Rising Tide: The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines that Fought the Cold War (review)
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Rising Tide: The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines that Fought the Cold War. By Gary E. Weir and Walter J. Boyne. New York: Basic Books, 2003. ISBN 0-465-09112-1. Photographs. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xii, 354. $26.00.

This is a most unusual book. It is based on standard Western views on the Soviet submarine fleet of the Cold War era, and its various activities, validated and amended by a series of face-to-face interviews with a dozen senior Soviet submariners, together with their supporting documentation. At the end, there is a twenty-eight-page synopsis of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov's views of the evolution of Russian and Soviet naval power and a useful twenty-two-page survey of the main submarine types of the former Soviet Navy. A number of interesting Soviet photographs add to the text.

Despite the inclusion of Gorshkov's work (or at least the work that appeared under his name) there is not much here on the strategic or operational purposes of the Soviet submarine fleet—so the issue, for example, of whether the early Soviet submarine fleet was really designed to attack Western supply lines in the Atlantic is not addressed at any great length. The authors also do not discuss the difference that Soviet submariners made, or the operational and strategic significance of their efforts. Instead, we are treated to a major and significant review of what Soviet submariners did at the tactical level during the Cold War.

What emerges, frankly, is an appalling picture of technological accident and tactical risk which it was nice not to have known at the time. There is a very strong emphasis on the plethora of accidents that Soviet submarines had from the sinking of the S-80 and the near destruction of the infamous K-19 in 1961 to the tragic sinking of the Kursk in August 2000.

Why were there so many accidents? Partly it was a product of the poor design, construction, and maintenance of Soviet submarines which were all "justified" by the desperate efforts the Soviet Navy had to make in order to catch up with its more technologically advanced adversaries in the U.S. and British navies. Partly, of course it was that Soviet submariners, like all submariners, were living on the edge anyway—sailing in harm's way more than most. Partly it was a matter of the weather and other physical conditions the Soviet submarine fleet had to endure. But most of all, the accidents were due to the gross deficiencies of the system itself. This, the authors show, refused to admit the possibility of error, knowingly sent out defective submarines on perilous missions, and sometimes treated accident survivors with heartless brutality. All this made it much more difficult for Soviet submariners to learn [End Page 1016] from experience and to improve—and in a way aptly illustrates the fundamental weakness of the political system they were actually defending.

The question that comes out of all this is why did they do it? The stories that emerge from this review are full of instances of submariners behaving with levels of gallantry and self-sacrifice that are often little short of heroic. But what motivated them? And why, when they eventually reached positions of seniority in the submarine system did the survivors not try to change the system? The evidence of the Kursk in 2000 does not suggest much advance on the brutal incompetencies of the 1960s—but at least such deficiencies have now become more transparent, and so, perhaps, in the end less likely to recur.

But this is not the only unanswered question to emerge from Rising Tide. Another is the enigmatic figure of Admiral Gorshkov himself. Clearly venerated within the service as the father of the Navy, he is likened even by the authors to a Russian Mahan. And yet he presided over a system which this book argues was fundamentally rotten.

In summary, this book raises far more questions than it answers, but this is not a criticism. It cracks open a slice of modern naval history that urgently needs much more study. And an important part of...