Published June 1974 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd Soviets Gaining Power on the Seas The Soviet Union apparently has set out to become the world's No. 1 power on the high seas. To achieve such a position, the Russians must have both a merchant fleet and a navy second to none. They have not yet reached that status, but obviously they are pushing for it, and pushing hard. Already the Soviet merchant fleet considerably exceeds our own. After Japan, Britain, and Norway, the Soviet fleet is the world's largest. The U.S. merchant marine is in sad decline. In the period between 1960 and 1973, it dropped from 2,916 ships to 655. At the same time, the Russian merchant fleet was increasing from 873 vessels to 1,480~more than twice as many as the U.S. now has. Equally important is the fact that much of the Soviet merchant fleet is new. Moreover, the Soviet Union now has the largest fishing fleet in the world; and its oceanographic research and exploration programs are rated by experts as "highly aggressive" and "second to none." As for a comparison of the American and Russian navies, there is some disagreement about relative strength, arising from a difference in types of ships and the purposes for which they are intended, and the fact that the Soviet fleet, built up during the cold war, is now reportedly ''aging." No less a person than the outgoing Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, however, has recently been quoted as saying that the Soviet capability "to deny us the sea lanes . . . is (now) greater than our capability to keep the sea lanes open." The Soviets launched their first large aircraft carrier in 1973 and have laid the keel of another. They have three times as many submarines as we have. Their undersea craft, armed with nuclear missiles, routinely patrol our coasts. Additionally, the Soviets are reportedly step_ ping up the development and production of landing ships and assault craft and the training of a marine corps. The United States, in this air and missile age, could make a tragic mistake in downgrading the historic importance of sea power, both commercial and naval. No nation has remained great-or can remain great-without a strong and healthy world trade capability and the power to keep the sea lanes open. Throughout history the aspirations of nations have gone down with their ships. The Soviet Union's ascendency on the world's oceans is a new fact of life with which we must reckon-now and in the years ahead.