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Sunday Maritime Book Review: Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet

[ 14 ] February 24, 2008 |

Jurgen Rohwer and Mikhail Monakov wrote Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet in 2001, after the opening of Soviet archives had let considerable light onto Soviet Navy doctrinal and procurement decisions during the Stalin period. Rohwer is a German historian, and Monakov a Russian naval officer. The book concentrates on the period from 1935-1953, but inevitably compares that period to what came before and what came after. It’s a book that will appeal mainly to specialists, but that’s nevertheless chock full of yummy data and insight.

The Soviet Union emerged from the civil war with a small, obsolete fleet. While the Imperial Russian Navy had been a player, much of its strength had been destroyed at Tsushima, and new construction had not been sufficient to replace the losses before the beginning of the war (although the ships lost at Tsushima would of course have been obsolete by 1914 anyway). World War I served to weaken the reduced Russian Navy. Of the seven dreadnoughts built before or during the war, one exploded accidentally, one was scuttled by its crew to prevent seizure by the Germans, one was stolen by counter-revolutionaries and taken to Bizerta, and one burned down. Moreover, the three survivors were hopelessly obsolete by contemporary standards. The rest of the fleet wasn’t in much better shape.

Initial plans for reconstruction focused on the development of a force capable of executing a “jeune ecole” strategy; that is, an asymmetric force concentrating on sea denial and anti-commerce operations. Given the perilous state of Soviet industry, the weakness of the existing fleet, Russia’s geographic maritime limitations, and the profile of Russia’s most likely security threats, this was a sound assessment. However, there were other considerations. Although a revolutionary state, the Soviet Union proved just as susceptible to conceptions of prestige and power as any other state. The lesson of Mahan was that great powers had great fleets, and World War I had not sufficiently dissuaded the international community of this idea. Consequently, to be a great power the Soviet Union must possess a great fleet.

Plans were, to say the least, grandiose. The Soviet Union was cursed by bad maritime geography, in that the fleets protecting various parts of the USSR (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific) had great difficulty supporting one another in time of war. The solution was to build a fleet in each area that could establish local superiority. The 1937 construction plan called for the building of fourteen battleships and six battlecruisers by 1945. Eight would go to the Pacific, six to the Baltic, four to the Black Sea, and two to the Northern Fleet. Curiously, the battlefleets were to be complemented by only two aircraft carriers, one in the Pacific and one in the Northern. The irony of these plans is that, even in all of their unachievable grandiosity, they would have been insufficient to deliver victory on any front other than the Black Sea. By Soviet calculations, both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Kriegsmarine would dwarf the Soviet contingents opposite them by 1945, and this assessment did not include an appreciation of the dominance that Japanese naval aviation would provide, much less an assessment of the German and Japanese geographic advantages.

The ship designs varied over time, with the battleships more or less resembling 60000 ton versions of the Italian Littorio class with 16″ guns, and the battlecruisers resembling the German Scharnhorsts, but with 12″ or 15″ guns. The aircraft carrier designs were considerably behind those of foreign contemporaries, being smaller, slower, and with a lower capacity than their American and Japanese counterparts. In addition to the capital ships a group of ten heavy cruisers was planned, displacing over 20000 tons and armed with 9 10″ guns. A substantial number of destroyers, submarines, and auxiliary vessels were also planned. In 1937 the Soviets approached the United States with a proposal to build Soviet battleships in American yards. Plans eventually emerged for a class of battleships displacing 45000 tons and armed with 10 16″ guns, but the US suspended cooperation after the Soviet invasion of Poland in fall 1939. Had plans gone forward, it’s likely that any construction would eventually have been incorporated in the USN.

The “big fleet” plans met resistance in the Navy, which resulted in the execution of a significant percentage of the naval officer corps. The Red Army also resisted the expansion of the Navy, as it would have placed a severe strain on Soviet industrial capacity during the mid to late 1930s. Nevertheless, Stalin felt that the prestige effect of having a large fleet was worth the expense. Indeed, he made the argument explicitly as early as 1933. The Soviet experience in the Spanish Civil War bolstered Stalin’s case, as he believed that intervention by the Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy had given their respective governments a larger voice in matters on the peninsula. The focus on prestige also led to some odd claims in internal discussions, such as the argument that existing Soviet battleships (which, by objective measures, were some of the worst battleships in the world) outclassed all but a few of their foreign contemporaries.

A combination of the danger of war and the serious limitations of the Soviet industrial base forced a curtailment of naval procurement in the late 1930s. Two battleships were laid down, but never completed, along with a host of smaller craft. Interestingly enough, the battleship ambitions survived the end of the war. Although the new construction had been destroyed, new plans for battleships and battlecruisers were drawn up, including a 1950 plan for a class of 70000 ton behemoths. Two battlecruisers (35000 tons, 9×12″ guns) were actually laid down in 1951. In spite of the apparent dominance of the aircraft carrier during World War II, Stalin remained interested in naval aviation only in a supporting role. To his mild credit, this was defensible in the context of the Black Sea or the Baltic, although it would have proved disastrous in the Pacific or the North Sea. The response of the naval staff to these demands was polite acquiescence, but the battlecruiser and battleship projects were cancelled shortly after Stalin’s death.

Rohwer and Monakov aren’t going to win any awards for prose styling, and they don’t make much of an effort to reach an audience that isn’t already abnormally intersted in Soviet interwar naval policy. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of data here, and in particular a lot that would be of interest to scholars of statebuilding and international society. What we have here is a country which understood itself to be an international pariah, and that suffered from the most severe economic and geographic roadblocks to maritime power. Nevertheless, whether because or in spite of the Soviet disdain for international society, the USSR embarked on an amazingly expensive effort to match foreign navies on a metric of international prestige that was deeply tied to conceptions of imperial, colonial power. Naval professionals understood the roadblocks (both before 1933 and after 1953) and adjusted their plans accordingly, but the civilian leadership had different priorities. It’s tempting and at least partially true to chalk the programs up to Stalin, but nevertheless interesting that socially driven conceptions of prestige loomed so large in his decision-making, or alternatively that they structured his understanding of the meaning of Soviet national security. I suspect there are also some lessons to be learned regarding recent Russian proposals to build half a dozen carrier battle groups and deploy them in the Pacific and with the North Fleet.

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Send Good Thoughts

[ 0 ] February 24, 2008 |

…to terrific blogger and friend of LGM Sara Anderson. Hope she’s well soon.

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Yes it is Neat…

[ 0 ] February 24, 2008 |

…But given the frequency with which I hear about women as “incubators” or “vessels,” I’m not exactly sure this is how I’d frame it.

Though I still do love xkcd for this and this (as Rob has noted).

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A Big Game?

[ 7 ] February 24, 2008 |

Apparently there’s some kind of basketball game going on in Memphis tonight. My sympathies are with the Tigers, rather than with the Great Orange Satan that preceded the Great Orange Satan.

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Next, we have Millard Fillmore’s foot on a keychain…

[ 0 ] February 23, 2008 |

In Lexington, Kentucky, somebody coughed up $17,000 on Friday night for what were supposed to be four strands of George Washington’s hair.

Christa Allen, a Colorado woman who once lived in Owsley County, sold them. Allen said she got the hair, which was pressed under glass in a locket and accompanied by a watch, from her father, a Philadelphia attorney.

Jamie Bates, owner of Thompson & Riley, which auctioned the hair, had hoped the auction would bring at least $75,000.

“I’ve never sold George Washington’s hair before; I don’t know,” Bates said before the auction.

Allen told potential buyers how the hair was handed down from person to person since it was clipped from Washington. The Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, looked at Allen’s evidence and gave her its backing.

Eric James, president of The James Preservation Trust, discussed the chain of ownership of the hairs from the time Washington was briefly disinterred and his hair snipped in 1837.

I’m sure there’s all kinds of strange presidential refuse floating around among collectors — fingernails, used handkerchiefs, tiny jars of urine and such — but what I can’t for the life of me figure out is why GW’s casket would have been uncorked in 1837. This isn’t the sort of information that usually appears in presidential biographies, and ten minutes or so with Google have failed to turn up anything even remotely suggestive of an answer.

. . . John in comments spends eleven minutes with Google and discovers the reason for Washington’s bizarre resurfacing in 1837. The official explanation was that his tomb was “rapidly going to decay.” The real reason, as I’m sure everyone would suspect, was that the Whigs were hoping to reanimate him in time for the 1840 election. As it turned out, the party instead got William Henry Harrison, who croaked after a few dozen days in office. The stuffed and electrified corpse of George Washington, disgruntled Whigs were known to claim, would have performed at least as well.

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The Forgotten Pioneers

[ 2 ] February 23, 2008 |

Via Feministing.

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Carville: If Only Democrats Were All Southern Conservatives

[ 0 ] February 23, 2008 |

Of course person whose opinions nobody cares about James Carville wants Harold Ford to replace Howard Dean. After all, this is the man who thought that Zell Miller would be a great vice presidential candidate

…the context is that Ford is carrying water for New England Republican Chris Shays.

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B-2 Down!

[ 0 ] February 23, 2008 |


A B-2 stealth bomber plunged to the ground shortly after taking off from an air base in Guam on Saturday, the first time one crashed, but both pilots ejected safely, Air Force officials said.

The aircraft was taking off with three others on their last flight out of Guam after a four-month deployment, part of a continuous U.S. bomber presence in the western Pacific. After the crash, the other three bombers were being kept on Guam, said Maj. Eric Hilliard at Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii. At least one B-2 bomber had taken off safely from Andersen Air Force Base but was brought back when another aircraft plunged to the ground.

There were no injuries on the ground or damage to buildings, and no munitions were on board. Each B-2 bomber costs about $1.2 billion to build.

Tragic; now we’re down to only twenty of a bomber that has a ready rate of about 20%. If you doubt the importance of the B-2 to the US defense establishment, I invite you to revisit Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic article of last September, although I must warn you to be careful, because I’m not sure that they mopped the floor after Kaplan’s last visit. Recall that the B-2 forced the collapse the Soviet Union, put the fear of a righteous Mormon God in China, laid low the Serbs in Kosovo, brought about the destruction of Saddam Hussein, made great coffee, won an Academy Award for film editing, heavily influenced the Pixies, invented the DVD format, fed stray puppies in its spare time, and most importantly would soon crush Adolf Hitler Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With the loss of one of the 21 B-2s, we now have only 95.2% of that goodness. I’m not sure how I’ll go on; be strong. This is a safe place, so in comments, please feel free to tell us what the B-2 meant to you.

…addendum by d: I can’t speak for Rob, but perhaps Tom Keifer can . . .

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Bush Idiocy of the Day

[ 0 ] February 23, 2008 |

I sometimes wonder if President Bush brushes his teeth without thinking idiotic ideological thoughts (I’m going to go with no). Today’s example? Bush is seeking to reinstate the Washington, DC needle-exchange ban. The ban had been in place for quite some time, and Congress only this past year revoked it. Needle exchanges are important generally to preventing HIV, but they’re especially vital to DC. The Times explains why:

The nation’s capital has the country’s highest rate of H.I.V. infection, and a recent report by the District of Columbia’s health department found that more than 20 percent of the city’s AIDS cases could be traced to intravenous drug users. Now that Washington has a chance to fight back, the White House must not be allowed to hobble that effort.

Why Bush is spending his precious time meddling with Washington, DC’s policies is beyond me. Aren’t there bigger problems, like, I dunno, a failed imperial war or a tanking economy? I guess (and this is no surprise) that his willingness to do wink-wink favors for the wingnut right knows no bounds.

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[ 26 ] February 23, 2008 |

Randy Paul helpfully explains why Castro is bad even if he led only the 34th worst regime since 1900. Police state dictatorships are never particularly admirable; it seems to me that US policy should in general be that the institutions of such regimes ought to change in broadly democratic directions. This doesn’t imply that all such regimes are equal, or that such a policy requires invasion, embargo, etc., or that there’s anything admirable or consistent about current or historical US foreign policy in this area etc. etc. etc. As such, for me the single greatest crime of US policy towards Cuba is that for the last fifty years it essentially guaranteed Castro’s hold on power, especially in the last twenty years as the rest of Latin America has steadily transitioned towards democracy.

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Dolphin Queen Update

[ 12 ] February 23, 2008 |

Shorter Peggy Noonan:

I would respect Mr. and Mrs. Obama more if they were sharecroppers.

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[ 0 ] February 23, 2008 |

Now that they’ve burned our embassy, does this count as the start of Serbia “being at war with us?” Or could we start counting from 1999? Or 1995? Listen, all I want to know is when we can start assassinating Serbian scientists…

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