Operation Atrina: The real Hunt for Red October. From 1945 onward, both the Americans and the Soviets started incorporating German-inspired technology into their own submarine designs. The Soviets, in true Soviet fashion, started mass producing new submarine classes. The Americans lagged behind in production output but made sure to study German sonar arrays (passive and active) and hydrophones… The US Navy fielded less subs, but they were quieter and had much better “ears”! The USN retained this qualitative edge for most of the Cold War. The Soviet Navy fielded many submarines, often noisy and with sub-par sensors, but fast, able to dive deeper than their Western counterparts and highly automated. The Americans fielded less machines, but of much higher quality, silent, equipped with world beating sensor suites and manned by professionals.
That could have been it… However… While Soviet shipyards churned out submarines at a terryfing rate, the quality of said submarines also improved gradually as time went by: Introduced in the late 1970’s, the Shchuka (Victor III) nuclear powered attack submarines were much quieter than previous Soviet subs… Moscow had high hopes for those and in March 1987, the Soviet Navy launched Operation Atrina: 5 Victor III belonging to the 33rd submarine division of Polyarnyy put to sea at once. They first triggered the SOSUS line near the UK then vanished! Both Washington and London were alarmed: Why would Moscow simultaneously deploy 5 of its best submarines?! A massive Western ASW response was triggered: 1 British aircraft carrier (HMS Hilustrious) and several other RN vessels alongside RAF Nimrods, 3 USN aircraft carriers and 6 USN attack submarines were all deployed in search of the red submarines.
The Brits and Americans first looked for the Soviet subs near the Mediterranean entrance before realising they were actually crossing the Atlantic! Never had the Soviets dared to deploy en-force near the US East Coast since the Cuban missile crisis! What were the Soviet doing? Well, they wanted to test two theories: One, they wanted to know if their best submarines could evade pursuit after having been detected. They also wanted to test the theory that American boomers were hiding in the Sargasso Sea. It took the British and the Americans 8 days to find 4 out of the 5 Victors. During that time, the British Nimrods used an entire year worth of sonobuoys supply!
What about the 5th Victor, then? Well, it depends on who you ask… The British say they eventually found it. They say it was better maintained and much better sailed than the other four. The Soviet captain was also bolder and sailed his ship more aggressively and more silently than his colleagues… A Trafalgar class sub finally tracked him down but had to stay perilously close to keep in contact. Close enough to be detected by his adversary. As for the Soviet version of the story, it says the 5th Victor remained undetected.
By 1989, the Soviet Navy fielded 349 submarines in total! The British feared that in case of a war, they could actually run out of torpedoes before managing to sink all the Soviet subs! However, out of those 349 Soviet submarines, only 35 were of the latest -modern and silent- models. Still, that handful of modern Soviet submarines were causing all kind of troubles for the West and closing the qualitative gap: The same year, in 1989, seven of them were known to be at sea but neither the US Navy nor the Royal Navy could find them…
This was the swansong of the red navy, though… The Soviets never closed the qualitative gap: They ran out of money and time. They were already running on fumes in 1989 and the Union itself would crumble under its own weight 2 years later, in 1991…
The story isn’t over, yet, however: While the Russian Navy (and Russian shipyards) never really recovered from the fall of the Soviet Union (as far as surface vessels goes), Russia somehow managed to retain the shipyards, skilled manpower, design bureaus and expertise necessary to design, produce and field modern submarines close to, or on par, (depending on who you ask) with the best the West has to offer. And Russian submarine activity is now at its highest since the end of the Cold War.