WASHINGTON — The Soviet Union has significantly scaled back its plans for a "blue water" navy that can project power in Third World conflicts, intelligence and private analysts here say.
Instead, the analysts say, the Soviet navy appears to be stressing defensive operations close to home.
The latest piece of evidence is a radical design change to the largest aircraft carrier in Soviet history, now being built on the Black Sea. The carrier Leonid I. Brezhnev is being equipped with a "ski jump" flight deck, capable of accommodating only "jump jets" and helicopters rather than high-performance aircraft such as those that fly from U.S. carriers.
That unexpected modification, coupled with cuts in Soviet ship-building programs and naval exercises around the world, has confirmed to most experts the Kremlin policy change.
"The roughly 15% drop in out-of-area deployments (exercises) this year, which was the first sharp decline after decades of growth, came as quite a shock to everyone who watches these things," one naval intelligence analyst said. "It implies the Soviets see bigger problems closer to home, and are focusing now less on the Third World than on their 'first' world."
Analysts see various reasons for the change. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev may wish to economize on his navy's fuel bills, for example. Personality changes in the military hierarchy and the U.S. Navy's more aggressive "forward" strategy--which calls for fighting the Soviet fleet close to its home ports in a war--also may help to account for it.
Earlier Start Seen
But the reduced number of ships and submarines coming down the slipways of Soviet naval yards in recent years indicates that the change probably began in the final years of the Brezhnev regime.
No major impact on the U.S. Navy's strategy or on its goal of having 15 carrier battle groups--there are 13 now--is expected because of the Soviet strategy change. The American navy has always been the "power projection" force of the United States as well as the protector of its sea lines of communication and commerce, Michael MccGuire of the Brookings Institution said.
However, the greater emphasis on defense measures by the Soviets could create difficulties for the U.S. Navy in carrying out its controversial "forward" strategy, according to several authorities. Still, if the Soviets permanently forgo a blue water navy, the U.S. Navy would run less risk as its performs its global mission. This is already apparent in the Persian Gulf crisis, one analyst said.
"Ten years ago, we would have expected a very major Soviet deployment there under conditions of today," he said. "Instead, we see only a couple of minesweepers."
More Sophisticated Gear
Not all experts believe that the Soviet navy is being pulled back. Norman Polmar, a naval consultant here, pointed out that new Soviet warships are often double or more the size of their predecessors and are crammed with more sophisticated equipment.
"There is no falling off, in my view, of the Soviet commitment to a blue water navy," he said.
Moreover, according to Prof. Condalessa Rice of Stanford University, the Soviet military has increased its spending on land-based naval aviation in recent years.
"The naval mission as a whole may not have been cut back even if the naval service as such has fewer ships," she said.
But most specialists believe, as does MccGuire, that "we will see the Soviet navy in the markedly diminished role in the future, as low man on the totem pole" of the Soviet military hierarchy, after the army, air force, strategic missile force and air defense force.
The changes to the Brezhnev are considered significant because, as originally designed, it would have been the first conventional carrier in the Soviet navy. As such, predicted a 1985 U.S. Navy publication, "Understanding Soviet Naval Developments," it would be "one of the most notable developments" in postwar naval history.
Sea-based, high performance aircraft from the deck of a conventional carrier provide air cover beyond the range of land-based air defenses. Conventional carriers also would "markedly improve Soviet ability to project power ashore effectively in the Third World," the publication said.
Such Third World missions were foreseen 30 years earlier by Adm. Sergei G. Gorshkov when he took command of the Soviet navy in 1956. He was determined to convert it from a coastal defense force into a blue water navy that could challenge the United States everywhere.
"The flag of the Soviet navy flies over the oceans of the world," he wrote. "Sooner or later the United States will have to understand it no longer has mastery of the seas."