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Soviet Merchant Marine

The Soviet Union had the world's most extensive coastline -- along two oceans and twelve seas -- which served as a transportation link to the rest of the world. The Arctic Ocean and its seas provided international as well as domestic lines of communication to the economically emerging northern areas and constituted a water bridge between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Pacific Ocean opened the Soviet Far East areas to trade with Japan and the Pacific rim countries. Although access to oceans was more restricted, the Baltic and Black seas provided the Soviet Union with outlets to the North Atlantic and South Atlantic and to the Mediterranean Sea, respectively.

The Soviet Merchant Marine Ministry, based in Moscow, controlled the general operation of the vast new fleet and the functions of both ship and port construction and repair and ship procurement. However, it farmed out shipping operations to a number of individual steam- ship companies. By the 1970s Soviet data indicated about 75,000 people engaged in actual hauling operations, that is, possibly merchant seamen. Another 200,000 were reported in ancillary Ministry of Merchant Marine endeavors. The Merchant Marine Ministry appeared to have its own separate housing, schools, medical care, and clubs. It also appeared to have a political officer directorate of sorts, and special attached KGB watchdogs.

The merchant marine seamen are uniformed and had a system of rank and insignia similar to that of the Soviet Navy. As with civilian naval personnel everywhere, a great deal of latitude was apparently granted Soviet Merchant Marine personnel in their uniform wear. Various ships' captains (and to a lesser extent, his subordinates) wore a wide variety of unauthorized accoutrements to their basic MORFLOT cap to suit their own tastes and style.

In World War II, the Merchant Marine became virtually fully militarized carrying out tasks which had been (previously) assigned it by the military high command. A mobilization and military restructuring of maritime transport were introduced-discipline and military- type regulations were introduced-all efforts were subordinated to wartime needs." Merchant vessels participated in amphibious combat operations, in supply of besieged cities, and as armed merchantmen plying between the USSR and her Western allies, sometimes under extremely adverse combat conditions without escort.

A fleet of modern coastal vessels provided an essential, and frequently the sole, transportation link between the extreme northern and the Far East parts of the country and the industrialized base. For foreign trade, the Soviet Union relied on a well-equipped and specialized fleet of vessels calling at the ports of practically every maritime nation in the world. Besides carrying over half of the country's export-import freight, the Merchant Fleet (Morskoi flot -- Morflot) was an effective adjunct to the Soviet Naval Forces and served the country's political and military needs.

Maritime transport in Russia became an independent sector in 1924 when the joint-stock company "Sovtorgflot" was formed to unite under its flag and auspices ships and vessels of various departments, ports and ship-repairing enterprises, as well as educational establishments. In the early 1960s Sovtorgflot was replaced by Morflot and the fleet was divided into regional groups and 16 companies of which several still exist amongst the individual countries that resulted from the Soviet breakup. In 1974 the sector was awarded the Order of Lenin for outstanding achievements in the development of maritime transport and transportation of cargoes for the national economy including foreign trade.

The USSR regarded her merchant fleet not only as an essential element of the national economy at all times, but as a vital fourth arm of defense in emergency. Moreover, the Soviet Navy drew freely from the mercantile pool when it was in the interest of the fighting services. Although initially it would seem that maritime (and river fleet) activities would have a more direct application to the support of a naval effort, it must be noted that the Soviet merchant marine would probably have to participate in logistical support of any large-scale joint operation against, for example, Scandinavia or Southern Europe, using the Baltic and Black Sea-Mediterranean approaches. Any combat or logistic operation in territory not contiguous to the USSR would obviously require heavy Soviet merchant marine participation.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Government made a herculean effort to improve the size and quality of the nation's merchant marine. In tonnage alone, the Soviet merchant marine had grown from 12th to fifth or sixth among the world's merchant fleets. Qualitatively, about four-fifths of Soviet merchant shipping was less than 10 years old. The majority of it was faster than 14 knots and is diesel-powered, and the Soviets are ahead of many of their Western competitors in shipboard-automation procedures.

This effort to expand and improve the fleet continued and, if plans of the late 1960s had been carried through, by 1980 the USSR would have overtaken Great Britain as the possessor of the world's largest merchant fleet. In the interim, the Soviet merchant fleet became a formidable arm of Soviet foreign trade and implementor of foreign policy, reportedly calling at more than 800 ports in over 90 countries. The Soviet merchant marine was a prime mover in the high pressure move which led to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It has played a major role in distributing billions of dollars of military and economic aid. This includes some of the aid to the East European satellites, to North Korea, and especially - before the split - to Communist China. The capability of North Vietnam to `maintain a military effort without Soviet aid by sea was highly questionable.

In addition, the merchant marine played the largest carrier role in the Soviet military and economic aid and trade programs with the "Third World" since those programs began after Stalin. This was particularly true of India, the UAR, Algeria, Yemen, and Indonesia. Compared to the other transport modes, in the 1960s the merchant marine handled nearly 20 percent of all Soviet freight turnover, as opposed to less than 5 percent just before World War II. Prior to Stalin's demise, the bulk of Soviet maritime activity was involved in domestic trade; by 1965, only 15 percent was. In the absence of rail and road nets, however, seagoing transport remained the only means of bulk supply of much of the Soviet northern and Far Eastern coasts.

In 1966, the Soviet merchant marine was credited with around 1,000 dry cargo ships with a reported capacity effort of from 4.7 to 5.3 million tons. Over 400 more at 3.5 million d.w.t. were on order. A few years earlier, in 1964, more than 250 Soviet tankers were reported in service, many quite small. In the 1960s the USSR had been building and buying larger and newer tankers and as of 1966 was reported to have 122 tankers of nearly 2 million d.w.t. on order or under construction. For troop carrying, the USSR had 135,000 tons of pre-World War II German liners plus 20 or more newer vessels ranging from 20,000 down to 3,000 tons. At the end of 1966, the Soviet Union allegedly had nearly 1,250 merchant vessels of 1,000 tons or larger. In 1967, a Soviet publication reported over 1,600 vessels, with a tonnage of 11.3 million. Merchant Marine Minister Bakaev in mid-1967 claimed only 1,300 vessels, totaling nearly 9.5 million deadweight tons apparently leaving out many smaller vessels. A Georgetown University study reported nearly 1,450 vessels of 11 million d.w.t. as of early 1968.

The Soviet maritime fleet nearly doubled in size from 1945 to 1960, redoubled in the next 5 years, and was scheduled to nearly redouble again by 1970, i.e., from 2.5 million tons in 1945 to 15 to 18 million tons in 1970. By 1990 the Soviet fleet held the fifth spot in the World Maritine ranking with its almost 25 million DWT), and was capable of meeting most of the water transportation needs of the Soviet economy. Therefore, the decision regarding a further increase of the fleet size depended on the evaluation of the three other functions of the Soviet merchant fleet: to earn hard currency; to support the Navy, serving actually as the Navy's {auxiliaries; and to provide transportation of cargoes to and from so-called "friendly nations".

Many smaller, more shallow draft vessels, both dry-cargo and tankers were planned. These were designed for sailing on both seas and rivers giving the capability of commercial penetration, at least, of the rivers of many underdeveloped countries. Conversely, the Soviets were also building and buying larger vessels than heretofore-tankers in the 50,000-100,000 ton class and cargo ships of 36,000 tons displacement. Soviet tonnage is being added at the rate of nearly 1 million dead-weight tons yearly.

Along with a continuing expansion of shipping, there was also a program in the 1960s of improving port facilities, plus planned qualitative improvement and quantitative growth in the numbers of both port and seagoing personnel of the merchant fleet.

The fishing fleet, highly modernized by the 1970s, was put at roughly 3,200 to 4,000 seagoing vessels of nearly 6 million gross register tons and the oceanographic fleet at between 150 and 200 vessels. Both elements, reputedly the world's largest in each category, were widely deployed to every ocean of the world. A concerned Canadian admiral stated that the Soviet Atlantic and Pacific fishing fleets operate "as navies are operated" with over 800 vessels in the western Atlantic alone, involving more than 20,000 men "working very close to our shores." The fishing fleets consist of trawlers, factory ships, supply ships, and all of the needed logistic support.

As with Aeroflot, the opportunity for intelligence collection among the Soviet merchant, fishing and oceanographic fleets was tremendous. Soviet naval specialists have been reported assigned to merchant and other civil shipping for the collection of strategic, electronic, photographic, hydrographic and other intelligence, and the possibilities for support of subversive activity through the Soviet merchant and other fleets are significant. They operated under rigid naval-like regulations and their discipline is semimilitary.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:19:32 ZULU