Question: Just How Strong Was the Soviet Navy?By James R. Holmes
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.