Naval experts around the world are wondering whether the soviets will hold naval maneuvers this spring, as they normally do every five years. United States military analysts say there are so far no early signs of OKEAN 80, as Western naval experts already call the expected exercise. However, as a result of the crises in the area, a total of 54 US and Soviet warships are warily watching each other in the Indian Ocean.
That Soviet deployment could be a reason for deferral of OKEAN 80. Wide-ranging Soviet maneuvers in 1965, 1970, and 1975 provided important clues to future Soviet naval developments. OKEAN 80 had been earlier predicted by Western analysts for April 1980.
The 1965, 1970, and 1975 exercises all preceded important new Soviet naval developments. They were apparently demonstrations of new capabilities, such as the big Ivan Rogov-class amphibious ships in OKEAN 1975.
Units of the US and Soviet navies are keeping constant watch on each others' movements. A recent example of just how close that surveillance is received widespread publicity: The crew of an Aden-based Soviet I1-38M naval patrol plane , flying near the US ships in the Arabian Sea, extended congratulations for the US hockey team's Olympic gold medal.
At present, 27 US ships, including two aircraft carriers, face an equal number of Soviet ships in the Arabian Sea. The firepower of the US force -- with carrier-based aircraft, 1,800 US marines, 21 fighting ships, and six support ships -- is far superior to that of the Russians' 12 fighting and 15 support ships. The Soviet force, however, includes a big, new replenishment ship, the Berezina, which has just sailed around Africa and northward through the Indian Ocean.
"The five-year pattern," US Naval War College analyst Donald C. Daniel reported two years ago in the Naval War College Review, "seems to be associated with the termination of one five-year plan [in the USSR] and the beginning of the next." The '65, '70, and '75 exercises "all occurred in the last years of three consecutive five-year-plans and at a time when decisions were being made on the allocation of resources for the next plan," Mr. Daniel observed.
OKEAN, Capt. William H. J. Manthorpe Jr. (USN, ret.) wrote in a recent US Naval Institute Proceedings, "constitutes the Soviet Navy's report to higher authority concerning fulfillment of the plan under which it had been working for the previous five years."
In the "consumer oriented" Soviet military establishment, Captain Manthorpe added, the Soviet Supreme Navy commander, Adm. Sergei Gorchkov, and his staff hoped to influence the bureaucratic decisionmaking process to provide the weapons and systems they want for the Soviet Navy --vince a budget-conscious US Congress of their needs.
Whether or not OKEAN 80 actually takes place, Western attention now is centered on two main areas of Soviet shipbuilding. One is the new nuclear-propelled 32,000-ton "Sovietsky Soyuz" (Soviet Union) class ship being built at Leningrad. The heavily armed ships, says Capt. John Moore, the British editor of the authoritative Jane's Fighting Ships, "bristle with missiles and guns, can carry aircraft, and can best be described by the old-fashioned title 'battle cruiser.'"
Analyses of Soviet naval intentions have predicted construction of up to 12 of the ships. They resemble (though they are twice the tonnage) the US Navy's once-planned strike-cruiser, which was dropped as too costly and impractical. The US had wanted to use the strike cruisers as screening ships for its Nimitz-class nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers.
Also under close watch are Soviet aircraft carriers. The 40,000-ton Kiev and Minsk (soon to be joined by a sister ship, the Kharkov) may have a much larger successor. Adm. Thomas Hayward, US Chief of Naval Operations, warned in his recent posture report that this was likely.
Though US administration analysts have so far not confirmed this, the state radio in navy-conscious Holland said March 21 such a carrier was already under construction. The Radio Netherlands military commentator added that US and Western intelligence had spotted a nuclear-powered, 78,000-ton aircraft carrier, comparable to the giant conventional-powered US Forrestal class. He said it was under construction at Murmansk.
If the report is verified, Western observers will be watching for land-based tests of Soviet aircraft which might be based on the new carrier.