Gorshkov: Man who challenged the US Navy

Admiral Gorshkov: The Man Who Challenged the US Navy. By Norman Polmar, Thomas A Brooks, and George E Federoff. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2018.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

FLEET ADMIRAL OF THE SOVIET UNION Sergey Georgyevich Gorshkov ruled the Soviet Navy as its commander-in-chief from January 1956 to December 1985. During this period, he transformed a largely obsolete coastal defence force into a formidable strategic challenger to not only the preeminent US Navy but to NATO and other navies as a continual presence in the oceans of the world.

The three authors are long term scholars of the Soviet Navy and provide a deep analysis of Gorshkov’s influence, not only on the navy during the zenith of Soviet power but his effect on seapower theory. During his period in power, some Western analysts compared him to historical naval theorists such as the American 19thcentury ‘big navy’ advocate Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir John Fisher. The authors are guarded on too close an attachment of Gorshkov to these eminences but there are parallels. Both Gorshkov and Mahan used history as the basis for establishing the importance of a navy and both wrote of new technology. Mahan adopted a universal view of seapower, applicable to all nations, while Gorshkov focussed on naval strategy and doctrine primarily for the Soviet Union. The authors associate Gorshov more with Fisher; the latter’s naval doctrine was based on technology (all big gun ships and submarines) in the interests of the Royal Navy. But all three men were writing to impress upon reluctant national authorities the importance of a navy, ship building and technological development. Both Fisher and Gorshkov were operational commanders – Fisher 1904-10 and 1914-15 but Gorshkov sustained that position for 30 years. 

Gorshkov’s success stemmed from his formidable combat experience during the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War 2), his deft manipulation of the Soviet command and political labyrinths during the purge-plagued Stalin era and later Khrushchev rule to rise to naval head. The Soviet navy was essentially a maritime force supporting the army and fought as such during the war.  Gorshkov’s early sea-going career was centred on destroyer squadrons and by 1939 he was commander of the Pacific destroyer brigade. Promoted rear admiral in 1941 he served as commander of the Azov flotilla, deputy commander of the Novorossiyk defence region and acting commander of the 47thArmy in the Black Sea region.

The authors describe Gorshkov’s active military career in detail as a profile of a patriotic Soviet military officer engaged in the desperate struggle against German forces where no quarter was given. His last sea command was the Black Sea fleet and in 1955 he became First Deputy C-in-C and finally C-in-C in January 1956. Essential to his status was political standing and by October 1961 he was a Full member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Stalin had always favoured a ‘big navy’ comprising battleships and heavy cruisers to stamp the Soviet presence on the world’s oceans. Even pre-war this was challenged by the Soviet version of the French ‘jeune ecole’ which favoured fast attack craft and submarines. Stalin again took up the capital ship theme post war, supported by the then navy chief Kuznetsov. On Stalin’s death in 1953 his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted all the capital ship plans scrapped and attention given to missile-armed submarines. Gorshkov took up the strategic and tactical missile concept with a specific target: the US Navy’s aircraft carriers threatening the Soviet Union with nuclear-armed aircraft from forward deployments in the Norwegian Sea, eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Japan. Gorshkov armed destroyers with missiles and initiated building programs for destroyers, cruisers and long-range naval aviation as well as land attack missile and ballistic missile submarines for strategic missions. The navy’s former primary coastal defence role, while maintained and reinforced by missile corvettes and amphibious forces, was expanded to a blue water navy with the direct aim of countering the carrier threat against the Soviet Union. 

The Soviet navy’s capabilities were demonstrated in the series of world-wide ‘Okean’ exercises. All allocations of resources in the Soviet Union was based on a centralised, five-year economic plan. The end of the 1966-70 plan, during April/May 1970 saw the largest peacetime exercises ever conducted by any navy. 

The 1970 Okean exercise had phases in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and western Pacific as well as seas adjacent to the Soviet Union. Gorshkov personally directed the exercise and it was primarily a demonstration to the Soviet Politburo of the scale and efficiency of the new Soviet Navy. Such was the success of the exercises that increased resources were allocated to ship and submarine construction programs.

The authors take the reader through all the well-known Soviet surface ship, submarine, aviation and missile programs of the Gorshkov era and the strategic and tactical implications which confirmed its status as a superpower. The authors describe Gorshkov’s ultimate legacy as: ‘a Soviet Navy recognised as a critical component of Soviet war-fighting strategy, second only to the Strategic Rocket Forces; a Soviet navy seen by the West as large, potent and capable; a Soviet Navy acknowledged by senior Soviet/Russian political leadership as a significant  contribution to the achievement of foreign policy goals’.

Gorshkov did not live to see the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He died in 1988, 18 months after his retirement. The authors’ final chapter carries Gorshkov’s legacy into the post-collapse Russian Federation navy. This collapse was evident in the once proud navy; by the end of 2015 the Russian navy was less than one-fourth of the size of the Soviet navy in 1985. We are brought up to date with the tortuous rebuild of the Russian navy to its present state under President Putin’s determination to restore Russia to great power status. The ghost of Gorshkov lurks in that determination.

This is an important book which deserves attention by higher military education institutions as an example of leadership against internal political opposition through championing technology while identifying a singular maritime threat to the nation. Gorshov’s 30-year rule never suffered from stolidity and staleness; his programs were innovative and at the edge of technology which had advantageous results for Soviet science and industry. One of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s demise was an over extension of resources to the military-industrial sector in attempts to compete with the West. This, plus the political bankruptcy of the Soviet system, ended its reign as the second superpower. Fleet Admiral of the Soviet Union Sergey Georgyevich Gorshkov served his country and its political ideology well as a Hero of the Soviet Union. 

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