This article addresses the composition of the Soviet Navy in the Pacific,· its basing, some or the reasons for its modernization, its missions in a major war, and its challenge to the u.s. Navy as the latter tries to advance American interests and the interest or America’s allies in the Pacific.
Soviet naval power in the Pacific resides in the Soviet Pacific Fleet. It is one or four fleets in the Soviet Union, but it’s the only one that’s located in Asia. The other three are located on the European side or the U.S.S.R.. The Pacific Fleet has about 775 ships and submarines, including 85 major surface combatants, about 30 ballistic missile submarines, and about 90 general purpose submarines. Beyond that, there are about 500 combat aircraft. Those numbers reflect a fairly good period or quantitative growth since the mid-1960s which now has essentially leveled off. Compared to its sister fleets in the Western U.S.S.R., the Soviet Paciric Fleet has traditionally been the “poor sister.” One reason is that the Soviet’s most modern ships have been designed and constructed in the European side o~ the U.S.S.R., and it took a while ror them to migrate to the Asian side. But more importantly, it probably rerlected wartime considerations. Clearly, a war in Europe would take higher priority, or there was a greater challenge there. If that was the case, the Soviets had to put their best units on the European side, and their less good ones on the Asian side. Since 1978-79, however, there has been a step-level increase in the qualitative capabilities o~ the Soviet Navy in the Pacific.
Because o~ the quantitative changes mentioned be~ore, some people have argued over the last few years that maybe the Soviet Pacific Fleet is the strongest of the ~our Soviet fleets. Though that seems doubt~l, the point is that statement couldn’t have been made ~en years ago. No one suggesting that, then, would have been eaken seriously.
The Soviet NavY essentially operates out of four main bases in the Paci~ic. Two are Vladivostok and Sovetskaya Gavan. Those bases are both at the end of a rail terminal. That’s an advantage in terms o~ resupply — making sure that you have what you need, when you need it. A disadvantage — or an advantage depending upon how you look at it — is that, if you’re operating in the Sea of Japan, in order to get out into the open ocean, you’ve got to go through certain straits or chokepoints. From the point of view of offensive operations this might be a disadvantage — considering the fact that Japan is likely to be an American ally. Then, you’d have to make sure to get through those chokepoints before war occurs, or you’d have to try to capture those chokepoints. From the defensive perspective, though, the chokepoints might be an advantage. By capturing or mining them, the Soviets could prevent the u.s. from operating in the Sea of Japan. So to some extent it’s a two-edged sword.
A third major Soviet base is at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It has the advantage of having access to the open ocean but it has the disadvantage that it is in one of the most isolated parts of the world. There are no railroads or roads leading into Petro. The only way it is resupplied is by sea, and from Sovetskaya Gavan that’s roughly 800 nautical miles.
There’s a fourth base worth mentioning one we built. The Cam Ranh Bay facility in Viet Nam provides the greatest amount of support for the largest number of Soviet units outside of the Soviet Union itself. For instance, there are about 20-25 Soviet Navy ships being supported by and operating out of Cam Ranh. Cam Ranh has advantages for the Soviets for a number of reasons. It can provide a dual threat axis, from the Navy point of view, vis-a-vis China, because the Soviet base at Vladivostok and the other Soviet bases are north of China. So from the Chinese perspective, it may be considered a major irritant. Another factor is that the Soviet Navy operates in the Indian Ocean and maintains about 20-25 ships at any one time there. Cam Ranh Bay is a very useful stop-over point for ships on their way to the Indian Ocean and back. A third aspect of operating out of Cam Ranh is that the Soviets can monitor traffic in the whole South China Sea area. This might be important in a conflict with China or with the West. Finally, flying from Cam Ranh, or from Viet Nam in general, with Badger or Backfire aircraft can pose a significant threat to U.S. naval and air facilities in the Philippines or to the Philippines itself.
There is nothing special about the growth of the Soviet Navy in the Pacific independent of what has been going on in the rest of the Soviet military. It fits into a larger context.of what’s been going on with the Soviet military overall, and what’s been going on with the Soviet military, particularly in Asia.
Five factors are relative here. One is that since the mid-1960s — and maybe the Cuban Missile crisis had a lot to do with this — the Soviet Union has been determined to provide itself with an unassailable nuclear deterrent posture. They wanted to see themselves in a situation where they could say, “We are absolutely assured that we can deter the Americans from ever thinking in terms of striking at the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons.” There bas been a tremendous buildup of their strategic nuclear forces. A good part of that buildup involved ballistic missile submarines. They’re tremendously important to the Soviets and have a lot of effect on how the Soviets think about utilizing their Navy. Their SSBNs in war are going to be the Soviet Union’s secure strategic reserve, because they are mobile and presumably harder to fin~ than fixed landbased missiles. With a secure strategic reserve in something that’s mobile and under water, the Soviets can think in terms of deterring escalation. The Pacific fleet now has about 30 ballistic missile submarines compared with the mid-’60s. That’s about a 200% increase of ballistic missile submarines. Again, that increase has now tapered off, but the fact that it’s increased so much gives one the sense of the Soviet’s priority.
Paradoxically, while the Soviets were building up their strategic forces they felt they also bad to build up their conventional forces as the USSR gained confidence over time, that it could deter the Americans at the nuclear level. They came to believe that if a major war breaks out, it might be kept at the conventional level, or that at least there may be some period of conventional war that might make a difference. Hence the desire to have conventional military power in the nuclear age. The 745 or so general purpose naval forces that you have in the Pacific fit to some extent within this context.
A third reason for the Pacific fleet’s buildup has to do with the Soviet Union’s selfimage. Read Khrushchev’s memoirs. You get a sense of the inferiority complex that the Soviets have, particularly vis-a-vis the West. In this context, Soviet writings suggest that the Soviet Union is a world class power, not because of ideology, its economy, or its culture, but because of its power. Indeed the reason why the Soviet Union is a world class power has to do more with her military capability than with anything else.
A fourth reason for the buildup is the Soviet Union’s desire to be an active player around the world. The Soviets have found that if you have globally mobile military power, that that can help in terms of being an active player. To some extent the British provided the example earlier on. The u.s. has certainly provided the example since the end of World War II. We’ve been able to influence events around the world by simply having forces that deploy to various areas. The recent events in the Mediterranean are a good example of that. The Soviets, among other things, must have said to themselves, “If we are a world class power, we need to have that kind of globally mobile capability. We need to be able to influence events in peacetime — by being Johnnyon-the-spot at the right time, and the Navy in particular can help provide that capability.”
Finally, the fifth reason is the Sino-Soviet rift. From the Soviet perspective the rift is bad enough, and the u.s. rapprochement with China made it even worse.
What will the Soviet Navy do should a war occur? One mission is ensuring that Soviet ballistic missile submarines are secure, in order to guarantee nuclear deterrence. The submarines would likely operate in the Sea or Japan, in the Sea or Okhotsk, somewhere outside or the Kamchatka area and probably in a fairly large ellipse orr the United States. It should be pointed out that the submarines patrolling in the sea of Japan have the missile range to strike most of the desired targets in the United States. To ensure the strategic nuclear reserve, the Soviets will devote a large proportion of their general purpose forces to directly providing protection to the ballistic missile submarines so as to keep them always safe, or as safe as they can be made.
That protection role fits into a second mission to establish what might be called a maritime defense perimeter around the Soviet Union. That perimeter has two zones, a sea-controlled zone that covers areas relatively close to home and a sea-denial zone. The latter could be a kind of no-man’s water area. How far does the seadenial zone go out? In an exercise last year a Soviet carrier group steamed 1500 miles east or Tokyo, then headed back towards the Kuril Islands chain. This Soviet force was subjected to attacks by Backfire bombers and submarines about 600 miles east of Tokyo. This gives one a sense of where the sea-denial zone might be — though it might stretch even farther.
A third activity of the Soviet Navy would be to try to deal with our SSBNs coming out of their base at Bangor, Washington. They will probably devote some of their best submarine assets to that job because, from the Soviet perspective, our SSBNs may provide the most destructive threat to the Soviet Union.
A fourth mission would be the interdiction of sea lines of communication, particularly to and from Japan as well as to and from Korea. We are dependent enough upon Japanese components and materials produced in Japan that in a major war the U.S. would be thinking take in terms of what we take of out Japan as well as what we supply to Japan.
Fifth, the Soviets might be thinking in terms of protecting their own lines of communication to places like Petropavlovsk. Finally, as for Soviet amphibious forces, they might be used against areas such as the northern tip of Hokkaido in order to capture both sides of LaPerouse Strait. This would help guarantee one passage for naval forces in and out of the Sea of Japan.
What does all this mean for the u.s. Navy in the Pacific? The Soviets have to be concerned with the fact that they’re up against an extremely formidable challenger. There are things the Soviet Navy wants to do and there are things we want to do. Clearly, we want to make sure that if a war occurs, our SSBNs get out on patrol and remain secure for the course of the war. Next, we want to establish maritime superiority, and we want to be able to project power. We want our general purpose forces to operate where they need to operate and do what we want them to do. We also want to put the Soviet Navy on the defensive — particularly within the context of their maritime defense perimeter. Our general purpose submarines are going to have a big role in that. Also, we want to be able to establish and maintain sea control — at the very least — east and south of Japan. In the Sea of Japan or the Sea of Okhotsk, sea control might be questionable. But we want to be able, if necessary, to project power ashore against the Soviet Union. And, we want to maintain the sea lines of communications necessary to support our efforts. It’s really the converse of what the Soviets want to do.
One weakness that the Soviet Navy has is of antisubmarine war-forces. What about their threat to our attack submarines which intend to take the war to the Soviets. and keep them on the defensive? Our SSNs aren’t going to have the advantages of an SSBN which can just simply hide. They must go out and take the war to the enemy. That way they’re going to tie down a tremendous number of Soviet forces — but the u.s. will lose attack submarines in the process. It’s not going to be an easy thing. particularly if our SSNs are involved in an anti-SSBN campaign. u.s. SSBNs however should be survivable in a major war. In addition the U.S. should probably have general sea control east and south of Japan. In particular, in terms of Western sea lines of communication. the longer the war becomes, the better the situation should be.
In peacetime, if something occurs in the midst of a crisis, there’s no great problem to having the U.S. forces necessary to deal with it. With two major crises in widely distant locations in the Pacific. we might have trouble getting all the forces we want in the right places at the right time. But even in a worst case there shouldn’t be a great problem in at least getting the forces together. It’s really a question of political will — how to utilize those forces. We should recognize that the Soviets aren’t reckless and that they take calculated risks. In their calculations there’s only so far that they can go before the cost simply becomes too high for them. That’s a political issue. In the end, we don’t have to say to ourselves that we can’t do it because the Soviet Navy is there. A second dimension of the peacetime challenge is more amorphous. The u.s. Navy must not only be strong in the Pacific, it must look strong. Present trends on both counts are good.[Ed Note: This article is a condensation -stressing submarine aspects — of a talk delivered by Dr. Don Daniel at the Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum on June 19, 1986.)