From "Soviet Military Power 1987", U.S. Department of Defense.

Power #1, the Soviet Union, spanned two continents for more than seven decades. It held substantial forces in the Far East to fortify against two other powers, the United States and China. The former was a superpower with a slight technological edge reliant on sea and air power combined with overseas basing, the latter heavy in population but a relatively poor economically, with large, outdated military forces.

Power #2, the modern-day People’s Republic of China, is regional power on the cusp of being a superpower, with a rapidly growing economy and military. Having built up a military large enough to defend the country’s borders, the rapid expansion of China’s navy marks an intent to attend to overseas interests. China borders several nuclear powers, has territorial disputes with many of its Asian neighbors, and has the attention of the United States.

Ground Forces Soviet Far East, 1985** People’s Republic of China, 2012
-Tank Divisions 2  9
-Motor-Rifle Divisions 2  25
-Naval Infantry/Marine Divisions 1  2 2/3
-Airborne Divisions 1  1
-Special Forces Brigades 2  1?
- Air Assault Brigades 3  Unknown
 ** Category A readiness only
Air Forces, Ground
-Bombers 112  80
-Fighters 725 (Su-27, MiG-23)  1,100
- Attack 905 (Su-17, MiG-27)  300
-Recon/ EW 255 (MiG-21R)  200
 Naval Aviation Forces
 -Long-Range Strike  108  145
 -Fighter-Bombers  35  0
 -Carrier-Based Fighter/Attack  41  0
 -Long-Range Reconnaissance, EW  59
 - Airborne Early Warning/AWACS 8
 -Long-Range ASW  25
 -Medium-Range ASW  59
 -Naval Helicopters  106  34
 Naval Ship Forces
 -Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarines  25  3
 -Non-Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines  7  0
 -Fleet Submarines (Nuclear, Non-Nuclear)  90  54
 -Command + Control Submarines  2  0
 -Aircraft Carriers, Large  1
 -Aircraft Carriers, Small  2  0
 -Principal Surface Combatants  81  79
 -Amphibious Warfare Ships  20 27

This is obviously an “apples and oranges” comparison. The strategic goals of the Soviet Union’s Far Eastern forces in 1985 were to deter China, threaten Japan, and protect the USSR’s strategic nuclear deterrent at sea. The strategic goals of the People’s Liberation Army are to protect Chinese territory, place pressure on Taiwan, and increasingly, protect China’s overseas interest (i.e. shipping lanes.) The USSR wasn’t as interested in distant power projection from the Pacific, i.e. from Northeast Asia to the Persian Gulf. The USSR had a different way to get to the Persian Gulf.

There are plenty of ways you can pick apart the comparison. For example, although China may have a large standing army, only a fraction of it could be used against Taiwan, or anywhere outside Chinese territory. China may have a relatively small attack aircraft force, but most of its fighters are multi-role, capable of being used in the attack mission. And you can’t really blame China for not investing in “command and control submarines”. And of course, these numbers are merely a snapshot taken at a particular moment–they don’t reflect what the Soviet Union wanted for the Far East Military District, nor what force levels the Chinese military will ultimately stabilize at.

In a lot of ways, a comparison such as this is a Rorsach test: you see what you want to see based on how you assess China’s intentions.

Comments welcome.


Soviet Military Forces in the Far East, National Intelligence Estimate Memorandum to Holders, Central Intelligence Agency, October 1985.

Warsaw Pact Order of Battle, June 1989.

Chinese Ground Forces,

China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 2012.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 101 post(s) on Asia Security Watch