Did We Narrowly Avoid a Nuclear Showdown in the Atlantic Ocean?
It is worthwhile to investigate how the war would have been fought in different theaters.
Here’s What You Need to Remember: Despite possessing a massive number of ships and aircraft, the Soviet Navy during the 1970s was still decisively inferior to the combined forces of NATO. The fate of the Navy would have depended, to a great extent, on how long the land war ran.
Over the course of the Cold War, the balance of forces between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Soviet Union changed dramatically. At different points, a war would have played out in far different ways in the major theaters, including Central Europe, the Arctic, the North Atlantic, the Far East, and even in space. For the most part, changes to each side's forces came slowly, with only a few significant shifts due to technological advances.
Thus, it is worthwhile to investigate how the war would have been fought in different theaters and how the strategies by the United States and the Soviet Union would have affected the evolution of advantage.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at the balance at sea during the Carter administration. If war had broken out in the late 1970s, what role would the Soviet Navy have played?
Refighting the Battle of the Atlantic
The United States Navy (USN) long believed that the Soviet Navy would undertake a role during World War III essentially similar to that of the Germans in World War I and World War II. First, Soviet submarines would attempt to penetrate the North Atlantic through the GIUK gap— the open-sea choke point between the land masses of Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. Secondly, the Soviet submarines would then wreak havoc on the trans-Atlantic highway that linked the United States to the rest of NATO. The Soviet Navy possessed a sufficient number of both nuclear and diesel-electric submarines to harass NATO shipping, nuclear missile submarines (SSBNs), and carrier battle groups, but NATO held most of the cards. NATO had full air coverage over the GIUK gap, as well as a large number of submarines and dedicated surface anti-submarine vessels. In a third Battle of the Atlantic, NATO was more than prepared to win. Until the late 1960s, Soviet ballistic missile submarines lacked the range of their NATO counterparts and would have been extremely vulnerable to destruction by anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets in transit to the Atlantic.
The Soviet surface fleet, although it had grown considerably in strength since World War II, would have a relatively quiet role. It would mainly try to avoid destruction at the hands of the NATO submarines and U.S. carrier-battle groups. The Soviet Navy continually suffered from geographic problems and was divided into four separate, mutually unsupportable fleets, two of which could not plausibly enter the main theaters of operation.
Instead, the Soviet Navy was more focused on the “bastion” strategy, designed to defend the patrol areas of nuclear ballistic missile submarines from attack by NATO assets. Developed in response to concerns about the inability to the Soviet SSBN force to deliver its weapons to targets in the United States, the bastion strategy focused on deterring and defeating NATO submarine incursions into SSBN patrol areas. New Russian Project 667B (NATO code-named “Delta”) submarines began to enter service in 1972, giving the Soviet Navy the ability to conduct strategic strikes at range from the United States, and thus making the perilous transit of the GIUK Gap unnecessary. The entry into service of these boats also helped usher in a new era in Soviet naval strategy that focused on the defense of arctic regions from NATO incursion.
NATO was slow to recognize the relevance of the shift in Soviet interest towards anti-submarine platforms, although some voices began to warn about this even in the late 1960s. But Soviet naval platforms, while not uniquely useful for a defensive role, indeed made sense in the context of anti-submarine operations. The Moskva class helicopter cruisers (Moskva and Leningrad) lacked much in the way of surface or air defense but carried enough ASW helicopters to cause problems for NATO subs as part of a larger task force. Throughout the 1970s the Soviet Union commissioned a large number of anti-submarine cruisers and destroyers, designed to support the bastion strategy. The Kynda and Kresta I class cruisers, optimized for surface warfare, were quickly succeeded by the Kresta II and Kara class cruisers, which concentrated on anti-submarine warfare. Furthermore, the Kashin class air defense destroyers supplemented a wide array of gun and missile-armed destroyers built early in the Cold War, while the first few Krivak class frigates were becoming available to the fleet.
Kiev, the first of her class of heavy aircraft carrying cruisers, reached the Northern Fleet in 1976. Equipped with Yak-38 “Forger” VSTOL fighters and with a contingent of anti-submarine helicopters, Kiev would have provided the core of a bastion-defense task force, designed to deter NATO surface ships and ASW patrol aircraft, as well as to hunt NATO submarines.
The Soviets also worried about U.S. carrier battle group attacks against ports and other military installations. For interior defense, the Soviets had large numbers of Komar and Osa class missile-armed patrol boats, as well as diesel-electric submarines. The Soviet Navy would be aided in this by substantial support from navalized heavy bombers, which could attack U.S. aircraft carriers using long-range air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). By the late 1970s the Soviet Naval Air Fleet possessed not only Tu-16 "Badger" and Tu-95 "Bear" long-range aircraft (the latter employed mainly in reconnaissance and anti-submarine roles) but also a significant number of Tu-22M "Backfire" bombers. These bombers were tasked with finding and engaging U.S. carrier battle groups in large formations with cruise missiles, hopefully avoiding USN F-14 Tomcats along the way.
In the Black Sea, the Soviet Navy could have harassed Turkey along its long, exposed coastline, perhaps hoping at the maximum to drive Turkey from the war. Close bases and substantial air support would have given the Soviets a major advantage, although they would have needed to take care not to divert too much material from the main line of attack on NATO's central front. The Baltic Fleet would play a similar role in facilitating attacks on Denmark and southern Norway. Moreover, the Fifth Operational Squadron, operating in the Mediterranean, could undoubtedly annoy NATO's southern flank, but Italy and France, supported by the United States, held significant advantages. In the Pacific, the Soviets had sufficient naval and air assets to maintain SSBN bastions, as well as threaten to attack Japan or South Korea. And to be sure, some percentage of the Soviet submarine fleet would have hazarded the GIUK gap, if only to harass NATO and keep the USN honest. Still, the U.S. had an overall global advantage at sea.
Despite possessing a massive number of ships and aircraft, the Soviet Navy during the 1970s was still decisively inferior to the combined forces of NATO. The fate of the Navy would have depended, to a great extent, on how long the land war ran. That was because the longer it took the Red Army to defeat NATO in Central Europe, the more Soviet naval forces would suffer severe attrition, even as they remained close to their bases. As the 1970s became the 1980s, Soviet maritime strength continued to grow. However, the United States Navy began to think through more aggressive strategies for attacking the patrol areas of Soviet SSBNs, as well the Soviet Union itself.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.
This article is being republished due to reader interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.