Soviet Pacific Fleet Buildup Poses Threat : Challenge to U.S. Navy, Pressure on Japan, China Seen

Times Staff Writer

On the shallow sea bottom of the Tsugaru Strait between the home islands of Hokkaido and Honshu, Japanese intelligence experts have identified the crawling tracks of Soviet miniature submarines--mute signs that Soviet special forces are drafting contingency plans for amphibious landings to seize control of that key waterway in time of crisis.

Similar tracks have been detected in the La Perouse Strait, also known as Soya Strait, to the north and the Korea Strait to the south. The names may ring strange in American ears, but these narrow ocean passages are strategically critical because it is through them that the Vladivostok-based Soviet Pacific fleet--now the largest and most modern element in the Kremlin’s blue-water navy--must sail to pass Japan and reach the open Pacific.

Tracks of Submersibles

“We’ve seen the tracks of at least six submersibles, all on the Sea of Japan side, in our territorial waters,” Makoto Momoi, a former top defense adviser to Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and now a specialist at the Japan Defense Research Institute, said in a recent interview.


The crawler marks, similar to those found in Swedish and Norwegian fjords, dramatize an often-ignored Soviet buildup in northeast Asia that has radically altered military realities in this far-away but strategically vital area.

And, in the view of many U.S. military commanders and civilian specialists in the region, the Soviet forces--while ostensibly defensive--are aggressively poised to intimidate Japan and China and are increasingly capable of challenging the U.S. Navy throughout the Pacific. Over the last decade, the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded earlier this year, Soviet activity has created an “unfavorable balance” of forces in the region that “continues to deteriorate.”

Soviet Threat Expands

The Soviets pose their threat not only in the northern Pacific but also, thanks to their newly developed naval and air bases at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang in Vietnam, along the entire Pacific rim and into the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, Adm. Sylvester R. Foley, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said in an interview at Pearl Harbor.

“What you are seeing here,” U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield said in an interview, “is a threat that has been generally lost in the shuffle because of Washington’s concentration on Europe.”

The result, according to Peter Polomka of the Australian National University, is that “the Pacific region is destined to become the main focus of superpower rivalry.”

Signs of potential conflict are more muted here than in Europe because the ambiguities of Asian political alignments. China, for example, has shown a capacity to swing back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union and can be placed in neither camp today.


But that does not lessen the potential for world-shaking instability in the region. China, the world’s most populous nation, is undergoing revolutionary economic changes that could produce massive political turmoil. Japan is an uneasy hybrid of technological giant and anti-nuclear military infant.

As the Soviets eye opportunities to convert their new military muscle into political advantage--in the turbulent Philippines or Indonesia, for example--the region must face the risk of another “hot” war for decades to come, said Masashi Nishihara of Japan’s National Defense Academy.

For the present, the security situation in the region is believed to remain generally favorable to the United States and its allies, Nishihara said.

And even though China last May canceled a planned port call to Shanghai by three U.S. destroyers--a visit that would have symbolized new growth for the embryonic security relationship between the two nations--the loose “burden-sharing” practiced by Peking, Washington and Tokyo will probably continue to grow. When Japan sends its defense minister to Peking for the first time this fall, for example, he is expected to suggest that a Japanese destroyer call at Shanghai.

It was the Sino-Soviet political split and border clashes of the 1960s that triggered the Soviet military expansion in the region. Moscow accelerated its buildup when the United States and China began drawing together in 1970 and redoubled the effort after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam in 1975, which was broadly seen as presaging a wholesale American withdrawal from Asia.

Ground Forces Tripled

Spurred by this chain of events, Soviet ground forces along the Russian-Chinese border have tripled in size to about 450,000 men in 52 divisions, including two airborne divisions deployed in Mongolia--less than 400 miles from Peking. Also, 40% of the Soviets’ intercontinental missiles, land- and submarine-based, are positioned in the Far East, along with over 30% of all Soviet medium-range SS-20 missiles, bombers, fighter planes and naval forces.


The Soviet navy has 830 ships in the Pacific, more than half of them combatants, including two midsized aircraft carriers, 14 cruisers, 30 destroyers, 31 missile submarines, 103 attack subs and two major amphibious landing ships.

All told, they have “three times the tonnage of the U.S. 7th Fleet,” Mansfield said. “Since 1977 alone, they have gone from 51 older (surface) warships to almost 80 today, all of them modern,” he added.

Quality Inferior to U.S.

Soviet warships in general are qualitatively inferior to American vessels, but they are improving quickly.

Several years ago, the first Soviet carrier sent to this region, the Minsk, floundered its way around the world. When it finally limped into Vladivostok, it was laid up for repairs for fully 14 months. The Japanese navy took that as a sign of Soviet naval incompetence, but a second carrier, the Novorossiysk, showed itself a “much, much better” warship during Soviet Pacific fleet maneuvers this spring, Momoi said.

In those exercises, which passed first through the Sea of Japan and then circumnavigated Japan itself, “the Soviets told the Japanese, ‘We’re here in your bathtub, and in force,’ ” in the words of one U.S. official. The Sea of Japan, dubbed the “emperor’s bathtub” after Japan crushed Russia there in 1905, is now more like a Soviet lake, floating the powerful Soviet fleet with no serious Japanese competition, he said.

The recent increase in Soviet forces on four northern islands historically considered part of Japan but occupied by the Soviets since the end of World War II--islands lying only a few miles off Hokkaido--also is viewed primarily as a ploy to frighten Japan rather than as serious preparation for invasion.


Soviet Submarine Sanctuary

Those islands, however, have the added value of protecting the approaches to the Sea of Okhotsk, which the Soviets maintain as a sanctuary for their long-range missile-firing submarines.

Initially, some experts viewed the Soviet buildup as a defensive overreaction to Chinese cross-border forays in 1969. Those incursions made the Kremlin acutely aware of the vulnerability of Siberia, where 80% of its energy and most of its other natural resources are located, along with the Trans-Siberian railroad--”the carotid artery just under the Soviet skin” in supply terms, as another U.S. official said, because it runs only a few miles from the Chinese border for more than 1,000 miles.

To Japanese authorities, however, the Soviet buildup in the Pacific was as natural as the emergence of the U.S. Pacific fleet in the early 1900s after the westward emigration produced a sizable American population in California. And Japanese analysts believe the Russian surge was facilitated by the period of detente in the early 1970s, when strategic arms agreements codified a U.S.-Soviet military balance globally and in Europe and allowed Moscow to turn its attention to the Far East.

The Japanese also see Moscow’s Pacific buildup as specifically intended to challenge U.S. superiority in the region.

Particularly disturbing has been the deployment in Soviet Asia of about 140 medium-range SS-20 missiles, each with three nuclear warheads. These weapons, added to the thousands of Soviet longer-range missiles in Siberia, are viewed by most Western and Japanese analysts as an attempt at political intimidation or blackmail--against Japan, which has no nuclear weapons, and China, which has a comparatively minuscule nuclear arsenal.

Deployment of SS-20s

Both Japan and China are anxious that Moscow halt deployment of its SS-20s in the region. Japan in particular has urged the United States to reach no settlement with the Soviets at the Geneva arms control negotiations--such as putting a ceiling on those missiles in Europe--that would permit the Soviets to shift any of the 275 SS-20s now deployed west of the Ural Mountains to new bases in the East.


“It would be grossly unfair to dump those SS-20s that are superfluous in Europe in Asia,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said in an interview. “It would also be unfair for the United States to reach a settlement (on SS-20s) in Europe without doing anything about those in Asia. European SS-20s are mobile and easily transportable and are a threat to us.”

While the Soviet threat is now more widely recognized, reaction to it has been slow-paced, diffuse and not formally coordinated. In the loose burden-sharing arrangement, China is primarily responsible for blunting Soviet strength on land, the United States counters it at sea and Japan is moving gradually to provide economic and technological aid to China while taking on some off-shore responsibilities itself.

This year, for the first time since the Cabinet set a political limit on military spending in 1976, Japan may spend more than 1% of its gross national product for defense--compared to 6% of GNP for the U.S. defense budget. The 1% figure somewhat understates Japan’s effort relative to Washington’s, Mansfield noted, since it excludes military pensions, which are included in the U.S. defense budget, and it does not reflect the average 7.5% increase in Japanese defense spending for each of the last 14 years.

Nonetheless, Tokyo has only recently begun to fund new ships and planes required to meet its stated goals of protecting the sea lanes out to 1,000 miles as well as the three key straits that--in friendly hands--could bottle up the Soviet fleet: Soya or La Perouse in the north, Tsugaru between the main Japanese islands and the Korea Strait in the south. U.S. officials estimate that Tokyo must double the rate of increase to achieve those goals by 1990.

Training Chinese Officers

Japan is also expected to help Peking train increasing numbers of Chinese officers, exchange intelligence and--like the United States--sell some defensive equipment and weapons to the Chinese.

China seeks to modernize its military force, but that task has low priority among Peking’s stated new goals. To provide men for its labor program, it is cutting back its army by a million men, or 25%. It has shopped widely for new weapons but, short of foreign currency, has yet to buy much, even the anti-tank missiles that would be vital to stopping any Soviet land attack.


The United States, for its part, has added 15 new frigates, eight missile destroyers, six nuclear attack subs and new squadrons of F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft in the region. It plans to put a second reactivated battleship group with its huge complement of cruise missiles here, too, with more and better vessels on the horizon.

But there are limits, rooted in the past, on how far these nominal friends will go.

China Seen as Buffer

Japan would welcome a stronger China, with even a modest-sized navy, as an improved buffer against the Soviets. But it does not want a China so powerful that it might begin to threaten Japan, much as the smaller East Asian nations do not want a powerful Japan that might one day again be tempted to form a “co-prosperity sphere” of the type that brought World War II to the Pacific.

Similarly, China needs Japanese and American economic and technical aid, but it also needs peace with the Soviet Union, which alone seriously threatens it. Peking has much more to gain by playing off the two superpowers than joining either, according to Nishihara.

But he, like most other authorities, doubt that China will ever again restore the military and political alliance with Moscow that loomed over Asia in the immediate post-war era.