China’s Strange Fascination with the Soviet Navy

“We Will Die, but … Sink the Enemy’s Entire Squadron:  We Will Not Cause Our Navy to Lose Face”

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].”

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  In both cases, the imperatives of revolution, civil war, and regime consolidation clearly superseded any notion of sea power, so that “the sea was abandoned.”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.”