Hunter Killers – From Hitler’s Fall To Putin’s Rise

Exeter Lecture

Preparing to headline an event at Exeter on March 11 is causing me to ponder how the post-WW2 face-off beneath the waves caused both sides to initially adapt Nazi submarine technology.

Looking across the span of the Cold War it seems to me that it was unique. For it was the first time in history that submarine evolution had received a sustained and intensive investment of industrial resources, brainpower and national treasure, lasting decades rather than just a short burst of activity.

Prior to the late 1940s, interest in creating ever more lethal and efficient submarines had been intermittent.In those earlier eras it was related to a military-technical need that lasted for a short period only. Opposing sides would seek to find a radical means of gaining the edge on each other. This was the case all the way from the Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars of the 1600s, through the Napoleonic Wars to the American Civil War and even during WW1 and WW2. As soon as the wars ended so did much of the interest, and investment in, submarine warfare technology.

During the Exeter event I will aim to explain that a white-hot submarine arms race drove NATO and the Russians to enter a dangerous game of nuclear cat-and-mouse where a single mistake could have spelled catastrophe.

I will aim to conclude with a look at how a resurgent Russia is once more sending its submarines out to confront the West. It strikes me that today, with Putin's Russia investing billions in nuclear-powered submarines – and his navy becoming ever more daring as it faces down the West at sea – a new game is afoot and threatens to potentially become just as dangerous as the Cold War.

China is also pouring billions into submarines, creating a similar rivalry on the other side of the world.

We live in interesting, and increasingly risky, times…

Anyone interested in coming along to the event – and I am one of three speakers though the event is headlined by ‘Hunter Killers’ – should contact the organizers, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Full details of my book 'Hunter Killers' here 

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.


Crimean Steal of the Century

(Does Russia Want to Annex Ukraine’s Aircraft Carrier Construction Yard?)

by Iain Ballantyne with Usman Ansari

It was the last stand of the Ukrainian Navy. Try as they might, Russian forces for a long while failed to take the mine warfare vessel Cherkassy. Several times the Russians tried to storm aboard in a hail of stun grenades and gunfire while intimidating Mi35 helicopter gunships clattered overhead, but the defiant Ukrainians held out.

Every other Ukrainian vessel in the Crimean peninsula had been taken over with many sailors and marines defecting to the new Russian rulers. Yet the nearly 62 crew of the Cherkassy, a beefy 750 tons ship armed with 30mm cannons and machine guns in addition to rockets, begged to differ (and in the absence of any specific orders on what to do from their naval headquarters).

Cem Devrim-

Valiant mine warfare ship Cherkassy, the last Ukrainian naval vessel in the Crimea to yield control to the Russians. Photo: Cem Devrim Yaylali. © Cem Devrim Yaylali, 2013. For more by Cem Devrim Yaylali visit

Despite the bangs and flashes, lethal force was not unleashed by either side, with Cherkassy’s men using powerful water jets to hold potential boarders at bay, also dropping low power charges around their ship as a deterrent.

The Russians used a sunken ship – seemingly a Ukrainian mine-sweeper – to block the channel leading from the Donuzlav Lake into the open ocean on the western side of the Crimea. Having failed in her attempt to tow the block ship out the way, Cherkassy continued cruising around and around until, finally explosives wrecked her steering during one assault by the Russians. This left her ethnic Ukrainian commander, Captain Yuri Fedash, with three choices: Go out in a blaze of glory by using his weapons on the Russians; scuttle the Cherkassy; surrender. Some of the vessel’s complement had already wavered, with Capt Fedash allowing a dozen of those men to disembark peacefully.

Stormed successfully by Russian naval infantry, the end finally seemed near for the defiant Cherkassy. Capt Fedash ordered his men below decks and told them to seal all hatches while he tried to negotiate with the invaders. Admiring the clever tactics of the Ukrainians – and their efforts to avoid bloodshed – the Russians agreed to let Fedash and some of his officers have one last ward room dinner aboard before pulling down the Ukrainian ensign in the morning.

This was in marked contrast to the treatment handed out to other Ukrainian vessels. Twelve of the Ukrainian Navy’s 17 major surface combatants were seized peremptorily by Russian forces along with the bulk of naval aviation assets and sole submarine. Ukraine also lost its combat dolphins. The dolphin programme aimed at training the intelligent and fiesty mammals in countering combat frogmen and also detecting underwater objects such as mines. After a long period of stagnation, the programme was revived for the Ukrainian Navy in 2011 after years of being used for civilian purposes, but still suffered from a lack of funding. The Russians are likely to pump money in. Ukraine has also lost most of its significant naval and marine corps bases and other key defence facilities. Of the 15,450 naval personnel, 12,000 were stationed on the Crimean peninsula. The majority of these are believed to have defected to Russia or resigned from the service. Those that have chosen to continue under Kiev had to make their own way back to territory under Ukrainian control.

While warships were blockaded in port and seized, some of the Ukrainian Navy’s aviation assets managed to escape. These included a Kamov Ka-27PL and three Mil Mi-14PL maritime helicopters, a Beriev Be-12 amphibian, and two Antonov An-26 transport aircraft. Aircraft undergoing maintenance had to be left behind.  The tattered remains of the Ukrainian Navy are now based in the port of Odessa, including its most capable ship, the Krivak III Class frigate Hetman Sahaydachny. Ukrainian access to the Sea of Azov has been cut by Russian occupation of Kerch, leaving Kiev’s eastern ports marooned. Just how Kiev plans to reconstitute its maritime capabilities is uncertain, but given the prevailing East-West tensions it is possible surplus equipment from NATO states could be transferred.

Western action could also have a direct effect on the Russian Navy, with Paris contemplating blocking the transfer of two Mistral Class amphibious assault carriers being built under contract in France. The first of those vessels, Vladivostok, was due to reach Russia by the end of 2014. The second, the somewhat fatefully named Sevastopol, was due to arrive next year and join the Black Sea Fleet (BSF).

Though a series of sanctions have been announced against selected Russians and Russian interests, the Mistral deal was not at the time of writing cancelled. The French view the ships as commercial vessels due to them currently lacking weapon. systems. Should Russia move to take further parts of Ukraine or the Russian ethnic enclave of Trans Dniester in Moldova, the amphibious assault ships may be included in a new set of sanctions. Meanwhile, in Kaliningrad – the former East Prussia, annexed by Russia in 1945 and also host to a major naval base at Baltisk – the Yantar shipyard has just launched Russia’s first Project 11356 frigate. The Admiral Grigorovich is a 3,850 tons multi-role vessel capable of independent or combined Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Air Warfare (AAW), or Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) missions. The lead ship of a class of six slated, they will be assigned to the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) along with new generation submarines.

Some in the West may be puzzled by all the focus on the Black Sea for Russian naval forces and territorial expansion, but that is because the democratic leaders of Europe think in terms of exerting influence via aid packages and trade, keen to export liberal ideals of freedom. President Putin thinks in hardball terms. Last month (March) he gave a speech in the spectacular St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin.

Putin in Conference

President Vladimir Putin during his historic speech last month (March) in the Kremlin.

Photo: Office of the President of RussiaIt placed the issue of the strategic naval base of Sevastopol at the heart of his nation’s annexation of the Crimea. President Putin told his audience he feared that, without Russian intervention, the Ukraine would soon have become a fully paid up member of the West.

This would have placed a potentially hostile military organisation close to the heart of the Rodina, the Russian motherland. The former KGB officer told his audience: “What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia.”

Putin followed this with a drily humorous statement: “But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case [but] we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory.” He went on: “I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.” Putin in his March speech described Sevastopol as “a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.”

He also said: “Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge. Each one of these places is dear to our hearts, symbolising Russian military glory and outstanding valour.” There was, as ever, hard-nosed strategic interest at stake for Russia, which seeks to prevent the Assad regime from collapsing via arms shipments from the Black Sea.

The BSF is also a counter to NATO’s new Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) ships patrolling the Mediterranean and elsewhere. This month (April) a Russian fighter jet repeatedly buzzed one of those BMD ships, USS Donald Cook, as the Arleigh Burke Class destroyer sailed in the Black Sea, bound for NATO exercises. See the forthcoming (June 2014) edition of WARSHIPS IFR (out on May 16) for more on that incident.

Russian Leader dolls

Putin’s predecessors in Russian doll form (from right to left): Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Lenin and Yeltsin (who presided over Russian post-Cold War decline). This set of dolls was purchased by Iain Ballantyne at Sevastopol in 1991. Image: Strathdee Collection.

In some ways the Cold War never ended – the past 23 years have been but a pause in the overt, muscular rivalry between Russia and the West.  And can President Putin tolerate even eastern Ukraine being still under the Kiev government’s control, despite what he says today about no further moves? The majority ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine may one day soon provide the Kremlin with an excuse to protect them, but under the skin it will again be about strategic necessity for Russia.

Not only would it ensure that NATO cannot get any closer on the northern shores of the Black Sea it would once more bring under Moscow’s control the industrial resources of the Donetsk region and also, crucially, the Black Sea Ship Yard at Nikolayev. If the Russian Navy is to progress with its regeneration, the addition of such a ship construction facility – which built all the Soviet Navy’s helicopter and aircraft carriers – would be a key addition.

The Kremlin has often stated it wants to build half a dozen new strike carriers but currently lacks the major surface ship construction capacity and skills to do so. The new carriers are unlikely to be built at Sevmash on the White Sea, which recently completed a very troubled and prolonged reconstruction of the former Soviet carrier Gorshkov for India, not least because its roster is packed with new submarine orders.


A port beam view of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov en route from her construction yard at Nikolayev on the Black Sea for duty with (what was then) the Soviet Northern Fleet. The same design of ship today serves in the Russian, Indian and Chinese fleets. Photo: US Navy.
An astern view of the Kuznetsov with a strike jet and helicopter on her large flight-deck.
Photo: US DoD.

The extant strike carrier of the Russian Navy, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was built at Nikolayev. Even the Chinese Navy’s new carrier was built there.

Launched in 1988 and originally to be called Riga, her name was changed to Varyag before the almost complete vessel was sold to a Chinese commercial company in 1998. At one point allegedly destined for use as a floating casino off Macau, ultimately the former Varyag was reconstructed in a Chinese naval shipyard.

Today she is China’s first aircraft carrier, named Liaoning. Ukraine’s sale of that vessel to China, now deploying her regularly as a symbol of growing maritime might (with more, home-grown, carriers rumoured) must have deeply angered many in the former Soviet Union and really dented their pride. They now find their former carrier construction yard tantalisingly not far from the newly reclaimed Crimea. All Putin needs is the excuse of safeguarding ethnic Russians to annex Nikolayev too.

For more on Russia versus the West in the Cold War, read ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books) by Iain Ballantyne. The paperback edition is due to be published this summer. This blog is a slightly revised version of an article that appears in the  May 2014 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine.

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