Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Brezhnev Era Soviet Navy

Khrushchev was succeeded by Leonid Il’ich Brezhnev, whose revolutionary commitments were weak but whose political skills were strong. He was committed to maintaining internal stability by ensuring that key interest groups were happy. In the military’s case, that meant immense financial and material resources and a free hand in running its affairs. While Khrushchev had controlled military spending by building nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional weapons, Brezhnev instead offered the military everything it might want. Under two defense ministers, Andrei Antonovich Grechko (1967–1976) and then the industrial manager Dmitrii Fyodorovich Ustinov (1976–1984), the Soviet military did very well. Avoiding hard choices about budgets and priorities avoided conflict, but put an increasingly unsustainable burden on the Soviet economy.

The prime beneficiary of this was the Soviet navy, which finally won the resources it had been denied for essentially the lifetime of the Soviet Union. During the interwar period, the Soviet Union could not afford a navy, and its key geostrategic goals required only the ability to defend its coastlines, not project power by sea. Despite a brief flirtation by Stalin with the idea of a capital ship navy in the mid-1930s, the Soviet Union had never been a naval power. Under Khrushchev, however, the Soviet Union began to act as a world power. This new policy of active engagement in the developing world was not matched, however, by a navy capable of delivering power projection. Only after Khrushchev’s 1964 ouster, in the free-spending atmosphere of the Brezhnev era, was Gorshkov able to build a navy of the size and power he desired. Even then, the Soviet Union never matched the American navy. Its ballistic missile submarine fleet was, for example, far less important to its nuclear forces than the American fleet was, and it never possessed a vessel equivalent to an American attack carrier. The Soviets did develop the Moskva class helicopter carrier for antisubmarine warfare in the early 1960s. At the beginning of the 1970s, the larger Kiev class followed, capable of carrying vertical takeoff aircraft in addition to helicopters. Only a handful were built, and neither compared in size or striking power to American carriers.

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