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The Historical Significance of the USS Salem in Relation to the Cold War

 By Doctor John Scholes

Although the USS Salem never fired her guns in action and was completed too late to see service in World War II, she did participate in a significant way in a war and contributed to winning that war - the Cold War. As flagship of the US Navy's Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, the USS Salem played a major (though perhaps under appreciated) role in the early years of the Cold War, in what was at that time considered the most important theater of the Cold War (by both the western powers (NATO) and the eastern block). The importance that the Soviet Union assigned to the USS Salem (and her sisters) is perhaps best illustrated by the lengths that the Soviet Navy went to in an attempt to counter the US Navy's "super cruisers". The lack of success in this attempt was source of considerable frustration to the Soviet Navy and Soviet Union (especially in the Mediterranean).

Unlike the United States and its western allies, the Soviet Union did not demobilize following World War II. Rather, the Soviet Union (and its dictator, Joseph Stalin) not only worked to consolidate their hold on eastern Europe, but worked actively to extend Communist (and, therefore, the Soviet Union's) influence throughout the world. The Mediterranean was the theater where much of the Soviet Union's efforts to extend their influence was focused in the early years of the Cold War. In order to extend their influence beyond their borders (and those of their newly conquered eastern European empire), the Soviet Union (and its leaders, especially Stalin) recognized the need for a powerful ocean going Navy. The need for a powerful fleet in order to have worldwide influence had been recognized by Stalin prior to WW II, but the Soviet Union's and its navy's plans had been frustrated by many factors, including the lack of professional design staff, lack of specialized industrial and technical infrastructure, and lack of foreign assistance, and finally cancelled by the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union and the immediate pressing requirements of WW II. Following the end of WW II and the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union's pre war plans for a large ocean going navy were revived.

As absolute ruler of the Soviet Union, Stalin had immense influence on the Soviet Navy's plans, even to the point of all major ship designs having to meet with Stalin's personal approval. While the Soviet Navy's plans were modified and updated to reflect (to at least some degree) World War II experience, Stalin had (and continued to have) a strong preference for large gun armed surface ships, particularly cruisers (and, to a slightly lesser degree, battleships). A large effort to design and construct such ships was begun by the Soviet Union following WW II. Aircraft carriers were much less highly regarded by Stalin (despite WW II experience) and, therefore, the Soviet Navy's program gave them much lower priority. As the design and construction of such ships required an enormous industrial and technical infrastructure (much of which had to be created from scratch in the Soviet Union) and because of the damage inflicted on the Soviet Union in WW II, a long period would be required to actually build such ships (despite Stalin's efforts to do so). For this reason (and others) most of the ships of Stalin's planned ocean going fleet would never be completed (or, in many cases, even begun).

One product of Stalin's post war planned fleet that was completed (although not in the numbers originally planned) was the Sverdlov class of light (6" gun) cruisers. As these cruisers were modifications and updates of the pre-WWII Chapev class of light cruisers, they could be built much more quickly than the completely new designs for larger more advanced cruisers and other ships. The Soviet Navy (and Stalin) were not, however, fully satisfied with the Sverdlov class. Although these ships were relatively large and powerful for light cruisers and compared fairly well with pre-WW II designed light cruisers (such as British light cruisers and the US Navy's Cleveland class), they were considered by the Soviet Navy (and Stalin) as inferior to the US Navy's heavy (8"gun) cruisers, and especially inferior to the USS Salem and her sisters. This was of particular concern to the Soviet Navy, as it felt that its land based air power could counter the US Navy's aircraft carrier based air power (especially in areas such as the Mediterranean), which would leave (in its view) large surface ships as the most important factors in naval power (Soviet submarines were not permitted by Turkey to pass from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean at that time) . Stalin (and much of the Soviet Navy) also felt that large surface warships were the most valuable naval asset in demonstrating the Soviet Union's superior power and technology (extremely important factors in gaining influence in the Cold War). Obviously, the Sverdlov class cruisers were unsatisfactory in this role in comparison to the USS Salem and her sisters (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the slightly older, slow fire 8" gun US Navy heavy cruisers). So the Soviet Navy (and Stalin) looked for an "answer" to the USS Salem and her sisters (as well as the other US Navy heavy cruisers).

While the Soviet Navy had a design for (and had begun the early stages of construction of) very large (battle) cruisers of the Stalingrad class (40,000 tons; 12" guns), these ships were not considered suitable counters to the USS Salem and the other US Navy 8" gun cruisers. They were considered too large, too expensive, and too few in numbers, and Stalin had different plans for their employment. So a cruiser design to specifically counter and surpass the USS Salem and her sisters and the other US Navy heavy cruisers was begun - known as Project 66 (the subject of an excellent article by Stephen McLaughlin in Warship International, vol no 45, issue no 3, entitled "Admiral Kuznetsov's Cruiser Killer: The Project 66 Design" - from which much of the information below was derived).

The Soviet Union had considered designs for "super cruisers" prior to and during WW II and had also considered designs for very large cruisers mounting 220 mm (8.86") guns in 1947-48 (before deciding on 12" guns for the Stalingrad class), but serious design work on Project 66 began in 1951. The design was specifically intended to counter the US Navy's heavy (8" gun) cruisers (especially the USS Salem and her sisters) and was supported both by Stalin and the Soviet Navy's Commissar, Admiral Kuznetsov. A special 220 mm (8.86") gun was also designed to be superior to the US Navy's 8" guns (a prototype was built and tested in 1954). By the end of 1953, a fairly detailed "final" design was completed. The ship planned had a standard displacement of over 26,000 tons standard (approximately 50% larger than the USS Salem at approximately 17,000 tons) and mounted 9 of the 220 mm (8.86") guns, as well as 8 130 mm (5.1") guns and smaller AA guns. Despite the much larger size of the Project 66 design, armor protection was remarkably similar to the USS Salem, and theoretical top speed was only minimally greater.

Even after Stalin's death in 1953 (and the end of many of the other large ship designs that he supported), the Project 66 design continued, as it was supported by Admiral Kuznetsov and other members of the Soviet naval staff. Not all members of the Soviet naval staff agreed, however, so the design was tested the Voroshilov Naval Academy (equivalent to the US Navy's Naval War College) in early 1954. The Project 66 design was specifically tested against the USS Salem and the USS Des Moines class. The results of the test concluded that despite the much greater theoretical maximum range (almost 52,000 versus 30,000 yds) and heavier shell (388 versus 335 lbs) of the very powerful 220 mm (8.86") gun of the Project 66 design, the Des Moines class would be superior to the Project 66 design in a real world fight. Soviet radar technology did not permit any chance of useful fire control beyond 40,000 yds and between 40,000 and 30,000 yds the probability of hitting with the Project 66 design and gun and Soviet fire control was so low that not enough hits could be made to be effective (baring a "fluke" hit), even if the entire capacity of the magazines were utilized. As soon as the range closed to 30,000 yds or less (as in a real world engagement), the USS Salem and her sisters would have a major advantage in rate of fire (10 versus 3-5 rounds per minute per gun), magazine capacity (150 versus 100-120 rounds per gun), fire control (superior to all other navies) and accuracy (the Soviets may have seen examples of the USS Salem and her sisters' incredible accuracy in their practice firings) and superior damage control and at least equality in armor protection. The Project 66 design, despite its large size and great cost, could not even equal, much less surpass, the USS Salem and her sisters in real world battle. The Project 66 design was abandoned and the Soviet Navy (and Admiral Kuznetsov and the Soviet Naval Staff) gave up in frustration. The Soviet Navy never gained superiority over (or even parity with) the US Navy in the Mediterranean (or elsewhere) and the Soviet Union never gained the influence and dominance over the Mediterranean that it sought and, at one time, thought it could achieve. The USS Salem and her sisters played a significant role in achieving the US Navy's Cold War victory.

Not only the Soviet Navy, but also the US Navy regarded the USS Salem and her sisters as particularly important to its Cold War mission. During the Korean War, the USS Salem and her sisters were kept in the Mediterranean as the most important theater of the Cold War, as the US Navy feared that the Korean War might be a diversion to draw strength away from the most important area. This was somewhat unfortunate, as the USS Salem had (at the beginning of the Korean War) the only installation of a new specialized shore bombardment computer (several of these computers were later removed from the USS Salem and her sisters and placed on the Iowa class battleships during their 1980s reactivation) and the 8" 55 RF guns would have been highly effective in the Korean War. The US Navy, however, wanted its best ships in the most important place, which it felt was the Mediterranean. 

After the USS Salem and her sister ship the USS Des Moines were decommissioned and placed in "mothballs", they continued to be valued. They were kept at the highest level of readiness and maintenance in the Reserve Fleet. During the Vietnam War, reactivation of both ships was seriously considered (either as a supplement to or alternative to the USS New Jersey). Opposition by high ranking Naval Aviators and many politicians ultimately contributed to the lack of reactivation (as well as a likely shortage of the special cartridge cases for the 8" 55 RF guns). The USS Newport News remained in service (ultimately as the last "big gun" cruiser) and demonstrated her capability and that of the 8" 55 RF guns in Vietnam (as well as the quantities of the special cartridge cases that were required). While all the other remaining big gun cruisers were scrapped during or shortly after the Vietnam War, the USS Salem and her sisters were retained in reserve. When the reactivation and modernization of the Iowa class battleships was being considered (and ultimately accomplished) in the 1980s, a similar reactivation and modernization (with missile armament, etc) was proposed for the USS Salem and USS Des Moines. The Iowas were chosen instead, partly due to their larger size and greater capacity to carry the weight and volume of the new systems.

It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and the completion of Dessert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait that the USS Salem and the USS Des Moines were removed from the Navy List and the Reserve Fleet. The USS Newport News was removed from the Navy List in 1978, but was retaining in the Reserve Fleet (for spares for her sisters). The retention of the USS Salem and her sisters far longer than any other big gun cruisers is a testament to the regard that the US Navy (at least many in the Navy) had for the value of these ships, especially in the Cold War. Therefore, as the only surviving ship of her class, the USS Salem represents a fitting memorial to those who served in the Cold War, and especially to the sailors and their ships. In a larger sense, the USS Salem also represents a testament to a period in history when United States industry and technology was supreme in the world. No other navy or nation could have built the USS Salem and her sisters. That is only one of many reasons she deserves to be preserved.


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