The Soviet Union may have learned how the United States tracks its submarines in peacetime and would destroy them in war, U.S. Navy and intelligence officials said yesterday in discussing what they called deep concern about the Walker spy case.
Secret information allegedly passed to the Soviets by John Anthony Walker Jr.; his son, Michael, and John Walker's brother, Arthur, and unnamed others in a spying operation could be damaging enough to force the superpowers to change tactics in the silent struggle under the seas, sources said.
The Navy is assessing the damage and has not reached a conclusion about it, Navy officials said.
Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. was among those waiting at the Defense Department yesterday for a briefing on what material the Soviets are thought to have received and what countermeasures might be necessary, Navy officials said.
Navy officials, while distressed about what information may have been compromised, said none of the Walkers had the array of special clearances needed to gain access to information about supersensitive U.S. antisubmarine warfare, the "black" programs.
But even less sensitive material already thought to have been given to the Soviets by the Walkers, they said, might reveal the pattern and scale of U.S. antisubmarine operations.
"Sources and methods, that's what we have to worry about right now," an intelligence official said, referring to secret techniques developed in the last 20 years to locate every submerged Soviet submarine.
These range from sensitive microphones on the ocean floor to hunter submarines concealed outside Soviet ports to eavesdropping satellites.
The United States and the Soviet Union have been playing a cat-and-mouse game under the sea for more than two decades. It is deadlier than ever because each nation is using a growing proportion of its nuclear firepower on submarines.
Last month, at what he thought was an off-the-record seminar at Harvard's Center for International Studies, Lehman said that, under certain scenarios, the United States would attack Soviet missile submarines almost immediately in a war.
The hair-trigger usually associated with land-based missiles thought vulnerable to enemy missiles if not launched quickly will soon be true of sea-based missiles because they are becoming accurate enough to hit enemy missile silos in a surprise "first strike," according to arms control specialists.
If the Soviets learned from the secret papers how the United States detects, locates and "prosecutes the target" with a combination of sensors, submarines, ships, aircraft and satellites, they could concentrate on ways to combat it, several intelligence officials said.
"Until now," one former missile submarine skipper said of the Soviets, "they have been studying the shards. Now they may see the shape of the whole pot. That's bad."
Navy submarine and intelligence officers said they are less worried about what the Soviets may have gotten from Walker, 22, a Navy seaman recently returned to the United States from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, than what they may have received from his father.
John Walker retired as a warrant officer after a 21-year naval career, including handling top-secret coded communications on the nuclear missile submarine Simon Bolivar from 1965 to 1967 and reading top-secret communications in and out of Atlantic surface-fleet headquarters at Norfolk from 1975 to 1976, his last Navy job.
After finishing boot camp, Seaman Walker was assigned in April 1983 to Navy Fighter Squadron 102 in Oceana, Va., where he worked as a yeoman until January 1984 when he went to the Nimitz.
Navy officials said secret material from Oceana and the Nimitz to which Walker would have had access would be mostly about daily operations and tactics, not the tightly compartmentalized information about undersea operations and satellite surveillance.
John Walker, they said, would have been in a better position to gather such potentially damaging information from his jobs and from others who the Justice Department has said were engaged in espionage.
"If the Soviets sent a submarine into the Mediterranean and felt sure it had not been detected and learned from one of the secret papers obtained from Walker that their sub was detected at a certain time, they could reason backwards," an intelligence official said. "They might know a radio transmission was made at that time, revealing we had an intercept capability they did not know existed."
Any reports covering years of U.S. submarine operations, another intelligence official said, might reveal a pattern even though each patrol was different.
The Soviets most likely would run all of the operations through computers to produce a profile of how the United States thinks when it comes to deploying forces, he said, enabling them to anticipate where U.S. subs are most likely to be at a given time.
"We don't operate everywhere," one senior Navy officer said, adding that any tipoff to the Soviets about where missile-carrying submarines operate would be damaging. Both attack and missile submarines must rise near the surface at specific places to communicate with shore through aircraft or satellites.
Another source expressed concern that what the Walkers are suspected of transmitting may show the Soviets how to evade the network of sound surveillance system (SOSUS) underwater microphones on the continental shelf off the U.S. East and West coasts. These listening devices triangulate sound from a passing submarine and pinpoint its location.
A passive system, SOSUS only listens. The Navy has been developing another elaborate detection system, a type of powerful sonar, that would send sound waves through the water to bounce off solid objects such as submarines.
The sounds would be intercepted by listening devices scattered in deep waters off other countries and not tied to the coastal United States. The sound waves could be generated from various mobile platforms, including ships.
Navy officials said it is too early to know whether they will have to step up such advanced antisubmarine warfare efforts.
An FBI agent testified last week that John Walker may have been sending the Soviets information for 15 to 18 years.