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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strategic Sub Patrols Resume After Year Off

WASHINGTON -- Russia has resumed strategic missile submarine patrols after last year failing to send a single such sub out of port for the first time in more than 35 years, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.

"Although the trend in Russian strategic submarine patrols has been downward for a number of years, the Russian navy has resumed patrols in 2003," a U.S. Navy intelligence official said. Asked how many had taken place so far this year, a Navy spokesman said: "It is a very small number."

The U.S. Navy traditionally keeps track of Russian strategic submarine activity by following the vessels, primarily with attack submarines.

At the height of the Cold War, several Soviet missile subs cruised off Bermuda, prepared to launch nuclear-tipped missiles that could hit the United States in minutes. Such patrols by Russian Delta and Typhoon subs with longer-range missiles dropped from 37 in 1991, most of them in the Atlantic and Pacific, to 19 in 1993.

By 2001, there was just one patrol in the Bering Sea, probably influenced by the August 2000 sinking of the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk.

The U.S. Navy carries out about 50 patrols a year with its fleet of 18 Trident strategic ballistic missile submarines. Each patrol lasts several months and is carried out in the Atlantic or the Pacific.

"Traditionally, the Russians would have several [strategic submarines] leave port and cruise the Bering Sea as a precaution against a surprise attack," said Hans Kristensen, a consultant with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a think tank that specializes in nuclear affairs. Kristensen has made a study of strategic nuclear weapons activities of the major powers.

"The fact that it has gradually declined, rather than stopped suddenly or leveled out at a certain level, suggests to me that they have simply run out of resources and decided to prioritize them elsewhere," Kristensen said. "They may have concluded that keeping the subs in port and only doing brief training voyages near the coast is sufficient for now."

Noting that the U.S. submarine patrol level has remained constant, Kristensen said, "It is a dramatic turn that one of the superpowers is leaving the strategic submarine field and deciding their national security position has not suffered."

The Office of Naval Intelligence officer said, "Patrol trends are one of the many factors used to evaluate Russian strategic naval capabilities."

Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information, an organization that studies defense policy, said the United States has rhetorically downgraded the threat of a nuclear first strike by the Russians but, unlike them, "we have not changed our strategy."

He said the Navy patrols are being maintained "at Cold War levels. ... We are still Pearl Harbor-oriented, surmise a surprise attack and need survivable nuclear submarines."

Blair said the United States keeps two Trident subs, each of which carries 24 long-range missiles with five or more warheads, on alert patrol in the Atlantic and another two on alert in the Pacific. All four are positioned to launch missiles with flight times of about 15 minutes to the Russian mainland, Blair said.