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During the Cuban Crisis of 1962, it was the Russians’ turn to wonder where their Navy was and why Soviet policy could be skewered so swiftly in those warm waters by the cold steel of Western sea power. In a future crisis, the Northeast Atlantic and the frigid ivaters to the north inay prove to be an irresistible temptation for a Soviet maritime response or even for a Soviet demonstration of power which might leave the Western world wondering where, indeed, its own Navy had gone—and why.
On 25 October 1944, Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., received a message from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz which asked: "Where is, repeat, where is Task Force 34? The world wonders.” The last phrase—the end padding—was not part of Nimitz’ original message but was not removed before the message was handed to Halsey who, enraged at the time, later conceded that it was "infernally plausible.”
Since those days, 30 years ago, when, by its victory at Leyte Gulf, the U. S. Navy again demonstrated the transcendent importance of sea power to maritime nations, the wheel of history has turned many times. Halsey and Nimitz are gone. Apparently abandoned, too, are many of the policies and strategies which had been pursued by Western maritime nations for centuries.
Today, no one has to ask where the Soviet Navy is. But where, for example, are the Western world’s navies in the Northeast Atlantic, the North Sea, the Baltic Approaches, and the Norwegian Sea? This area has for centuries been vital to the security of the traditional maritime power, Great Britain. Likewise, it is today of decisive importance for the most modem alliance of maritime states, NATO.
Where once there was a clear dividing line between maritime and continental strategy, today, two traditional maritime powers, England and America, are allied with two traditional continental powers, France and Germany, in defense against the
pressure from the nation that occupies the heartland on the Eurasian mainland, the Soviet Union.
Is the Soviet Union pursuing a continental strategy? Years from now, historians analyzing today’s world situation may well conclude that the U.S.S.R. had not pursued a continental strategy since the late 1950s or at least since 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Soviet Union has made no gains on the continent since the formation of NATO in 1949, and indications of her determination to attempt such continental land acquisitions have become fewer. On the other hand, the Soviet Union has succeeded extremely well, so far, in exerting such pressure on her neighbors, that the maritime powers have forsaken their traditional policy of avoiding continental entanglement.
For more than two centuries, this policy has been one of the most important aspects of England’s relationships with continental Europe. It produced the English commitment of an expeditionary force on the continent, to be withdrawn either shortly after restoring the peace, or without serious humiliation before a defeat. The same policy was pursued by the United States after World War I. But, since World War II, the Soviet Union has succeeded in keeping so much pressure on the Central Front in Europe that today, 30 years after the defeat of Nazi-Germany, England finds it necessary to maintain a major part of her army on the continent, not as an expeditionary force, but as the British Army on the Rhine. Likewise, the United States continues to maintain the Seventh Army in Germany, in spite of the heavy domestic pressure for troop reductions. These U. S. forces are of immense importance to the credibility of American support to Europe; but they are expensive, and costs of maintaining the troops in Europe have resulted in reduced budgets for the development of naval forces in the Western World. The Soviet Union, however, has steadily increased her maritime capacity to achieve the now disproportionate balance between the naval forces of East and West in relation to the maritime interests they have to defend. This maritime capacity has given the Soviet Union a new instrument for adopting the maritime powers’ traditional elegant strategy of indirect approach. The strategy, so well described by British strategist Liddell Hart, had been pursued by England, for example, in order to avoid continental entanglement, and by the United States in its Pacific drives during World War II.
Since at least the days of Czar Peter the Great, Russia has dreamed of what today has clearly become a Soviet reality. The strategists in the Kremlin seem convinced by Admiral S. G. Gorshkov’s arguments, and they apparently understand Mahan better than most continental leaders have in the past. The Russians have also clearly digested Mahan’s idea of quantity, and they are willing to pay the price for continued naval power and military preparedness.
Less than 100 years ago, in 1889, the British Parliament based its naval expansion plan on the principle of a navy equal to those of any other two European nations—the "two power standard.” Less than 25 years ago, the U. S. Navy not only fulfilled the Naval Act of 1916, authorizing "a navy second to none,” but, leading the navies of the Free World, she exercised unchallenged control of the seas. Today, no one in the West is talking of a navy in relation to a "two power standard.” In fact, in the Proceedings and other forums, the U. S. Navy seems to be asking itself whether it is "a navy second to none.”
How did this situation arise? How is it that the country in which Mahan was born has permitted such a development, that the Western World, completely dependent on the sea, has allowed itself to be deprived of the unchallenged control of the sea by the Soviet Union, a country which is almost completely independent of the sea?
The strategy of containment exercised by the United States and the emergence of China as a great world power has closed the ring around the Soviet Union. She, therefore, has only one avenue open for expansion—that of the world’s oceans. The Russians have long aspired to sea power, but immediately after World War II they had several major domestic problems. Twenty millions had been killed and 30% of the economy destroyed. It is little wonder that they then proclaimed—and still pretend today—that defense of the homeland is the first and only priority. However, the West has never been convinced by this statement, although the change in the nuclear balance with its related strategies has tended to give the Soviet Union a very good camouflage for her build-up of the Navy. Russia—the country that created the impression in the United States, of a bomber gap and later of a missile gap—is- determined to achieve, at the least, a nuclear parity. Similarly, she has with much success initiated and maintained a variety of challenges to the West around her perimeter. These challenges on land have attracted our attention and called for our increased monetary spending, while Russia herself has steadily increased her sea power in such a way that it appears to be an indirect approach to the position of a real maritime power, in possession of the means for projecting her interests on the other side of the oceans and around the globe.
The Soviet naval expansion has taken place while the West has reduced its naval capacity. And had it not been for the SSBNs which again gave life, outside naval circles, to the general public interest in maritime matters, the reductions might have continued to an alarming level. Among political influences which shed light on this situation is, for instance, the 1957 British White Paper, which stated that "the role of naval forces in total war is somewhat uncertain.” Yet, the arrival of the age of nuclear parity with its risk of escalation has brought naval forces to the forefront of contemporary strategy. The sea is often described as a neutral environment; it has neither centers of civil population nor of industry—it belongs to no one. Thus, a conflict substantially confined to the sea offers an attractive military option to the Soviet Union.
Consequently, the Soviet Union has been able to establish a naval presence of impressive dimensions around the globe, and maritime problems have again come to public attention. The Soviet build-up in the Mediterranean during the late 1960s and in the Indian Ocean during the early 1970s has especially focused attention on Soviet maritime expansion. In addition, visits and exercises of Soviet warships in Cuban waters and in the Pacific off the U. S. West Coast have drawn the attention of the Western news media. But, outside of professional naval interests, very little attention has been paid to what has happened at the same time in the Northeast Atlantic.
The development in this area is dominated by four characteristics. First, the Northeast Atlantic is the key area to Western vulnerability. The shortest route for exchange of intercontinental missiles between the super powers is an extension of the area, from Greenland in the west, via Iceland, to the Scandinavian countries. Additionally, SSBNs operate in and through this region making it an essential area for the first and principal function of the U. S. Navy, its contribution to strategic deterrence of nuclear war.
Second, the sea is of great importance to all the bordering countries, as recently shown in the fishing disputes between Iceland and Great Britain. Furthermore, the merchant marines of the Nordic countries total more than 14% of the world’s fleet, while the Nordic NATO members, together with England, contribute almost a quarter of the world’s fleet. These ships provide a most important part of the ships available to the West, and they require protection—in the American term, Sea Control.
Third, the Nordic countries are less influenced by maritime aspects as one proceeds geographically from West to east. In spite of many links, such as common bistory and culture, this fact has forced the countries mto pursuing different security policies. Denmark and Norway, both occupied by the Germans during World War II for purely maritime reasons, are today, together with Iceland, members of NATO. The central country,
Sweden, although dependent on the sea, is not of essential maritime importance, and she has chosen a neutral policy. The easternmost country, Finland, is primarily of importance to the Soviet Union in a continental context. However, these five countries are often regarded as forming a subsystem in the international system. Within this subsystem exists a Nordic balance between East and West, the maintenance of which, for the Western NATO members, is entirely dependent on the ability of their allies, especially the United States, to perform the third mission of the U. S. Navy: Projection of Power ashore.
Fourth, within this area are two of the Soviet Union’s four accesses to the open sea, and the major part—more than 60%—of the Soviet Navy is based, maintained, and trained here. The capabilities of the Russian Navy in the area, and the concentration of its amphibious forces are major, perhaps overwhelming, factors in the security of the Nordic countries. A measure of this situation may be the massive and steadily increasing naval presence of the Soviet fleets compared with the presence of the U. S. Navy—its fourth mission area in a period short of war.
The four characteristics of the Northeast Atlantic in relation to the four missions of the U. S. Navy dominate the development in the post-World War II period.
The Soviet Union, using the traditional "salami- tactic,” has gradually extended the pattern of naval operations from the fleet base areas of the Baltic and Barents seas to the forward defense zone, established in the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap, which covers the access routes to and from the remaining Atlantic. This progressive shift to forward deployment has been justified by reference to the traditional Soviet naval doctrine of "Defense of the Homeland” against the Western nuclear threat, posed from sea areas more and more distant from the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Admiral Gorshkov, a member of the Soviet Politburo, has more than once indicated that the role of the Soviet Navy is not limited to "Defense of the Homeland.” With naval presence as a measurement, only the word expansion can illustrate current Soviet maritime policies. During the last five years Soviet naval activities in the Atlantic have increased by some 50%.
The largest Soviet exercise to date was the worldwide Exercise Okean, in 1970, which at its peak involved 80 naval vessels in the Northeast Atlantic. In comparison, the largest NATO exercise in the same area so far has been Exercise Strong Express, in 1972, which involved only 60 warships.
Since 1969, extensive transfers of surface and submarine units between the two Soviet fleets in the area, and between the fleets and the Mediterranean squadron have taken place, with maneuvers en route. So Soviet warships, including a number of patrolling units, have today established a permanent offshore presence in the Northeast Atlantic between the United States and the Nordic NATO countries, which finally could become located behind the Soviet forward defense zone and beyond that of the United States. In such a situation, the combined Northern and Baltic Soviet Fleet would have fulfilled the important task of creating impressions of Soviet power and thereby reduced the perceived efficacy of U. S. guarantees to Northern Europe. Thus, Admiral Gorshkov’s Navy would have obtained, through an indirect approach, what the U. S. continental commitment has denied to the Red Army.
The littoral states in the Northeast Atlantic are all governed in democratic stability; there are no signs of serious internal problems; and conflicting interests between the countries are extremely unlikely to lead to violence. Yet, the fishing dispute between England and Iceland has indicated that a clash of interests can result in temporary cooling of relations; but, much more seriously, this dispute has been connected with the maritime surveillance patrols of aircraft, flying out of Keflavik, and has caused increased anti-NATO opinions in Iceland. Any Icelandic attempt to negotiate an American evacuation from Keflavik would be against the interests of other littoral states and of the United States because the surveillance from Iceland is not only directed against the Soviet deterrent, but it is, in an area where satellite reconnaissance is difficult, of great importance to the credibility of transatlantic reinforcement. Because the defense of Iceland is solely dependent on U. S. assistance, and since the Cod War has been settled, the situation at Keflavik is again normal and the crisis in the area has been relieved by the normal stability without giving outside nations opportunities for interference.
The internal stability in the littoral states area is one of three realities. The second reality is that all the Nordic countries devote their entire defense to antiinvasion missions because of the pressure from the East. Thus, the Nordic countries have been largely content so far to leave the strategic protection of their large maritime trade to Great Britain and the United States. Simultaneously, the littoral states, including the United Kingdom, are unable to maintain a permanent offshore naval presence in the area of more than one or two frigates per country, engaged primarily in fishery protection.
The third reality has grown out of the Soviet struggle for nuclear parity and the related continental confrontation in central Europe. The area is not covered in diplomatic attempts to realize the era of detente through negotiations, for instance, in the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks or on Mutual Force Reduction in Europe. The Northeast Atlantic is an area between the East and the West in which there are no visible or invisible limits on influences between the superpowers.
The extensive offshore oil drilling in the area has added a new defense problem to those of the littoral states. Offshore exploitation of oil resources has until now been concentrated in the northern North Sea, but surveys are being carried out farther north, and drilling north of 62°N off the Norwegian coast is expected to begin this year. The many oil rigs and the pipelines, in being and under construction, are all very vulnerable, and, for the first time, they are placed in areas not clearly controlled by any one power—in contrast to the situation in the Mexican Gulf or in the Caspian Sea. So the Soviet Union and Norway have had exploratory talks on the division of the continental shelf in the Barents Sea, but the Russians are reluctant to negotiate delimitations based on the 1958 Geneva convention on the continental shelf. The Soviets have even been reported to hold the view that the relative power of Norway and the Soviet Union is relevant to a decision on the delimitation of sovereignty on the shelf.
In all countries engaged in offshore oil drilling— Denmark, England and Norway—a major portion of investment and know-how is of American origin, indicating that the United States has two great maritime interests in common with the allies around the Northeast Atlantic—economic and military interests.
The Northeast Atlantic has step-by-step become an area in which the likelihood of a successful Soviet demonstration of power has increased. The Soviet Union has met maritime humiliations in distant waters, for example, during the Cuban crisis in 1962 and as a result of U. S. mining off Haiphong in 1972. In a future crisis, the Northeast Atlantic may well constitute an attractive area for a Soviet maritime response or even for Soviet initiation of a demonstration of power. A demonstration, whether threatened or actual, might take a number of forms, as for instance: deflection of shipping; declared mining of specific areas; or boarding or destruction of oil rigs or ships.
The heavy overload on American defense resources in relation to the global role of the United States has tended to give the Northeast Atlantic a low priority for a deployed U. S. naval presence compared with other areas such as East Asia with the Seventh Fleet or the southern flank of NATO with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. In the Indian Ocean the United States is taking up the Soviet challenge, after the withdrawal of the Royal Navy. This commitment is taken up by America in spite of the drastic cuts in naval strength, amounting, since 1965, to 25% of the ships, 20% of combat aircraft and 7% of the personnel. In these areas, outside home waters and attracting world attention, the United States is maintaining a naval presence. These preventive deployments, enable the Western World to show a presence in peacetime which is measured in figures, such as the number of surface ships per day, comparable to the effort of the Soviet Navy. Such figures, of course, do not necessarily illustrate factual strength in the area, but they tend to be used—or perhaps manipulated—in each country’s interpretation of the credibility of an ally or the intentions of an opponent.
In the Northeast Atlantic, the United States has relied for many years on a minimal naval presence in the form of reactive deployments without any preventive deployments. Thus, the U. S. Navy might be able to respond with surface ships to a crisis in the area only after considerable transit time from the normal operating areas of the Second Fleet.
In the light of the interest the Soviet Union demonstrates in the Northeast Atlantic and considering the background of recent developments in the area, it becomes questionable whether reactive deployments in addition to the permanent but sparse offshore presence of littoral allies is sufficient. Three arguments indicate that preventive deployments of U. S. naval surface ships, although only periodically or in small numbers, would be of relatively great value.
► With or without drastic cuts in American continental commitments on the central front in Europe, an increased naval presence along the northern transatlantic route for reinforcements of the northern flank and the central front would add to the credibility of the alliance.
^ The United States is the only Western country which has concluded an agreement with the Soviet Union to prevent incidents between navies, one of the results of the summit meeting in Moscow in 1972.
► The danger that a general war would escalate into a nuclear exchange seems accepted by both sides as too great a risk. Thus, the fear of escalation is most inhibiting for the Soviets, when faced with a U. S. naval presence. Furthermore, this presence would give the American administration greater flexibility for crisis management than would a solely allied naval presence.
The greatest hindrance to such a preventive deployment of surface ships is the number of units available. With a continuous building rate of combatant and amphibious ships, as in the period 1966 to 1971, where more than two Soviet units were built for each American ship, it would soon become impossible for the U. S.
Navy to continue to counter the Soviet naval expansion. In order to avoid a headline in the newspapers like that of this essay, the West needs a strong, deployed navy—founded on a strong U. S. Navy.
Such a navy would give the best possibilities for stability in the world of today where the continental power, the Soviet Union, has been stopped on the continent and, therefore, now pursues the elegant indirect approach of maritime strategy under the existence of nuclear parity and the risk of escalation.
Such a Western navy would continuously be able, in response to any worldwide Soviet attempt of power demonstration, to pose a threat to the Soviet maritime influence in the part of the world’s oceans where Soviet naval presence is greatest and most important for the Soviet Union herself—in the Northeast Atlantic. Simultaneously, it would maintain the credibility of NATO.
Such a navy in the Northeast Atlantic, with the four mentioned characteristics, the three realities and the two major U. S. maritime interests, would constitute the best guarantee against a Soviet demonstration in a suitable ocean area close to Soviet bases.
Perhaps we ought to stop thinking of the Russian bear as being brown for, before our eyes, he has become a bear of a different color. His new white coat, like a flag of truce (detente) enthralls us, but it should not make us forget that the polar bear is one of the most completely amphibious (and predacious) of all the mammals and thoroughly acclimated to the frigid waters of the north. The only, but not necessarily lonely, hunter that can cope with him is a strong Western navy.
Commander Garde graduated from the Naval Academy, Copenhagen in 1961 as a Lieutenant. His first assignment on board the corvette HDMS Flora was followed by duty in fast patrol boats as Commanding Officer, Division Commander and Senior Division Commander. He served on the staff of the Chief of Defense from 1970-1974. He has lectured at the Naval Academy, Copenhagen on naval warfare, history, and strategy and is now studying staff training at the Royal Navy Staff College, Greenwich, and in Denmark. An avid sailor, Commander Garde has participated in the Bermuda and Transatlantic races. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.