Cold War Lingers In Underwater Cat-and-Mouse Game

SENIOR officials of the former Soviet Navy accuse the United States of violating Soviet territorial waters for the second time in less than two months. A foreign submarine was detected in the Kola Gulf area of the Barents Sea on March 25, not far from the place where US and Soviet atomic submarines collided Feb. 11.

The General Staff of the commonwealth armed forces, as the former Soviet military is now called, has sent an official note to all nations with nuclear submarines inquiring whether they had a ship in that location. "We have received no answer from the Pentagon yet," Rear Adm. Valery Alexin, chief Navigator of the commonwealth Navy told the Monitor, "but according to the analysis carried out in the laboratories of the Northern Fleet the submarine is a US nuclear submarine."

The commonwealth Navy officials read the two incidents as evidence that their US counterparts continue to stalk their foes no less seriously than they did at the height of the cold war.

"The politicians have declared that the cold war is over but militarily, especially in the navies, the cold war goes on," says Admiral Alexin. "The billions of dollars that [US Defense Secretary Richard] Cheney is spending on sending submarines to our shores could be used more effectively in the economic competition with Japan which the US is already starting to lose."

The alleged US submarine was detected last week 12 nautical miles inside commonwealth waters, says the Admiral. (The US has a different method of calculating the territorial limits, but even by these calculations, says Alexin, the ship was 7 miles inside their waters). The ship was tracked by commonwealth antisubmarine vessels and its high cruising speed identifies it as a nuclear-powered submarine, he says. A report in the military daily Red Star March 28, however, cited "naval analysts" who "do not exc lude the possibility it was a diesel submarine." Sighting could be mistaken

A well-informed Western national security expert believes the sighting could have been mistaken. "It would be very unusual if Soviet sonar or antisubmarine detection found a Los Angeles-class attack submarine in Russian waters because these boats are too quiet," he says.

The Western expert suggests that the former Soviet Navy is eager to prove its worth under pressure from severe cuts in the defense budget. The Navy is the service most closely associated with the fast-fading pretentions of the former Soviet Union as a global power. "If you look at budget allocations, it is the Navy that is the most vulnerable," the expert says.

But there is no dispute over the reality of the Feb. 11 accident, an underwater collision between the US Los Angeles-class attack submarine Baton Rouge and a titanium-hulled Sierra-class attack submarine of the former Soviet fleet off the entrance to the fiord where the Northern Fleet's submarines are based. A dangerous game

The two ships apparently lost contact with each other while playing a nautical game of cat and mouse. Both sides claim that no serious damage was done, but Alexin suggests that the Baton Rouge was "5 to 7 seconds" from being sunk by the stronger-hulled Soviet sub.

"Submarine accidents and underwater accidents are practically uncontrollable and extremely dangerous because the probability of the sub being sunk is great," Alexin says. "That could lead not only to the loss of the submarine and its crew but there is also a high risk of ecological catastrophe," he warns, referring to both the nuclear power plant and weapons on board.

At a May 25 meeting marking the 20th anniversary of the US-Soviet agreement on avoiding incidents at sea, notably successful in reducing accidents between surface ships over the years, the commonwealth will propose extending the pact to submarines, Alexin says.

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