During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy evolved from little more than a coastal protection force to a robust rival to the West’s powerful maritime forces. The Red Navy at the end of World War II was small and technologically obsolete. Consequently, the Soviet government built a stronger naval arm to challenge the West’s dominance of the seas. When Nikita Khrushchev became the Soviet premier and Admiral Sergey Gorshkov became admiral of the fleet, the Soviet Union laid plans for a powerful Red Navy. The Soviets’ inability to challenge the U.S. Navy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis marked a crucial turning point for the Soviet Navy. Because it lacked the capability to challenge the U.S. Navy around Cuba, the Soviets set upon building a navy to vie for control of the seas. By the 1980s, the Soviet Navy was numerically larger than the U.S. Navy but still lagged behind in terms of technology. However, the Soviet Navy—a victim of Gorshkov’s 1985 retirement and of economic strain—was one of the first Soviet institutions to foreshadow the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Navy was primarily a coastal defense force at the end of World War II. But Soviet leader Josef Stalin feared a large-scale amphibious invasion by the West and wanted the Soviet Red Navy to deter such a threat. Stalin also wanted a large blue-water navy as yet another tool in the Soviet military and diplomatic arsenals. Economic constraints, however, prevented him from building such a fleet. The Soviet naval program was put on hold until the economy recovered sufficiently from World War II.
Shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet government created a separate Naval Ministry. When Khrushchev assumed control, he reviewed all Soviet military capabilities with respect to the West. In the process, he emphasized nuclear weapons above other military capabilities and, in January 1956, appointed Admiral Gorshkov as head of the navy. Gorshkov’s goal was to create an oceangoing nuclear fleet. Thus, the navy introduced both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons into its forces, representing a marked change in the Soviet Navy’s mission. Gorshkov not only had to pioneer a new Soviet maritime strategy but also had to deal with ice, choke points, and long distances. To these ends, he oversaw the building of a huge icebreaker fleet, the resupply of ships, and the establishment of overseas ports.
A key to the Soviet Navy’s future was the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Its operational history began in 1955 when the Soviets launched their first ballistic missile from a submarine. Then, in 1957, the Soviets constructed their first nuclear-powered submarine. This combination of SLBMs and nuclear-powered submarines provided a linchpin of Soviet defense.
In October 1962 one of the seminal events of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, showcased the Soviet Navy’s vulnerabilities, as it was unable to challenge the U.S. Navy’s quarantine of Cuba. Moscow deployed several attack submarines to the area but was unable to seriously confront the American naval quarantine. The showdown embarrassed the Soviet Union in many ways, but the impotence of the Soviet Navy proved especially humiliating. Khrushchev vowed to make improvements to remedy Soviet naval deficiencies and to transform the Soviet Navy into the world’s most powerful oceangoing force. Gorshkov received the support he needed in the form of a massive Soviet naval-building program.
Soviet SLBMs, like those of the Americans, came to the fore during the 1960s. Soviet SLBM submarines could survive an enemy first strike and thus posed a credible and effective deterrent. This force grew considerably and was a key component of Soviet defenses until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviet submarine fleet grew from two submarines in 1967 to sixty-one in 1986, compared to the U.S. Navy’s thirty-eight. However, the United States retained superiority in the overall number of SLBM warheads because its missiles carried more warheads than those of the Soviets. The Soviets also employed nuclear-powered submarines armed with antiship cruise missiles. These cruise missile subs, coupled with the Soviet Navy’s surface vessels and numerous fixed-wing aircraft, provided a deadly threat to the navies of the West, especially near the Soviet mainland.
The expansion of the Soviet Navy extended beyond submarines. Numerically, the navy grew to be the largest in the world, although its vessels were smaller and less advanced than those of its major foes. At its peak, the Soviet Navy had the capability to operate on and under every ocean during a modern war. The navy also expanded its land-based aircraft fleet’s size and capabilities. As the Soviet buildup continued, the two superpowers’ navies played a stressful and dangerous game of cat-and-mouse on the high seas. These confrontations included the ubiquitous presence of Soviet fishing trawlers, which were conducting electronic intelligence operations against the technologically superior U.S. Navy.
In 1972 the Soviets began a long-term program to build large nuclear-powered cruisers. These included hybrid aviation cruisers of various types as well as battle cruisers. The aviation cruisers consisted of the two-ship Moskva class that had a cruiser bow and carrier stern and the four-ship Kiev class with a cruiser-like bow and a full angled flight deck. Both classes were capably armed with their own array of surface weapons systems as well as supporting helicopters and VTOL jet aircraft. The battle cruisers, three of which were commissioned before 1991, consisted of the more modern nuclear-powered Kirov class, which had great staying power and long range. The Soviet Union’s first true aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov (ex-Tbilisi ) joined the fleet in January 1991.
After Gorshkov’s retirement in 1985, the Soviet Navy began to steadily decline. Its vessels spent more and more time in port between patrols, and they also required more unscheduled maintenance because of lax general maintenance due to poor operational funding. These problems grew increasingly worse until the collapse of the Soviet Union, by which time the Soviet Navy had become a mere shadow of its former self.
References: Jordan, John. Soviet Warships: 1945 to the Present. New York: Arms and Armour, 1992. Morris, Eric. The Russian Navy: Myth and Reality. New York: Stein and Day, 1977. Polmar, Norman. Guide to the Soviet Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986. Raft, Bryan, and Geoffrey Till. The Sea in Soviet Strategy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.