The Soviet Navy Today

Our country has built a modern Navy and sent it out into the ocean in order to support our own state interests and to reliably defend us from attack from the vast ocean sector.
Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, S.G. GORSHKOV

The Soviet Navy has dramatically increased at sea operations since the early 1960s with particular emphasis in political-economic crisis areas such as the eastern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. Along with this quantitative increase there has been an increase in warship capabilities. At the same time, US. naval forces and operations have declined considerably.


Today the Soviet Navy maintains ships at sea in a number of areas of the world far distant from the USSR. Descriptions of these ships, their weapons and their crews are found in subsequent sections of this publication.

Long range deployments have increased dramatically since the early 1960s. Until then, Soviet ships remained primarily in coastal areas, adjacent to their major fleet operating bases in the Baltic Sea, Arctic Ocean and Northwest Pacific Ocean. After Admiral Gorshkov’s “go to sea” order of 1963, a dramatic increase in Soviet operations outside of coastal areas began. Figure 2 shows this trend, with US. Navy ship deployments provided for comparison . US. operations decreased dramatically in the early 1970s, partially as a result of the reduction of our active fleet by almost one-half of its peak strength during the Vietnam War (1967—1968).


From the 1960s onward there has been a marked increase in submarine activity involving torpedo and cruise missile attack submarines and strategic missile submarines. The latter has particular significance because of the greatly reduced flight time of 8 to 12 minutes of the SS-N-6 SLBM compared to the 20 to 30-minute flight time of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from the Soviet Union, or the several-hour flight time of manned bombers from the Soviet Union to attack targets in the United States. The Soviet SLBM capability could threaten U.S. bomber bases as well as national command centers, possibly destroying bombers and “pinning down” missiles before they could be launched. (SLBMs currently are considered to lack the accuracy to destroy Minuteman ICBMs in hardened underground silos.) The earliest Soviet strategic-missile submarines, constructed in the late 1950s, posed little threat to the continental United States. These submarines had limited underwater endurance, could only fire missiles while on the surface, and were armed with only two or three SARK (SS-N-4) missiles which had a range of about 350 nautical miles and poor accuracy. (Many of these earlier 883s and SSBNs were later equipped with 700 NM range SS-N-S missiles ). These submarines apparently had major problems. One GOLF class was lost in the North Pacific in 1968 and one HOTEL class SSBN experienced serious engine trouble in the North Atlantic early in 1972. (The HOTEL was towed back to the Soviet Union on the surface.)

The Soviet SLBM situation changed radically in 1967 when they sent their first YANKEE class submarine to sea. This nuclear powered submarine, armed with 16 SS-N-6 missiles having an initial range of 1,300 nautical miles and capable of submerged launch, was more difficult to detect and had a potent strike capability. During 1968, YANKEE class SSBNs began patrols in the Atlantic, periodically coming within range of US. cities. In 1971, YANKEE SSBN patrols began off the Pacific coast. The later DELTA class SSBNs, with a missile range in excess of 4,000 nautical miles, are within

striking distance of New York City or Washington, DC. while still in well protected Soviet home port areas on the Arctic coast. This same situation applies in the Pacific, where DELTA class SSBNs at their base of Petropavlovsk on the Siberian coast are within missile range of western U.S. cities such as Seattle and San Francisco.

Whereas just over a decade ago the Soviets had a relatively small strategic submarine force with a few short-range missiles, today’s Soviet SLBMs provide a significant and increasing percentage of Soviet strategic nuclear strike capability.

The massive SSBN effort, which has produced 66 nuclear powered submarines in ten years, has not detracted from the Soviet attack submarine programs . Several classes of nuclear and diesel submarines armed with torpedos and guided missiles are also under construction. These general purpose submarines now roam the world’s oceans in support of Kremlin policies, ready to challenge an adversary’s control of the sea.

The modernization of the Soviet submarine force, despite a slow reduction of overall numbers of submarines , has resulted in significant increases in submarine operations in many areas of the world compared to 20 years ago. More importantly, the capabilities of the Soviet submarine force increase steadily as new nuclear powered boats join the fleet at the rate of about eight per year.

    The most significant Soviet deployments have been in the crisis-plagued Eastern Mediterranean. Soviet out-of-area ship days in the Mediterranean increased from approximately 4,000 in 1965 to more than 16,500 in 1979. An out-of-area ship day is defined as one in which a navy ship is deployed beyond the normal operating and training areas of home waters. Thus, 16,500 ship days means an average of about 45 ships in the area every day of the year. In the early 1970s the Soviets apparently achieved the general levels of deployments they perceived as adequate for “support of state interest” purposes. Usually, 10 to 15 percent of the Soviet ocean going fleet is operating “out-of-area.” The Kremlin leadership, however, has been quick to increase the number of deployed ships to areas of crisis or elsewhere for other perceived needs. The Soviet Mediterranean fleet normally consists of:
  • 8 to 10 torpedo attack submarines
  • 2 to 3 cruise missile attack submarines
  • 2 to 4 cruisers, some or all armed with guided missiles, and periodically, aviation ships of the MOSKVA or KIEV classes
  • 9 to 12 destroyers and patrol ships, some armed with guided missiles
  • 1 to 3 minesweepers
  • 1 to 3 amphibious ships
  • 15 to 20 auxiliary ships
  • 5 to 6 survey, oceanographic research, and intelligence collection ships

The presence of these ships increases Soviet political and military options in the Mediterranean. For example, shortly after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war began, the Soviets sent ships to the Egyptian harbors of Port Said and Alexandria in an obvious move to deter Israeli attacks against those ports. The air bases in Egypt, used by the Soviets from 1967 until 1972, permitted Soviet land-based naval reconnaissance and ASW aircraft to operate over the eastern Mediterranean without overflying Greece or Turkey. The loss of Egyptian air bases to the Soviets in 1972 unquestionably reduced Soviet military capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean. However, the Soviet naval position in 1972 after loss of the air bases was still far superior to that of a decade earlier.

In addition to the large number of fighter aircraft provided by the Soviets to Middle Eastern countries, BLINDER supersonic bombers have also been delivered to Iraq and Libya.

A large number of missile-armed patrol boats have been delivered by the Soviets to Third World countries in the Mediterranean, as well as diesel torpedo-attack submarines of the FOXTROT class to Libya and WHISKEY and ROMEO classes to EgyptThe Soviets continue to press for base facilities on the Mediterranean littoral. Besides limited base support facilities in use in Tartus, Syria, the Soviet Navy, on a contract basis, utilizes overhaul and repair facilities at shipyards in Yugoslavia, Tunisia and Greece. The naval leadership no doubt desires more permanent arrangements for bases with greater facilities than presently available to them. A prime candidate from the Soviet point of view must be the old French naval base of Mers-el-Kabir in Algeria. The Soviet Mediterranean Squadron (SOVMEDRON ) is maintained and supplied primarily at anchorages in international waters. Although this routine is adequate in peacetime, under wartime conditions such a logistics operation would be most vulnerable.

Although their Navy operates in the Mediterranean under a number of restrictive conditions, the Soviets are constantly striving to eliminate or minimize those restrictions. Access to the gates of the Mediterranean is controlled by powers outside the Soviet sphere of influence: the Suez Canal is controlled by Egypt; the Atlantic egress by Spain and the British bastion at Gibraltar; and the Turkish Straits to the Black Sea by Turkey, a member of NATO. The Turkish Straits are also regulated by an international treaty, the Montreux Convention, which the Soviets probably perceive more as a blessing than a curse. Although Soviet warships must give advance notice and are restricted in the numbers which may pass through per day, navies of countries not washed by Black Sea waters have much greater restrictions placed upon their warships operating in that sea.

From all appearances the Soviets look upon the eastern Mediterranean as “Mare Nostrum, ” and consider those waters critical to their national defense . Because of this they will no doubt continue to

strive for port access and base facilities as well as overflight rights as they work to extend their political influence in the Mediterranean area. They will undoubtedly continue in their attempts to weaken NATO’s southern flank by driving a wedge between the West and the vital Mid-East by flexing naval muscle in this historic cross roads of civilizations and cultures—the Mediterranean Sea.


Soviet naval deployments to the Caribbean began in mid-1969 when a task force consisting of a missile -armed cruiser, two missile-armed destroyers, three attack submarines (one nuclear powered) and three auxiliary ships operated in the Caribbean, making port visits to Cuba.

One year later, another Soviet task force operated in the Caribbean and still others have subsequently steamed in those waters. On past occasions, nuclear powered cruise missile submarines and conventionally powered GOLF class ballistic missile submarines have operated in Cuban waters. On a number of occasions these ships have operated in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana and Texas coasts. Besides showing the flag in the Caribbean, these Soviet warships have participated often in training exercises with Cuban naval units. Through 1979, there had been 20 naval deployments to Cuba, in addition to the stationing of a fleet tug there and regular replenishment visits by intelligence collectors and survey ships. In this regard, the Soviets have shown a varying interest in the naval base at Cienfuegos on the south coast of Cuba. The Cuban Navy is now provided almost entirely with Soviet equipment, including two FOXTROT class submarines.

In April of 1970, a pair of long-range BEAR D naval reconnaissance aircraft flew non-stop from bases in the Murmansk area on Russia’s Arctic coast, down the Norwegian Sea, across the Atlantic , and landed in Cuba. Other reconnaissance aircraft have followed in what have become nearly routine flights, with some of these aircraft subsequently flying reconnaissance missions off the US. Altantic coast. (One of these aircraft was accidently lost off Newfoundland in November 1975.) Because the Soviets can no longer use airfields in Guinea, West Africa, BEAR D deployments to or from Angola now stage through Cuba. By the end of 1979, there had been a total of 50 BEAR D deployments to Cuba; BEAR D aircraft usually deploy in pairs. The periodic presence of USSR. naval ships in the Caribbean demonstrates Soviet support for the Castro government. This presence could inhibit U.S. options in the area inasmuch as their presence inplies support for intervention or revolution in Central American nations.


Over the past two decades the Soviet Navy has regularly exercised in the Norwegian Sea. Their major efforts are concentrated in the spring in contrast to annual NATO naval exercises, usually held in the fall. Most Soviet exercise activity has taken place north of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. In recent years, however, Soviet submarines , surface warships, and aircraft have operated more frequently further south in the Western Approaches to Europe. This is in addition to those units transiting the area for the Mediterranean or Cuba or to the open ocean for ballistic missile patrols.

Besides the aforementioned activity, the Soviets regularly maintain intelligence collection ships (AGI) on patrol off the Western SSBN bases in Scotland, the United States and until its disestablishment in 1979, the base at Rota, Spain. In the South Atlantic, Soviet warships have maintained a nearly continuous patrol off the African west coast since late 1970. The appearance of these ships in the Gulf of Guinea “coincided” with the release by the Accra government of two Soviet fishing craft impounded some months earlier. Further, Soviet warships appeared in the aftermath of a Portugese -supported raid against Conakry, Guinea in November 1970, possible in an effort to deter further attacks.

Starting in the Spring of 1973, pairs of naval BEAR D reconnaissance aircraft made periodic deployments to Conakry, Guinea, from the Soviet Arctic to fly surveillance missions against US. Navy ships in the Central Atlantic.

During the Angolan civil war in 1975—1976, Soviet warships were dispatched to patrol the waters near Angola as an encouragement for the Soviet backed Cuban intervention in support of one of the rebel groups. Simultaneously, Soviet aircraft flew in Cuban troops and supplies while the Soviet merchant marines mounted a massive sealift of war material. Since that time, BEAR D reconnaissance aircraft have occasionally operated out of Luanda, Angola, which allows this aircraft coverage of most of the South Atlantic.

Aside from the small South African Navy, the Soviet West African squadron is the only continuous naval presence in that area of the South Atlantic, astride the vital oil route from the Persian Gulf to Western Europe.

Indian Ocean

Soviet ships regularly operate in the Indian Ocean, generally with a missile-armed cruiser, several destroyers, an amphibious ship, a submarine and a number of support ships. (The Soviet squadron averaged about 20 ships until the crisis of 1979-80 when the average was about 30.) These ships demonstrate support of Soviet interests on the coasts of the three continents washed by the Indian Ocean. This regular deployment, which commenced in 1968, has been the key element in Soviet relations with India and several of the newer countries in the area. The Soviets’ need for port access and base facilities in the Indian Ocean is even greater than that in the Mediterranean Sea. A glance at a globe will show the great transit distance from Soviet Pacific and Black Sea bases (particularly if the Suez Canal is closed) to the Indian Ocean. A look at the southern border of the U.S.S.R. in the Trans-Caucasus area reveals what drives the historical Russian desire to gain direct access to the Indian Ocean, which no doubt contributed to the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in late 1979.

During the 1970s, the Soviets built several naval and air facilities in Somalia in a strategic position to control the Red Sea and access to the Suez Canal. In 1977, after a falling-out with the regime in Somalia, the Soviets were forced out of their bases there. They subsequently resorted to the use of facilities in Aden, South Yemen, and Ethiopia, to support their Indian Ocean Squadron (SOVINDRON). MAY maritime patrol aircraft, operating from Aden, have frequently tracked U.S. naval units in the Arabian Sea. During the recent buildup of forces as a result of the Iran and Afghan crises, the Soviets operated as many as six MAYS from Aden and Ethiopia. The Soviet Indian Ocean squadron also has used port facilities in Iraq in the past, and regularly makes calls to selected ports on the Indian Ocean littoral. Soviet naval ships visit ports in Mozambique , the Seychelles Islands, Mauritius, India, and Sri Lanka.

The Soviets have shown a willingness to expand their naval commitment in the Indian Ocean whenever they believe their interests to be threatened. During the Indian-Pakistan War of 1971; immediately after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973; in support of Ethiopian-Somalia conflict; during the Iranian revolution in early 1979 and the Iranian hostage crisis; and the Afghanistan invasion in late 1979, the Soviets increased the number of warships deployed to the Indian Ocean including cruise missile submarines. This served to counter U.S. carrier forces, which had been sent from the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets as well as to support their “clients.” In the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli and IndianPakistan wars the Soviet Navy provided harbor clearance and minesweeping services to both Bangledesh and Egypt, respectively. They helped in clearing the port of Chittagong and the southern approaches to the Suez Canal. One of the ships involved in the Suez operation was the aviation cruiser LENINGRAD.

Although the Suez Canal is now open, making the area “east of Suez” more accessible to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, the majority of Soviet ships which deploy to the Indian Ocean make the long trip from the Pacific Ocean Fleet. It is on long transits such as these that the Soviets often tow submarines and smaller combatants as one way of reducing “wear and tear” on these ships, extending the time between engine overhauls and conserving fuel.

With the termination of extensive Bangledesh and Egyptian operations in 1974 the number of Soviet naval ships and, therefore, the total number of “ship days” in the Indian Ocean dropped to “normal” numbers. The Soviets now average a force of about 20 ships in the Indian Ocean, the majority of which are naval auxiliaries. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s standing commitment to the Indian Ocean area consists of one amphibious ship converted to a flagship and two or three destroyers or frigates.

U.S. carrier task forces have deployed periodically to the Indian Ocean, but only with considerable difficulty in ship scheduling and logistics. Since late 1979, with the Iran crisis and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, both the U.S. and Soviet naval commitments in the Indian Ocean have, nonetheless, expanded significantly.

Pacific Ocean

In the Pacific, the Soviets initiated long range surface ship operations during the 1950s when relations between Moscow and Peking were amiable. Subsequently, aid to Indonesia and other Soviet interests in the Pacific basin led to expanded Soviet naval operations.

During the fall of 1971 a Soviet force consisting of a guided-missile cruiser, two missile-armed destroyers, three submarines and a tanker crossed the Pacific to the Gulf of Alaska, and then turned south to steam within 25 miles of Diamond Head, Hawaii, before returning to Soviet Pacific coast ports. Soviet Pacific Ocean Fleet ships were used to collect intelligence and as an occasional show of force against US. Seventh Fleet during the Vietnam War. Soviet warships periodically visit many parts of the Pacific where, until a decade ago, Soviet military power was discussed but never seen. As an example , two Soviet missile destroyers and an oiler made a port visit to Vancouver, Canada in 1976. Soviet AGIs are regularly deployed off Guam to monitor the arrivals and departures of US. ballistic missile submarines operating from there. AGIs also operate off the US. West Coast with some regularity . A number of Soviet space support and recovery ships deploy to the North Central Pacific, an area into which the Soviets test fire their long-range ballistic missiles.

Recently the Soviet Navy has been using port facilities and airfields in Vietnam to support expanded deployments in the South China Sea. Soviet naval presence increased in this area during the SinoVietnam War of 1979. This increased presence has been maintained and includes the regular deployment of BEAR D and F aircraft.


An analysis of the Soviet Navy during the past two decades reveals (1) significant diversity and improvement in warship, aircraft, and weapons capabilities ; (2) large increases in at-sea and distant deployment operations; (3) commitments by the Soviets to strive for a Navy “second to none;” and (4) increased awareness by the Soviet leadership of the leverage which accures to a nation with sizeable and strong maritime resources, especially a large, modern navy.

Several comparisons of trends related to the U5. and Soviet navies support these observations. The Soviet Navy is by far the largest in the world today in terms of numbers of ships, primarily because of the large numbers of submarines, small combatants, mine warfare ships, and auxilaries in its inventory. While the preceding is an important point, estimating the relative capabilities of navies is not just a matter of comparing force levels, or matching distant deployments and exercises. All of these are factors in estimating the naval balance, but just as important are weapons, sensors, communications , and personnel, as well as trends in doctrine , development, procurement, and national will and commitment. In assessing the relative merits of navies, the prime point is which navy can best accomplish its mission under the real or potential threat of its adversaries.

Although the total numerical inventory is slowly declining, for the foreseeable future the Soviet Navy is expected to continue to have the world’s largest number of warships.

It cannot be ignored that as a result of the Soviet leadership’s determined policy to expand all facets of the sea power equation, the Soviet Navy is continuing to expand its recently acquired “blue water” capabilities. Indications are those efforts will not diminish over the next few years.

Figures 3 and 4 depict the comparisons of the numbers and tonnages between the various ship categories in the Soviet Navy and the U.S. Navy. It should be noted that the U.S. Navy greatly exceeds the Soviet Fleet in aircraft carriers; and although the Soviet Navy has more amphibious ships, the U.S. Navy amphibious lift capability is much greater. Figure 4 demonstrates that if one subtracts the U.S. Navy’s 13 aircraft carriers, the Soviet Navy has a greater tonnage. Thus, the U.S. Navy’s tonnage advantage and most capable conventional strike capabilities are in a fewer number of ships. However, the Soviets have numerical and tonnage leadership in several important categories.

Surface Combatant

The number of Soviet principal surface combatants (frigates and larger) is greater than that of the U.S. Navy, although more than 100 of the Soviet ships are frigates which are significantly smaller than their U.S. counterparts.

The principal surface combatants which the Soviets are building today have greater range, firepower , and electronics capabilities than in the past.

The modern ships of the Soviet Navy are among the fastest and most heavily armed in the world. They are of innovative modern design, graceful yet purposeful in appearance, and have contributed greatly to elevating the prestige and power of the Soviet Union among the world’s nations.

Present building programs include about 12 hulls under construction in four new classes of large warships (including a 22,000-ton nuclear powered cruiser) and the continued construction of KIEV class carriers and several frigate classes.

The Soviet Navy has led the world in the use of cruise-missiles in naval warfare. Since the installation of the SS-N-1 cruise missile on the KILDEN and KRUPNYY classes of destroyers in the late 1950s, the Soviets have extensively developed and deployed this type of weapon. Today the Soviet Navy has over 20 cruisers, carriers, and destroyers; about 65 submarines; and 300 land-based aircraft armed with antiship cruise missiles. The first major U.S. weapon of this type, the HARPOON, entered service in 1977 (nearly 20 years after introduction of missiles to the Soviet Navy). The U.S. Navy had not emphasized the development of the cruise missile as an antiship weapon because of greater capabilities inherent in carrier aircraft. However, as the number of our aircraft carriers was reduced, the development of the HARPOON and TOMAHAWK cruise missiles was undertaken by the U.S. Navy. An ambitious HARPOON installation plan for aircraft, submarines and surface combatants will greatly

reduce the Soviet cruise missile advantage. Although the U.S. Navy may close the gap in numbers of cruise missile systems and sophistication of guidance systems, the Soviets will, in some of their systems , retain an advantage in range and warhead size. Critics often tend to write off the threat from the Soviet’s smaller combatants (those less than 1,000 tons). For the most part they operate close to the Soviet coasts; however, the Soviets continue to pay attention to their coastal forces for obvious reasons . The Soviet Union is surrounded by a number of strong coastal navies which are viewed as threats. This situation exists to varying degrees in all four fleet areas, but it is greatest in the Baltic. Thus, the Soviets maintain the world’s largest small combatant force (many units of which are missile armed) and the largest mine warfare force as a means of controlling their coastal seas. Periodically these coastal forces operate in the regional sea such as the Norwegian and Mediterranean, where they can directly threaten US. naval forces.

The Soviets have developed several new types of small combatants with emphasis on hydrofoil design , missile armament and gas-turbine power.


The Soviets have led the world in production of submarines in the post-World War II period. Since the end of the war, Soviet shipyards have built over 600 submarines (compared to about 140 for the United States). Of particular significance has been the Soviet emphasis on nuclear-power submarines. The Soviet Union has completed more and larger nuclear powered submarines than the United States. The Soviet Union maintains a large submarine construction capacity which they have expanded significantly in the past decade. Submarine production is currently being used at less than 50 percent of its estimated capacity. Submarines are produced in five building yards in the U.S.S.R., while presently only two US. yards are constructing submarines. The Hugh shipbuilding complex at Severodvinsk on the White Sea may well have a greater nuclear submarine building capacity than that of the United States, Great Britain and France combined.

Over the last several years the Soviets have built about 10 new submarines a year, most of them nuclear powered. By contrast, the US. has built an average of three nuclear powered submarines per year. It is anticipated that the Soviets will continue to build submarines at near the present rate. New units of the TYPHOON, OSCAR, ALFA, VICTOR and TANGO classes will probably be included in this future production.

The Soviets have built diesel and nuclear powered submarines which can launch cruise missiles. The U.S. Navy is just beginning to deploy the HARPOON missile in submarines, and is developing a submarine-launched TOMAHAWK. The Soviets have also developed a weapon similar to the U.S. Navy’s SUBROC, an underwater-launched missile which flies a relatively short distance and carries an anti submarine torpedo or nuclear depth charge. The Soviet Navy continues to build diesel submarines to fill what Admiral Gorshkov says is a continuing need, both the TANGO class, a modern attack submarine for fleet use, and the ubiquitous FOXTROT class, the latter for foreign sales. Diesel powered auxiliary submarines are also being built probably for rescue and research work.

The Soviet submarine force remains as the dominant branch of the Soviet Navy. Although the total number of submarines has been slowly decreasing as older diesel craft are retired, the numbers of nuclear powered and missile-armed submarines continues to increase. In comparison with U.S. submarines , it is estimated the Soviets still lag in antisubmarine sensor and weapon capabilities as well as submarine quieting techniques.


Soviet Naval Aviation has taken two significant steps in the last several years: the introduction of a sea-based, fixed-wing capability on the aircraft carrier KIEV and the introduction of the swing-wing, supersonic, missile-armed BACKFIRE bomber. The Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) FOR

GER aircraft can operate from the KIEV class carriers . Although of limited capabilities, the FORGER nevertheless gives a new dimension to the Soviet Navy. It is the embryo of what the Soviets have always lacked, the ability to provide air cover and air striking power as an indigenous part of a fleet operating in distant waters.

Soviet naval leaders stopped “bad-mouthing” aircraft carriers a number of years ago and now openly advocate carriers larger than the KIEV class. There is considerable evidence that the Soviets will introduce a larger carrier class sometime in the late 1980s. It appears logical that such a large carrier would probably be nuclear powered and operate conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft. It is significant that supersonic BACKFIRE bombers are being supplied to the Navy in about the same numbers as they are to the Soviet Air Forces’ Long Range Aviation. The antiship mission of Soviet Naval Aviation remains a high priority.

The airborne ASW components of the Soviet Navy consist of HORMONE, HAZE, and HOUND helicopters, and MAIL, MAY and BEAR F fixedwing aircraft. Over the last decade the Soviets have undertaken considerable research and development on ekronoplanes or “Wing-In-Ground” (WIG) effect vehicles. Some of this effort has been directed toward naval applications. Speculation is that the Soviets could be developing an anti submarine or transport type WIG.

Soviet Exercises

Coupled with the increase in ship numbers and capabilities, there has been a related increase in atsea operations, as discussed previously. As Soviet warships have gone farther from their home ports and spent more time on the high seas, they have also increased the complexity of their naval exercises. To date the largest of these were two OCEAN (Russian for ocean) exercises conducted in the spring of 1970 and again in 1975.

These were the two largest Soviet peacetime naval exercises in history, with warships simultaneously conducting maneuvers in Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian, and Pacific Ocean areas. Over 200 submarines , surface combatants, and support ships participated in OKEAN 70, and about 120 ships in OKEAN 75. The maneuvers included anti submarine, anticarrier , sea lines interdiction, convoy escort and amphibious landing operations. Land-based naval aircraft, as well as planes from the Soviet Air Defense Forces and Long-Range Aviation, participated in the maneuvers.

It appeared that these exercises were coordinated from Soviet Naval Headquarters in Moscow. From Soviet writings it is evident that a major aim of the exercises was to test the Soviet ocean surveillance system and the overall command, control, and communications (C3) systems in world-wide scenarios. These two large exercises clearly demonstrated the scope and range of Soviet naval capabilities.

The Soviet Navy exercises routinely in antisubmarine , anticarrier, and amphibious warfare in home operating waters and when on distant deployments. For example, in the spring of 1977 the Northern and Baltic Fleets jointly conducted a large-scale exercise in the Norwegian, Barents and Baltic Seas. Also, the Soviets conducted ASW exercises in the Gulf of Mexico with Cuban forces and combined missile attack and amphibious exercises in the Baltic with the East German and Polish navies.

In a report to Congress in 1979, the U.S. Navy’s Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral Sumner Shapiro, summed up the trends we expect in the future Soviet Navy as follows:

Continuing construction of larger, more versatile ships with increased capabilities. Replacement of older ships with modern missile warships with increased emphasis on electronics . SSBN force improvement through acquisition of longer ranged, more sophisticated weapons. Increased capability of general purpose submarine forces to operate in open ocean areas. Improvements in sea-based aviation (VTOL and helicopters) capabilities for antisubmarine, antisurface, and antiair warfare from seaborne platforms.

Replacement of land-based older bomber aircraft with newer, more sophisticated, cruise missile-equipped BA CKFIRE aircraft. The continuing improvement in amphibious assault lift capability.


As has already been noted, the Soviet Navy is not “ten feet” tall. The third edition of this book noted the Soviets were “five feet ten inches and growing,” probably they should be characterized today as “six feet tall and growing.” But the Soviet Navy does have significant problems because of its limitations. It must be noted that over the years the trends show the Soviets attempting to alleviate their problems where they can by overcoming or minimizing their limitations. It is this trend that must concern the West, for as the Soviets expand their naval options and capabilities, the Western navies’ options are reduced.

Rear Admiral Shapiro, during his congressional report, also noted several Soviet naval weaknesses. Included is a limited capability to conduct open ocean ASW and underway replenishment capability; inadequate sea-based tactical air forces; and geographical constraints which inhibit access to the open ocean.

The Soviets are seeking to improve their openocean ASW capability by a variety of methods. This includes extensive efforts in basic research and development in several detection fields, and a sizeable allocation of resources to ASW weapons procurement . Most modern Soviet surface combatants, a significant segment of the submarines force, and many of the combat aircraft of their navy are dedicated primarily to hunting Western submarines. Fortunately, their capability to find them does not appear to be improving much.

Sea-based air power will increase significantly in the next few years as additional KIEV class ships with their FORGER VTOL aircraft join the fleet augmented by more BACKFIRE strike aircraft. The current lack of shipboard fighter aircraft is partially offset by the extensive use of medium and shortrange surface-to-air missiles and a variety of guns for close-in defense against aircraft and missiles. The defensive limitations of Soviet strike and reconnaissance aircraft can be mitigated somewhat by overseas basing, such as has been done periodically by Soviet naval aircraft flying from Cuba, Vietnam, Guinea, Iraq, Angola, Somalia and, until 1972, Egypt. Of course, as the Soviet Navy deploys more fighter aircraft to sea, the successful defense of formations of naval strike aircraft is more likely. Lastly, the BACKFIRE bomber has supersonic dash speed, greater range, and better low-altitude performance than its predecessor, the BADGER.

The Soviet Navy has no insurmountable problems replenishing and maintaining its distant deployed fleets during peacetime in that the Soviet Navy employs tenders and oilers in anchorages in international waters as its prime means of logistic support. Many of the oilers operate under the flag of the Soviet Merchant Marine. Although the Soviets have improved their alongside underway replenishment of liquids in recent years, their ability to transfer ammunition and other solids in the same manner is still lacking.

Additionally, shore-based logistic and repair facilities are used to varying degrees in foreign ports where the Soviets have managed to gain some degree of access. Countries which provide such facilities include Syria, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Tunisia, Guinea, Angola, South Yemen, Greece, Singapore, Ethiopia and Vietnam.

During a war such port facilities might be denied or become inaccessible, and the anchorages would be vulnerable. The underway replenishment of fuels, ammunition, consumables, and repair parts would then be required to sustain warships at great distances from their home ports in prolonged periods of conflict. The Soviet Navy has been slow in developing underway replenishment capabilities and techniques ; it has almost exclusively concentrated on refueling . The movement of solid stores between ships underway, and helicopter delivery techniques, have not been practiced to a great extent although the Soviets are quite adept at these movements in anchorages. During the last ten years the Soviets have introduced the BORIS CHILIKIN class of combination oiler-stores ship, and now have some six of these sophisticated underway replenishment ships in operation. Further, a number of Soviet naval and merchant oilers can provide alongside underway refueling as well as the slower astern method traditionally used by the Soviet Navy. Several smaller types of underway replenishment ships have been built for the Navy.

To meet the demands for a greater variety of fuels, ammunition, and provisions imposed by the introduction of aircraft carriers, the Soviets built a larger, multipurpose replenishment ship which carries two helicopters for vertical replenishment and is similar to the US. Navy’s AOR design. This ship, the 40,000 ton BEREZINA, joined the fleet in 1978.

Through the centuries, Russia has been burdened with poor physical conformation of her coasts and geographic positions with respect to access to the open oceans. Today the Soviets have lessened some of these geographic limitations. For example, the scarcity of all-weather ports has been partially overcome with extensive use of icebreakers, and northern shipyards and bases have covered building ways and floating dry docks.

In the late 1950s, the significant ocean-going ships and submarines which the Soviets would use in the Atlantic were moved from the restricted waters of the Baltic to the Northern Fleet. Although the latter fleet had to contend with the rigorous Arctic climate, and had a much greater distance to travel to gain access to the North Atlantic, that access was a relatively open seaway not restricted by straits which could be easily controlled by the West. The Baltic Fleet today consists principally of a large number of smaller warships, diesel submarines, minesweepers, and amphibious ships. It is a fleet which, along with those of the East German and Polish Navies, is designed to control the Baltic and to provide support to the ground forces operating along the Baltic coasts. Under this arrangement the geographic constraint of the Danish Straits becomes less critical to the Soviets.

Similarly, the Black Sea Fleet’s ability to go to sea through the NATO controlled Turkish Straits and Aegean Sea is a lesser problem because a num

ber of that fleet’s ships normally are deployed in the Mediterranean. However, resupply from the Black Sea would be a problem in time of conflict. The Soviet Pacific Ocean Fleet has been expanded in recent years and is now second only to the Northern Fleet in capabilities. To overcome the traditional restrictions on this fleet imposed by the Japanese Straits, the Soviets have developed a large naval complex at Petropavlovsk, on the sparsely populated Kamchatka Peninsula, which provides direct access to the Pacific Ocean. It is here that the bulk of the operational submarine force is based. But this area is at the end of a long and vulnerable supply line.

Lastly, it should be noted that where geographic conformation restricts Soviet access to the open oceans, these restrictions conversely assist the Soviets in defending those waters against Western maritime threats.

Another criticism leveled at the Soviet Navy is that it is a “one-shot” fleet, optimized for strong initial striking power with relatively limited offensive weapon reloads, namely, cruise missiles. This lack of endurance reflects Admiral Gorshkov’s “battle of the first salvo” philosophy. This could be considered a limitation, but at the same time it permits the Soviet Navy to be optimized for a specific war situation. However, Soviet ships have a significant reload capability in torpedoes, guns, and surface-to-air missiles that is generally comparable to U.S. ships. Lastly, several of the new classes of warships and submarines have overcome this “shortcoming” by having an increased cruise missile load of 20 or more.


The statement has been made that the Soviets are achieving a political and psychological impact with their maritime forces far out of proportion to their size and potential. This is believed due to often exaggerated descriptions of Soviet naval power published in the West.

Not surprisingly, the same adjective-filled descriptions are trumpeted by the Soviet press and, probably of more significance, by the press of nonaligned or “third world” nations. In the same respect that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so is power in the eye of the beholder. In this situation the “beholder” is, to a large extent, the world that is using the seas more than ever before in history for political, resource, trade, and military purposes.

Soviet leaders—especially Admiral Gorshkov— unabashedly boast of the scope, range, influence, and power of Soviet naval forces. Admiral Gorshkov’s recent book, Sea Power of the State, has been widely distributed throughout the world as well as in the Soviet Union. Their navy is very much in the thoughts and words of the Soviet leadership. Whereas, as noted earlier, in the late 1950s Premier Nikita Khrushchev declared the obsolescence of big-ship surface fleets and cited cruisers as being useful only to carry admirals, the current Soviet leadership obviously has a different view of naval forces.

The regular visits of Soviet Party and State leaders as well as foreign officials to warships of the Soviet Navy demonstrate their endorsement of these ships and their operations. For example, commenting on the OKEAN exercise of 1970, the Soviet Minister of Defense at the time, the late Marshal of the Soviet Union A.A. Grechko, declared that the Navy “had grown up, strengthened, and is capable of reliably defending our state interests on the wide reaches of the world’s oceans.” And L.I. Brezhnev, the First Secretary of the Communist Part, has observed the reaction of the United States to Soviet naval efforts. He has explained the ability of the Soviet Navy to limit Western freedom of action by pointing to American reaction in this manner:

The propaganda machine of the USA has launched a whole campaign concerning the Soviet Navy. Washington, you see, perceives a threat in the fact that our vessels appear in the Mediterranean, in the Indian Ocean, and in other seas. But at the same time their Sixth Fleet is constantly in the Mediterranean—at the side, as it were, of the Soviet Union, and the Seventh Fleet—off the shores of China and Indochina.

As Soviet naval forces deploy farther on the high seas they also are visiting more foreign ports. Admiral Gorshkov stated in the early 1970s that in the previous three-year period:

... some 1,000 combatants and auxiliary ships have visited the ports of 60 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. More than 100,000 of our officers and rated and non-rated men have visited the shores of foreign states.

What a contrast to 20 years or earlier when Soviet naval visits outside the Communist sphere did not average one per year.

As an indication that such an activity continues to increase, another Soviet admiral noted that in 1975 alone, the Navy had visited 82 ports in over 50 countries, and that some 80,000 Soviet officers and sailors had strolled on foreign shores. Soviet sailors do not fill the local museums, restaurants , and bars as do American sailors, nor do they have significant funds. But, the Red sailors do go ashore, and their warships, modern and well kept, do ride at anchor in an increasing number of harbors. Their ships often carry bands and dance teams on these visits, and the local officials, and sometimes the public, are invited to tour the ships. With this widespread, visible presence of the Soviet Navy in many areas of the world, and its threat of interposition as a shield to a client state or revolutionary movement (such as happened during the Angolan civil war and the Ethiopian-Somalia War), Western nations have had their peacetime political options greatly reduced. As French writer Michel Tatu observed:

Landings of the type carried out by the United States in Lebanon in 1958 and in the Dominican Republic in 1965 would be more hazardous, if not entirely out of the question , today. On the other hand, a landing by Soviet “marines” to support some “progressive” regime or to help some minority faction in a power struggle is no longer inconceivable.

As a means to achieve better understanding between the two superpower navies and their personnel , the US. Navy and Soviet Navy exchanged port visits in 1975. The United States sent a cruiser and destroyer to Leningrad and the Soviets sent two destroyers to Boston. Both visits were generously welcomed by their respective hosts, and large, enthusiastic crowds toured the visiting ships in both countries. Also, during the 1976 Operation Sail and International Naval Review of the United States’ Bicentennial Independence Day Celebration, the largest sailing ship present was the beautiful squarerigged KRUZENSHTERN, a Soviet merchant marine training ship. Over the last several years naval protocol visits also have been exchanged between the Soviets and Britain, Canada, Sweden and France, as well as a number of other nations.

Thus, the Soviets are impressively visible, especially to those who need to use the sea for political, economic, and military purposes. The perceptions of Soviet naval and maritime prestige held by other nations have become a major factor in international relations.

In summary, Americans must keep a perspective when discussing the development, capabilities, and intentions of the Soviet Navy. We must be cautious of overstating, but, even more important, we must guard against understating the threat posed by the Soviet Navy both as a peacetime organization and a fighting force.