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The Soviet ALFA Sub and the Analyst No One Believed

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The Soviet ALFA Sub and the Analyst No One Believed

soviet alfa submarine

It was a pleasant summer day in 1969, when casual tourists walking along the Neva River spotted a submarine docked at the Sudomekh Submarine Shipyard, appearing near an old submarine assembly shed that hadn’t been used for several years.

News of the sighting eventually made it back to Navy intelligence analysts, who reviewed all available intel about the submarine, and subsequently marked it most likely as a modern version of the older Foxtrot subs.

However, one Navy analyst by the name of Herb Lord did not believe that the story ended there. Not only was it the world’s smallest nuclear-powered attack submarine with one of the highest reserve buoyancies to boot, but it was also observed by a number of analysts that the ALFA sub had a “highly reflective” pressure hull section.

Lord requested that all analysts coming across any report mentioning “highly reflective” or “unusually colored” sub parts should immediately provide that report to Lord. The goal was to determine whether the Russians had developed a new material for the construction of its newest generation subs.

Before long, Lord became convinced that the Soviets were building a “special” type of “super submarine” made from a titanium alloy. Lord also became convinced that the Soviets had produced a submarine that was highly advanced, and therefore was a serious threat to U.S. and allied naval operations around the world. The difficult part of the story – as is often the case – is that Lord’s effort to uncover and identify the secret Russian sub would prove to be far easier than the effort to convince the U.S. Navy of the serious nature of his findings.


ALFA Sub Analysis Met With Skepticism

In 1971, CIA and DIA analysts agreed with Lord’s finding, even publishing an internal analysis titled, “Use of Titanium by the Soviet Shipbuilding Industry“, but many analysts were more skeptical of Lord’s analysis, pointing out that the manufacturing process with titanium would require processing and welding operations performed inside of a protective inert gas like argon. This was necessary to shield the welds from the “dirty” environment of the shipyard – an environment that would make such titanium work impossible, especially for the large pressure hull sections of the submarine.

Relying mostly on photographic evidence, Lord continued over the next nine years to try and convince Navy analysts that the ALFA sub had a titanium alloy pressure hull, and therefore it could dive deeper than any U.S. submarine. With a nonmagnetic hull, the sub would also be nearly impossible to detect.

Throughout the rest of his career – approximately eight years of attempting to convince the Navy of the “titanium submarine”, Lord eventually retired, and died a few years later before the fruits of his analysis were ever realized. Upon retirement, Lord had determined that not only were the Soviets producing an attack submarine with a titanium alloy hull, but that they were also using a highly-advanced high-density nuclear power plant, as well as more automation throughout the sub in order to reduce the size of the required crew.

In 1978, a new analyst by the name of Gerhardt Thamm took over as the ALFA project manager.

soviet alfa submarine

Revisiting Lord’s Titanium Submarine Claims

Thamm took his new position very seriously, and put together a “meeting of the minds” between skeptics and proponents in order to hash out the issue of the Soviet “enigma” of reflective submarine parts.

Thamm reported that at that meeting, one particular skeptic provided “several dozen formulae” gathered from open subject matter that “proved conclusively that titanium alloys dissolve in sea water.” Other analysts offered Thamm the suggestion that maybe the reflective parts were just part of an elaborate “disinformation” program by the Soviets, and that the parts were simply “covered with aluminum paint.”

Furthermore, leading metallurgists told Thamm that it was probably impossible that the Soviets were able to “bend, shape, and weld thick titanium plates in a shipyard environment.” Thamm observed that it was at this point that he realized the U.S. submarine community simply “could not accept any possibility that the Soviets could series-produce such a sophisticated submarine.”

soviet alfa submarine

Second Analysis Led to Success

Thamm reported that through “strong support from the CIA”, he was able to use his background as a HUMINT (human intelligence) collector to tap new assets of information about the strange new soviet submarines.

While reports continued to trickle in that appeared to support Lord’s titanium theory, it wasn’t until 1981 when an observer walking along the Neva River spotted a rescue sphere being lowered into the sub that could only hold 37 to 39 Russians – proving that the ALFA truly did have an extremely small crew, and that the sub was truly more automated than any other sub in the world.

Furthermore, with the CIA, Thamm was able to collect evidence proving that:

“Large, heavy, titanium alloy plates were shaped and welded at the Sudomekh and Severodvinsk shipyards. Almost all reports alluded to the many difficulties encountered when welding titanium.”

CIA reports also showed that on particular test of the new ALFA sub in 1970 resulted in liquid metal coolant spilling out of reactor confinement, leading to a reactor meltdown. In spite of the disaster, the Soviets continued with the series construction and eventually produced a working ALFA sub – first launched in 1974 from Sudomekh.

Another titanium ALFA was launched in 1976 from Sudomekh. Finally, given all of the new evidence collected by Thamm and his CIA colleagues, the Technical Director of Naval Intelligence finally agreed that the Soviets must have made a “quantum leap in submarine technology”, and that the nonmagnetic titanium submarine hulls represented a serious threat to Navy assets throughout the world.

soviet alfa submarine

Taking Nothing for Granted

On January 19th, 1979, the commander of U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command reported that the intelligence collection and analysis of the ALFA SSN threat “had saved the Navy $325 million in new torpedo designs.”

Thamm concluded his report with the statement that never before had such intelligence analysis ever been “credited with saving such a large sum of money.”

Thamm also pointed out that despite the naysayers and skeptics, the tenacity of one particular Navy Intelligence analyst is what finally allowed the U.S. Navy to prevail against the threat.

“In tenacity, the Soviet Navy had been matched by that of one senior US Naval Intelligence Analyst. We had learned once again that nothing can be taken for granted.”

Ultimately, the ALFA did not turn out to be much of a threat. Eventually, four of the subs experienced reactor failures. By 1987, another of the subs was retired, and the remaining four were decommissioned in the early 90s. The subs experienced a number of problems, not the least of which was the fact that the reactors had to remaining running even while in port, because otherwise the metal coolant would freeze unless superheated steam was applied to it at all times. In order to avoid that inconvenience, sub commanders left the reactors on.

Additionally, despite intelligence reports stating otherwise, the ALFA subs did not represent the “main thrust of Soviet submarine development”, and di dnot represent the sort of threat that Navy analysts eventually feared.

The real lesson taken away from the scenario is that the analysis of any analyst should never be taken for granted or immediately tossed aside, because the cost of being wrong in such situations could be extremely high – particularly when the security of Navy vessels are at stake.


References & Image Credits:
1. CIA FOIA Document
2. Alfa SSN
3. FAS.org

Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com


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