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Friday, March 2, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Voyage of the Batfish: 50 days tailing Soviet sub

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON - They kept silent for 23 years. But yesterday, members of a U.S. submarine crew finally described a top-secret mission some believe may have hastened the end of the Cold War.

In the 1978 mission dubbed "Operation Evening Star," the nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine USS Batfish detected a Soviet submarine armed with 16 nuclear missiles and bound for America's East Coast.

The Batfish tailed the Soviet submarine for 50 days without being detected, collecting valuable information on how the Soviets operated, said retired Rear Adm. Thomas Evans, who commanded the Batfish.

"It was tedious at times," Evans said of the mission, which began in South Carolina on March 2, 1978, and lasted 77 days.

Though it wasn't the first mission to follow the Soviets, nor the last, it was one of the more successful, and information on it has been declassified by the Navy.

"We knew exactly where that submarine went on an hour-to-hour basis," Evans told a news conference at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. He said the mission tracked the Soviets' route and mapped the area the Soviets were patrolling.

The press conference was held by Smithsonian magazine, which publishes in its March issue the first story of the Batfish mission, by author Thomas Allen.

Détente was wearing thin

In the article called "Run Silent, Run Deep," Allen says the mission came when the Carter administration's détente with the Soviets was wearing thin amid concern about Soviet missile submarines cruising off both U.S. coasts.

Evans attributed the mission's success to the experienced crew, to the Batfish design that made it "extremely quiet" and to a then-new, extra-sonar system that was dragged behind the American sub, making its sonar detection superior to the less-advanced and noisier Yankee-class Soviet sub.

The U.S. technology meant the Batfish could get close enough to hear the Yankee, but not close enough to be heard by it, Evans said. He usually hung back 7,000 to 10,000 yards.

Fifteen days into the mission, on March 17, 1978, the Batfish detected the Yankee at the north end of the Norwegian Sea some 200 miles above the Arctic Circle.

Evans said that during the 50 days, the Batfish temporarily lost the Yankee only twice. Once was during a bad storm that kicked up wind and waves, creating too much background noise on the sensitive sonar.

Another time, Allen says, the distracting noise came from a fishing fleet that passed overhead with its rumbling diesel engines and whining hydraulic winches that are used to work the nets.

`Acoustic signature'

By then, Batfish sonar technician Daniel Lawrence had figured out the Yankee's "acoustic signature," and could relocate it without too much trouble after the distractions passed.

"Each submarine has its own acoustic characteristics," Evans said, like "when you hear Frank Sinatra over the radio you don't have to be told it's Frank Sinatra, but you know who it is."

Evans said the Soviets never knew they were followed until they learned it through espionage - the infamous Walker spy case.

Retired Navy Warrant Officer John Walker pleaded guilty in 1985. He admitted passing secrets to the Soviets while he was a shipboard communications officer and, after his retirement, by recruiting his son, brother and a friend to provide fresh information.

U.S. intelligence officials later came to believe that when the Soviets learned about missions such as Operation Evening Star, they realized their subs were vulnerable and embarked on a budget-draining attempt to catch up that eventually contributed to the end of the Cold War, Evans said.

The Navy last year declassified some information about the Batfish - and a similar 1972 mission - so the information could be used in an exhibit at the National Museum of American History honoring the centennial of the U.S. submarine force.

And what was his top-secret order, had the Batfish determined that Yankee was about to fire a nuclear missile?

"Only the captain had those orders sealed in his safe," said Evans, the captain. "And they remain classified today."

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