Painful Truth: Whiskey left Cold War headache

Remember that time when the world almost ended? Not the Cuban Missile Crisis, not the (multiple) times a US nuclear bomber crashed, not the time they tried to kill Castro with an exploding cigar or the time Reagan started yammering about the apocalypse on national TV.

I’m talking about the Whiskey on the Rocks incident, which has a lot less alcohol involved than you might think.

See, a few days ago Sweden was busy sending out patrol ships looking for “foreign underwater activity,” and they were essentially nudging journalists and mouthing the words “Russians!”

Apparently Putin decided to send a sub snooping around not too far off the coast of Stockholm, and the Swedes didn’t take kindly to that.

The recent incident may have been caused by a Russian mini-sub, which may or may not have been in some kind of trouble. A Russian oil tanker was also seen acting kind of shifty in the vicinity. This time, it doesn’t seem to have amounted to much.

In 1981, it got pretty dangerous.

The name of the incident came from a W-class submarine, dubbed Whiskey by NATO military spotters.

The Russians called it S-363, and it was a creaky old tub, a relic of the 1950s, not exactly the pride of the Soviet fleet, even by the decaying standards of the end of the communist empire.

On the night of Oct. 27, the Swedes were only semi-surprised when the S-363 suddenly popped up out of the water just a couple of kilometres from one of their major naval bases, stuck on a rock.

They were only semi-surprised because, throughout the past several years, the Soviets had been playing a fun game of hide-and-seek with the Swedish navy, sending subs zipping in and out of the fjords, running away when the Swedes tried to track them down with sonar.

If this all sounds like playful peacetime fun, remember that some of these subs were armed with nuclear missiles. Military commanders from powerful nations often have the maturity and good sense of a bunch of six-year-olds playing with railroad flares in a kerosene refinery.

While the sub was stuck on the rocks, the Swedes pulled up alongside and did some tests, and estimated there were probably about 10 pounds of uranium sitting around the bow of the sub, where the torpedoes should have been.

They also sent some unarmed officials aboard to have a chat with the Russians. The Russians professed to be deeply confused, and according to some accounts, they claimed to have simply been lost and thought they were near Poland. How they managed to make it through numerous narrow passages without noticing that they were hundreds of miles off course is anyone’s guess.

The worst moment came after the Soviets sent in a “rescue squad” of warships. The Swedes turned them back and fired up their onshore, radar-guided artillery. The Soviets backed off, but then a storm came up. The Swedish radar could see two shapes were coming straight towards the sub, and their naval base. They scrambled jets, armed their guns… and barely avoided sinking two German grain-hauling ships that had wandered into the passage, totally oblivious to all the weapons aimed at them.

Stories like this make me glad I’ve lived most of my life in a post-Cold War world. We know there were (and are) a lot of nukes out there. What we don’t hear often enough is that they were in the hands of people who couldn’t have run a lemonade stand. Kind of makes you wonder who’s in charge now.

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