Question: Just How Strong Was the Soviet Navy?
So how strong was the Soviet Navy? The answer: there is no single answer. Chances are it was strong enough for some missions yet not strong enough for others. The navy sufficed if it could execute the ones that mattered most to the Soviet leadership. And that’s true of any armed force, isn’t it? No force is unbeatable at all places, at all times, against all comers. To qualify as adequate to its purposes, a force need only make itself master of crucial places on the map at decisive times against probable antagonists. If it wins when and where it counts, it’s strong enough.
Whether or not it rated as a world-beater, the Soviet Navy mounted a serious challenge to Western maritime supremacy by the late Cold War. Not in all spheres of combat: Western fleets never lost their edge in blue-water combat, the function for which they were built and trained. In all likelihood an open-ocean duel would have gone the U.S. and allied navies’ way. And indeed, the prospect of such an encounter hardly appeared farfetched. The Soviet Navy mounted an offensive, blue-water presence from time to time. For instance, its Mediterranean squadron outnumbered the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war—throwing a shock into Western leaders.
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Still, Moscow mostly cared about mounting a “blue belt of defense,” enclosing and denying access to waters lapping against Soviet shores. Its instincts remained strategically defensive even as the navy constructed vessels packing an offensive punch. Commanders meant this defensive buffer to keep U.S. Navy expeditionary forces from projecting power onto Eurasian shores from the sea. Expanses thus cleared also offered safe patrol grounds where ballistic-missile submarines could execute their nuclear deterrent function in relative safety.
Nor was Soviet sea power all about fleets in these offshore preserves. Naval forces deployed in defensive fashion generally operated with reach, and under cover, of shore-based Soviet air forces. Adding that land-based component of sea power to the operational mix helped ward off Western forces that—under the 1980s U.S. Maritime Strategy—envisaged standing into Soviet home waters to sink the Soviet submarine fleet at the outbreak of war in Europe. The U.S. Navy thus faced off not just against a hostile navy but against a hostile air arm flying from airfields ashore.
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Would this forerunner of “access denial” have fulfilled its goal? Maybe, maybe not. But even if not, it may have exacted a heavy price—which is why tales of Backfire bomber raids smiting U.S. Navy task forces achieved mythic status among Cold War sailors, among whom I count myself. In short, this was a foe Westerners had to take seriously, prosecuting the missions the political leadership deemed most crucial. On the whole, then, the answer to the question how strong was the Soviet Navy? may be: strong enough.
Which is why the proclivity of American seamen to mock this defeated-but-not-defeated foe vexes me. It bespeaks hubris about U.S. maritime supremacy, and forgetfulness about a trying time. Yes, the West came out ahead in the long-term strategic competition. We take satisfaction in that, and rightly so. But the fact remains that East and West never put their seaborne Cold War rivalry to the test of combat—and combat constitutes the true arbiter of seaborne competition.
Without that field trial pitting forces, operations, and strategies against each other, it’s impossible to say for sure how strong and capable the Soviet challenger truly was—and how well it matched up with the U.S. Navy in various contingencies. Much remains hypothetical a quarter-century hence.
So tallying up numbers of ships, planes, and weapons—the way Jane’s Fighting Ships, the IISS Military Balance, and other compilations do—tells only part of the story. A critical part, to be sure, but only a part. What we know is that by the late Cold War the Soviet Navy fielded a lotta warships packing serious heat in the form of anti-ship missiles, gee-whiz torpedoes, and other weaponry that gave the U.S. Navy fits. Submarines in particular: the Soviets’ undersea fleet numbered some 275 subs of all types in 1990. That’s a hefty force—roughly double the American inventory for the day.
Some Soviet boats were of backward design, admittedly, especially when lined up alongside their high-tech Western counterparts. Noisy machinery exposed them to detection. Primitive sensors limited their capacity to detect and assail enemy shipping. Other subs were modern, quiet, and ruggedly built, letting them dive deep and withstand damage. In short, this was a mixed, highly eccentric undersea fleet.
Quantity may have a quality all its own, as the Soviet proverb puts it. And indeed, numbers matter a great deal between equals in equipment, seamanship, and tactical skill. Yet it’s unclear how big a difference quantity makes when one antagonist suffers from slipshod quality. How big a qualitative deficit can seafarers overcome through sheer mass?
Strength is a relative thing and whether Soviet quantity beat Western quality was never put to the test of battle. Ripped out of strategic context, then, numerical indices of capability mislead. But there’s more to the question of Soviet sufficiency at sea than debating quantity and quality. Think about the nature of power politics. Seldom does martial competition—a process of constant one-upsmanship in which equally determined contenders try to outwit and outdo the other—lend itself to clear verdicts about who would defeat whom in action.
For Carl von Clausewitz, 19th-century Prussia’s mage of strategy, gauging how a conflict may play out demands a comprehensive assessment, not just comparative figures detailing armaments and manpower. Statesmen and commanders, says Clausewitz, must size up not just the combatants’ armed strength but also the geographic setting, the contenders’ political and strategic aims, how much each side wants its aims—and therefore how much it’s prepared to pay for them in terms of lives, military assets, and treasure—the capacity of the people and government on each side, and the likely impact of each adversary’s actions on third parties able to influence the struggle’s outcome.
That’s a dizzying array of factors—and any of them, tangible or intangible, could shape how a clash unfolds on the high seas. For instance, Moscow probably cared more than Washington about what transpired in its offshore defensive belt. The home team generally does—and thus, in Clausewitzian parlance, is readier than the visiting team to stage an effort of massive “magnitude” and long “duration” to get its way. It pays a heavy price to manage its environs.
By this logic, concentrating the bulk of even an inferior Soviet Navy—augmented by land-based air and missile forces—against a U.S. Navy detachment cruising far from home could skew the outcome Moscow’s way. That’s what happens when one side’s whole force concentrates against a fraction of the opponent’s. Quality, meet quantity.
Thus the Soviet Navy may have won a home game in its near seas even if it never matched up well in away games played in blue water. Context matters. The only standard of military might that matters, then, is whether an armed force can accomplish the operational goals entrusted to it by senior commanders and their political masters, at a particular time and place, against particular foes. If it can, it’s strong enough to execute that mission. If it can’t attain its goals elsewhere on the map, it’s not strong enough for that particular contingency.
That makes for a mixed verdict on the Soviet Navy—and, for that matter, on most military services. Not for nothing did Clausewitz proclaim that tabulating all the factors in work in international competition, evaluating their significance, and devising strategy based on the insights thus gained would defy the analytical gifts of a Sir Isaac Newton.
Few Newtons walk among us. So ask tough questions when someone pronounces judgment on the Soviet Navy—or on some other up-and-comer like, say, China’s navy—with boundless confidence. Caveat emptor!