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Soviet Subs Sail for Cuba Armed with Nuclear Torpedoes

Soviet sub skippers bound for Cuba receive vague instructions about launching their 10-kiloton nuclear torpedoes.

Sixty-ninth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

The only Soviet naval unit to sail for Cuba as part of Operation ANADYR consisted of four FOXTROT attack submarines. Each FOXTROT carried 21 conventional torpedoes and one 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo.

How powerful were these 10-kiloton nuclear torpedoes? When one was tested in 1961, its water-borne shock wave threw the launching submarine “around like a toy.” When the shock wave hit, the sub was roughly 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the blast site and partly shielded by an island.

Not a weapon to be fired at a nearby target!

Captains to Admirals: When Can We Fire Nuclear Torpedoes?

Before the FOXTROTs sailed for Cuba, one of the four captains asked the admirals briefing them to explain the Rules of Engagement (ROE) for launching their nukes.

ROE should be brief, clear, precise, unambiguous. Above all, ROE should not be self-contradictory.

Four Versions of the Rules

Version 1. According to Weir and Boynton, Capt. Nicolai Shumkov asked the question. An unnamed admiral replied, “Once your face has been slapped, don’t let them hit your face one more time.” The other admirals present nodded approvingly.

That ”face-slapping” statement was a metaphor, not a precise rule of engagement. Since it meant whatever the listener decided it meant, Shumkov and the three other FOXTROT commanders would have to decide for themselves when their faces had been “slapped.” As we shall at the end of the month, slapped indeed their faces were.

Version 2. Svetlana Savranskaya writes that Admiral Vitalii Fokin, in overall command of the FOXTROTs’ deployment, told the group, “If they slap you on the left cheek, do not let them slap you on the right one.” It was the same meaningless metaphor.

Version 3. Savranskaya then quotes a conflicting statement made by Ryurik Ketov, one of the four sub skippers, on a January 2001 Russian television program. Ketov said that Vice Admiral Anatoly Rossokho, chief of staff and deputy commander of the Soviet Northern Fleet, told the four sub commanders that there were three circumstances under which the sub commanders could fire their nuclear-tipped torpedoes:

  1. If attacked and damaged under water;
  2. If attacked and damaged on the surface; or
  3. When ordered by Moscow.

Rossokho then added, according to Ketov, “I suggest to you, commanders, that you use your nuclear weapons first, and then you will figure out what to do after that.”

If he actually said “use your nuclear weapons first”, Rossokho had completely nullified his three very specific contingencies for using the torpedoes. And where would that nullifying statement leave the four sub skippers? As with the “face-slapping” metaphor, completely on their own.

Version 4. Peter A. Huchthausen writes that it was Ketov who asked about the ROE.  In response, Admiral Rossokho reportedly told the four captains to “enter these words in your logs,” namely the three conditions cited above. Rossokho did NOT, according to Huchthausen, nullify his three precise ROE by advising, “Use your nuclear weapons first.”

To an American, this unverified version of the ROE seems by far the most professional.

The Final Word on the Rules?

According to Savranskaya, the stories provided by Shumkov, in a 2002 interview, and Ketov, on television, “are not confirmed in documentary sources.” Neither Weir and Boynton nor Huchthausen provide any documentary evidence of the versions they cite. And in a memoir published in 2005, Capt. Ketov never mentions either the question which Huchthausen says he asked or Rossokho’s putative answer.

In short, each of the four versions of the ROE comes from a principal’s memory; they disagree with each other; and none of the versions is documented by hard evidence.

The Need for Hard Evidence

This series has repeatedly stressed that notes of debriefings, oral histories, autobiographies, memoirs, spies’ reports, and other human sources are not conclusive. Human sources may be interesting; they may be suggestive; but standing alone, they are not unimpeachable. They must be verified by objective evidence.

In the absence of such hard evidence, we have to ask,

  • Would Soviet admirals actually leave such an important decision completely to the sub commanders?
  • Given what we know about the Soviet military, would Soviet admirals have worded rules of engagement for a nuclear torpedo so that that they, the admirals, could not be blamed if things went wrong?

Because that’s what three of these four undocumented versions say happened.

Soviets’ Casual View of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Referring to the decision to send tactical (battlefield) nuclear missiles to Cuba, Soviet General Anatoly Gribkov wrote (emphasis added),

“the low-yield ‘Luna’ and FKR warheads were weapons Soviet planners classed as a kind of extra-powerful artillery shell.

“… [these tactical nuclear weapons] were treated as war-fighting—rather than deterrent—weapons…”

Given Soviet planners’ casual “extra-powerful artillery shell” attitude, I suspect that the tactical nukes aboard the FOXTROTs were regarded equally casually by the Soviet Navy’s high command: as “a kind of extra-powerful” torpedo.

Email your questions to phufstader@sbcglobal.net or post a comment.

Sources and Notes

FOXTROT is NATO’s designation for the Soviet Project 641 attack submarine. The first tests of this nuclear torpedo were conducted by Capt. Shumkov in B-130 In October 1961. A kiloton is the equivalent of one thousand tons of TNT or dynamite. A 10-kiloton warheadwould deliver the destructive power of an explosion of 10,000 tons of dynamite. A megaton equals one million tons of dynamite.

By way of contrast, the atom bomb that decimated Hiroshima in August 1945 was rated at 13 kilotons.

Other Naval forces had been previously shipped to Cuba aboard freighters in the original ANADYR deployment: four battalions of Sopka anti-ship cruise missiles (NATO’s name SAMLET), Il-28 medium bombers configured to lay mines and drop anti-ship torpedoes, and at least 12 KOMAR patrol boats, each equipped with two conventional STYX anti-ship missiles.

Details of the FOXTROT nuclear torpedo tests appear on pp. 79-80 of Gary E. Weir and Walter J. Boyne, Rising Tide: The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought the Cold War. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

Weir and Boyne’s version of the “face-slapping” statement appears on p. 83 of Rising Tide. The authors cite Weir’s 2002 interview with Capt. Shumkov in Moscow.

Svetlana V. Savranskaya’s version of the “face-slapping” briefing appears in her “New Sources of the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2005, p. 240. Savranskaya cites two sources for this version: a) a 2002 interview with Shumkov, in Moscow; and b) “Transcript of selections from Russian documentary program How It Happened (VID, 30 Jan. 
2001) ORT (Russian Television Channel 1) with four submarine commanders who 
participated in Operation ‘Anadyr’.”

Ryurik Ketov’s memoir is “The Cuban Missile Crisis as Seen Through a Periscope.” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2, 217-231. Interestingly, Ketov’s memoir, published in the same issue of Journal of Strategic Studies as Savranskaya’s article, does not mention Rossokho’s words. He writes only that by the time the four subs had sailed, “All the departing boats’ commanders were by then facing plenty of unclear and contradictory information. After a so-called oral briefing, the four of us had to meet and develop a tactical scheme for the joint passage.”

The fourth version of the ROE comes from Peter A. Huchthausen, October Fury. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2002, 46-54. Huchthausen, a 1962 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who retired as a Captain, served as an ensign aboard USS Blandy, a destroyer attached to an ASW Hunter-Killer task force tracking these four FOXTROTs in late October 1962. Of those operations, more in late October 2012!

General Gribkov’s words appear on p. 28 of Anatoli I.  Gribkov and William Y. Smith, Operation ANADYR: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chicago: edition q, inc., 1994. Gribkov’s discussion of Soviet nuclear weapons policy at the 2002 Havana conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis appears on pp. 55, 249-50, 258-60, 352-55, and 367 of James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch. Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.

The Soviets’ apparent insouciance about tactical nuclear weapons was matched by their indifference to human health and safety. According to Weir and Boyne, p. 80, Shumkov noted that “no precautions were taken to protect” the ground crew working at the site where his test torpedoes exploded in 1961 “from the radioactive fallout. In essence, they sacrificed themselves, whether they knew it or not at the time, to the best interests of the Soviet system.” But we must note that relatively little was known about radioactive fallout at this time. American personnel also suffered from exposure to radioactivity near test sites.

The four FOXTROTs sailed for Cuba from Polyarni on or about October 1st. They were B-4, Capt. Ryurik Ketov, with Brigade Commander Vitalii Agafonov aboard; B-36, Capt. Alexei Dubivko; B-59, Capt. Valentin Savitskii, with Agafonov’s Chief of Staff Vasilii Arkhipov aboard; and B-130, Capt. Nicolai Shumkov. The identifying numbers of the four FOXTROTs and the officers in command come from Savranskaya’s “New Sources,” p. 238. The “B” in the FOXTROTs’ designators apparently stands for “Bolshoi,” which means “big” or “grand.”

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kelvin Richardson September 19, 2013 at 01:30 AM
Hello all, I am working on a psycho-social article on Cmdr. V. Archipov and his role in preventing the launch of a nuclear missile during the October 1962 crisis. If anyone has any information on Soviet Archival material (debriefs, psychological reports, etc.) I would appreciate hearing from you. Also, having a devil of a time locating Aleksandr Mozgovoi's Book (2002 out of print) Kubinskaya Samba Kvarteta Fokstortov. THANKS MUCH! Spacibo za Ruskia drugi!
Kelvin Richardson September 19, 2013 at 01:30 AM
Oh, might help - researchprof1@gmail.com

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