In the modern world of globalized economies and interconnected societies, politics and geostrategy are no longer about violent conflict between great powers. This was especially true between 1947 and 1989, during the Cold War, when the United States engaged in a war of posture with the Soviet Union at sea. The lessons learned over the course of that 44-year game of chess—sometimes fought with missiles in regional proxy conflicts, but more often through military exercises and the positioning of military assets—can be applied today, as the United States increasingly engages with China.
The Cold War Begins
In March 1946, long-standing Russo–Turkish tensions over Russian transit rights through the Dardanelles came to a boil. President Harry S. Truman’s reaction was swift, as he dispatched the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) to the Sea of Marmara on 22 March 1946.1 By August, the crisis had escalated as part of a wider policy of Soviet intervention and interference in the Balkans and the Middle East.
President Truman, initially willing to negotiate and compromise, ultimately became committed to blocking Soviet expansion with meaningful actions.2 The Missouri’s presence through the summer of 1946 was proof of U.S. support for the Turkish government as well as a warning to Moscow about further intervention in the region. Eventually, U.S. engagement there led to Turkey joining NATO in 1952.3
In an address to Congress at the opening of the Greek Civil War, President Truman announced U.S. resolve to prevent the spread of Communism throughout continental Europe (which became know as the Truman Doctrine). Toward that end, the Sixth Fleet, the permanent U.S. naval presence in Europe, was established in April 1948. In 1952, Mainbrace, the first major NATO naval exercise to take place in the North Atlantic, involved more than 100 warships from nine allies. Its purpose was to send a clear message: NATO would be able to contest the North Atlantic. Exercise Longstep in 1952, rallying 170 warships in the eastern Mediterranean, followed.4 In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower landed Marines in Lebanon to stabilize the country.
Combating the Warsaw Pact
In the 1960s, there was a consensus among policymakers and the military: The Warsaw Pact—a mutual defense organization composed of the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania—had a superior land force, while NATO remained dominant at sea.5 To combat the Warsaw Pact’s land superiority, NATO doctrine shifted focus to nuclear retaliation to delay and destroy any Soviet-led invasion. The Polaris-equipped submarine was a new avenue for nuclear strike, allowing submarines to launch missiles from depth, protected from a first strike.6
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets began aggressive operations of their own, deploying Yankee-class nuclear-powered submarines, establishing a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, and holding large exercises in the North Atlantic Ocean. The Red Navy targeted carriers, forcing U.S. research and development in acoustic and electronic detection systems—namely, the sound surveillance system (SOSUS) network—to counteract a pervasive submarine threat.7 Soviet naval exercises in April and May 1970 removed all doubt that Moscow was determined to wrest naval supremacy from NATO. Two hundred Warsaw Pact ships conducted simultaneous operations in the Barents, Norwegian, Baltic, Mediterranean, and Philippine Seas and the Sea of Japan during Exercise Okean 1970.8
The Soviet and U.S. navies often operated in the same areas, and close calls and collisions were not uncommon. On 25 May 1972, the bilateral Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) established annual naval reviews and protocols to prevent collisions.9 The U.S. Navy led the move toward arms limitations and was a vocal supporter of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) treaty of 1969, around the same time as it began to focus on surveillance operations.10 Operation Ivy Bells—a joint Navy, CIA, and National Security Agency mission—began a decade of tapping a Soviet underwater communications cable in the Sea of Okhotsk starting in October 1972. In the years that followed, other signals intelligence operations would come under the Navy’s purview.11
The Cold War Ends
On 16 July 1981, Vice Admiral James Lyons launched Ocean Venture ’81 as part of a wider NATO joint operation. The exercise’s objective was to steam 250 NATO ships undetected into the Norwegian Sea and “win” the Atlantic, controlling NATO’s northern flank in the North Atlantic without the Soviets’ being aware. Conventional wisdom in the Soviet Union was that NATO’s fleet would not enter the Norwegian Sea until the submarine threat was under control.
The exercise developed new tactics that were not as easily tracked by satellites. The exercise began with a small number of combatants simulating the emissions of an entire battle force moving southeast, consistent with previous exercises. The main force, dispersed across 64,000 square miles, used total emissions control, poor weather, and heavy seas to avoid Soviet satellites, and created the doctrinal basis for modern maritime concealment procedures.12 The main body of the NATO fleet engaged in regional exercises with U.S. South American allies. Once these exercises were completed, Ocean Venture’s real purpose was revealed as the various fleets came together. The Soviet response to this surprise presence of the NATO fleets in the North Atlantic revealed Soviet wartime doctrine.13
During 1985’s annual exercises, NATO developed tactics using fjords that rendered Soviet antiship missiles ineffective while debuting the new Aegis cruisers, the USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) and Yorktown (CG-48). The following year, the USS Long Beach (CGN-9) fired a Tomahawk east along the Aleutian Islands, demonstrating U.S. capability to threaten the Russian Far East from across the North Pacific.14
By 1985, the Soviet high command became increasingly convinced that U.S. naval nuclear weapons would be the decisive factor in a nuclear war. Rapid Soviet naval expansion in the 1970s and ̓80s saw combatants exceeding 560 ships, but they were being out-paced by the U.S. fleet, which was fast approaching 600 ships.15
When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership in the Soviet Union, he announced a unilateral moratorium on intermediate-range nuclear missiles. He soon pledged to end nuclear weapons testing if the United States followed suit. In 1987, Soviet policy shifted toward defense and diplomacy. This strategic realignment of the Soviet Union included a severe reduction in naval exercises as well as the proposed mutual withdrawal of forces from the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
In December 1989, President George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev met in Malta and declared the Cold War over.
Comparing the Bear with the Dragon
A comparison of the Red Fleet and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shows many tactical and compositional similarities. Both the Soviet Navy of the Cold War and the Chinese fleet of today “emphasize sea-denial focused on carrier attrition and disrupting the resupply effort.”16 To this end, both navies initially oriented themselves toward a green-water capability, with an aim toward regional dominance of national littoral zones and a focus on submarine and antiship missiles launched from land, sea, and air platforms.
While Soviet doctrine envisaged multi-axis strikes with land-based bombers and long-range land-based antiship missiles and cruise missile submarines to carry those missiles deep into the North Atlantic to threaten NATO fleets and convoys, the Chinese find themselves short of a similar long-range strike capability. Though they do have long-range antiship missiles, they are largely land-based, and China lacks dedicated bombers in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and PLAN Air Force inventories. In addition, the PLAN submarine force currently lacks the cruise-missile submarines the Soviets had.
Realizing that it lacks the capability to strike out to the 3,200 kilometer perimeter necessary to protect China’s interests, the PLAN has enhanced a series of atolls and constructed artificial islands in shallow waters as a perimeter. It also will enable the deployment of air- and land-based antiship missiles to ensure sea denial in waters Beijing has deemed to be of vital national strategic and economic interest.17 Further, Chinese doctrine focuses on controlling “the space between the first and second island chains, the latter stretching from northern Japan to the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and farther southward, and beyond.”18 These maritime ambitions go well beyond Soviet ambitions.
The Chinese naval situation is very much akin to the Soviet Navy of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It currently is in a period of transition, from a regional navy that dominates its littoral zone, thanks in part to land-based and aerial assets, to one with global reach, expanding and modernizing its surface combatant arm. The Chinese realize that while they are well protected in their coastal seas, to project power outside of the relatively sheltered waters of the East China and South China Seas, a sizable surface fleet of larger warships is required. This was a lesson that the Soviets learned quite late.
In the case of both the Soviets and the Chinese, a sea-denial strategy allows them to use their military power to carve out areas of control in both their maritime and geographic environments, modifying regional order to suit their own power and purposes. In doing so, both countries manufacture regional crises and fabricate tension to justify policy in their regional spheres.
Lessons in Naval Dominance
Maintain the fight in Washington. U.S. naval leaders must provide unwavering guidance as the political winds shift between fashion and principle. Authoritarian competitors hold the advantage for consistent policy. The Soviet Navy received funding for expansion under both Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev for 21 years. China has supported a naval buildup since 1997.19 Generating favorable political change through maritime superiority can take decades, requiring a marathon mentality.
Continue developing a diversified naval portfolio. The Cold War proved that the struggle for global hegemony is waged through large fleet actions, and also through military exercises and proxy. In addition, openly challenging the Soviet Union meant embracing an inevitable arms race. China has the economic and military capacity to bolster foreign militaries to further its regional reach. The Chinese naval force has grown to 275 ships dwarfing its three nearest naval competitors in the Asia-Pacific region.20 China also is developing an aggressive ocean surveillance system, which seeks to mimic SOSUS.21 The United States must continue to develop naval power along multiple axes to maintain maritime superiority.
Sustain an aggressive forward presence. The United States’ ultimate weapon during the Cold War was its continuous presence and commitment to contain and preempt threats. The United States displayed a willingness to use both force and negotiation to achieve its goals. The Soviets began to see U.S. maritime forces as the center of gravity in a nuclear war, which was a catalyst for pro-detente leadership in Moscow, nuclear disarmament on NATO terms, and global democracy. Today, U.S. goals for China are not so different.
Train like you fight. Cold War exercises allowed the United States and NATO to practice warfighting in the most authentic conditions possible—extreme climates, heavy oceans, strict communications, and against real threats. The exercises exposed Soviet weaknesses and strengths, while advancing U.S. tactics and technology. Increasing major exercises in the South China Sea brings Admiral Lyon’s message to China. If China’s leaders think U.S. forces could penetrate the PLAN antiaccess network, preventing a clean victory in whatever regional adventure the Chinese might attempt, will China risk an attempt?
Acknowledge and counter international and media protests. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union funded multiple protests across western Europe against the United States, while using Warsaw allies and client states at the United Nations to accuse the United States of prompting aggression. In today’s rapid media environment, slanderous rhetoric persists.22 On the international stage, China lobbies against the United States as a true leader for world peace, criticizing U.S. policy, supported by economic client-states within the United Nations. U.S. politicians and naval leaders must continue to articulate a clear and concise U.S. perspective to the world stage.
Bolster partnerships. Increased partner exercises strengthen the coalition, providing scalability during a wartime environment. Stronger military ties support economic relations that bring to light the differences in global trade between China and the United States. Further, U.S. regional allies “allow the U.S. military to operate with ease from the Pacific Ocean through to the Indian Ocean and ultimately to the Gulf of Hormuz, safeguarding stable sea lines of communication and open access to resources and trade with most of the world.”23
Intensify the naval supply chain. U.S. logistics capabilities allowed the Navy to respond anytime, anywhere,
to any confrontation and to sustain the support. Logistics allowed the United States to push directly to the edge of the Soviet heartland, delivering a strong message of deterrence. Engaging in a posture of deterrence, however, requires a high operational tempo that will stress logistical support systems. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates that to maintain a high tempo of distributed operations in a conflict with China, the
Navy’s forward-operating fleet may consume the equivalent of 14 tanker loads of fuel per month. The fleet might fire more than 360 vertical launch system (VLS) cells per day.24 Maintaining maritime superiority against the Chinese antiaccess strategy at sea while maintaining global maritime supremacy means embracing new maritime logistics architectures, such as varieties of fuel delivery and VLS replenishment at sea. A strong supply chain allows U.S. combatants to remain forward, instead of having to retire to resupply from naval bases.
Chinese leaders claim their motives are defensive and economic; however, China does not hide its intention to establish command of the western Pacific. Given the country’s aggressive and authoritarian reputation, the United States must approach Chinese maritime expansion with suspicion and deterrence. The lessons of the Cold War demonstrate that U.S. command of the seas using a strategy of posture and forward presence results in deterrent and diplomatic benefits necessary to respond to Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific region.
1. Missouri III (BB-63), Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, United States Navy, 2019, www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/m/missouri-iii.html.
2. Gabriel Gorodetsky, ed., Soviet Foreign Policy 1917–1991: A Retrospective (New York: Routledge, 1994), 139–40.
3. Anadi Bhushan Maity, “The Problem of the Turkish Straits,” The Indian Journal of Political Science 15, no. 2 (April–June 1954): 134–52.
4. John Lehman, Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea (New York:
W. W. Norton and Company, 2018), 25.
5. Lehman, Oceans Ventured, 39.
6. Lawrence Freedman, U.S. Intelligence and the Soviet Strategic Threat (New York: MacMillan Press, 1977), 98.
7. Andrew Dwyer, “Bottling-up Soviet Submarines,” Harvard International Review 3, no. 4 (December–January 1981): 17.
8. Lehman, Oceans Ventured, 53.
9. Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents at Sea, US-USSR, 25 May 1972, TIAS 7379; 852 UNTS 151, www.state.gov/t/isn/4791.htm.
10. Lehman, Oceans Ventured, 53.
11. Desmond Ball and Richard Tanter, The U.S. Ocean Surveillance Information System (OSIS), The Tools of Owatatsumi Japan’s Ocean Surveillance and Coastal Defence Capabilities (Canberra, AU: Australian National University Press, 2015), 95–96.
12. Jonathan F. Soloman, “Maritime Deception and Concealment: Concepts for Defeating Wide-Area Oceanic Surveillance-Reconnaissance-Strike Networks,” Naval War College Review 66, no. 4 (Autumn 2013): 87–116.
13. Lehman, Oceans Ventured, 25.
14. Lehman, 16, 23.
15. Lehman, 31, 33.
16. CAPT Sam J. Tangredi, USN (Ret.), Anti-Access Warfare Countering A2/AD Strategies (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 132.
17. Frederick Kuo, “Why China Won’t Stop Island Building in the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, 2 July 2016.
18. Nan Li and Christopher Weuve, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions: An Update,” Naval War College Review 63, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 18.
19. Bernard C. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 369.
20. Conrad Waters, ed., Seaforth World Naval Review 2018 (Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2017), 31–34.
21. Lyle J. Goldstein, “China’s ‘Undersea Great Wall,’” The National Interest, May 2016.
22. “Arbitration Award More Shameless than Worst Prediction,” The Global Times, 12 July 2016, www.globaltimes.cn/content/993855.shtml; Permanent Court of Arbitration, “The Tribunal Renders Its Award,” 12 July 2016.
23. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “China and the U.S. Rebalance to Asia,” 114th Congress, 2d sess., 31 March 2016, 121.
24. Timothy A. Walton, Ryan Boone, and Harrison Schramm, “Sustaining the Fight: Resilient Maritime Logistics for a New Era,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 23 April 2019, 32.