Soviet Sea Power 

Hervé Coutau-Bégarie 




The sea is a means of communication, a source of wealth, and a theater of con­flict; it has always held an es­sential place in the life of men. But the economic change which has been taking place since the last world war con­siderably broadened its role. In a world where trade in­creasingly influences the life of nations the sea remains the most convenient and most heavily used means of communi­cation. In a recent article, Professor Vigarie recalled our dependence which keeps growing as far as the sea is con­cerned: The growth in merchant traffic, which has been continuous since the start of the century – ­except for the interruption during World War II – was speeded up until it became exponential: “The 10‑year rate between 1953 and 1973 rose from 101% to 131%. The oil crisis of course broke this rhythm but did not really reverse the trend. It is very interesting to note that, during a period of lasting recession, only the year 1975 showed a decline over the preceding year: The advance was slowed down, but that is all” [1]. The trend here is a general one: “In long‑range terms and on a world­wide scale, there is no significant case of double regression (dependence on maritime trade and volume of shipping equipment), in other words, there is no real decline in the trend toward the increased use of the sea. All peoples are turning progressively toward the sea according to variable rhythms” [2].

The sea is an ideal means of communication and it is also an ever more important source of wealth. In addition to fishing, a traditional activity which remains vital for many countries, we now have underwater oil drilling which today supplies us with one‑third of the world’s output and whose share should increase further in the future, thanks to the improvement in drilling techniques which will soon make it possible to work beyond the current 500‑m depth limit: bromine and magnesium, contained in suspension in sea water, is already being recovered on an industrial scale. The exploitation of the multimetallic nodules, as well as concretions containing widely different metal oxides will begin during the decade of the 1980’s. Their fabulous con­centration on the high deeps of the Pacific and certain parts of the Atlantic have turned them into an inexhaustible re­serve of copper 125 times the proven continental reserves of cobalt 5 000 times the continental reserves and manganese. Even though the optimistic forecasts of the 1970’s, an­nouncing the start of operations by 1981 did not come true, for essentially commercial reasons ­extraction techniques are reliable but they do not yet permit profitable exploita­tion there is no doubt that the nodules will by the end of this century supply an appreciable and ever‑growing part of rare minerals. Ocean ­heat energy based on the temperature difference between the water on the surface and the water in the deep layers is inexhaustible and nonpolluting and will perhaps also become a reality.

The prospects opened by this new turn toward the ocean are tremendous. Old maritime law did not withstand that. It was conceivable that one might con­sider the sea as res nullius [nobody’s property] when all we had to do was take fish out of it in apparently inexhaustible quantities. Today the discovery of underwater wealth and the exhaus­tion of fish stocks triggered a general movement toward appropriation. In the past, the sea was a simple theater of conflict but it has now become an object of conflict: The dif­ferences between countries bordering on the boundaries of their respective zones are numerous. On a worldwide scale, a gigantic process of haggling has taken place between the industrial countries and the underdeveloped countries in the context of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea whose work began in 1973: Between the concern of the former to preserve freedom of navigation and free ac­cess to underwater sources which they alone are capable of exploiting and the desire of the latter to grab as much as possible in order to control the exploitation of these re­sources and to derive benefit from them in the form of roy­alties, a compromise was worked out: The Third World gained in economic terms by giving the industrialized coun­tries guarantees on the military level. According to the con­ventions adopted on 1 May 1982 by more than 100 coun­tries (but not by the United States), territorial waters can extend up to 12 miles from the coast but freedom of harm­less passage in the narrows is formally spelled out. The countries exercise certain sovereign rights of an essentially economic nature over a zone extending up to 200 miles from their coastlines or up to the limit of their continental shelf if the latter is beyond that point; but the fleets enjoy the same freedom here as in international waters. The latter consti­tute a common asset of mankind whose resources must be placed under the control of an authority whose manner of operation remains yet to be defined [3].

The freedom of navigation which has thus been pre­served concerns both the merchant fleets and the navies. But one must not be mistaken on that score: It is the latter that were the target of the restrictions proposed by certain countries of the Third World and the behavior of the United States and the Soviet Union both during the conference and away from it, shows that they were primarily concerned with their navies as an essential instrument of their mari­time power.

(The concept of maritime power may be understood in two different ways: it either refers to the power which a country derives from the economic and military use of the sea or it describes a country which draws the essence of its power from the sea. The components of maritime power differ widely and vary according to those who hold that power. One usually looks at the geographic location and the fleet. In fact, the latter alone is really a component. The geographic location, the economic structure, the island spirit – these are rather in the nature of prior conditions. The theoretical content of the concept is developed in a book to be published under the title La puissance maritime dans l’histoire et dans la theorie [Maritime Power in History and in Theory]).

The end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s had been marked by an extremely lively debate on the sur­face fleets in view of the changes in sub­marines and the general use of shipboard missiles on light patrol craft and on aircraft as well as on their usefulness in an international system that had become rather little propitious for gunboat diplomacy [4]; but in recent years we have seen a spectacular upgrading of their place in global strategy under the influ­ence of a major change: The rise of Soviet maritime power.

[1] Andre Vigarie, “The Impossibility of Rejecting the Naval Horizon,” Defense nationale, April 1981, p 37.

[2] Andre Vigarie, “The Impossibility of Rejecting the Naval Horizon,” article cited, p 4.

[3] On the emergence of a new law of the sea, please see Guy de Lacharriere, “The New Law of the Sea,” Politique étrangere /Foreign PolicV, No 1, 198.

[4] On this debate, please see Herve Coutau‑Begarie, “After the Falkland Islands – What Is the Future of the Surface Fleets?” Politique étrangère, No 3, 1982.


 Copyright - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin