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Soviet Navy - Officers

At the summit of the Soviet naval hierarchy was the officer corps, which included about 20 percent of the total force. These were traditionally considered elite members of Soviet society, and the vast majority chose to make the Navy their life's career. Many were the sons of naval officers, most were Great Russians or Ukrainians, and all faced stern competition to enter a higher naval school similar to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. Nearly all were members of the Communist Party. Most become competent, if specialized, en gineers/leaders. Further down the line, most will have an opportunity for post-graduate education at a military institution. By Soviet standards, officers receive generous pay and pension, good health care, security, and opportunities to travel not enjoyed by the general population.

Above all else, the naval officer traditionally commanded respect from the Soviet people but the recent chaos in Soviet society. By the late 1980s the decline in the already strained Soviet economy brought publicly expressed resentment of the privileges enjoyed by military and naval officers. Thus, if an officer succeeded in the Soviet Navy, few in his society would be afforded more privilege and honor.

The typical route of entry for a Soviet naval officer was via the Nakhimov Naval School in Leningrad, a special three-year "prep school" specifically geared toward gaining entry into a higher naval school. All officer candidates must pass a rigorous written examination and the scrutiny of a selection board to achieve admission into one of these eleven "academies." Once admitted, cadets (kursanty, the equivalent of US Navy midshipmen) embarked on a five-year course of study, except for a four-year program for political officers. Upon completion of the five-year programs, cadets were granted an engineering diploma and commissioned as lieutenant. (There was no ensign rank in the Soviet Navy]. Soprepared, the young officers were designated in their specialties and the superior ones were assigned to sea duty.

The junior officer stationed afloat generally remained on board for five or six years, and often longer, while advancing up the career ladder to become a department head at the rank of either a Senior Lieutenant or a Captain Lieutenant, equivalent to the US Navy ranks of Lieutenant (junior grade) and Lieutenant. Soviet naval officers served both as supervisors and technical specialists, accomplishing much of the maintenance and work undertaken by enlisted men in Western navies.

Junior officers who demonstrate both technical proficiency and leadership were identified by the ship's Commanding Officer [CO] and his political deputy, and then were groomed for command, first by being assigned to head a major department (such as navigation), and being designated as an Assistant to the CO, and second by being named as Senior Assistant or Executive Officer (XO). The XO worked in tandem with the Commanding Officer for at least three years and received advanced schooling at "Specialized Officers Courses." As a result of this preparation, the XO eventually assumed command of a ship of the ime or a similar class. A newly assigned shiip commander must then successfully complete several additional steps to qualify and be certified for independent, unsupervised command of his ship.

Officers not considered qualified for command and those in specialties and engineering categories not considered eligible for command become career specialists. Officers in these fields continue to receive promotions while serving as department heads and on staffs afloat ashore. This system made it not unusual to find a Commanding Officer served by department heads who are senior to him in rank.

Combined with a heavy workload, constant oversight, and austere living conditions, by the 1980s a perception that sea duty was no longer optimum assignment for officer promotion led an increasing number of officers to seek extended shore duty. An apparently extensive dis-satisfaction among surface ship and submarine officers had become a matter of grave concern to the Soviet Navy's leadership, which feared that the traditional glamor of sea duty has lost its luster.

The commander and the specialist continued to interact at various levels. Staff officers from the senior afloat operational commander's staff rode the CO's ship to conduct department head level training and oversee and evaluate performance. MOrefover, the senior operational commander himself, his chief-of-staff, and other senior line officers often rode the ship as "senior officers aboard" to oversee the CO's in his area of expertise. shiphandling and to train him directly for "independent" command.

Career naval officers were encouraged to undertake post-graduate study. In fact, promotion to the more senior command posts was unlikely such advanced study. Generally, officers finishing their first commands were sent to Leningrad to take the command and staff course at the Admiral Kuznetsov Naval Academy (equivalent to courses available at the US Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, CA, and at the Naval War College in Newport, RI). This is a two-year course directed at preparing them for higher responsibility at the unit formation, division, and fleet levels. After further command and staff experience, those officers selected for flag rank normally are sent to the Academy of the General Staff Academy in Moscow (equivalent to the National War College or the senior course at the Naval War College). Thus, over the course of a successful career, a Soviet naval officer began as a narrow technical specialist, gradually broadens his responsibility, and eventually assuming a major naval or possibly joint-service senior position.

For those officers in "career specialties" the logical assignment after graduate training was a position on the faculty of one of the naval schools or a tour in one of the technical directorates (such as shipbuilding, mines, or torpedoes) as he proceeded toward flag-rank position in his area of expertise.

The handful of officers who achieved flag rank in the Soviet Navy were markedly different from their Western counterparts in several important respects. First, the senior Soviet naval officer, to a far greater degree than an American officer, rise to the rank of admiral from an early background as a narrow technical specialist, rather than as a generalist with a broad range of technical experience. But he had also spent his first ten to fifteen years at sea.

Second, the Soviet Navy's leadership assumed a dual-hatted role as both military officer and politician; at senior levels, obligations to the Communist Party had in the past taken precedence. Finally, the Soviet Navy's top brass was not restricted to two- or three-year tours in the same billet. A more common length of stay appeared to be five to six years. Of course, the 30-year tenure of Sergei Gorshkov as the Soviet Navy's supreme officer was a notable exception. Under the Gorbachev regime, there was a greater emphasis on adherence to upper age limits on military service and the long stay phenomenon is not likely to be repeated. The five- to six-year tenure in senior positions nonetheless afforded a remarkable degree of continuity in the upper echelons of power.

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Page last modified: 01-02-2017 19:32:58 ZULU