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Russian Submarines off US East Coast Spark Cold War Comparisons

The growing presence of Russian submarines off the coast of the United States has sparked Cold War comparisons from military observers and a retired NATO admiral.

The Russian military has undergone a sweeping modernization drive after it was forced to abandon many new ships following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Russian navy now commands one of the most diverse submarine fleets in the world, with an estimated 58 vessels. Some of them are capable of carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, which Moscow considers key to its strategic deterrent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been set on expanding Russia’s underwater capabilities. Over the past several years, Moscow has been producing a series of submarines that have the capability to reach the most critical targets in the US or continental Europe.

The Russian leader said in December his country would be building more nuclear-powered submarines that “will ensure Russia’s security for decades to come.” Meanwhile, a Kremlin document signed by Putin in 2017, which lays out the Russian navy’s improved capabilities, its evolving strategic and operational role, and its future ambitions, states the nation “must possess powerful balanced fleets in all strategic areas” by 2030.

Amid the arms reforms, there have been deployments of Russian submarines that mirror Soviet-style submarine deployments in the Cold War, Newsweek has been told.

Michael Petersen, director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, which conducts research on Russian military and economic issues linked to the world’s oceans, told Newsweek that there are indications that “nuclear-powered submarines have been deploying off the coast of the United States and into the Mediterranean and elsewhere along European periphery.”

They “mirror Soviet-style submarine deployments in the Cold War,” said Petersen, who is also a professor at the staff college in Rhode Island.

Russia is the “critical challenge” that the United States faces today, he said, responding to remarks made by US Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the head of US Northern Command and NORAD, who previously characterized Russia as the primary threat to the country due to the presence of its nuclear-powered Severodvinsk-class submarines near the US

Cruise missile threats are being presented off the east coast of the United States in patrol areas that are similar to what the US saw in the late stages of the Cold War in the 1970s to early 1980s, Petersen said.

During a period of the Cold War, starting in the 1960s, and through the mid to late 1980s, the Soviet Union was regularly sending nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to patrol off the east and west coast of the United States, he explained.

“Those patrol locations shifted over time as undersea warfare technology improved, and as submarine technology improved. By and large, that’s what I mean by the sort of mirroring of tactics.”

Petersen noted that in the mid-60s to the mid-70s, there were submarine patrol areas that were relatively close to the east and west coasts of the US

“That was because of the ballistic missile technology that existed at the time, submarine-launched ballistic missiles did not have the range in the 1960s and early 1970s that they do now. They did not have that long intercontinental range,” he said.

The Soviet Union then pushed its ballistic missile, and submarine patrols out to the east and west coast of the United States, he said.

“And as time progressed, through the 1970s and 1980s, as new submarines came online, new submarine-launched ballistic missile technology was developed that increased the range of these weapons, those patrol boxes shifted.

“In the ’70s and early ’80s, in general, we would commonly see submarines again deploying off the east and west coast, but in larger areas—those very small patrol boxes expanded out to include most of the eastern seaboard and western seaboard and out into the mid-Atlantic.”

By the mid to late ’80s, those patrol areas began to recede off the east coast of the US as ballistic missile technology got better and range improved, Petersen went on.

“The submarines didn’t necessarily need to deploy right up close to the US coastline anymore—they could fall back into these bastions that were either further out into the mid-Atlantic or even back up into the Barents Sea, depending on the range of the missiles.

“So there’s a relationship between the location of those patrol areas in the Cold War and submarine-launched ballistic missile technology,” Petersen added. “That appears to be similar to the deployments we’re seeing today.”

Tom Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow with the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, told Newsweek There is a “clear linkage” between Russians talking about their Cold War operations and comparing them to what they say they’re doing now, or recently.

He pointed to Operation Atrina, which reportedly saw five Victor III nuclear-powered attack submarines reach the US east coast undetected, operating there from March to May 1987.

The growing presence of Russian submarines off the coast of the United States has sparked Cold War comparisons from military observers and a retired NATO admiral.

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