August 1970: the Soviets have a crazy summer

My dad used to complain that the Russian trawler was responsible for cleaning out the Grand Banks. But in the summer of 1970, one of those crafty boats was doing more than fishing … like stealing from an American missile submarine.

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A Russian trawler with a toy shop full of secret gadgets is shadowed by a U.S. destroyer off North Vietnam in 1968.

The Cold War was a conflict of intelligence, not arms. The USSR and NATO countries studied each other during the largest military buildup in history. You could count on these rivals to practice blatant or covert surveillance on each other. While relying on the usual resources, the Soviets also played with an unlikely craft: the fishing trawler. These simple-looking boats could be found off Western shores or shadowing other vessels. Their “nets” were full of eavesdropping equipment. Their crews included military officers.

These were some of the Soviet navy’s intelligence-gathering ships, or AGIs. Others masqueraded as survey and research vessels. From 18-21 September 1976, the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) took note of a pair of oceanographic survey ships, the Arkhipelag and Pelorus, involved in “telltale operations” in her area. In 1982, a British task force observed an AGI near Ascension Island during the Falklands conflict.

Submarine programs were of particular interest to both sides and susceptible to all manners of inspection. On August 3, 1970, the trawler Khariton Laptev was sent to lurk off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina and await the deployment of the USS James Madison (SSBN-627). The American ballistic missile submarine was going to test-fire one of the newest Poseidon missiles. This weapon was a major threat: the missile was built to fly into the upper atmosphere and rain nuclear death on the Soviet Union. Laptev cut its engines on the fringe of international waters and waited for Madison to leave port. Then it followed the “boomer” and her escorts into deeper water. It was an obvious message from the Russian Navy, as if to say, “Don’t mind us, comrades. We’re just here to watch the show.”

Russian and American crews watched each other carefully until the moment when the Madison launched its missile from a depth of 120 feet. The Poseidon blasted out of the water, fired its engine, and roared into the sky. Within moments, motor launches from the Laptev raced into the launch area to steal debris. They found pieces of membrane that shielded the missile against seawater and telemetry buoys dropped from an observation ship. U.S. sailors were too late to stop their Russian counterparts. The trawler crew flaunted their loot from the deck to aerial observers and set course for home.

The Russian trawler became an iconic character of the Cold War. NATO operators were wise to keep them in view: the mystery boat was always puttering in the background and never fished a damn thing.

The exploits of the Khariton Laptev come from an excellent book called  Rising Tide:  The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought The Cold War. Written by Gary Weir and Walter Boyne. (NAL Caliber, 2003) This is a must-read for submarine enthusiasts and history buffs!

Image:  Naval History and Heritage Command

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