The Misunderstood Mind of Sergey Gorshkov: The Most Important Admiral You've Never Heard Of

Source: Courtesy of Free Beacon

Find out how this lesser-known Soviet Admiral influenced NATO's decision making during the Cold War.

Sergey Gorshkov is probably the most important admiral you’ve never heard of. As a Soviet officer, Gorshikov had a long and prestigious career stretching from the 1930s until his death in 1988. He served aboard gunboats and destroyers in the lead up to World War II and commanded several flotillas in and around the Black Sea during the German invasion. By 1945, Gorshkov was a leading member of the Soviet Navy. But it was his work as Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy that earned him his greatest reputation.

Who is Sergey Gorshkov?

Sergey Gorshkov in uniform. Source: Gentleman's Military Interest Club.
Sergey Gorshkov in uniform. Source: Gentleman's Military Interest Club.

Much like the American Hyman Rickover, Gorshkov had long been a proponent of submarine warfare. And, again much like Rickover, Gorshkov was a leading advocate in the 1950s for nuclear power at sea. But unlike Rickover, Gorshkov was also an impressive tactician and strategist. As Commander-In-Chief he singlehandedly pioneered an aggressive strategy designed to cut North American supplies off from the European continent. Channeling Julian Corbett and Karl Dönitz, Gorshkov planned to do nothing less than sweep the North Atlantic clean of Allied shipping.

Gorshkov's theory of naval warfare matured in the mid-1960s as a new generation of Soviet leaders replaced the old. The old Khrushchev government was replaced with one headed up by Leonid Brezhnev, who had a very different vision of the Cold War struggle. Brezhnev was always interested in reimagining the Cold War balance to the Soviet's advantage. Most of all, he was more willing than any other Soviet leader, and certainly of any before Gorbachev, of engaging with the West on its terms. This meant, in the realm of naval warfare, building up a major fleet to not only challenge Western military domination, but also to engage in the kind of soft-power, gunboat diplomacy favored by Britain and the United States. To accomplish this, he leaned heavily on Gorshkov, who saw this major buildup as a chance to increase not only the Soviet surface fleet, but its submarine arm as well. Here, Gorshkov thought, was the way to really challenge NATO's control over North Atlantic supply lines.

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Gorshkov's strategy was based squarely on the submarine. It focused on enhancing Soviet capabilities in three major areas, the construction of Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs), Attack Submarines (SSNs) and Guided Missile Submarines (SSGN). Within this framework, Gorshkov saw Soviet SSBNs as insurance against a Western preemptive strike. These submarines were armed with city-destroying thermonuclear missiles and, once unleashed, would dash for the Arctic Circle. Here they would sit and wait for the 'doomsday' order which would kick off a full-scale nuclear war. Submarines of this type included the Typhoon-class made famous by the Red October. These SSBNs would be protected in their icy bastions by the Soviet surface fleet, which would patrol for NATO submarines, as well as a portion of the Soviet's SSNs. However, most of these boats would rush south, pass the well-defended Greenland-Iceland-UK choke point, and then savage NATO convoys.

Joining them in this operation would be the SSGNs, missile submarines whose job would be to launch long-range attacks against convoys and carriers alike. If successful, this strategy would draw NATO's naval forces away from Russia and towards the convoy lanes, while simultaneously cutting Europe off from American resupply.

Painting of a Soviet-era Typhoon-Class Submarine. Source: Wikipedia
Painting of a Soviet-era Typhoon-Class Submarine. Source: Wikipedia

Impact On Cold War

By his death in 1988, Gorshkov had managed to construct an impressive, capable, and dangerous fleet around these three roles. Just as importantly, Gorshkov's theories, lectures, and books were widely published in Soviet military circles. They were so commonly available that Western intelligence agencies and navies possessed a solid picture of Gorshkov's intent had war broken out. What they saw scared the hell out of them. For most of the 1970s and 80s, as Gorshkov shouted his ideas from Moscow rooftops, NATO scrambled to develop a response. They increasingly focused on building ships that were adept at anti-submarine warfare, and dedicated a significant number of resources, including precious carrier battle groups, to training for convoy defense and the defense of the G-I-UK gap.

Despite all these ominous portends, the opening up of Soviet records and the post War recollections of a few important officers have all painted a different picture. Far from the mastermind of doomsday, records suggested that Gorshkov was an isolated and ostracized figure. His ideas were so well publicized not because they were taken seriously, but because Gorshkov was always on the hunt for more influence with Soviet leadership. But his ideas were only popular in Soviet circles insofar as they justified building a bigger, more threatening and prestigious fleet. But in the event of an actual shooting war, documents now suggest that the Soviets were remarkably conservative in their outlook. Given their history of invasion, especially the Allied amphibious invasion of 1919, the Soviets were unstably concerned about protecting their homeland. The purpose of their fleet, then, was always first and foremost to secure its coast and vital areas against NATO attacks. Especially threatening to them were the American carriers, each capable of launching nuclear strikes against Soviet ports and civilian targets. Their insurance against that was not in cutting supply lines across the Atlantic, which was always, at best, a tertiary goal. Rather, it was in first pushing the carriers away from the Barents Sea and second in turning the White Sea into a veritable fortress where Soviet SSBNs could sit submerged and wait out the war.

This fundamentally defensive strategy fit perfectly into the Soviet world view. Further, it should come as no surprise given that the most influential members of the Soviet government were often members of the Army who felt that World War III would be won in Germany, not in the Atlantic. Thus, they argued, the focus in money, resources, and intellectual might should be on the army and not the navy. The navy's role, in that one existed at all, was to secure the coast in wartime and to 'show the flag' and scare the West in peacetime. Gorshkov's work and his navy succeeded brilliantly in this respect for much of the Cold War. NATO was so afraid of Soviet attacks on its supply lines that few believed that it would operate any further west than Norway, and even then at great hazard. The Barents and White Seas, home to the Soviet fleet and its coast, were considered beyond their reach, all thanks to the theory of Sergey Gorshkov.

So what do you think? Was Gorshkov's strategy right? Did his popularity in the West serve nearly the same roll, paralyzing NATO decision making? And was NATO right to focus on convoy warfare rather than aggressively pressing the Soviet seas and attacking its coast? Leave your thoughts below.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.