47. Executive Summary Prepared in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Program Analysis and Evaluation (Sullivan)1

I. Executive Summary

The United States emerged from World War II with the largest and most capable naval force the world has ever known, and with undisputed supremacy across the oceans and seas of the world. The British maintained the only other major ocean-going Navy, and even this was of only moderate size compared with U.S. forces. The U.S. naval monopoly, together with the historic concept of “freedom of the seas,” enabled the U.S. to adopt a “forward defense” strategy and to develop economic bonds and other forms of interdependence which are fundamentally predicated on free use of the high seas.

Immediately following the end of World War II, the Soviet Union embarked upon the construction of an oceanic naval force of its own, [Page 218] following up on plans halted by the war. After seeing to coastal defense, the first Soviet initiative was the development of a large force capable of interdicting the sea lanes of communication. This assessment is based principally on production of a large diesel submarine force which posed a threat to U.S. reinforcement of Western Europe. In the mid-1950s, emphasis was shifted to the more rapid development of naval defense forces capable of denying U.S. carrier forces the ability to approach the Soviet land mass and threaten their homeland with nuclear weapons. The forces developed in support of this mission also contributed to the Soviets’ capability for interdicting sea lines of communication. Primarily in response to the Cuban Crisis of 1962, in the 1960s this anti-carrier objective was augmented with a third goal—to develop a naval surface fleet capable of establishing peacetime force presence and projecting Soviet influence at substantial distances from its own homeland.

An appreciation for the economic, geographical, political, and historical considerations which impel differing U.S. and Soviet outlooks on maritime affairs is essential to understanding the asymmetry in their naval missions and where these missions may come into conflict. The U.S. must import essential raw materials and fuel by sea and is committed to reinforcing and resupplying its allies by sea in the event of a major conflict on land. On the other hand, the Soviets do not depend heavily on sea lines of communication. Historically, they treated their navy as the seaward extension of the Red Army; however, this strategy has now changed to include sea lane interdiction, crisis management, and other missions associated with first-rate naval powers.

Despite a significant commitment of resources to increased naval capability, the Soviet Union remains essentially a continental power, very little dependent upon the use of the seas to maintain its economic or political integrity with its European Allies. Their increased military capability has allowed the Soviet Union increasingly to become involved in international affairs and to attempt to exert a greater influence in the international forum. It exerts influence through diplomatic efforts, security assistance and military force presence in the Mid-East, Africa, the southern littoral of the Mediterranean and in South Asia. These endeavors are facilitated by a sea-going navy for credible support.

U.S. maritime missions have been essentially constant since World War II, changing only slightly in response to the changing capabilities of the USSR. In contrast, Soviet maritime missions have changed markedly during this period. Their peacetime presence mission is essentially the same as that of the U.S. in concept, although not yet in magnitude. Their use of maritime forces for crisis reaction and potential unilateral intervention has been converging with the historical practices of the [Page 219] U.S. and other maritime powers. In the context of large-scale sustained conflict in Europe, the maritime missions of the two sides are substantially different. In such a conflict, U.S. and Allied maritime forces are committed to maintaining control of those areas of the seas needed for essential military tasks whereas the central theme of Soviet naval policy and planning for nearly two decades has been the seaward defense of the homeland against the carrier threat. To the extent possible, the Soviets would extend anti-carrier operations into the sea approaches to the Eurasian continent. Currently, this longer range threat would predominantly include submarines. In addition, the emergence of this formidable Soviet naval capability equates to significantly expanded offensive power. This offensive power is particularly evident in the surprise attack potential of their deployed combatants.

In the three decades since the end of World War II, the Soviets have succeeded in building up capable undersea, surface and air arms—naval forces which are now cause for substantial concern to the United States and her Allies. Nevertheless, although the free world has lost its monopoly at sea and must take Soviet naval forces seriously, the total free world’s navies retain an edge in aggregate capability. (The Navy believes the basic study substantiates only an edge in numbers and tonnage of combatant ships, not an edge in capability. The Navy further states that “What is of main concern, however, is the trend in the capabilities of the two sides, with Soviet capabilities steadily increasing relative to those of the U.S. Unless arrested, this trend could shift the maritime balance in a way which would provide the So-viets political and military opportunities clearly detrimental to U.S. interests.”)

The United States maintains a fleet of aircraft carriers with a capability which the Soviets could not duplicate for another 10 to 20 years. It would require more years for the USSR to build up the operating know-how accumulated by the U.S. Navy, in both routine peacetime deployments and in recent conflicts. The U.S. anti-submarine capability is substantially better than that of the Soviet Union. Our submarine force is a serious threat to the Soviet Navy in itself, and its superior technology would make it very difficult to neutralize even if Soviet ASW capabilities were equivalent to those of the U.S.

The U.S. Navy has demonstrated a greater ability to maintain presence forces in the world’s oceans primarily because the Soviet ships do not spend as much time at sea and because their underway replenishment forces are not as advanced as those available to the U.S. Navy. However, the Soviet underway replenishment capability has been increasing in the past few years and could in time support an increased tempo of operations.

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The U.S. maintains a first-rate amphibious force and three active divisions of Marines; and while they do not enter this comparison of naval forces per se, they give the U.S. a unique capability. Finally, the U.S. has extensive air assets, as does the USSR, that can augment our naval forces, both for air defense, ocean surveillance, anti-ship missions, and the like in a NATO war, provided they could be spared from their primary missions. In other contingencies, short of a NATO war, restrictions on base and overflight privileges could hamper the use of these air assets to support U.S. maritime interests in some areas of the world.

The U.S. has made significant strides since World War II in naval capabilities. The Soviets, starting from far behind the U.S., have made even greater strides, relatively speaking. The USSR, with no attack carriers, has created an excellent, formidable anti-ship missile force with weapons launched from ships, submarines, and aircraft. In the past, the United States has relied primarily on carrier-based aircraft and submarines for attack of enemy surface ships; beginning in FY 76, however, U.S. sea-based air and submarine systems will be augmented by deployment of anti-ship missiles in large numbers aboard these systems and surface combatants and land-based patrol aircraft as well. The USSR has built a large submarine force which has an increasing capability to operate worldwide. While the size of the total submarine force is decreasing due to the retirement of the older, short range diesel-electric ships, a modern force of capable nuclear-powered ships is emerging. The USSR has begun the construction of aircraft carriers, and has an amphibious force which currently has a capability much less than ours, but is growing.

During the past 25 years, the USSR has built nearly three times as many new naval vessels2 as the U.S. (a third again as many as the combined output of the Free World). In terms of displacement tonnage, Soviet major warship construction has been two-thirds of that of the U.S. over the 25-year period and less than half of that of the combined Free World navies. In any event, the Soviets have created a substantial shipbuilding industry. U.S. capability is considerably greater but dedicated primarily to commercial work. Numbers and tonnage, however, are only crude indicators of capability. Other measures, both quantitative and qualitative, are also important in assessing the relative balance in each of the many scenarios in which maritime forces could be employed. Chief among these other measures are experience; the sensor, weapons, and countermeasures suites carried by individual units; and the surveillance, command and control facilities available to each side.

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The Soviets show increasing proficiency in naval operations although their forces spend considerably less time at sea than the U.S. forces. They have developed an excellent dedicated surface ocean surveillance system, which while quite different from ours, is at least as effective as our own. The USSR intelligence gathering naval forces far exceed the U.S. numerically, although the U.S. uses other techniques to achieve the same objectives. The U.S. anti-submarine surveillance remains far better than that of the Soviets, which has a negligible capability against U.S. nuclear-powered submarines on patrol.

In designing naval forces, as is true for all their armed forces, the Soviets appear to be less concerned than the U.S. with the physical comforts of their people. Thus, they spend less to maintain their manpower, and appear to devote a larger share of their national resources to military hardware.

Having discussed force comparisons, the paper then presents analytical data—principally from the Navy’s NARAC(G) and SEAMIX I studies3—on the relative standing of the naval forces of the Soviet Union and of the Free World. The analyses indicate that the Free World can, after some period of time, prevail at sea in any major war with the Soviet Union, but may suffer substantial losses in the process. The magnitude of Allied losses would depend strongly on the degree to which it would be necessary to challenge the Soviets in their strong areas. North Atlantic convoys opposed by large numbers of pre-deployed Soviet submarines early in a war are likely to suffer heavy attrition. Similarly, aircraft carrier task groups could face massive submarine and SSM/ASM opposition should they attempt to fly strikes against the USSR from the Norwegian Sea or northwest Pacific areas. Establishment of sea control would be a prerequisite to projecting power ashore in such areas. Greatly expanded naval forces could improve our ability to challenge the USSR in their strong areas, but obviously would still face stiff resistance. A careful tailoring of NATO’s force posture in Europe to reduce the need for the U.S. to expose surface forces to submarine attack in the early months would be required to significantly reduce the risk of losses.

Given a sudden outbreak of large-scale hostilities, it is probable that some of our major combatants would be sunk by anti-ship missiles and/or torpedoes, and many more put out of commission for weeks or months. Such an attack could well be a logical Soviet first act of war and is a threat which U.S. plans and deployments should take into account. Soviet submarines would also be able to extract a substantial attrition (perhaps as high as 30%) of military and merchant tonnage during the [Page 222] early weeks of a NATO war if most or all were dedicated to this mission. It is uncertain whether surface ships of the U.S. Navy could continue to operate in the Eastern Mediterranean during the early phases of such a war without unacceptable losses. Clearly, this uncertainty is dependent on the availability of neighboring land bases for each side. It is also to be expected that some of our submarines would be found and sunk. With present force levels, the U.S. Navy may have to draw down on Pacific assets to such an extent that protection of resupply routes for U.S. Asian Allies could be very difficult. The Navy states that such protection would be impossible and that Indian Ocean oil routes would be left essentially uncovered. In summary, there is no question that the Soviet Navy has become a force to be reckoned with.

The potential of the Soviet Navy for operations in less than major war may be a more important aspect of its increased capabilities. It is capable of mining, quarantining, or blockading such places as the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Malacca, Japanese ports, the Suez Canal, and possibly the Straits of Gibraltar if it is in the Soviet interest to take such belligerent actions. It is clearly capable of interfering with normal seaborne commerce, and of threatening a variety of other naval acts of belligerence. In short, Admiral Gorshkov’s pronouncement in 1968 that “the U.S. will have to understand that it no longer has mastery of the seas,” while perhaps an overstatement in 1968, will not be an overstatement in 1978. Complete mastery of all the seas was a luxury available to the Free World when it had the only large standing navy on the planet. As long as there are two—and now there are—neither side will be able to make such a claim, and both sides will be able to interfere with the “free flow of commerce.”

To the extent that the U.S. is economically dependent upon the seas, and the Soviets much less so, this gives the USSR leverage, both political and military—which will remain even if the U.S. succeeds in maintaining a superior fighting capability. The challenge will remain and certainly in some local areas, for intervals of time, the enemy can assemble a superior force.

In a non-NATO contingency, depending upon the geographical location, the Soviets may be able to mount a force that will thwart U.S. efforts to favorably influence the outcome. Inability to use many of our overseas bases in a non-NATO contingency could compound U.S. difficulties in such a situation.

In the tactical nuclear area, both sides are clearly capable of extracting a high level of destruction against the other. From the U.S. point of view, our relatively few high value naval task forces and convoys would become very much more vulnerable to nuclear attack than could be offset by the added U.S. nuclear firepower against Soviet [Page 223] ships at sea. Thus, escalation to the use of nuclear weapons at sea should be avoided.

[Omitted here are Section II, “Maritime Missions;” Section III, “Comparative Maritime Forces;” and five annexes.]4

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Schlesinger Papers, Actions Memos, December 1974. Secret. Sullivan forwarded the paper to Schlesinger under a covering memorandum, November 25, and Schlesinger forwarded it to Kissinger under a covering memorandum, December 16. The study, Schlesinger wrote, “addresses many of the issues raised by NSSM 177 (Document 12), and I believe is as complete a response to that NSSM as is presently feasible.” He continued, “Much of the concern over naval modernization arises from the fact that during the Vietnam War the rate of modernization of the Navy lagged seriously. We are now in the early stages of a naval modernization program which, if supported by Congress, will reverse the decline in force levels.” He added that “substantial additional increases” in naval funding were unwarranted, however. “Given the current and projected status of the maritime balance, there appears to be a high probability that U.S./Allied maritime forces would prevail in an all-out conventional war with the Soviet Union. However, it must be recognized that the growth of Soviet naval capabilities has introduced substantial uncertainty into this assessment,” he concluded. Sullivan’s and Schlesinger’s memoranda are ibid.
  2. Major warships (1,000 tons or greater). [Footnote in the original.]
  3. Not found.
  4. In a January 7, 1975 memorandum to Kissinger, George Brown wrote that he was in “general agreement” with the paper. Brown endorsed Schlesinger’s view that the continued adequacy of U. S. naval forces, then at their lowest levels since 1939, depended upon ongoing modernization and shipbuilding programs scheduled to reverse the downward trend by FY 1977. (National Archives, RG 218, Official Records of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Brown, 035 (NSC, 1 July 74–31 Aug. 77)) In a March 17 memorandum to Kissinger, Middendorf generally agreed with Brown, but expressed even stronger reservations about the Navy’s future capabilities unless modernization and shipbuilding plans were actually carried out. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–198, Study Memorandums, NSSM 177 [1 of 3]) According to a December 31, 1975 memorandum to Scowcroft from Stephen J. Hadley of the NSC Staff, the study “was never acted upon, and for this reason there has been no formal follow-up” to NSSM 177.” (Ibid.)