Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-018
5 Mar. 2021
Review by Gates Brown, US Army Command and General Staff College
Admiral Gorshkov: The Man Who Challenged the US Navy
By Norman Polmar, Thomas A. Brooks, and George E. Federoff
Annapolis: Naval Inst. Press, 2019. Pp. xx, 264. ISBN 978–1–68247–330–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, Cold War, Naval Warfare Print Version

The failure of the Russian navy at the Battle of Tsushima (27–28 May 1905) against the Imperial Japanese Navy was a straw in the wind. Since Russia's traditional naval strategy centered on maintaining access to the Baltic Sea and supporting ground forces rather than battling enemy fleets, its defeat in the Sea of Japan exacerbated domestic tensions and led to revolution. Tsar Nicholas II tried to reform his government and military in order to retain his status as an absolute monarch, but Russian military failures in World War I contributed to the revolution that destroyed the Tsarist government. The Bolshevik Revolution disrupted all elements of Russian society, including the navy. Political allegiances outweighed professional experience, which strained relations between the ruling Bolsheviks and the military on into the 1930s. Stalin's purges left a void of skilled professionals and chilled innovation. Given this background, the outbreak of the Second World War gave the Soviet military a chance to redeem itself in Stalin's eyes. During the war, the Soviet Navy, especially the Black Sea Fleet, successfully supported ground forces in a very active theater, including amphibious operations that launched the Soviet Crimean offensive in 1944.


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Sergey Gorshkov, later the long-time head of the Soviet Navy (1956–85), served in the Black Sea Fleet in World War II. Being too young to be affected by Stalin's purges, Gorshkov, working with Leonid Brezhnev, had the chance to prove himself during operations that pushed the Wehrmacht out of the Caucasus. He worked with Nikita Khrushchev in naval actions in relief of besieged Stalingrad. These connections did much to advance his naval career in the long term.

After World War II, Soviet naval leaders had to satisfy domestic political needs as well as the strategic security imperatives of the Soviet Union. No small feat, given the impact of Stalin's leadership. In Admiral Gorshkov, Norman Polmar, Thomas Brooks, and George Federoff[1] discuss the career of a pivotal Soviet naval figure; Gorshkov came of age in a Soviet Navy divided between those who wanted to build an ocean-going fleet and those who favored a fleet of smaller vessels designed to support ground operations. Stalin settled this issue in the immediate postwar period by deciding to challenge the US Navy. For him, the fleet had critical strategic value in maintaining Soviet access to the world's oceans. But this idea died with Stalin in 1953. Gorshkov's avoidance of entanglement in Soviet politics at the time made him an acceptable leader of the Soviet Navy as the Politburo sought to reform the branch.

Gorshkov's ties to Khrushchev and Brezhnev paid off in his promotion to Commander in Chief of the Soviet Navy and First Deputy Minister of Defense in 1956. Khrushchev wanted him to build a Navy based on submarines. Gorshkov, however, successfully argued that it was not enough to have a large number of submarines. The Navy had a broader mission: protecting the USSR from NATO's naval forces. This meant, Gorshkov believed, building more surface vessels as well as submarines. The result was a Navy that posed a much more credible threat to NATO than Khrushchev envisaged.

Gorhskov also advocated effectively for the Soviet Navy in its inter-service rivalry within the military. Before Gorshkov's leadership, the Navy trailed the other services in importance, with pride of place going to the Strategic Rocket Force. However, Gorshkov convinced Soviet leaders that the Navy would have a key role to play in a nuclear war and in the broader context of conventional deterrence; a Navy armed with missile destroyers and ballistic missile submarines could be a vital supplement to the Strategic Rocket Force.

Gorshkov's writings, too, contributed significantly to Soviet naval doctrine. A series of his essays—translated into English in the early 1960s—clarified Soviet naval doctrine and practice. While Gorshkov's definition of the Soviet view of command of the sea was reminiscent of Alfred Thayer Mahan's stress on decisive victories over enemy fleets, it differed in its execution. Gorshkov argued that the Soviet Navy need not destroy the US Navy if it could pin it down in a secondary theater and exploit its command of the seas in the main theater.

Although Stalin's death ended the Soviet preoccupation with a large surface fleet, Gorshkov continued to lobby for a larger navy. The Suez Crisis of 1956 gave his argument cogency. Soviet leaders recognized that a lack of naval assets would prevent their responding to the needs of allies and client states. Gorshkov used his influence to shape naval construction in other ways as well. He successfully advocated for the production of a Soviet aircraft carrier and larger submarines. Even so, the USSR never did challenge the naval aviation capability of the US Navy.

Probably the easiest way to obtain an appreciation of Admiral Gorshkov's accomplishments … as Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy is to peruse that navy's order of battle in 1956 and in 1985. In other periods there was a large navy, but the differences are immediately obvious. The 1956 fleet was a collection of ships either left over from World War II or adaptations of World War II technology. There were no missile-firing or aviation-capable surface ships, and no nuclear submarines had yet entered service.

Looking at 1985, the order of battle reveals several classes of nuclear-propelled submarines with long-range ballistic missiles, a large fleet of nuclear attack and nuclear cruise missile-firing submarines, two classes of aviation ships and a third class under construction, and several classes of missile-capable cruisers and destroyers, among them nuclear-propelled "battle cruisers." More advanced, high-technology ships were under construction. (194, 196)

Given the paucity of English-language studies of Soviet military officers,[2] I strongly recommend this biography of Admiral Gorshkov, who led the Soviet Navy for over two decades of the Cold War.

[1] All three authors have had extensive experience as intelligence specialists and military advisers.

[2] Relevant exceptions are Richard Harrison, Architect of Soviet Victory in World War II: The Life and Theories of G.S. Isserson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010), and Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov (NY: Random House, 2012).

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