NATO's Crazy Plan to Kill Russia's Submarines: Bomb Them with Magnets?

Steve Weintz

Key Point: The floppy-magnets worked exactly as intended, but they were simply too messy to train with to be practical on a large scale. It seems NATO deployed them only a few times.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had so many hundreds of deadly submarines at sea that Western war planners willing to try almost any possible countermeasure, however goofy sounding.

Some seemingly crazy ideas proved actually worthwhile, such as the underwater Sound Surveillance System—a vast chain of seafloor microphones that patiently listened for Soviet subs … and remains in use today.

Other less elegant anti-submarine tools survive only as anecdotes. In his book Hunter Killers, naval writer Iain Ballantyne recalls one of the zanier ideas — air-dropped “floppy-magnets” meant to foul up Soviet undersea boats, making them noisier and easier to detect.

From the late 1940s on, captured German technology boosted Soviet postwar submarine design. Soviet shipyards delivered subs good enough — and numerous enough — to pose a huge danger to Western shipping.

By the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the USSR controlled the largest submarine force in the world — some 300 diesel-electric submarines and a handful of nuclear-propelled models. NATO navies couldn’t keep up. “We simply do not have enough forces,” Vice Adm. R.M. Smeeton stated.

NATO war planners feared only nuclear escalation could check the Soviet submarine wolf packs. That is, atomic strikes on sub bases along the Russian coast.

But the nuclear solution was worse than the problem. “We can take steps to make sure the enemy is fully aware of where his course of action is leading him without nuclear weapons,” Smeeton said, “but we cannot go to war that way.”

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