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Why China Is Trying to Learn From the Old Soviet Navy

Lyle J. Goldstein

Chinese Navy, Asia

Chinese Navy

Moscow and Beijing was once again developing close ties and China is trying to learn from the Soviet’s successes and mistakes.

Key point: Beijing wants to build a first-class navy and is well on its way towards doing so. Here is how it is studying the Soviet navy and seeing what lessons it can glean.

Russia is back in vogue among Chinese strategists, at least for now.  Undoubtedly, this excitement is partly the result of recent geopolitical developments in Eastern Europe, but the trend was also evident before the Ukraine Crisis.  Whereas discussions of direct historical links between Chinese and Soviet strategy had been a somewhat taboo subject for decades, these discussions are now becoming ever more common.   A recent Chinese book published by the Chinese military, for example, describes in extreme detail the critical Soviet aid given to the establishment of China’s naval air force back in the early 1950s. However, these discussions go well beyond history to draw major overarching lessons for future Chinese naval development, including “缓解…本土战略压力 [relieving strategic pressure against the … homeland].”

This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.

One late 2014 study from the November issue of 东北亚论坛  [Northeast Asia Forum] relates how the Soviet Navy, by the time of the late Cold War, possessed no fewer than 1,880 ships, including 361 submarines. With a  “远洋进攻性” [far seas offensive type] doctrine of naval power, “… the Soviet Navy had become a significant strategic factor.”  This edition of Dragon Eye will evaluate that particular article, which was the result of a multi-year project supported explicitly by the Chinese military. Its authors, moreover, are both affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing.  Some American China specialists evidently regard this Chinese-language academic journal as not worthwhile to examine, but I respectfully disagree.

These Chinese military analysts dwell on the historical origins of the Soviet Red Navy, in part, no doubt because the history parallels quite closely to the humble beginning of the PLA Navy.  In both cases, the imperatives of revolution, civil war, and regime consolidation clearly superseded any notion of sea power, so that “the sea was abandoned.”  Undoubtedly, the first naval tasks evolved out of the immediate need for coastal defense within the overarching concept of “小海军” [small navy], focusing on submarines, fast boats, mines, coastal artillery and shore-based aviation.  To be sure, the Chinese analysts note that such a strategy had the obvious defects of “extinguishing the most potent offensive capability that navies provide,” and also making “the navy effectively into a subordinate arm of the ground forces.”  A somewhat curious omission in the Chinese analysis is any discussion of the Red Navy’s combat record in the Second World War.

As expected, the bulk of the essay concerns the tense Cold War on and under the world’s oceans.  In a description with a discernible echo of contemporary tensions in the Asia-Pacific, the authors observe that: “The Soviet Union confronted the U.S. creation of a 围堵进攻态势 [offensive encirclement strategic situation] along the Eurasian rimland.”  Such a circumstance created the imperatives for a Soviet Navy that could both “break through the blockade,” as well as develop “favorable strategic situations.” Nikita Khrushchev’s blatantly anti-naval perspective, holding that warships were nothing but “floating coffins” in the nuclear age, comes in for stinging criticism.  The Chinese analysts conclude:  “As a result of the neglect of naval forces, the Soviet Union in the Cuba Crisis did not have any significant surface force that could be deployed …” and had to rely on a small force of conventional submarines.  Demonstrating an impressive awareness regarding the latest historical accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the authors explain that the Soviet submarine captains seriously considered the resort to employing tactical nuclear weapons (nuclear-tipped torpedoes were on board).  Directly quoting the Russian officers from another Chinese source on the crisis, the grave situation is described as follows:  “We will die, but we would sink the enemy’s entire squadron. We will not cause our navy to 丢脸 [lose face].”  The Chinese analysts go on to describe the massive Soviet naval buildup that followed inspired largely by the humiliation of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Under the guiding hand of Navy Chief Sergei Gorshkov, the Soviet naval expansion that began in the mid-1960s is described as “庞大” [colossal].  It is reported in this Chinese military analysis that over the period of 1967-1977, Soviet naval expenditures exceeded spending on the U.S. Navy by 50 percent and that its share of the Soviet defense budget doubled to 30 percent.  The Chinese authors conclude,  “… the Soviet Union had obviously surpassed the United States …” in all categories of warships, with the notable exception of aircraft carriers.  Assessing the impact of Moscow’s new “far seas offensive type” capability, the authors write:  “With a relatively new fleet of ships, a high level of mobility, impressive assault capabilities, a relatively well integrated structure among different types of forces, and a high tempo of exercises, [this force] 彻底改变 [thoroughly transformed] the earlier balance of power…” that was evident in the Cuba Crisis of 1962.  “As a result of the USSR’s determination, the Soviet Union achieved a multi-dimensional balance with respect to the U.S., and not just in the dimension of nuclear weapons, but also in conventional forces.”  

As the Chinese authors explain, Admiral Gorshkov promulgated a theory of the 平衡海军 [balanced fleet] for the Soviet Navy, but simultaneously recognized the necessity to pursue 优先发展 [priority development] that favored undersea forces, and especially the strategic nuclear-missile firing submarines (SSBNs).  It is observed that in 1985, the Soviet Navy possessed 76 SSBNs, 67 cruise missile firing submarines (SSGNs), and 218 attack submarines, of which 73 were nuclear attack submarines (SSNs).  The discussion of the apex of Russian sea power concludes with a rather detailed rendering of the enlarged scope of fleet operations, including the significant scale “Okean” exercises undertaken in the mid-1970s.  As described by these Chinese military analysts, the exercises involved approximately one third to one fourth of the Soviet Navy’s fleet strength, practicing “anti-submarine warfare, anti-carrier warfare, [and] blockade tactics …,” and “… demonstrating the Soviet Navy’s … capabilities for undertaking … strategic nuclear attacks, eliminating enemy naval forces, [and] cutting enemy sea lines of communication …”

Besides describing the evolution and development of Soviet naval power during the Cold War, the article by these Chinese military strategists also reviews at considerable length the complex factors that precipitated the rapid decline of Soviet sea power.  Five major reasons are identified by these Chinese military analysts:  1) the USSR’s unfavorable geography with respect to sea power; 2) the related paucity of a maritime commercial basis in trade, etc.; 3) the competition for global hegemony with the U.S. that impelled Moscow toward “扩张过渡” [expansion to an excessive degree]; 4) the failure to put Soviet maritime strategy on a “scientific foundation” that was in harmony with the Soviet economy and broader society; and finally 5) the failure to support the genuine economic and social interests of various partners in the Third World, “seriously wounding the Soviet Union’s international image…”

Given the appraisal above, it is not surprising that these military analysts are more bullish on the prospects for Chinese sea power development.  But there are some rather encouraging aspects to this analysis as well, speaking from an American perspective. These include the caution that Chinese naval development must be appropriate to China’s national power and not hinder its development.  At the very end of the article, the authors do indeed directly connect the all-out Soviet naval expansion of the later Cold War, and the commensurate enormous investment of Russian national resources, to the demise of the USSR.  The authors also state emphatically in the conclusion that “ … in confronting the U.S. restriction [on Chinese] sea power, an exclusive focus on a military response would be unwise.”    

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.    

Editor’s Note: The following is part six of a new occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. Part one of the series, “What Does China Really Think About the Ukraine Crisis?” can be found here. Part two of the series, “The World’s Most Dangerous Rivalry: China and Japan,” can be found here. Part three of the series, “How China Sees America’s Moves in Asia: Worse than Containment,” can be found here. Part four of the series, “The Dragon and the Atom: How China Sees Iran and the Nuclear Negotiations,” can be found here. Part five of the series, “The Ghost That Haunts the Chinese Navy: When China and Japan Went to War,” can be found here.

This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.





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