The Soviet Alpha-class submarine dives deeper and swims faster than any American sub. Should the alarm bells be ringing?
Yes, thought a number of US editorial writers when the Defense Department released the sensational information two years ago.
No, says Ian Bellany, director of the Center for the Study of Arms Control and International Security at the University of Lancaster in Britain. The Alpha is so noisy that it's easy prey to America's far superior anti-submarine warfare (ASW), says Bellany in the January-February issue of ''Survival,'' the magazine of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. And for reasons of manning and maintenance only 2 out of 5 Alphas are operational at any one time.
Bellany does not address, however, one of the main Western concerns about Soviet submarine capability. This is the ability of Soviet missile submarines to sit in the Soviet sanctuary of the Barents Sea and threaten targets in the US.
Conceptually, Bellany borrows the 19th-century English journalist Walter Bagehot's distinction between the ''dignified'' and ''efficient'' parts of government. The crown, Bagehot said, is ''dignified,'' the civil service ''efficient.''
Bellany draws the analogy for the Soviet Navy that surface ships are ''dignified'' -- ''generally impressive and even useful in a fight with second-class opponents.'' Submarines are ''efficient'' -- ''what will actually be needed against first-class opposition.''
Bellany also calls NATO surface navies ''dignified,'' on the presumption that in a nuclear war (or even a precision-guided nonnuclear war) surface vessels ''would not last five minutes.'' Nonetheless, some Western surface ships -- some aircraft carriers, for example -- have a dual role as platforms for the US's most ''efficient'' naval component, ASW.
The Soviet Union has no such flexibility, Bellany suggests. Yet between 1965 and 1980 Moscow let its ''efficient'' fleet of submarines decline by 30 percent, while building up its less useful prestigious surface fleet by 25 percent. The Soviet proportion of submarines to major surface vessels has dropped from 60:40 to 47:53.
Moreover, Mr. Bellany sees a disadvantageous proportion between the Soviet diesel and nuclear submarines. Moscow has been much slower than Washington in shifting from diesel to nuclear propulsion (75 percent of Soviet attack subs in 1980 were still diesel powered, as against 10 percent of American attack subs). This is so even though diesel subs cannot hope to tail the much faster nuclear subs.
The very fast Alpha attack submarine, reportedly capable of diving to 650 fathoms (about 3,900 feet), doesn't change this equation, Bellany contends, because of its noise and its crewing problems. (Here Bellany doesn't fully substantiate his second point, since 2 out of 5 operational nuclear subs is not a low number; the French are now building their seventh strategic sub in order to keep two on station at all times).
Moving from attack submarines (which target other vessels) to strategic nuclear submarines (which target the US with ballistic missiles), Bellany shows further skepticism about Soviet capabilities in his ''milestone'' test.
The Soviet Union, Bellany notes, averaged a 10-year lag behind the US in acquiring (a) the first solid or storable-liquid fuel submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM); (b) the first SLBM with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) front end; (c) the first SLBM to better a circular error probable (CEP) of 0.5 nautical miles; and (d) the first long-range SLBM. This compares with no more than a three-year average Soviet lag behind crucial American developments in land-based missiles.
The only previous Soviet first, Bellany continues, was the ultra long-range SLBM (4,300 nautical miles), which Moscow deployed in 1972, eight years before Washington.
The inferiority of Soviet submarine technology and maintenance, writes Ballany, is illustrated in the little time Soviet subs spend at sea. the 1980 strategic sub (SSBN) average was 13 boats at sea (counting those in transit to or from port) but a total fleet of about 60.
Only once did a practice "surge" of the entire Soviet submarine fleet take place, as far as is known -- while the US regularly practices "surges" that can put up to 90 percent of its subs out to sea.
"The 75 percent of Soviet SSBN in port are highly vulnerable" to nuclear attack, concludes Bellany -- and the bulk of the SSBN harbored at the Kola Peninsula will become especially vulnerable not only to US strategic missiles, but also to the new generation of NATO intermediate-range missiles to be deployed in Western Europe.