Letter From MHQ – Winter 2008

11/2/2007 • MHQ Issues

A Cold War mystery may have been solved. After reading an advance copy of Ed Offley’s new and intriguing Scorpion Down, a heartbreaking story about the 1968 destruction of a U.S. Navy nuclear attack submarine with the loss of all 99 crewmen, we asked him to write a feature article. The popular view of the Cold War has been a picture of a tense but generally peaceful four decades between the world’s major powers, nations preferring to avoid direct confrontation with one another and only engaging in proxy armed conflicts.

Excepting the Korean and Vietnam wars, these contests were kept within well-understood bounds. With both East and West possessing awesome arsenals of mass destruction, careful and measured self-control stood to reason.

Offley, a tenacious, well seasoned, and military-savvy reporter of U.S. Defense Department activity, has written a tragic military reconnaissance tale. It fits in the category of peacetime subsurface surveillance, an activity that might include undersea communications cable tapping within some nation’s territorial waters, close-range monitoring and recording of the unique propeller noise of an opponent’s submarine or other such clandestine mission.

Peacetime aerial surveillance, another type of reconnaissance, might for example, include photo­graphic missions over a rival’s homeland (See “The Truth About Overflights” MHQ Spring 1997) or identifying a potential opponent’s radar sites and collection of electronic data—radar frequencies and the extent of his detection coverage.

During the Cold War, both peacetime subsurface and aerial reconnaissance could be hazardous. This was certainly true if the missions were carried out within a rival’s territorial waters or over his homeland, but it was also dangerous in international waters or international airspace. During that period of global confrontation, twenty-three of the peacetime air surveillance flights performed by the U.S. armed forces resulted in the deaths of twenty-nine air crewmen and 150 more missing—the latter presumed dead.

Ironically, only one of the known deaths happened during a planned, intentional penetration of an adversary’s airspace. Major Rudolf Anderson was killed and his U-2 reconnaissance aircraft destroyed in October 1962 over Cuba. The other flight casualties are believed to have involved American pilots under orders to avoid penetration of an opponent’s airspace.

Below the surface, encounters could be dangerously intimate. About a dozen incidents of actual physical collisions between U.S. and Soviet submarines took place. In some of these cases, the subs were carrying nuclear tipped torpedoes or ballistic missiles—or maybe both. Any of these incidents could have provoked catastrophic results and disastrous retaliation.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara often cites the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most perilous moment of the Cold War. Nevertheless, it was an event with only one combat casualty: Major Anderson. After reading Offley’s story, you may wonder if the most perilous moment actually occurred some six years after the much-publicized U.S., Soviet and Cuban confrontation.