The Lost CHARLIE

 

          NATO gives each family of submarines a name.  For the most part, they follow the Military Alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, etc.), but some carry their original Soviet names.  All of them are devised for wartime use, and they were worthy adversaries.

        

          One such group of nuclear submarines was built through the 1980's with a purpose that made them a target of mine.  The CHARLIE Class, together with the fast VICTOR Class boats, were sent to sea with a primary mission of sinking our Aircraft Carriers.  Roughly one-third of our ships, aircraft, and satellites were employed actively in keeping these submarines at bay.

 

          Everyone loved to compare these boats to our LOS ANGELES Class nuclear subs.  The CHARLIE was louder, slow, deaf, and prone to fail mechanically, but I watched them elude our best aircrews on several occasions.  In this type of hunt, the fox tends to escape, regardless of the flag she flies over her bridge.

       

          Early in 1983, I was doing my ORION time, flying in P-3 4-engine bombers out of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.   The mission of these planes is to locate and track the subs that pass to the north of our coral atoll.  At the first hint of faint contact on sonobuoys, we would launch a maximum, around-the-clock effort to keep our sights on this slippery prey.

      

          Often, contact would never get closer; despite our best efforts, the murky depths of the Indian Ocean held plenty of secrets, and the Soviet subs tended to come and go at will.  Our aircraft would continue to search for hours after the beast had vanished.

      

          I watched the clouds track by in orderly columns, reflected and shadowed on the gray empty waters below.  The sea from above looks like a beaten silver shield, with clouds hung on its surface as garlands.  Tactically, from 18,000 feet, you can't see jack.

      

          The big slow bird began to nose over, and the crew began to warm up their equipment.  Word was passed down that the Co-pilot thought he had seen something in the warm waters, and we were going down to investigate. 

       

          Well, why not?  The primary detection gear had always been the Mark-1 Mod-0 Eyeball, so we crowded the windows and tried to see something in the waves.  We passed through the thin cloud layer at 5,000 feet, wondering what phantom the...     

 

          "TACCO (Tactical Coordination Officer), RADAR SINKER, 3 miles!  Dead ahead, Sir!"  The Radar operator had caught the "feather" or splash made by the sub's periscope as it cruised just below the surface.  SINKER meant that we had been had - the sub's own gear had detected our radar prior to our detection of him.  The chess pieces moved about the giant board....

        

          We arrived on top too late to witness the splash, but we littered the sea with passive listening buoys and were rewarded with "contact" - our sonar operators could clearly hear the CHARLIE's screw (propeller) churning at speed. 

 

          Quickly, other aircraft joined the fray, and we made our polite farewells to return for fuel.  We headed for the barn knowing that before we landed, he would escape again.   

    

          The file name assigned to this particular submarine, (called a PLARK in the Soviet Navy, or cruise-missile nuclear submarine) was P-046. 

 

          Papa -46 was the forty sixth submarine to sail from Soviet Pacific ports in 1983, and there were many more before the year was out.  It spent several months in our Ocean,  ranging from the Mallaccan Straits (Singapore), to Dehalak Island in the Red Sea.  We had pretty good luck finding it, but a bitch trying to keep it tracked.

    

          When its time came, PAPA 46 completed its cruise and returned to its home port on the Kamchatka Peninsula.  The intelligence dispatches on our board followed its progress through the Straits, across the South China Sea, the SOJ (Japan), and into the frozen Sea of Okhotsk, as it made its way home.

 

 

          The crew did not return.  To keep this unclassified, the submarine sank during an exercise near the harbor mouth of its own port.  On the final day of its' six month deployment, something failed.  No sailor of its 85 man crew survived. For days, clusters of Red ships silently waited over the last known position of their comrades. 

   

          Later, this sub was refloated using giant air bags that we could clearly see on satellite photographs and sold to the Indian Navy, but it was never fully functional again.

      

          Their story is included here as a testament to their skill at the most difficult game of all.

 

 

GPermann, 1995

 


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