Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Soviet Period Military Experience.

The Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, seized power in November 1917. It immediately began peace negotiations with the Central Powers and took control of the armed forces. Once peace was concluded in March 1918 by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the demobilization of the old Russian imperial army began.

Adhering to Marxist doctrine, which viewed standing armies as tools of state and class oppression, the Bolsheviks did not plan to replace the imperial army and intended instead to rely on a citizens’ militia of class-conscious workers for defense. The emergence of widespread opposition to the Bolshevik seizure of power convinced Lenin of the need for a regular army after all, and he ordered Trotsky to create a Red Army, the birthday of which was recognized as February 23, 1918. As the number of workers willing to serve on a voluntary basis proved to be insufficient for the needs of the time, conscription of workers and peasants was soon introduced. By 1921 the Red Army had swelled to nearly five million men and women; the majority, however, were engaged full-time in food requisitioning and other economic activities designed to keep the army fed and equipped as Russia’s beleaguered economy began to collapse. Because they lacked trained leadership to fight the civil war that erupted in the spring of 1918, the Bolsheviks recruited and impressed former officers of the old army and assigned political commissars to validate their orders and maintain political reliability of the units.

The civil war raged until 1922, when the last elements of anticommunist resistance were wiped out in Siberia. In the meantime Poland attacked Soviet Russia in April 1920 in a bid to establish its borders deep in western Ukraine. The Soviet counteroffensive took the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw before it was repelled and pushed back into Ukraine in August. The Red Army forces combating the Poles virtually disintegrated during their retreat, and the Cossacks of the elite First Cavalry Army, led by Josef Stalin’s cronies Kliment Voroshilov and Semen Budenny, staged a bloody anti-Bolshevik mutiny and pogrom in the process. The subsequent peace treaty gave Poland very favorable boundaries eastward into Ukraine.

The onset of peace saw the demobilization of the regular armed forces to a mere half million men. Some party officials wanted to abolish the army totally and replace it with a citizens’ militia. As a compromise, a mixed system consisting of a small standing army and a large territorial militia was established. Regular soldiers would serve for two years, but territorial soldiers would serve for five, one weekend per month and several weeks in the summer. Until it was absorbed into the regular army beginning in 1936, the territorial army outnumbered the regular army by about three to one. For the rest of the decade the armed forces were underfunded, undersupplied, and ill-equipped with old, outdated weaponry.

During the 1920s most former tsarist officers were dismissed and a new cadre of Soviet officers began to form. Party membership was strongly encouraged among the officers, and throughout the Soviet period at least eighty percent of the officers were party members. At and above the rank of colonel virtually all officers held party membership.

A unique feature of the Soviet armed forces was the imposition on it of the Political Administration of the Red Army (PURKKA, later renamed GlavPUR). This was the Communist Party organization for which the military commissars worked. Initially every commander from battalion level on up to the Army High Command had a commissar as a partner. After the civil war, commanders no longer had to have their orders countersigned by the commissar to be valid, and commissars’ duties were relegated to discipline, morale, and political education. 

During the 1930s political officers were added at the company and platoon levels, and during the purges and at the outset of World War II commanders once again had to have commissars countersign their orders. Commissars shared responsibility for the success of the unit and were praised or punished alongside the commanders, but they answered to the political authorities, not to the military chain of command. Commissars were required to evaluate officers’ political reliability on their annual attestations and during promotion proceedings, thus giving them some leverage over the officers with whom they served.

THE 1930s
The First Five-Year Plan, from 1928 to1932, expanded the USSR’s industrial base, which then began producing modern equipment, including tanks, fighter aircraft and bombers, and new warships. The size of the armed forces rapidly increased to about 1.5 million between 1932 and 1937. The rapid expansion of the armed forces led to insurmountable difficulties in recruiting officers. As a stopgap measure, party members were required to serve as officers for two- or three-year stints, and privates and sergeants were promoted to officer rank. The training of officer candidates in military schools was abbreviated from four years to two or less to get more officers into newly created units. As a result the competence and cohesion of the leadership suffered.

In the 1930s Soviet strategists such as Vladimir K. Triandifilov and Mikhail Tukhachevsky devised innovative tactics for utilizing tanks and aircraft in offensive operations. The Soviets created the first large tank units, and experimented with paratroops and airborne tactics. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) Soviet officers and men advised the Republican forces and engaged in armored and air combat testing the USSR’s latest tanks and aircraft against the fascists.

The terror purge of the officer corps instituted by Josef Stalin in 1937–1939 took a heavy toll of the top leadership. Stalin’s motives for the purge will never be known for certain, but most plausibly he was concerned about a possible military coup. Although it is very unlikely that the military planned or hoped to seize power, three of its five marshals were executed, as were fifteen of sixteen army commanders of the first and second rank, sixty of sixty-seven corps commanders, and 136 of 199 division commanders. Forty-two of the top forty-six military commissars also were arrested and executed. When the process of denunciation, arrest, investigation, and rehabilitation had run its course in 1940, about 23,000 military and political officers had either been executed or were in prison camps. It was long believed that perhaps as many as fifty percent of the officer corps was purged, but archival evidence subsequently indicated that when the reinstatements of thousands of arrested officers during World War II are taken into account, fewer than ten percent of the officer corps was permanently purged, which does not diminish the loss of talented men. Simultaneous with the purge was the rapid expansion of the armed forces in response to the growth of militarism in Germany and Japan. By June 1941 the Soviet armed forces had grown to 4.5 million men, but were terribly short of officers because of difficulties in recruiting and the time needed for training. Tens of thousands of civilian party members, sergeants, and enlisted men were forced to serve as officers with little training for their responsibilities. Despite the USSR’s rapid industrialization, the army found itself underequipped because men were being conscripted faster than weapons, equipment, and even boots and uniforms could be made for them.

The end of the decade saw the Soviet Union involved in several armed conflicts. From May to September 1939, Soviet forces under General Georgy Zhukov battled the Japanese Kwantung Army and drove it out of Mongolia. In September 1939 the Soviet army and air force invaded eastern Poland after the German army had nearly finished conquering the western half. In November 1939 the Soviet armed forces attacked Finland but failed to conquer it and in the process suffered nearly 400,000 casualties. Stalin’s government was forced to accept a negotiated peace in March 1940 in which it gained some territory north of Leningrad and naval bases in the Gulf of Finland. Anticipating war with Nazi Germany, the USSR increased the pace of rearmament in the years 1939–1941, and prodigious numbers of modern tanks, artillery, and aircraft were delivered to the armed forces.

In violation of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact signed in 1939, Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941. Much of the forward-based Soviet air force was destroyed on the ground on the first day of the onslaught. All along the front the Axis forces rolled up the Soviet defenses, hoping to destroy the entire Red Army in the western regions before marching on Moscow and Leningrad. By December 1941 the Germans had put Leningrad under siege, came within sight of Moscow, and, in great battles of encirclement, had inflicted about 4.5 million casualties on the Soviet armed forces, yet they had been unable to destroy the army and the country’s will and ability to resist. Nearly 5.3 million Soviet citizens were mobilized for the armed forces in the first eight days of the war. They were used to create new formations or to fill existing units, which were reconstituted and rearmed and sent back into the fray. To rally the USSR, Stalin declared the struggle to be the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, comparable to the war against Napoleon 130 years earlier.

At the outset of the war, Stalin appointed himself supreme commander and dominated Soviet military operations, ignoring the advice of his generals. Stalin’s disastrous decisions culminated in the debacle at Kiev in September 1941, in which 600,000 Soviet troops were lost because he refused to allow them to retreat. As a result, Stalin promoted Marshal Georgy Zhukov to second in command and from then on usually heeded the advice of his military commanders.

The Soviet Army once again lost ground during the summer of 1942, when a new German offensive completed the conquest of Ukraine and reached the Volga River at Stalingrad. In the fall of 1942 the Soviet Army began a counteroffensive, and by the end of February 1943 it had eliminated the German forces in Stalingrad and pushed the front several hundred miles back from the Volga. July 1943 saw the largest tank battle in history at Kursk, ending in a decisive German defeat. From then on the initiative passed to the Soviet side. The major campaign of 1944 was Operation Bagration, which liberated Belarus and carried the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw by July, in the process destroying German Army Group Center, a Soviet goal since January 1942. The final assault on Berlin began in April 1945 and culminated on May 3. The war in Europe ended that month, but a short campaign in China against Japan followed, beginning in August and ending in September 1945 with the Japanese surrender to the Allies.

After the war, the armed forces demobilized to their prewar strength of about four million and were assigned to the occupation of Eastern Europe. Conscription remained in force. During the late 1950s, under Nikita Khrushchev, who stressed nuclear rather than conventional military power, the army’s strength was cut to around three million. Leonid Brezhnev restored the size of the armed force to more than four million. During the Cold War, pride of place in the Soviet military shifted to the newly created Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), which controlled the ground-based nuclear missile forces. In addition to the SRF, the air force had bomber-delivered nuclear weapons and the navy had missile-equipped submarines. The army, with the exception of the airborne forces, became an almost exclusively motorized and mechanized force.

The Soviet army’s last war was fought in Afghanistan from December 1979 to February 1989. Brought in to save the fledgling Afghan communist government, which had provoked a civil war through its use of coercion and class conflict to create a socialist state, the Soviet army expected to defeat the rebels in a short campaign and then withdraw. Instead, the conflict degenerated into a guerilla war against disparate Afghan tribes that had declared a holy war, or jihad, against the Soviet army, which was unable to bring its strength in armor, artillery, or nuclear weapons to bear. The Afghan rebels, or mujahideen, with safe havens in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, received arms and ammunition from the United States, enabling them to prolong the struggle indefinitely. The Soviet high command capped the commitment of troops to the war at 150,000, for the most part treating it as a sideshow while keeping its main focus on a possible war with NATO. The conflict was finally brought to a negotiated end after the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, with nearly 15,000 men killed in vain.

Gorbachev’s policy of rapprochement with the West had a major impact on the Soviet armed forces. Between 1989 and 1991 their numbers were slashed by one million, with more cuts projected for the coming years. The defense budget was cut, the army and air force were withdrawn from Eastern Europe, naval ship building virtually ceased, and the number of nuclear missiles and warheads was reduced—all over the objections of the military high command. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, exposed the horrible conditions of service for soldiers, particularly the extent and severity of hazing, which contributed to a dramatic increase in desertions and avoidance of conscription. The prestige of the military dropped precipitously, leading to serious morale problems in the officer corps. Motivated in part by a desire to restore the power, prestige, and influence of the military in politics and society, the minister of defense, Dmitry Iazov, aided and abetted the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. The coup failed when the commanders of the armored and airborne divisions ordered into Moscow refused to support it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


An Alfa on the surface, showing how her sail blends into her hull. A mast is raised forward of the windshield. When the masts were retracted they were covered over to minimize water flow disturbance over the sail structure. Although a titanium-hull submarine, the Alfa-like the Papa SSGN-was not a deep diver. (U. S. Navy)

There was a growing sense of unease in the West.

Russian maritime power was fast evolving into a giant whose intentions were an enigma, providing endless hours of debate for NATO intelligence analysts, but no definitive answers.

By 1973, the Soviet Navy was rapidly gaining on, if not edging ahead of, the Americans. A quarter of its 400 submarines were by now nuclear-powered. The USSR was building up to 15 nukes a year, while the USA could manage only an average of 4.5. It was estimated the Soviets would soon field more SSBNs than the USA.

American submarine construction yards declined while the Russians expanded theirs; the variety of Soviet boats increased rapidly.

They had managed six new designs of nuclear-powered submarine since 1963. The USA had sent only two new types to sea in the same period. Observing all this, a former Royal Navy officer tried to divine exactly why the Soviets were building so many. Commander Nicholas Whitestone, who at one time served in the Naval Intelligence Division, suggested there were three possibilities.

• the Soviets were preparing to refight the Battle of the Atlantic. In any war they would send out submarines to sink troop ships and supply vessels, depriving NATO of reinforcements and starving the West’s civilian populations.

• They wanted to have enough submarines to match and kill the Polaris boats (and also to attack American and British aircraft carriers).

• The Soviet Navy was a political weapon, to exert pressure on the West. Its burgeoning might was a means of underwriting Russia’s diplomatic moves.

The likely answer was that it was a mix of all three – ready to attack shipping, seek out enemy submarines, and intimidate the capitalists with its numbers and growing firepower.

While Whitestone pondered the big picture of the stand-off, other professional analysts scrutinised the boats themselves. What exactly was the Charlie Class cruise missile-armed submarine for? Attacking carriers? Or land targets? How exactly were the Charlie’s weapons guided to target? Until the day hostilities erupted, nobody in the West would know for sure, though efforts to provide answers would be made by submarines on intelligence-gathering missions.

The Soviet predilection for continuing investment in submarines that bordered on the obsolete puzzled a former British submarine captain, turned writer, Capt. J. E. Moore; he remarked sarcastically that it showed yet again how indifferent the Soviet Union is to heavy arms expenditure . . .’
The Soviets were also fielding the Delta II SSBN, with a submerged displacement estimated by Western sources to be 16,000 tons, as large as a small aircraft carrier. Such leviathans were sliding down the slipways in the early 1970s at a rate of seven a year.

Captain Moore issued a warning: ‘All these monster ships are being built at the vast complex at Severodvinsk [on the shores of the White Sea], which has a greater construction potential than all the submarine yards in the USA combined. The Deltas are in most respects the most potent warships ever operated.’

When it came to surface ship killers, by 1973 there were 15 Echo IIs in the Northern Fleet alone. While unsophisticated, they had their uses. Like other Soviet submarines that did not pass the West’s quality test, the Echos offered Admiral Gorshkov the benefit of decoying NATO away from the key units, such as SSBNs. Each Echo II would, he hoped, require thinly stretched NATO forces to exert themselves on the hunt. The most feared of the Soviet hunter-killers (at this time) was the Victor.

Around 20 of them were in service by the mid-1970s – thought to be capable of at least 33 knots dived. With their eight 21-inch tubes, a submerged displacement of 4,200 tons and a length of 285ft, it was reckoned their torpedoes were equal to Western tinfish.

The Achilles heel of the Victors, despite a highly streamlined, broad hull – indicating deep diving ability – was free flood holes in the outer casing. Water constantly flowing through them made a Victor much noisier than NATO hunter-killers, particularly when it became a burbling rush at speed. Still, Capt. Moore pointed out, ‘they are extremely fast and dangerous craft, able to sink virtually any kind of surface vessel’.

Across the Atlantic, Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the US Navy’s nuclear submarine force, reckoned the West had a lot to be worried about.

He believed the Soviets were creating other types of boats that were faster, could dive deeper and were quieter than ever. In 1969 the CIA received intelligence from what it described as ‘strollers’ who had spotted an intriguing new super-streamlined submarine taking shape in Leningrad, at the Sudomekh Yard on the banks of the River Neva.

American naval attach├ęs twice made forays into forbidden areas around the shipyard. Somehow they managed to retrieve material, which they would later claim fell off the back of a lorry. It was sneaked back to laboratories in the USA for analysis.

Ironically, the most tantalising clue would ultimately be retrieved on American soil. A naval analyst working for the CIA teamed up with a US Navy researcher to call on a scrapyard in Pennsylvania that specialised in purchasing unusual scrap metals from the Soviet Union. After painstakingly examining every potentially relevant item on the site, the two men discovered a piece that seemed promising.

Etched into it was a series of numbers that began ‘705’. To expert eyes this was something very intriguing indeed. Analysis of the machined metal soon revealed it to be titanium and, as would subsequently be discovered, the mystery boat was known in the Soviet Navy as the Project 705 Lira.
At first, it was believed to be a new form of diesel boat.

A senior US Naval Intelligence submarine analyst named Herb Lord suggested, after studying photographs and other data, that it was a radically new form of SSN.

Lord maintained it was a ‘super submarine’ made from titanium.

With advanced weaponry and sensors, it could pose a serious threat to Western naval operations. He told colleagues and superiors the Soviets had – at least in this case – abandoned their cautious approach to submarine design – the incremental, career-preserving way of doing things. This boat was different.

Lord’s claims did not immediately take root. According to a recently declassified CIA case study, the sceptics in US naval intelligence circles maintained ‘the shaping and welding of heavy titanium hull sections, especially in the generally “dirty” shipyard atmosphere, was impractical, if not impossible’.
The idea of creating whole sections of a titanium submarine in the open air was too ridiculous – usually when titanium was welded it had to be carried out in specially enclosed areas filled with fire-retardant argon gas.

Nothing this big could be made from it, they said.

An entire submarine hull made from titanium?


Regardless of its powerplant or hull composition, a single unit of what would be labelled the Alfa Class by NATO was completed in 1970. What was her precise role?

It took several more years for Herb Lord’s analysis to prevail over the sceptics – and he actually retired before his views became accepted. The CIA analyst Gerhardt Thamm ultimately took up Lord’s cause and he confessed: ‘it became my mission to convince the US Navy that the Soviets were building high-threat submarines using advanced construction technology’.

While Rickover’s team believed the Soviets were improving submarine construction they, and others in the USA, remained very dubious about the Alfa being an SSN. They refused to believe it would be anything more than a dead-end experiment, whatever it was.

In reality one of the most revolutionary submarines ever constructed, the Alfa spotted moored at a fitting-out quay on the banks of the Neva in 1969 was merely a one-off prototype. There would ultimately be a class of six commissioned examples, whose capabilities chilled the blood of NATO commanders. The fastest and deepest-diving attack submarine the world had ever seen, the first Alfa was a rare and mysterious beast.

She was a product of the most brilliant minds in the Soviet submarine design world. Latter-day Norse gods had applied their knowledge of metallurgy to try and secure mastery of inner space for the Kremlin. Russian naval architects, scientists and mathematicians were brilliant, their products simply amazing.

With the Alfa – because they were hoping to achieve a massive leap ahead of the West – the Russians took their time about pushing the prototype to the limits. The roots of what would become the Alfa programme went back to the early 1960s, when the Holy Grail was the so-called Interceptor submarine.

A type of hunter-killer tailored to the flash-bang nature of any likely war, it would be able to hit hard and fast, then disappear. The new Delta Class SSBNs, armed with the SS-N-8 (Sawfly) missile, could bombard America from the comparative safety of the Greenland and Norwegian Seas. Any hunter-killer riding shotgun would not need long endurance, for the Bombers would be relatively close to home.

Such a fast deep-diving submarine could make quick forays in the hunt for surface and submerged targets. The Interceptor submarine could be small, with a modest crew, and also a minimal fit for sonar. Detection abilities of Maritime Patrol Aircraft and helicopters, or other elements of detection equipment (including seabed sensors), would aid the mission.

Generally the reason nuclear-powered submarines were so much bigger than diesels was the need for complex and extremely powerful machinery and powerplant. That in turn increased weight, which decreased speed. The answer was to keep the propulsion plant as small as possible while constructing the boat from lightweight material. The Soviet solution was a liquid-metal reactor while using titanium for the boat’s hull.

Titanium offers huge advantages, for not only is it much lighter than steel, but it is also extremely strong. It has a very low magnetic signature and is not so vulnerable to corrosion. Hard to obtain, and expensive, it does not have the same give as steel. This lack of elasticity under the extreme pressures experienced by deep-diving submarines meant it could crack more easily. Aluminium and manganese alloys were introduced to try and restore elasticity. Titanium was also difficult to bend into the radical, streamlined shape the Soviet naval architects devised for the space age Alfa. With an ultra-streamlined exaggerated hump for a fin, she looked like something conjured up by Arthur C. Clarke.

One Russian submarine officer who saw an Alfa under construction thought her lines stunningly beautiful. She was a work of art rather than a product of industry. On joining the Alfa’s crew, composed of the best and brightest the Soviet Navy could assemble, he was overcome with pride. He exulted: ‘I felt as if I had just discarded my tractor and boarded a spaceship.’

With six tubes and packing a maximum of 18 ASW missiles or torpedoes, the acceleration of the new wonder submarine was incredible. It could go from 6 to 42 knots in just 120 seconds. The Alfa had a remarkably small crew of just 45. Thanks to high levels of automation, it could be reduced to as few as 31.

The use of liquid metal for reactor coolant was extremely radical – and very dangerous. The US Navy had commissioned USS Seawolf in 1957 with a liquid-metal reactor. Not much more than a year later she was brought into a dockyard to have it removed and replaced with a pressurised-water reactor.

A major challenge was ensuring the liquid metal did not actually solidify, bringing the system crashing to a halt.

The Alfa had two compact reactors to offset that annoying tendency.

A major advantage of using liquid metal was that it did not become radioactive, so it wasn’t necessary for the steam-generating machinery it passed through to be clad in heavy (bulky) and expensive radiation shields.

The top turn of speed achieved by the Alfa with a five-bladed screw was phenomenal – up to 45 knots. Maximum diving depth was 2,460ft. This was more than twice any other contemporary Western or Soviet boat. The problem with such a high turn of speed – the fastest ever achieved by an SSN – was the noise, which was likened to a jet engine roar.

The prototype was worked hard, frequently clocking up those impressive high speeds, under huge pressure at great depth. There were several problems with hull cracking and reactor ‘freezes’. 

Pipework, torpedo launch equipment and even the compressed-air system were subjected to extreme stress. In 1974 the exhausted prototype was cut to pieces, allowing a full autopsy. The results were studied and adjustments made to both design and construction methods before a limited production run went ahead.

Admiral Gorshkov lavished attention and money on the Alfas – so expensive but highly capable, they were dubbed golden fish’. They were the elite of Russia’s submarine force. No wonder, for the Alfas appeared to offer technological parity and even superiority over the West.

The CIA’s Gerhardt Thamm eventually won his battle to convince the US Navy the titanium SSN was reality, confirming that Herb Lord (who had passed away in the meantime) was right. Thamm felt he proved ‘that the Soviets had indeed built a submarine that was “better than good enough’”. Despite huge costs, ‘the Soviets continued the Alfa project with tenacity unmatched by Western navies’.

The Americans were working on their 688 Class attack submarines (also known as Los Angeles Class). The first of these would be launched in 1974 and enter service in 1976, with another 37 commissioned by June 1989.

A major part of Britain’s attempt to respond would depend on safely proving and bringing into service another brand-new kind of SSN.