What are the current capabilities of ships in the Soviet Navy, particularly those newly constructed? What new construction plans are being considered? Unlike the U.S., the Soviets publish very little information on any of these areas and the Western nations rely heavily on intelligence sources, including data obtained by the U.S. Navy surface ships, in search of reliable answers.
There wasn't any need for answers at the end of World War II. The U.S. Navy was the strongest in the world while the Soviet navy was at its weakest. The editor of Jane's Fighting Ships, CAPT John E. Moore, RN (Ret.) in the foreword of the 1979-80 edition, summed up the immediate post-war construction programs of the two countries:
"While the (U.S.) discarded hundreds of ships, the (USSR) began a building program which, at its inception, was apparently designed as a defensive force. At the same time, the policies of the two countries were totally different."
But, he went on, the Soviet shipbuilding program went far beyond the needs for defense. "Although the overall total of (Soviet) ships had decreased in recent years, this has been more than compensated for by the size and capabilities of ships now being completed. With the second aircraft carrier operating East of Suez, two more at least may be expected in the next three years. The task of these ships as the center of a group in any peacetime confrontation or as the core of an antisubmarine force in war is fairly clear. What is not apparent is the role of the new Sovietsky Soyuz class being built at Leningrad. This monster of some 32,000 tons and her sisters bristle with missiles and guns, can carry aircraft and can best be described by the old-fashioned title "battle cruiser" . . . . Reports of the planned classs of 12, if correct, would mean that these huge ships would be completing until the 1990's."
The editor of Jane's cited other construction:
"Longprange operations are also foreshadowed by the arrival of two more classes, both of which show a sudden and marked increase in size, the landing platform dock (LPD) of the Ivan Rogov class and the support ship Berezina. The first of these can carry a battalion of naval infantry, helicopters, hovercraft and support armour on 13,000 tons. This is certainly not a ship designed for the Baltic and, with the class in series droduction, provides a long-range, long-endurace capability. Endurance is a commodity built into the second ship, Berezina, which may well be the lead ship of a class of four or more."
Berezina, displacing 36,000 tons, has surface gun armament, SAM missiles and antisubmarine launcher "which, from their site, could provide antitorpedo protection." Because the ship has five cranes aboard, two storing gantries and a liquid fuel gantry, the editor believes it to be a support ship for aircraft carriers on long endurance operations.
He also noted that a pattern of surface ship operations is emerging because of the construction of the Kirov class cruiser as a follow-on to the Kresta II class and the continuing construction of the Kara and Krivak.
"The final assessment shows a whole range of naval capability," he continues, "but the question is what is the purpose of this impressive fleet?"
Although the Jane's estimates are respected worldwide as one of the best available in an unclassified publication, they are not always based on hard intelligence. The U.S. Navy, conscious of the need for first-hand, accurate information regarding the capabilities and operations of deployed Soviet naval ships, constantly tasks deployed units to conduct surveillance work whenever the opportunity arises. A recent example of this occurred in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden when USS Elliot (DD 967), commanded by CDR Stephen S. Clary, served as flagship for Commander Destroyer Squadron 31, CAPT John M. Poindexter, during the destroyer's initial WestPac tour.
In the Indian Ocean, Elliot became part of Carrier Battle Group 77.4, centered around USS Midway (CV 41). The task group included USS England (CG 22), commanded by CAPT Hugh L. Webster, USS Camden (AOE 2), commanded by CAPT Guy A. B. Grafius, USS Downes (FF 1070), commanded by CDR Charles O. Johnson, and USS Robison (DDG 12), commanded by CDR Dana P. French, Jr. The ships conducted routine operations in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, continuing to show a U.S. presence in those waters, when a Soviet naval task group en route to Vladivostok from the Black Sea also entered the Indian Ocean. The Soviet group included the second of the hybrid cruiser-carriers of the Kiev-class, Minsk (CVHG 117), and two Kara-class cruisers, Petropavlovsk and a sister ship, the amphibious assault ship Ivan Rogov (LPD 132), and the T-AOR Boris Butoma.
On occasion, Elliot conducted surveillance of the Soviet ships and observed their operations. This included VTOL operations by Minsk's YAK-36 Forger light aircraft, KA-25 Hormone helicpter flights from Minsk and Petropavlovsk, and several underway replenishments.
The Spruance-class destroyer's inherent capabilities make it an ideal ship for surveillance operations. Endurance and response from the ship's four gas turbine engines make it possible to conduct such operations with minimal notice and with less fuel logistics concerns. Excellent command and control capabilities assures a thorough, carefully controlled effort.
While carefully briefed teams recorded observations from the bridge and signal bridge, the full range of onboard sensors, including seamen with Instamatic cameras, also "observed" the Soviet task group.
Elliot's first encounter with the Soviets occurred while en route to a Seychelle Islands port visit with USS Downes. The destroyer found Minsk and Boris Butoma conducting underway alongside refueling. After launching the ship's SH-2F LAMPS helicopter, piloted by LCDR Mike Coumatos, officer-in-charge of HSL-33 Detachment ONE, for aerial observations, Elliot took up station astern of Minsk.
When refueling was completed, Minsk launched a Hormone-B helicopter. With the LAMPS and Hormone airborne concurrently, it was observed that the LAMPS helo was noticeably more maneuverable than the Soviet. When LAMPS returned to the destroyer, film taken during the flight was immediately developed in the ship's hobbyshop darkroom and prints were made for study that evening. The photographic results were excellent.
Elliot maneuvered in the vicinity of Minsk and the Soviet formation freely and reported Alpha Station on the beam or astern the Minsk for a total of five days. On one occasion, while in position astern, close-in observation of the VTOL Forger aircraft operations were conducted, including direct flights overhead while the aircraft were "on final." the noise was deafening on Elliot's signal bridge, but the Soviet flights were wll photographed.
Some sharp contrasts between Soviet and American operations were observed. UNREP's took six hours to perfom for each Soviet ship, refueled one at a time alongside the oiler. Flight deck operations were generally slow and showed few of the most elementary safety precautions being taken. During flight operations, neither the VTOL Forger nor the Hormone helicopter flew out of visible range of the mother ship.
Elliot and Minsk exchange visual signals during the maneuvers. The first was from Elliot: "I intend to pass up your starboard side." Minsk replied: "Your signal uderstood. Don't pass too close." The final exchange was an appropriate "Good luck" from Elliot to Minsk and the Soviet ship responded: "Good sailing."
"When we left them," said CDR Clarey, Elliot's commanding officer, "Petropavlovsk was following smartly in Minsk's wake, maintaining planeguard station. She wasn't doing that when we arrived. They learned that from Elliot."
Excerpt from Surface Warfare, November 1979 issue
| 1979 COMMAND HISTORY |