Academic journal article Naval War College Review

KAMIKAZES: The Soviet Legacy

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

KAMIKAZES: The Soviet Legacy

Article excerpt

Throughout history, despite the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan's concepts, continental European and Asian navies have had a simple choice to make: either to create a balanced fleet to engage another balanced fleet at sea and defeat it in one or more "decisive battles" or to take an "asymmetrical approach," creating an "unbalanced" navy, able to prevent the enemy from achieving sea control and to keep one's own vital sea lines of communication (SLO Cs), if one has any, untouched by the enemy's naval forces.

In the case of Russia, the era of a blue-water, balanced navy ended with defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Russia did not lose the capability to build capital ships, nor did the context for their employment evaporate. However, the war occurred in a region where Russia had little in the way of naval infrastructure-fleet bases or, more importantly, shipbuilding and repair facilities. Russia's main sources for these capabilities were (and still are) located in the European part of the country.1 The Russian Empire, for various reasons, had insufficient strategic motivation to restore its naval strength in the Far East, nor did it until 1945, in the Soviet era. The key SLO Cs for Russia after 1905 were the ones that had been established by Peter the Great on the eve of the eighteenth century: the Baltic Sea, with the Danish straits, and the Black Sea, with the Bosporus and Dardanelles. Both routes had been long used to send the main Russian exports, wheat and fur, to Europe. It was vital to Russia to keep these straits open, as payments for these exports filled the empire's treasury with gold and, later, solid currency.2

In other words, the historical background of the Russian Navy is almost the same as that of the German navy; only the names of the straits and the relevant seas differ.3 The two countries have similar naval imperatives that involve confined and relatively shallow seas and their littorals. For this reason the asymmetrical approach to naval power struck roots deeper and stronger than those of the Mahanian balanced, blue-water-fleet approach, although the latter was occasionally important for both.

In any case, when a naval threat emerges involving an amphibious assault on home territory or the cutting of vital SLO Cs close to one's shores, a navy will shiftto the asymmetrical approach. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), for example, from the fall of 1944, turned-although it still had a fleet of capital ships-to the clearly asymmetrical approach of suicide attacks from the sky. There was by that time no other way for the Japanese to engage the massive U.S. Navy carrier forces. It was, of course, a poor choice from the point of view of the individual human being, but it was effective from a naval tactics standpoint.

The American task forces, built around Essex-class carriers, had become an "air force at sea." This was not a traditional fleet, centered on capital ships and bound for decisive battle; rather, sea battle was just one of a number of tasks for this "wet air force." From one perspective, these task forces were themselves asymmetrical, pursuing a doctrine similar to the land-warfare concept of blitzkrieg. This point distinguished the U.S. Navy from the other two carrier navies, the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy; its aircraftwere more than extensions of ship weapons. Even today, British naval aviators see themselves as equivalents to a surface ship's torpedo or missile officers, as part of a pool of surface-fleet weapons systems. This outlook, while it defended the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm from the political pressure of the Royal Air Force, effectively prevented the navy from creating a floating air force of its own.4

By 1944 it was beyond the IJN's capability to oppose U.S. carrier task forces symmetrically, most of its ships and aircraftbeing on the bottom of the Pacific. The only way available to resist was to use land-based airpower to interfere with U. …

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