US, Russian Nuke Submarines Play ‘Cat & Mouse’ Game In Cuba; Reminds Of Undersea Clash During Cold War

In reminiscent of the cat and mouse games that the US and Soviet submarines played at the peak of the Cold War, a US submarine surfaced at Guantanamo Bay a day after a Russian nuclear submarine docked at Cuba. The US Navy, apparently, was on a routine mission.

The US nuclear-powered submarine USS Helena arrived at the US base in Cuba a day after a flotilla of the Russian Navy consisting of a frigate, a nuclear-powered submarine, an oil tanker, and a rescue tug reached Havana Bay for maritime drills. The US Southern Command called it a “routine port visit.”

The visit follows the not-so-subtle shadowing of the Russian flotilla by warships from the US Navy and Royal Canadian Navy, along with the submarine hunter P-8 flying overhead, tracking the Russian submarine.

The Russian nuclear submarine Kazan’s Cuba visit comes 62 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. From Norway to Cuba, the Russian flotilla led by frigate Admiral Gorshkov equipped with Zircon hypersonic missiles was monitored by NATO air and surface assets.

Both submarines represent significant military assets, but their roles and capabilities differ. The USS Helena is primarily an attack submarine, while the Russian Kazan focuses on cruise missile capabilities.

The USS Helena is a Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine (SSN) in the US Navy. It was commissioned in 1986. Los Angeles-class submarines are known for their versatility, stealth, and capability to perform various tasks, including anti-submarine warfare, intelligence gathering, and strike missions. USS Helena is armed with torpedoes and Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.

The Russian Kazan has worried US and Western militaries owing to its stealth and strike capabilities. The Russian submarine is armed for attacks against land and sea targets.

Russian and US nuclear submarine deployment in such proximity is likely to increase in the future. In response to questions from Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) about the threat of Chinese and Russian cruise missile submarines operating close to the US mainland, VanHerc said that Russia has been deploying its Yasen-class nuclear cruise missile attack boats more frequently in recent years.

“[The risk is] absolutely increasing. Within the last year, Russia has also placed their [Yasens] in the Pacific,” he said. “Now, not only the Atlantic, but we also have them in the Pacific, and it’s just a matter of time – probably a year or two – before that’s a persistent threat, 24 hours a day. That impact has reduced decision space for a senior national leader during a crisis.”

File Image: Yasen-Class Submarine

Nuke Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis, the 13-day-long stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union, was when the Cold War threatened to turn hot. The Soviet submarines gave a big headache to US President John F. Kennedy in October 1962.

The crisis was triggered when the Soviet Union decided to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. The US and its allies moved to block Soviet vessels from bringing troops and weapons to Cuba.

Significantly, no nuclear-powered submarines were dispatched to the Caribbean. However, the Soviet diesel-electric submarine showcased its capability to operate far away from home and impact world events.

Robert F. Kennedy, the President’s brother and US Attorney General, later recalled, “Then came the disturbing Navy report that a Russian submarine had moved into position between the two ships.” The White House gave a nod to the Navy to signal the submarine by sonar to the surface and identify itself. In case the submarine refused, small explosives would be dropped near the submarine (by helicopter or a destroyer) as a signal.

Robert Kennedy recalled the concern over that single Foxtrot submarine: “I think these few minutes were the time of gravest concern for the President. . . . I heard the President say: ‘Isn’t there some way we can avoid having our first exchange with a Russian submarine—almost anything but that?’”

The crisis was averted as the Soviets decided to stop their freighters transporting the missiles. The sinking of a Soviet submarine could have caused a bigger catastrophe as torpedoes from the submarine could have hit the nearby US Navy warships. It was later revealed that the Soviet submarine that had been detected between the two merchant ships also carried a torpedo with a nuclear warhead. So did the other Soviet submarines in the area.

Cuba, this time, has assured the US and the world that the visiting Russian submarine was not carrying any nuclear weapon.

Cat & Mouse Game

The submarines of the two arch nemeses played the dangerous game of cat and mouse for decades during the Cold War. On more than one occasion, this resulted in collisions between the undersea leviathans.

This stalking by an American “pursuit” submarine was usual when a Soviet submarine went on a long detachment. Over some time, the Americans detected the “blind spot” of Soviet submariners. It was just behind the Soviet submarine, because of the noise of the propellers, the submarine’s Sonar was blind. The American submarine would follow close behind to avoid detection.

File Image: Kazan

To detect any pursuing submarine, Soviet submariners abruptly change course or turn port or starboard by 120-150 degrees. This maneuver came to be known as ‘Crazy Ivan’. During one such maneuver in the Arctic Ocean on June 20, 1970, the Soviet K-108 (Project 675) submarine was hit by the USS Tautog, which was shadowing it.

The submarine started to sink, but a tug boat managed to reach it in time and brought the submarine back to the base. The Soviet vessel had a wedged starboard propeller. The American submarine had external damage but managed to return home without casualties.

A year prior, in November 1969, an American nuclear submarine, USS ‘Gato’, was testing its latest radio interception equipment in the Barents Sea, the territorial waters of the Soviet Union. A Soviet nuclear-powered submarine K-19 ballistic missile carrier collided with it into its hull.

Both submarine crews were surprised by the collision. However, for a moment, the American submarine decided the collision was deliberate and readied to fire at the Soviet submarine.

The attack was canceled at the last moment. Both boats managed to get back to their bases despite sustaining damage. Soviet specialists later established that had the K-19 been traveling two or three knots faster, it would have cut its Western counterpart in half.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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