Of Swedes and submarines

Re that Soviet submarine that got stuck on a Swedish mudbank and brought neutral Sweden out of its corner with its dukes up: Yes, many people laughed along with an onlooker's widely quoted line, ''It's always fun when a superpower does something ridiculous.'' The perspective of humor could hardly fail to operate when the rugged Russian bear was so ignominiously caught playing with its toys of war.

But the episode has been a reminder of other perspectives, too:

* On Sweden. It is not easy to be neutral and accept the burden of self-defense when most of one's neighbors belong to military blocs. Often enough critical of the superpower across the Atlantic, Sweden now reaffirms its neutrality against the overshadowing Soviet Union, too. The Swedes did not simply accept Moscow's apology for what they called the most serious violation of their territory since World War II. They would not release the sub without interrogating the commander, and they would not interrogate the commander unless he left the sub. At this writing, he had finally done so. His story better have been good.

* On submarines. One hang-up obviously does not diminish the Soviet submarine threat to the West. But there are certain echoes in its happening to an outdated diesel-powered vessel in the Baltic Sea. It is some hundred of such subs that allow the familiar warning about the Soviet Union having more subs than the United States. The two superpowers are about equal in the more important measure of nuclear-powered subs. Moreover, while 50 percent of US subs are deployed at any one time, only 10-15 percent of Soviet subs are.

Because of the narrowness of Baltic passages, the more important, strategic Soviet subs cannot be launched from there and thus are excluded from bases such as Leningrad and Kaliningrad (where the minor sub that ran aground was based). The strategic subs have to be based far north at Murmansk or on the USSR's Asian side. From Murmansk the route to the US is through a fairly narrow channel off Greenland. On the Far Eastern side the Soviet subs are vulnerably close to Japan and an extensive US array of detection devices.

So the Baltic incident does rub in some problems the Soviet submarine fleet already has. But this is no excuse for the American submarine command not to remind its skippers to drive carefully, especially around Sweden.

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