type of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capable vessel said to have been searching for the mystery submarine. Nykoping is pictured here sailing in shallow coastal waters off Karlskrona. Photo: Guy Toremans.

Despite Swedish military forces stopping just short of an all-out public accusation that this new intruder is a Russian, nobody would be surprised if it is a Baltic Fleet submarine. The Kremlin has already sent its aircraft to spy on Western maritime exercises in the Baltic and surface warships to shadow them closely, so why not submarines to keep an eye on the Swedes or NATO?

Swedish officials have admitted they are looking for something in a massive “intelligence operation” but are denying a submarine hunt as such. They do say that a radio message in Russian was picked up on a frequency normally used for submarine distress calls.

At the time of writing the Swedes claim to have detected evidence of submarine activity three times – and the Swedish Defence Ministry has published images of a small, dark shape moving on the surface close inshore. There are even supposed sightings of dark figures wading ashore.


An image released by the Swedish military, which was taken by an amateur photographer. It supposedly shows a mystery craft making a wake close inshore to Sweden. It has been speculated this may be a surfaced mini submarine. Photo: Swedish Defence Ministry.

Moscow has denied there is anything unusual going on, besides the usual operating patterns of Russian Navy submarines, and there are no emergencies to report. If it is a conventional Russian submarine, then it is likely to be an elderly Kilo Class boat. Even in the Cold War the Baltic Fleet did not get receive front line submarine types – the top models were, and remain, reserved for the Northern and Pacific fleets.

A new generation of diesel boats is, though, being built in St. Petersburg at the top end of the Baltic. Could one of these be on sea trials and have gotten into trouble? Or maybe it was sent to try out its stealth qualities for real?

An alternative explanation is that a mini submarine used for shallow water insertion of Special Forces and offshore surveillance is the guilty party and has become stranded somehow. There have been reports of a Russian merchant vessel, rumoured to be the craft’s mother ship, loitering just outside Swedish territorial waters and cruising in random patterns. Three warships from the Royal Netherlands Navy were reportedly shadowing this vessel in international waters.

The mystery undersea craft will not be a nuclear-powered or armed submarine. The Baltic is too shallow and tricky navigation-wise for SSN or SSBN operations. The nuclear-armed diesel-electric Golf Class boats of the Cold War based at Kronstadt are long gone.

The dilemma of what to do was, and remains, extremely tricky for Sweden. It was neutral during the Cold War and these days, while it works very closely with NATO naval forces, is still not part of the alliance despite having a newly aggressive Russia glowering at it from the other side of the Baltic.

We have already seen Russian troops annexing the Crimea, waging a so-called covert war in eastern Ukraine and even airliners being shot down, so why not mystery submarines in Swedish waters? There is an eerie parallel here with the most notorious such incident, the so-called ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ episode, as related in ‘Hunter Killers’.  In late October 1981, an old Whiskey Class submarine of the Soviet Navy ran aground just off Karlskrona Naval Base. When some local fishermen reported they had discovered a Russian submarine perched on some rocks the Swedish military thought they were drunk, until, that is, they sent somebody out to take a look and found out it was true.


A Whiskey Class diesel-electric submarine of the Soviet Navy cruises on the surface during the Cold War. In 1981 one such vessel became stranded off a Swedish naval base, in the notorious ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ episode.  Photo: US DoD.

Throughout the 1980s the Swedes frequently detected what they suspected were foreign submarines in their territorial waters. They sent out helicopters and surface vessels to hunt them down, dropping depth charges in some instances during pursuits that lasted for days.

When it comes to the “credible source” the Swedes say they are relying on to indicate submarine activity, this must mean a sonar contact of some kind, whether seabed sensors, a maritime patrol aircraft, surface craft or even one of their own submarines.

The Swedes will be very wary of going too hard on what exactly it is they believe they have detected and also of saying who exactly is down there. For it is not easy to gain a positive contact of a submarine in the Baltic. It could well be a phantom that Sweden is pursuing or even ‘a biologic’ (as it was termed in the Hollywood Cold War submarine drama ‘Hunter for Red October’). In other words, a marine creature rather than steel boat. In the Cold War days, the Swedes may well have chased porpoises or even flatulent herring rather than submarines.

If it was submarines in the old days, they could have been NATO diesel-electric submarines rather than Russian boats. Those same uncertainties apply today, though the Royal Navy – which ran numerous covert missions using submarines into the Baltic during the Cold War – is no longer in the business since going fully nuclear-powered, which also applies to the US Navy.


The Russian Navy continues to operate Kilo Class diesel-electric patrol submarines in the Baltic. Photo: US Department of Defence.

Would the Germans or Norwegians send their extremely capable conventional submarines on covert missions into Swedish waters? Not likely, as they work very closely with the Royal Swedish Navy already and surely know all they need to about the Swedes? Russian suggestions that it is a Dutch diesel submarine that was exercising off the Swedish coast recently look very much like Moscow deploying its usual obfuscation. The Swedes say they have intercepted Russian language communications and another transmission (this time encrypted) sent to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in the southern Baltic that is host to a major naval base. Additionally, submarine water space management as operated by NATO means that any Western submarine would only be dived in clearly delineated waters, to safeguard against accidents and also to enable unauthorised intruders to be identified and countered. NATO member Poland, the other Baltic diesel submarine operator, is unlikely to risk one of its ancient diesels. Therefore, if the contact the Swedes have made is a real submarine rather than a phantom, it is almost certain to be Russian, returning to the old underwater espionage game of the Cold War era.

‘Hunter Killers’ was recently published in paperback by Orion Books and is available from Amazon or direct from Orion. Iain Ballantyne is also the editor of the UK-based global naval affairs monthly magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review.


Brothers in Treachery

Gaining the edge in the Cold War submarine contest stretched from the deep oceans, in which the boats of both sides jousted with each other, to espionage ashore. Several traitors to the West over the decades spied for the Soviets but nothing was more shocking than the betrayal effected by the Walker-Whitworth spy ring in the USA. Their deeds gave the Russians an advantage at sea they would never have otherwise possessed. The recent deaths in prison of two key players in the spy ring makes it worth looking at the scale of treachery they were involved in, especially as the espionage game is still being pursued by the Russians as a means to gain advantage in submarine operations

John WalkerTwo brothers at the heart of arguably the greatest ever betrayal of their nation’s defence secrets, died in prison within weeks of each other during the summer of 2014.

Retired US Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur J. Walker was part of a spy ring led by retired Chief Warrant Officer submariner turned private investigator John Walker that was busted in the mid-1980s.

American naval traitor John Walker. Photo: FBI

Arthur died at the age of 79 on July 7 at a prison in Butner, North Carolina, the suspected cause being kidney failure. John Walker died on August 28, aged 77, at the same location. No cause of death was disclosed though one US-based newspaper reported John Walker had contracted throat cancer. The Walker brothers were to have been released from prison in May 2015.

Recruiting John’s son, Michael, a sailor serving in surface fleet aircraft carriers, and a fellow senior rating named Jerry Whitworth, the Walker-Whitworth spy ring sold very important information to the Soviet Union.

As explained in my book ‘Hunter Killers’, which has just been published in paperback, it was reckoned the secrets passed to the Russians could well have given their navy a winning edge in any hot war with NATO. Some experts believe that even today the Russians are benefiting via advanced technology in their submarine fleet.

Walker class

One of the Soviet Union’s so-called ‘Walker Class’, a Victor III nuclear-powered attack submarine. Photo: US DoD.

During the 1960s John Walker served in the ballistic missile boats (SSBNs) USS Andrew Jackson and USS Simon Bolivar. In October 1967, while he was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet Submarine Force headquarters, John Walker visited the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. to offer photocopied documents as evidence of his willingness to spy for the Soviet Union. Walker retired from the Navy in 1975 but then suborned Whitworth and members of his family into feeding him secrets to pass on to the Soviets.

USS John s Jackson

USS Andrew Jackson, one of the US Navy ballistic missile submarines John Walker served in during his naval career. Photo: US DoD.

It was a woman who figured large in Walker’s downfall, his ex-wife Barbara, who had accompanied him on a few secret drop-offs but did not actively participate in the acts of spying. Barbara contacted the authorities and was visited by an FBI agent in late 1984. Her claims were treated with suspicion because it was suspected she was acting out of pure animosity towards her former husband.

However, the FBI agent’s file did not lie ignored in a filing cabinet for long, as one of his supervisors decided it warranted further examination. A surveillance operation, including telephone taps, was ordered. Interrogated aboard the USS Nimitz, Michael confessed to his crimes and by May 1985 not only was John Walker under arrest – with plenty of incriminating documents found at a dead-letter drop and in his home – but so, too, were his brother and also Whitworth.

John Walker received two life sentences (running concurrently) in the spring of 1986. Whitworth was sentenced to 365 years in prison and fined US $410,000, while Arthur was fined $250,000 and given a life sentence, eligible for parole the same year as his brother. Michael Walker was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The scope of betrayal that had taken place over the course of 18 years was breath-taking. What the Walker-Whitworth spy ring had given away enabled the Russians to make an astonishing technology leap, not only for their Akula and Sierra classes of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) but in the earlier Victor III (dubbed unofficially by the US Navy as ‘the Walker Class’).

From the late 1960s, John Walker also passed to the Soviets information that gave them insights into NATO submarine operations, signals codes, the seabed Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) and US plans in the event of war. When it came to SOSUS, reports containing key information on the movements of friendly submarines were thought to have been intercepted by the Russians and decoded thanks to the Walker-Whitworth spy ring.

It has been claimed this enabled the Soviets to send Victor Class SSNs to certain chokepoints, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, in an attempt to detect American SSBNs. Walker’s spying let the Russians know how noisy their own submarines were, enabling them to achieve higher levels of stealth. A Russian admiral would later claim some Victor Class SSNs were able to slip undetected past SOSUS or NATO submarines and this was partially made possible by the Walker espionage product.

The information Walker provided enabled the Russians to finally appreciate the worth of quieting measures – and that civilian technologies could be adapted to serve the purpose of submarine stealth. They obtained machinery and computers from Japanese and Norwegian firms to better mill submarine screw edges, so ensuring there was less cavitation. The KGB worked hard to secure the equipment despite Western export embargos (by pretending it was for civilian use). The Soviets also introduced better shock mountings for submarine machinery rafts to absorb the vibration and, again, increase stealth.

Former British SSN captain Doug Littlejohns got to see the deep impact of the Walker-Whitworth betrayal when he visited the USA to meet American colleagues in the Pentagon. “They went from ‘We’re Americans, we love our country’ to ‘Holy cow, we have our traitors, too.’ The entire American people were in disbelief. It was incredible … suddenly they were finding all these spies in their own ranks.” Littlejohns thought it explained quite a bit: “In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was a lot easier to gain the advantage over Soviet submarines than it was in the late 1980s, by which time they were harvesting the benefit of the spying. They always had good weapons but their platforms had been basic, agricultural. They were progressing but were battling up a steep curve. Suddenly they made a giant leap forward, gaining about 10-15 years.

The Akula was a stealth submarine on a par with the US Navy’s early Los Angeles Class boats, though not the later ones. It equalled the new Trafalgar Class SSN the UK was introducing into service in the early 1980s.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own verdict on the impact of the Walker-Whitworth spy ring’s activities was as follows: ‘The information passed by Walker and his confederates would have been devastating to the US had the nation gone to war with the Soviets.’

With John and Arthur Walker expiring in prison, only two members of the spy ring remain. Michael Walker was released from prison in 2000 while Jerry Whitworth remains incarcerated. The Russians, meanwhile, have continued with their efforts to steal submarine secrets from NATO.

Headlines were made last year (2013) when Canadian naval officer Jeffrey Delisle was sentenced to 20 years in prison for selling information to a foreign government. While the Canadian administration declined to identify the government in question four Russian diplomats had some time earlier allegedly been expelled from Canada though Moscow denied this was the case.

Article partly based on material from the true-life Cold War epic ‘Hunter Killers’ by Iain Ballantyne, which tells the story of British submarines and submariners during their confrontation with the Soviet Union. It has just been published as a paperback (Orion Books, £9.99). For more information visit Orion Books or try Amazon .

This article is also published in the November 2014 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine.


Like ‘Ice Station
Zebra’… For Real

Russian paratroopers leap headlong into the slipstream of a transport aircraft disgorging them over the vast icy wastes of the North Pole; tumbling head over heel, drogue chutes trailing behind, one-by-one the soldiers’ main parachutes deploy. They glide down to land on a drifting ice floe next to a research station.

This isn’t a scene from the late 1960s movie ‘Ice Station Zebra’ that I saw at the cinema when I was a kid, but happened a day or two ago and was filmed by highly skilled cameramen and pumped out as the latest example of Russian military derring-do propaganda.

Russians in the ice

Russian troops pose for a group shot on the Arctic ice. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

Russia is currently boosting its presence in the Arctic, progressing rapidly via commissioning of new nuclear-powered submarines, flights by far-ranging aircraft, plus deployments of paratroopers and naval infantry. The Kremlin is staking a claim to vast natural resources on the seabed under the ice. It is aiming to dominate the Arctic Ocean just like the Chinese on the other side of the world are laying claim to the entire South China Sea. It is yet another illustration of the uncanny ability of fact to mimic fiction.

Ice Station Zebra

The poster for the movie of ‘Ice Station Zebra’. Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

For those scenes of Soviet paratroopers raining down on the North Pole in the movie ‘Ice Station Zebra’, must have implanted themselves as powerfully in the brain of young Russians as much as they took hold of my imagination. Now they have turned Hollywood’s iconography back on the West by presenting a spectacular real-life adventure to show how Russia’s paratroopers can achieve extraordinary things even today, and for real.

Of course, as soon as Moscow reset its relationship with the West to one of overt rivalry, it was inevitable games of military one upmanship would unfold. The story behind‘ Ice Station Zebra’, as explained in my book ‘Hunter Killers’ (and very briefly in a previous post on this site) was even more fantastic than both the Alistair MacLean novel, published in 1963, and the 1968 movie.

In recent years it has emerged that the CIA in May 1962 was involved in exploits to counter Soviet listening stations on the Polar ice. Even if he did not know precise details of the CIA mission, MacLean certainly did plenty of research into under-ice operations by submarines and the espionage roles of ‘research stations’ on ice floes.

In real life, the USA’s Office of Naval Research, Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA put together ‘Operation Coldfeet’. This involved two ‘intelligence collectors’ being parachuted onto the ice close to a drifting, and recently abandoned, Soviet research station.

The Russians had conducted an evacuation because they believed the ice would soon crush it. After seven days collecting intelligence the two Americans were picked up in breath-taking fashion by a specially converted former B-17 bomber. Using a so-called ‘Skyhook’ it plucked them and their intelligence goodies from the ice and reeled them in.

The CIA recently revealed they brought home ‘valuable information’ on how the Soviet Union was utilising its scientific research stations. ‘The team found evidence of advanced acoustical systems research to detect under-ice US submarines,’ a CIA document reveals, ‘and efforts to develop Arctic anti-submarine warfare techniques.

And today, never mind the macho exploits of Russian paratroopers, the most interesting game of all in the so-called new Cold War, will be what transpires beneath the ice, both in terms of Russia exploiting oil and gas reserves and potentially a fresh face-off between the submarines of the West and the Russian Navy.

US Seawolf Class submarine

A US Navy nuclear-powered submarine surfaces through ice in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: US Navy.

Just a few months ago the US Navy sent a cutting edge nuclear-powered attack submarine, USS Seawolf, on a voyage under the North Pole. As defence writer and analyst David Axe wrote on his web site and in a recent edition of the magazine I run the Seawolf departed Bremerton in August 2013 and then four weeks later suddenly turned up in a Norwegian port.  Axe noted: ‘it seems Seawolf travelled to Norway along a path rarely taken by any vessel: Underneath the Arctic ice. The US Navy doesn’t like to talk about its submarines. After all, a sub’s biggest advantage is its stealth.’ And Seawolf’s main mission is intelligence gathering. The Russians can beat their chests and show off as much as they like by parachuting onto an ice floe at the North Pole, but another game is afoot out of sight. And it is far stranger, and more serious, than any fiction.


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