Naval Gazing 12: Cold Warriors

By Tom Anderson


A US Navy P-2H Neptune of VP-18 flying over a Soviet cargo ship during the Cuban Missile Crisis

As the Second World War ended, the Cold War began. The Soviet Union and the Western Allies had always been uneasy bedfellows, and some even expected that as soon as Nazi Germany was crushed between them, a new war would begin between the two sides. This did not happen; but beginning with the Berlin Airlift and the first Soviet nuclear detonation at the end of the 1940s, tensions between West and East, Capitalist and Communism, escalated in earnest.

This was a period like no other. The invention and proliferation of a single bomb that could destroy an entire city forced the reassessment of many calculations. If political leaders of either side miscalculated, it would mean not only a lost war but potentially the end of human civilisation, as the number of weapons multiplied into the thousands and became deliverable by missiles as well as bombers. It also hung question marks over the future of conventional warfare altogether, as it seemed inevitable that any war would escalate into the use of the atom bomb—and to what end? While it seems self-evident today that conventional wars can still happen, in the early Cold War clashes such as the Korean War, it was a very real possibility that (in that case Western) reverses could lead to the open contemplation of opening the atomic Pandora’s box.

The burning question of the Cold War was whether the Soviet Union could conquer Western Europe, breaking the post-WW2 divide which Churchill had called the ‘Iron Curtain’. The USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies and vassals typically had overwhelming superiority of conventional arms (tanks, soldiers, and so on). Stereotypical images of the ‘Red Scare’ in 1950s America typically portray fear of a Soviet pre-emptive nuclear strike, but for this reason (unless the Soviets sought to destroy American bombers and missiles on the ground before they could launch) it is far more likely that the West would be the first to press ‘the button’. In the absence of nukes, the Soviets would be very likely to win a conventional war in Europe. This also meant that an American President would have to effectively put his own cities on the line for potential retaliation in order to save Western Europe by evening the balance through the first use of nuclear weapons. When the chips were down, would the Americans really do this, or shrug and write off Europe?


Paranoia over this question from politicians in the countries on the line led to work such as that by Denis Healey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, in tying up the US forces into treaties and command and control arrangements to try to avoid them backing out in the event of war. This is also a big part of the reason why Britain and France felt it so important to retain their own independent nuclear deterrents; far smaller than those of the US or USSR, but as French President Charles de Gaulle observed, if the French could kill 80 million Russians, he need not fear that the Russians could kill 800 million French—because there aren’t 800 million French.

Nagasaki in 1945. At time of press, still the last time a Nuclear Weapon was detonated during the course of warfare.

Despite the great fears of many (including those who backed nuclear disarmament movements) this seemingly insane strategy of ‘mutually assured destruction’—ensure that any war would end in the destruction of the entire world—worked. As the film WarGames put it, ‘the only way to win is not to play’. Remarkably, since Japan’s surrender 1945 not a single nuclear weapon has ever been used in anger by any country, force or individual.

Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that we are quite a way into this article and have not yet mentioned, er, anything naval. This is for good reason. Though the Cold War was a new and unique period in some ways, in others it resembled some of the previous periods we’ve discussed. It resembled the nineteenth century, in that rapid military technological advancement occurred in a long era without direct conflict between great powers, meaning that smaller conflicts between lesser nations merely supplied with materiel by those powers were watched keenly by theorists. It also resembled the Napoleonic Wars and the Great War, in that most of the major naval powers were on the same side, meaning major naval conflict seemed unlikely. World War II had reshaped the assumptions of the world on that score; indeed, Canada was technically the third largest naval power in the world in her own right at the end of the war. The United States, a country whose cultural foundation of resisting taxation and suspicion of a standing army meant she had historically been reluctant to fund a large navy, was now the world’s premier naval power by a long way. Whereas Britain had once maintained a naval tonnage of two or three as much as the next power, in the late 20th century the US achieved a ratio of seventeen times as much as number two.

The Soviet Union, like its Russian imperial predecessor, was always a continental power first and a naval one decidedly second. In 1904, H. J. Mackinder had advanced a theory to the Royal Geographical Society in an article entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History”, in which he defined the continental Old World as the ‘World-Island’. He suggested that he who controlled its Heartland or ‘Pivot Area’ would dominate the world due to possessing over 50% of its resources. Mackinder’s theory remains controversial, but it is true to say that the USSR had the tremendous advantage of self-sufficiency possessing those resources either directly or through her vassals. It meant she had no need to build a large navy to protect convoys coming in from across the world. Defensively, the Soviet naval strategy focused on flying the flag across the world to present a strong position for developing post-colonial nations which she hoped to obtain the support of; offensively, it called for submarines and fast, manoeuvrable surface ships with the goal of disrupting enemy lines of sea communication. The Western powers did not enjoy the same advantages of self-sufficiency as the USSR.

Meanwhile, America’s Truman Doctrine focused on containing the spread of Communism across the Old World, using quarantine imagery that portrayed the Soviet ideology as a disease. America sought to form alliances with strategically important nations. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, exists to this day and links North America to Western Europe; SEATO, the South East Asian Treaty Organisation, bound together anticommunist states in that region as well as North America, Britain and Australia. 1955 saw the UK set up the Baghdad Pact, later CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation) with strategically important nations bordering the USSR: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. This was done under American auspices, but President Eisenhower could not formally join the US to CENTO as Congress would not agree to alliances with states aligned against Israel. Navally speaking, American doctrine both reflected a continuation of what had succeeded against Japan in the Second World War, and the need to tie together these disparate alliances across the world. The United States heavily emphasised the need for aircraft carriers, and the US has consistently possessed more carriers than the rest of the world put together. The Soviet doctrine did not strictly require them at all, and the USSR did not obtain its first carrier until the 1980s.

American carriers were not only designed to win naval battles as in the Second World War, but to support land operations with the air power that had been so effective in crushing Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, the use of the American phrase ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ to describe both islands in the Pacific and later the UK itself, led George Orwell to coin the anodyne dismissive name of ‘Airstrip One’ for Britain in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, the Cold War was a period of serious decline for the Royal Navy. The Suez Crisis of 1956 had effectively ended the claimed superpower status of Britain and France, and in 1968—amidst economic crisis—Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced Britain would withdraw forces from ‘east of Suez’, abandoning what remained of the old Imperial-era strategy. What had once been a force that could dominate the world was increasingly reduced to being a mere adjunct to American strategy in the event of a shooting war with the USSR. In 1959 she retired the last battleship built in the world, HMS Vanguard, after failed suggestions that the obsolete craft could be retained as a symbolic flagship for royal visits. In the 1970s she began planning to scrap her aircraft carriers. The RN’s role had been reduced to acting as an anti-submarine force against Soviet submarines seeking to break out of the so-called “GIUK Gap” (Greenland-Iceland-UK) to prey on Western shipping.

Meanwhile throughout all this, low-level conflicts were raging around the world. Britain, France and the other colonial powers were retreating from empire around the world, a move that both the US and USSR tended to push for at the new United Nations. The Americans’ anti-Communism treaty strategies met with decidedly mixed success. The Communists won the Chinese Civil War and pushed the US-backed Kuomintang government out to Taiwan, which survives to this day as the separate Republic of China. South Korea and Malaysia were saved from Communism, but throughout the 1960s and early 70s America would fight the long defeat in Vietnam. All the air power that had been so effective in World War II proved useless in this new kind of conflict. The Western alignment with Pakistan also lost any chance for the world’s largest democracy, India, joining the Western alliance; India pursued leadership of the idealistic but ineffective ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ which theoretically sought a third way for developing nations to avoid alignment with either side. In practice, India tended towards a lukewarm pro-Soviet neutrality, buying military materiel from the USSR. American (and British) backing for unpopular regimes could also backfire, as with the revolutions seen in Iraq in 1958 and Iran in 1979.

Three Cuban Soldiers operate a Soviet Artillery piece for the Ethiopian Army during the Ogaden War.

The Soviets also reached out beyond the Truman Doctrine quarantine to try to establish and support Communist movements throughout the world, which could often meet with success just as mixed. For example, Benin in Africa suffered a military coup in 1975 which wrapped itself in Marxist-Leninist colours in order to (successfully) obtain Soviet aid and backing, but in practice it was little distinguishable from any of the other juntas in the region, and dissolved as soon as the support dried up. This was mirrored by many of the regimes which the US backed, where rhetoric about democracy was often undermined by the CIA backing right-wing military coups against democratically elected left-wing regimes (as with General Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in 1973). Possibly the most farcical example of Cold War proxy wars was the Ogaden War between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977-1978, where the USSR found itself supplying both sides, which both claimed to be Marxist-Leninist. Other Communist states were divided in which side to support, signifying the ‘Sino-Soviet Split’; Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War had been a double-edged sword for the USSR, as it meant global communism was now no longer under a single central authority.

Throughout these conflicts, the use of naval power was usually quite secondary, if present at all. For example, US naval strength was important in the Battle of Inchon (or Incheon) during the Korean War, but this consisted of coastal bombardment and protecting the landings of US and Korean Marines, not ship-to-ship combat. 1974 saw the Turkish amphibious invasion of northern Cyprus, also without ship-to-ship combat. Such combat technically escalated the Vietnam War in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964, when the USS Maddox supposedly fired on North Vietnamese torpedo boats stalking it (later documents suggest the incident was, if not fabricated, a case of firing on an optical illusion).

However, it seemed the major naval ship-to-ship combat of the past was in decline. The Soviets focused on those technologies that would help them in asymmetric combat: submarines (initially using captured developments by the Nazis in World War II) and putting missiles on even small boats, similar to the torpedo boats of the past. The United States was aware of the potential of missiles (which could be considered a more refined and less suicidal version of the kamikaze attacks her ships had suffered at Japanese hands in the Pacific War). The US Navy spent 16 years on ‘Operation Bumblebee’, which resulted in the ‘Talos’ sea-launched surface-to-air missile, intended to shoot down anti-ship missiles and kamikaze aircraft. Talos appeared at the end of the 1950s and was used till the end of the 1970s, and is typical of the atomic overkill of the era: it could be equipped with nuclear warheads! In the middle of the Cold War, while the United States and the other Western countries were typically superior to the USSR in most naval technologies, the Soviets were often considered more advanced specifically in submarine and missile technologies.

The use of the Talos missile and its successors caused an unintentional political crisis in the US. The old First World War era terms of ‘frigate, destroyer, cruiser’ had grown outdated as technology had changed. The USN of the mid-Cold War era typically used destroyer for smaller escort craft (sometimes divided into larger ‘destroyer-leaders’ and smaller ‘destroyer-escorts’), cruiser for large anti-missile ship, and frigate was introduced for large to midsize ships used as major escorts. This meant that the US was unusually using ‘frigate’ for a larger ship than ‘destroyer’, the reverse of the more common pattern. Because ‘cruiser’ had been redesignated for use for the specialised anti-missile ship, this meant only one cruiser was typically part of a fleet group, and the US only had six in total in 1975. Meanwhile, the Soviets had continued to use ‘cruiser’ in a more traditional ‘fast mainline combat ship’ way, albeit now using guided missiles rather than guns as their perimary weapon, and in 1975 the Soviets had 19 cruisers by their definition and another 7 under construction. This created a public perception (fanned by US politicians) of an entirely fictitious ‘cruiser gap’, which was closed in 1975 simply by virtue of the US Navy reclassifying the destroyer-leaders as cruisers.

The fact that the US Navy had, and always had, an absurdly overwhelming numerical superiority over the Soviets did not prevent such silliness being employed by its politicians against a fearful electorate. Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 on building a ‘600-ship navy’, which was achieved by sometimes ridiculous methods such as recommissioning the long-obsolete Iowa-class battleships (which did, at least, give us the movie Under Siege). More recently, in 2012 Mitt Romney claimed (through questionable statistics) that the US Navy was smaller than at any time since 1916—for which he was ridiculed by his victorious opponent, Barack Obama, who noted that the US military also had fewer horses and bayonets than that time, as the nature of warfare had changed.

The reactor core prototype of Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, at the S1W facility in Idaho

One of the biggest changes for naval warfare of the Cold War period was the fact that nuclear reactions could be used, not only for weapons, but also as a source of power. In the optimistic 1950s, people dreamed of nuclear-powered aircraft and land vehicles, which in the end did not prove feasible. Navies were much more fertile ground, on both sides of the Cold War. The first naval nuclear reactors were pioneered by a team led by Captain Hyman G. Rickover of the USN in the 1940s. The US launched its first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, in 1955, while the USSR launched its own, K-3 Leninski Komsomol, in 1958. Not to be outdone, the UK launched HMS Dreadnought (named for the groundbreaking battleship), in 1960, and was later joined by France and China in the club. Nuclear submarines were game-changing for two reasons. Firstly, they never needed to refuel (or only after decades) and could produce their own oxygen by electrolysis, meaning they could remain submerged indefinitely and were limited only by food supplies. This was demonstrated when the Nautilus, like its Jules Verne namesake, completed 20,000 leagues under the sea in 1957, and the next year was the first vessel to travel under the ice of the North Polar Ice Cap (Operation Sunshine). Secondly, they could be used to launch long-range ballistic nuclear missiles from any location around the globe; an enemy could not possibly take out all the submarines pre-emptively before they could launch. This factor completed the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, but did have the disadvantage of undermining the space programme—previously, the US military had assumed the only way to do this was to build a moonbase out of Soviet reach!

Nuclear reactors were also used for surface ships, but never in great numbers. Both the USSR and US experimented with nuclear-powered cruisers (or destroyers) but these are now mostly retired. More successful was the use of reactors to power aircraft carriers on long-range missions, typically as the centre of the ‘carrier battle group’ (CVBG) tactic that the US used to great effect during the Pacific War. All US carriers are nuclear, as is one of France’s (the Charles de Gaulle) but Britain’s new large aircraft carriers are not. In considering the use of nuclear propulsion for navies, as in other uses, public paranoia about the dangers of nuclear reactors (occasionally justified, but mostly imaginary) has influenced procurement decisions. It is a measure of just how game-changing nuclear reactors were for submarines that nuclear submarines have become the norm regardless.

Many theorists, such as Britain’s former Foreign Secretary David Owen, argue that nuclear hunter-killer submarines make aircraft carriers obsolete, just as carriers made battleships obsolete. A nuclear submarine can stalk a carrier around the world and sink her with increasingly advanced torpedoes, potentially dodging all the escort surface ships that are meant to protect her. Owen and many others claim that in the event of a shooting war between East and West, or any two closely matched powers, all those expensive aircraft carriers would be on the sea bed within hours. However, this criticism brings to mind the theoretical debates before the Great War, in which the doctrine of a single decisive naval clash ran into troubles when war took place where almost all the great naval powers were on the same side. Generals are always ready to fight the last war. In the case of the Cold War, the only two major naval clashes of the period—in 1971 and 1982—had almost nothing whatsoever to do with the geopolitics of the great alliances of East and West and the assumptions they had built up.

In the next article, we will look at those two conflicts.

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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