Jeffrey LewisRed Star Rogue: Pinch Loaf

One of the persistent problems with the intelligence community (and its critics) is a form of selection bias—some of the folks who take an interest in intelligence matters do so because they’ve seen one to many James Bond movies.

Even a tiny number of these folks can really gum up the works for the vast majority of intelligence professionals.

A perfect example of this is purportedly the non-fiction book, Red Star Rogue, written Ken Sewell—“a nuclear engineer and a U.S. Navy veteran who … has held both Department of Defense and Department of Energy security clearances.”

I don’t know what Sewell actually did at DOD and DOE. Let’s hope it wasn’t very important.

Sewell (and his journalist co-author) are also conspiracy theorists, as this description of their thesis reveals:

On March 7, 1968, a rogue, nuclear-armed Soviet submarine surfaced in the waters off Hawaii, attempted to fire a nuclear missile, most likely at the naval base at Pearl Harbor, and sank with all 98 men aboard. As Sewell explains in Red Star Rogue, the sub was attempting to mimic a Chinese submarine, almost certainly with the intention of igniting a war between the U.S. and China.

Gary Weir, a Historian at the U.S. Naval Historical Center who declined to participate in the book, documents the massive problems with this thesis.

Let me add two additional problems, from my perspective as a scholar of the Chinese nuclear weapons program.

First, US intelligence knew China had not developed missiles for its Golf class submarine in 1968. The IC simply did not believe China could launch the sort of strike that the Russians were purportedly attempting to mimic.

Second, in 1968, the Chinese had one—one—nuclear warhead design small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.

That sucker was a uranium implosion device—the same design that ended up in Libya—with a 15 KT yield. I don’t have Pavel Podvig’s essential reference at home, but I seem to remember Russia’s nuclear submarines were armed with thermonuclear weapons using plutonium primaries and with a yield in the megaton, not kiloton, range.

Just from the size of explosion, any moderately competent observer would be able to conclude there was no friggin’ way that was a Chinese bomb. Assuming that we didn’t waste the Soviets in the next 24 hours, the radiochemistry data from the fallout would have removed all doubt that this was a Soviet, not a Chinese, warhead.

I’ll admit, I just flipped through the pages, but I didn’t see any effort to address these concerns.

The geniuses who wrote this little book overlooked one more extremely important fact:

The default for our nuclear war plan in 1968 (SIOP-4) didn’t distinguish between the Soviet Union and China—it was a joint strike. Now SIOP-4 did have some modularity—the President could hold China out of a strike package, for example.

But SIOP-4 was essentially Soviet-centered. A China-only strike package wasn’t introduced, as far as I can tell, until the 1970s—as a result of the Foster Panel.

Bill Burr has a realy excellent description of the evolution of the SIOP (The Nixon Administration, the ‘Horror Strategy,’ and the Search for Limited Nuclear Options, 1969–1972: Prelude to the Schlesinger Doctrine, Journal of Cold War Studies 7:3, Summer 2005, pp. 34–78).

Any Russian policymaker should have understood that Washington ’s principal reaction in the event of a nuclear strike would be to blame them, making this one incredibly reckless gamble.


  1. W. Zimmerman (History)
  2. MurMac (History)

    Drat, this was a very good book! If only it was sold as a fictional thriller. I am assuming that the facts above regarding the Chinese capability at the time and the SIOP-4 plans are correct and this isn’t just a disinformation plot!

  3. RRReisig (History)

    The sinking of K129 was most likely a training accident or equipment malfunction, as are the overwhelming majority of submarine mishaps, rather than an opperational accident. The CIA coverup is probably an effort to cover their own posteriors, vis a vis having spent over $500M to pick antiquated Soviet junk off the ocean floor.

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