Other Soviet Maritime Activities

“. . .Among the main components which we included in the concept of the sea power of the state are the state ’s capabilities to study (investigate ) the ocean and exploit its resources, the condition of the transport and fishing fleet and its ability to support the needs of the state, and also the presence of a navy adapted to the interests of that state, since antagonistic social systems are present in the world. . .”
Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, S. G. GORSHKOV

The extensive and intensive use of the sea by the Soviet Union over the last two decades has not been limited to naval operations. In the best traditions of Mahan, the Soviets have embraced the whole spectrum of activities which are considered part of the Sea Power “equation”—merchant marine, fishing, oceanographic research, shipbuilding, a large pool of experienced seamen, and a knowledgeable leadership .

The Soviet concept of sea power encompasses constant and coordinated use of all aspects of its natural, scientific, industrial, merchant, and naval resources in support of state policy. All the various elements of Soviet maritime activity have been developed by the deliberate allocation of resources as a matter of prime importance to the Soviet Union.

Merchant Marina

The application of the Soviet basic philosophy of sea power is clearly demonstrated in the ongoing development of the Merchant Marine. At the end of World War II the Soviet oceangoing merchant fleet consisted of about 400 ships totaling approximately two million deadweight tons. The ships were relatively small, old, and slow. In fact, the newest and best were the lend-lease “Liberty” ships that the United State had provided the Soviets during World War II.

In just over three decades, the Soviet oceangoing merchant fleet has emerged from an insignificant, coastal oriented flotilla to rank fifth in the world in numbers of ships, and ninth in terms of deadweight (carrying) tonnage. The expansion continues. Today the Soviet Union has an oceangoing merchant fleet of nearly 1,720 ships aggregating over 18.6 million deadweight tons. By comparison, the U.S. Merchant Marine, with just over 580 ships equalling approximately 19.5 million deadweight tons, ranks eleventh in number of ships and eighth in carrying capacity. However, the U.S. Merchant fleet is largely composed of large tankers and non-self-sustaining container ships, units which would be less advantageous to us in time of crisis.

The Soviet merchant fleet is presently operating on over 70 different international trade routes, calling at over 125 countries throughout the world. Prior to the boycott by U.S. longshoremen, a result of the Afghan invasion, Soviet merchant ships were calling at nearly 60 different ports along the U.S. East, West, and Gulf coasts as well as in the Great Lakes. The growth of the Soviet Merchant Marine has paralleled a period of equally dramatic world-wide maritime development, but the Soviet accomplishments have been unique. While the international growth has been spurred by the demand for big oil tankers, bulk carriers and container ships, the Soviet Union has carefully directed the growth of its merchant fleet, not allowing purely commercial pressures of modern trade to dictate its composition . It is of interest to note that while most nations have reduced their passenger-carrying fleets, the Soviets continue to expand theirs and today have the largest passenger fleet in the world.

As a result, the Soviets today possess one of the few major merchant fleets which can perform either a peacetime commercial mission or satisfy military logistics requirements effectively and efficiently should a conflict arise. This has been achieved by accepting some economic disadvantages in exchange for functional versatility. Rather than building only supertankers, container ships, liquid gas tankers and bulk carriers, the Soviets have improved the designs of their large, sophisticated cargo ships and small, multi-purpose tankers. They also have stressed the building of high-speed, Roll-On/Roll-Off (R0/ R0) combination vehicle and container ships. The RO-RO ships offer the Soviets considerable versatility .

The RO-RO ship is basically a floating garage that loads and unloads cargo via a large ramp, so it can easily transport most forms of military hardware without ship modification. Moreover, it does not need sophisticated port facilities. The Soviet Union has more than 40 RO-RO ships operational and other numerous specialized ships are scheduled to be delivered in the near future. These ships can operate on the most competitive commercial routes, yet they can be, and have been, reallocated with very little delay to serve as military sealift or logistics ships.

The Soviets have recently received two large, SEABEE barge transport ships (U .8. design) from Finland . The SEABEE represents another advanced concept in cargo handling; it can transport large unit loads, such as 1,300-ton barges, and has the potential for use in military logistics or amphibious lift operations. Cargo is loaded with a sternmounted , 2,700-ton-capacity elevator. Up to 25,000 tons of cargo can be off-loaded in only 13 hours. A SEABEE ship could contribute significantly to Soviet military operations.

The Soviet 1976-1980 five-year plan calls for a growth in foreign trade of 30 to 35 percent, with particular emphasis on expansion of commerce with the capitalist world. In addition, the Soviet Union intends to use its merchant fleet to carry its own trade. Available figures indicate that the Soviet Merchant Marine transports approximately 60 percent of its own imports. (By comparison, the U.S. Merchant Marine carries less than five percent.) The five-year plan also projects a cargo carrying capacity increase of over 4 million deadweight tons. If the net gain stated in their goal is reached, the Soviet oceangoing merchant fleet will consist of approximately 1,800 ships totaling nearly 19.5 million deadweight tons by 1981. All indications are that the following five-year plan will also see a 4 million deadweight ton growth.

The Soviet Merchant Marine has proved to be an effective tool for the extension of Soviet influence, as well as an instrument for neutralizing or eliminating free world influence in strategic areas. Past activities of the merchant fleet in support of Soviet State policy, especially in African, Middle Eastern, and Indian Ocean waters, are contributing to a growing political acceptance of the Soviet presence in these areas.

The- Merchant Marine, on a regular basis, provides a significant amount of the logistics support required by the Soviet Navy, particularly to those ships operating in waters distant from the U.S.S.R. This gives the Soviet Navy a high degree of flexibility in the employment of its forces. Additionally, these merchant ships have a much greater freedom of access to the ports of the world than do navy ships or auxiliaries and thus can purchase fresh water, produce and other supplies for naval use in

ports where warship visits might be denied. Today, Soviet merchant ships operate on all oceans, calling at ports throughout the globe. If a Soviet ship is in distress in distant waters, it usually is only a matter of hours before other Soviet ships arrive at the scene to assist.

    In summary, Soviet leaders, no doubt, see the
    Merchant Marine providing the following advantages
    and capabilities:
  • a large national resource providing valuable hard-currency income, services, and employment;
  • an instrument to provide support for the foreign policy of the state and to further the cause of Soviet Communism;
  • a source of much needed foreign currency in a continuing “balance of payments” battle;
  • a visible sign to the world of the prestige and power of the Soviet Union;
  • a training system for an expanding pool of trained seamen;
  • a closely coordinated logistics force for meeting the needs of the Soviet Navy on a regular basis.
  • a world-wide network of intelligence collection
  • a highly organized, closely controlled organization which can provide military support quickly and effectively, particularly for amphibious operations or arms movements.

Overall, the Soviet Union is expected to continue to develop a multi-mission Merchant Marine which can compete economically in international markets and provide many other services in support of State policy, while maintaining the ability to respond rapidly to any need for extensive military support. Thus, the merchant fleet provides the U.S.S.R. with a growing capability for the world-wide support of political, military, and economic influence.


The Soviet Union operates the world’s largest fishing fleet with nearly 4,000 ocean-going vessels. The fleet’s catch in 1975 exceeded 10 million tons. This catch placed the Soviets second behind Japan, and was more than three times the size of the U.S. catch. Considerable resources have been invested in the fishing industry in the postwar period, with emphasis on the construction of large, high-capacity ocean-going ships equipped with elaborate fishfinding devices and processing facilities. The Soviets exploit fishing grounds throughout the world’s oceans with large flotillas of ships. Groups of 100 to 200 trawlers are not unusual and, on occasion, much larger formations have been reported. Trawlers which can handle up to 50 tons of fish per day often are equipped to filet, salt, can or freeze the catch on board. Large factory ships and refrigerated cargo ships also receive processed and unprocessed fish from the smaller trawlers. The factory ships have the necessary processing and

storage facilities aboard and can transfer their fish products at sea to cargo ships which take them to market. There is little waste—that part of the catch which is not processed into food is usually turned into fish meal or fertilizer without delay.

These fishing flotillas are usually self-contained “communities,” supported by specialized repair ships, tugs, tankers, and fresh water vessels. On occasion these auxiliary ships also support naval activities . When a Soviet HOTEL class ballistic missile

submarine encountered engineering difficulties in the North Atlantic in 1972 the submarine was assisted for several days by support ships for the fishing fleet.

Soviet fishermen are among the highest paid workers in the U.S.S.R. They are compensated for the hardships of long voyages and climatic extremes with annual paid vacations often exceeding two months. The industry also is a major employer of Soviet naval reservists.

Most fish caught by the Soviet Union (over 90 percent) is for human consumption and eaten by the Soviet people or given as aid to Soviet client states. It has been estimated that 20 percent of the Soviet protein consumption consists of seafood. Exports include such delicacies as caviar, squid, and king crab. The latter is caught in great quantities off the coast of Alaska, and has been the subject of a continuing controversy as well as given rise to several treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Soviet’s large whaling fleet has also brought it (and that of the Japanese) into a running conflict with world conservationists who are seeking to save a number of whale species from extinction. Since the Soviet fishing flotillas “invaded” U.S. coastal fishing grounds in 1961, there has been much debate on Soviet “vacuum cleaner” fishing methods and the damage done to the U.S. fishing industry. The establishment in 1977 of a 200-mile economic zone around the United States has placed limits on catch and strict control of fishing activities on foreign fishing ships within the zone. Masters of several Soviet fishing vessels have been placed under arrest by the U.S. Coast Guard for violating these controls. The Soviets are now faced with a large number of such economic zones established by countries with contiguous traditional fishing grounds.

The “universality” of fishing has led to considerable export of Soviet fishing equipment and technology to other countries. Similarly the Soviet Union has purchased a large number of fishing units from East German, Poland, and other nations.

It is likely that there will be a continuing growth in the quality of the fishing industry and in the size of its fishing fleet as well. There are indications that in the not too distant future, the Soviets will be the undisputed world leader in this area of maritime endeavor, which is increasing in importance as the earth’s population grows and seeks additional animal protein.

Research and Surveying

Soviet maritime activity is supported by the world’s largest fleet of ocean-going research and surveying ships, totaling over 200 ships. These ships are separate from the naval intelligence ships (AGI) discussed in Section 4. Rather, they are engaged in academic and economic studies and operational research of the oceans. A number of these ships are Navy subordinated and manned by Navy crews, but the majority belongs to civilian institutes concerned with ocean research and are civilian manned. Obviously , the civilian segments of research activities have close ties with those of the Soviet Navy and, again, the officers of the civilian manned ships include a number of naval reservists. In addition, the

research institutes, with a few others being Navy manned. Soviet Union operates a large number of Space Event Support Ships (designated SESS) that provide worldwide spacecraft and satellite tracking and recovery capabilities. This extensive use of SESS units is in marked contrast with the U.S. policy of primarily placing space tracking stations ashore around the world.

Activities of the research, surveying, and space support ships are managed by the several institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. that direct scientific research. These institutes maintain close coordination with both the Navy and the Main Fisheries Administration, with the latter organization operating several research ships. During the 1960s two modified Navy submarines also were used for fishing research and in the 1970s several naval submarines were employed on oceanographic research expeditions.

Soviet research ships are generally of modern design with most being of Finnish, Polish or East German construction. These ships vary in size from small coastal craft to the giant KOSMONAUT YURI GAGARIN, a 45,000 ton ship fitted with elaborate equipment for research into the upper atmosphere and support of space events.


The current Soviet shipbuilding industry evolved after World War II when the devastated yards of the Baltic and Black Sea coasts were rebuilt. Additionally , new yards were constructed (or enlarged) on the Northern and Pacific coasts to make those naval fleets more independent of the traditional European yards.

Today the Soviet Union has 18 large shipyards, each employing 2,000 or more workers on a fulltime basis. It is not, therefore, unreasonable to state that the U.S.S.R. ranks as one of the world’s largest producers of ships. However, because of the Soviet emphasis on small merchant ships and fishing craft, the Soviet tonnage production is small for the number of ships produced.

Besides receiving the output of a large indigenous ship-building industry, the Soviets also purchase a considerable amount of merchant and naval tonnage from foreign yards. Naval ships, particularly amphibious ships and auxiliaries are purchased from Poland, Finland, and East German as are merchant and fishing ships from the aforementioned countries plus others, including France, Japan, West Germany, Sweden, and Great Britain.

Soviet submarines are built at Severodvinsk on the White Sea, the largest submarine building complex in the world; at Komsomolsk, well up the Amur River near the Pacific coast; at Gorkiy, which is in the center of the U.S.S.R., with ships moving to the open sea via the extensive Soviet inland waterway system; and, at the two-yard United Admiralty complex in Leningrad. It is estimated that these yards have capacities great enough to produce 20 to 25 nuclear submarines a year on a single-shift basis, if priority was given to allocating necessary resources and labor from other sources. The Soviets have been building about 8 to 10 new submarines annually, most nuclear powered, over the last several years.

Principal surface combatants are, for the most part, built in Leningrad and Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, and Nikolayev near the Black Sea where the KIEV class carriers are now being built. A number of other yards are involved in the construction of lesser combatants and other types of naval ships. Most of the shipyards which build warships also build merchant or fishing ships. The construction of all ships, naval or commercial, in the Soviet Union is managed by the Ministry of Shipbuilding.

This ministry is responsible for all yards of significant size; for most research, design, and useful exchange of technologies; and for a coordinated allocation of resources. Each aspect of ship design, construction, and specialized equipment is supported by a specialized research institute. New shipbuilding equipment, from a simple hand tool to a computer-controlled cutting machine, must be approved by the Ministry of Shipbuilding before it is introduced as a standard item. Similarly, techniques initially employed for merchant construction (such as modular assembly of components on a floating platform) subsequently are applied to naval shipbuilding.