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Soviet sub photo
Satellite photo of the second Soviet Typhoon ballistic missile submarine taken in October 1982 after its launch at the Severodvinsk shipyard. The expected launch of the third Typhoon became a controversial issue within the US intelligence community in late 1983. Satellite photography was the primary method for monitory Soviet submarine construction. (credit: NRO)

Hunting Red October


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Whenever a new Soviet ballistic missile submarine took to sea for the first time, slipping beneath the waves to begin testing its systems and training its crew, there was a good chance that an American attack submarine was lurking in the vicinity, listening in, snooping.

In December he wrote a cable predicting that the launch was imminent. But there was no way of knowing, because for during the winter months Severodvinsk was blanketed by clouds.

But before the Soviet subs left the vast construction facility at Severodvinsk on the White Sea, the Americans had to find other ways of gathering intelligence on them, and for much of the Cold War their resources were very limited. There were no spies leaving microfilm in dead drops in Moscow, no James Bond in scuba gear crawling out of the freezing water at the dock and snapping photographs before escaping in a hovercraft. For the most part, the primary method the Americans had of gaining intel on new Soviet submarines before they slid below the chilly waters of the Barents Sea were satellites that flew far overhead and took photographs.

By the late 1970s, American spy satellites detected the construction of the first of what was later revealed to be the largest submarine ever made, which the US intelligence community named “Typhoon.” The first Typhoon was launched in September 1980 and the second in September 1982. Each one carried twenty SS-NX-20 Sturgeon ballistic missiles each tipped with ten nuclear warheads. The Typhoon had 200 nuclear weapons to throw at the United States.

By late 1983, the US intelligence community was predicting that the third Typhoon ballistic missile submarine was going to be launched in summer 1984. But according to a new book by Jack O’Connor on satellite imagery interpretation, NPIC: Seeing the Secrets and Growing the Leaders, an imagery analyst at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC, or “enpic”) in Washington, DC, suspected that the launch would take place much earlier, possibly even over the winter. In December he wrote a cable predicting that the launch was imminent. But there was no way of knowing, because for during the winter months Severodvinsk was blanketed by clouds.

The analyst was a civilian who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, but was detailed to NPIC. He was widely regarded as one of the best submarine experts in the intelligence community. But one problem was that the analyst, a former Navy Chief Petty Officer named Charlie, was not exactly a people person.

According to O’Connor, Charlie could be crude and abrasive. Upon learning that one of his coworkers was a reservist Charlie remarked that he’d rather have a sister in a whorehouse than a brother in the reserves—which prompted the reservist to ask about Charlie’s sister. Charlie’s personality meant that people who encountered him could find reasons to dismiss his work that had little to do with its quality. In addition, he was not a good writer, and although NPIC’s analysts looked at photographs, they communicated in reports. Charlie was fond of writing in his own style, which he called Charliegrams. They were filled with jargon and naval terminology that was barely comprehensible to non-naval analysts. And Charlie would not let anybody edit his Charliegrams.

All of this was occurring within a larger culture in the intelligence community. NPIC and its imagery analysts were not at the top of the pecking order in the secretive world of spooks. Many people at the CIA and other agencies looked down on them as primarily providers of data, not real analysts. They particularly bristled when the imagery analysts appeared to speculate beyond what was in their photographs. That was the domain of “all source” analysts who could use imagery, signals intelligence, and even human intelligence—spies—to assemble their reports, and who had the extra security clearances, or “tickets,” to see all this other intelligence. Another problem was that these other intelligence agencies did not think that NPIC should have an institutional position about its intelligence. In other words, NPIC should not produce reports that stated “NPIC believes.” That was up to the CIA, DIA, and other agencies to do.

The December 1983 Charliegram on the launch of the third Typhoon had created a lot of consternation within the intelligence community. NPIC and Charlie only had their photographs to tell them what was going on at Severodvinsk, other intelligence agencies had many other sources, and their sources indicated that the Typhoon would not launch until the summer.

But in April 1984, the clouds cleared and an American satellite flew over Severodvinsk and, lo and behold, there was a third Typhoon submarine floating at dockside.

O’Connor writes that Rae Huffstutler arrived as the new director of NPIC in February 1984 after serving at the CIA, bringing with him a broader understanding of the intelligence community and its sources and methods than many of his predecessors. One of his first actions was to review the Typhoon situation. Huffstutler’s style, according to O’Connor, was to praise his analysts for their work, but also to question them, even if it was simply to get them to think about future projects. Huffstutler concluded that Charlie was right and that there was solid evidence to support an impending Soviet submarine launch. But he also ordered that Charlie’s report on the third Typhoon be rewritten to clearly identify the evidence up front, and the chronology of shipyard activity later. Huffstutler also eliminated any reference to an NPIC position on the subject. But standing by his analyst also put Huffstutler in dispute with his former office at the CIA, which earned him a lot of respect at NPIC.

While all of this bureaucratic maneuvering was occurring in the special compartmented information facilities and meeting rooms of the US intelligence community, the winter weather refused to cooperate: American satellites flew over Severodvinsk and saw nothing but clouds and more clouds.

But in April 1984, the clouds cleared and an American satellite flew over Severodvinsk and, lo and behold, there was a third Typhoon submarine floating at dockside, fitting out before heading for sea trials. Although the intelligence analysts did not know it, the submarine had been launched in December 1983, just as Charlie had predicted.

Charlie got a DIA Exceptional Civilian Service Medal for his work. Huffstutler got the respect of his new employees. But NPIC also gained stature within the intelligence community. They had demonstrated once again that satellite imagery, and imagery alone, could provide answers that other intelligence sources could not.

The implications of Charlie’s prediction went beyond the specifics of a single submarine launch. With the first two Typhoons, it was not possible for the intelligence community to predict how long it took the Soviets to build them. With three they had a baseline and could predict how quickly the next subs would launch, which had clear implications for the US military and how many attack subs would be required to track the expanding Soviet threat.

Although O’Connor’s book tells this story for the first time, he does not provide many details on the event. For instance, why did the CIA believe that the Typhoon would launch in summer 1984 and Charlie conclude it would launch earlier? Fortunately, there are recently declassified documents that shed additional light on this incident. They do not completely answer the question—and to date the December 1983 Charliegram has not been released—but they do provide more information on how both the CIA and NPIC analysts were making their assessments at the height of the Cold War.

hey would have loved to have a camera inside the building, but they settled for giant cameras hundreds of kilometers away, which in this case happened to be more than adequate for the task.

Numerous declassified CIA and NPIC documents indicate that the primary method for determining launch schedules was to watch the equipment yard outside of the big assembly building at Sevordvinsk. It would fill up with subassemblies that would then be taken inside. When the subassemblies stopped going in, analysts determined that the assembly bays were full and the boat was at a certain level of construction. This timeline analysis was only one part of the intelligence assessment. Some of the satellite photographs revealed the reactor compartments and missile tubes that had arrived at the facility, offering perhaps the only chance to see inside one of these massive submarines.

This was just one small incident in a big Cold War, and it wasn’t even the biggest intelligence dilemma about the Typhoon. Later in 1984, Tom Clancy published his first novel, about a giant Soviet submarine, the Red October. In the book, the Americans first learned of the sub when a spy smuggled out photographs taken from inside the giant assembly building. Charlie and his cohorts were undoubtedly amused, and envious. They would have loved to have a camera inside the building, but they settled for giant cameras hundreds of kilometers away, which in this case happened to be more than adequate for the task.


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