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Soviet Submarine Plans Hidden in Plain Sight

In the first decades of the Cold War, Navy war planners were preparing to fight a version of the World War II U-boat war — though vastly more sophisticated and destructive. They naturally expected their adversary to use its submarines to try to cut sea lanes of supply across the open oceans. Moscow, however, developed vastly different plans for deploying its submarines in a superpower war. It fell to CNA to raise the alarm.

In the 1970s, CNA developed an enduring expertise in open-source analysis. Sovietologist James McConnell, assisted by analysts Robert Weinland and Bradford Dismukes, perused Soviet naval journals and other Russian-language publications and gleaned remarkable insights by reading between the lines. McConnell explained the process:

"Because of its obliqueness, [Soviet literature] is not easy to read and interpret. To be successful, the analyst has to constantly bear in mind certain Soviet communications techniques: the tendency to imply rather than state; the use of elliptical logic and expression; the avoidance of sustained arguments; the failure to highlight noteworthy items or new points."

What those writings implied was that Moscow would not disperse its submarine fleet to disrupt shipping in a war, as the Pentagon expected. Instead, the Soviet navy would be devoted to protecting its decisive assets, ballistic missile submarines, in “bastions” close to home.

CNA’s warnings met with resistance. Both the suggested naval strategy and the analytical process CNA used to uncover it were too radical at that time for the Navy to accept. Dismukes recalls being told that one admiral had asked, “What are those guys smoking over there?”

That all changed when the Navy’s own secret intelligence effort yielded intercepts confirming the Soviet Union’s bastions strategy. Plans to counter these bastions became a foundation of the U.S. Maritime Strategy of the 1980s — a development that required still more work from CNA analysts. And the Department of Defense has relied upon CNA open-source insights for more than
four decades.