In the 1970s the Soviet Union won recognition as a full-fledged superpower. By the 1980s, however, some observers revised that judgment, calling it "a one-dimensional superpower," possessing only the military dimension. Whatever the validity of the new assessments of Soviet economic and political power, physical indices alone confirm the cogency of the new view of Soviet military power. No state in the world rivals the U.S.S.R. in its combination of size, sophistication and command and control of military forces.

—Soviet ground forces are composed of more than two hundred divisions, all mechanized, and organized under army, front and high commands in at least five theaters of military operations. They possess more than 53,000 main battle tanks, 48,000 tubes of artillery, mortars and multiple-rocket launchers, 4,600 surface-to-air missiles and 4,500 helicopters.

—The air forces include more than 4,900 tactical aircraft. Air defense forces have an additional 1,760 interceptor aircraft, 9,000 surface-to-air missile launchers, and 10,000 warning systems including satellites, radars and air surveillance systems. Under the terms of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the world’s only ABM system has been deployed around Moscow.

—The Soviet navy has 360 attack and cruise missile submarines, 274 principal surface combatants, and its own air arm of 390 bombers and 195 fighter aircraft.

—The bulk of the strategic nuclear forces is controlled by the strategic rocket forces, with 1,418 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and, until the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is fully implemented, 553 medium-range ballistic missiles. The navy has an additional 967 submarine-launched ballistic missiles in 76 submarines, and the air force contributes 1,182 bombers.

—Command and control facilities are hardened, numerous and supported by multiple communications modes.

The Soviet military manpower base is equally large, consisting of over five million on active service and a reserve pool of over 55 million. Perhaps more important, the quality of manpower has improved dramatically. A new, younger and well-educated officer corps now leads the Soviet armed forces. Over 75 percent of all officers have a "higher or specialized education," meaning four or five years at one of the more than 160 college-level military schools. Throughout both Soviet and Russian history, there has always been a shortage of educated officers. That is no longer true. And, for the first time ever, the enlisted ranks are wholly literate, although national minority soldiers often have inadequate command of the Russian language.


Today’s Soviet forces are so large that one must ask why they have been created and deployed. They overshadow not only U.S. forces but also exceed the combined forces within the Western alliance structure. At least three popular answers have enjoyed currency in the West. First, some observers have argued that, concerning the building up of military forces, there is an "action-reaction" relationship between the U.S.S.R. and the United States. Second, Soviet spokesmen themselves insist that repeated historical experience with foreign invasions encourages a policy of maintaining more military power than foreigners might deem reasonable for Soviet security. Third, some Western analysts, but more important, Soviet military leaders themselves, declare that Soviet force structure requirements are dictated by ideology and the continuing "international class struggle."

There is an element of truth in all three explanations, but for some time the "action-reaction" argument has been losing its cogency. As former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown observed, "When we build, they build; when we stop, they build." Certainly the size and nature of Western forces affect Soviet decisions, but the popular image of an arms race is increasingly difficult to support.

The second argument, that Russia and the U.S.S.R. have been the repeated victim of foreign invasions, is also at odds with the historical record. In the 1890s the Imperial General Staff conducted a study of Russia’s military adventures since 1700 and concluded Russia had been at war for a total of 106 years in 38 campaigns. Of those, 36 were proudly described as "offensive." World War II actually started with both a German and a Soviet invasion of Poland, and since then territorial expansion has been considerable—part of Finland, the Baltic republics and large parts of Eastern Europe.

According to Marxist-Leninist reasoning, war is the consequence of private property, which divides man into classes. As long as the capitalist class exists and possesses military means, the "objective conditions" for peace do not exist, making some form of war inevitable. True peace can come only with the demise of capitalism. Thus the task of the Soviet military and all "peace-loving forces" is to ensure such an overwhelming correlation of military forces in favor of the socialist camp that the class struggle can be pursued successfully—preferably without resort to war, especially nuclear war, but with the victory of socialism in any event.

The ideological basis for Soviet military needs cannot be discounted lightly. Below the level of theory about class struggle, a body of Marxist-Leninist thought about military science and doctrine has been articulated and imbued in both the officer corps and the party leadership, providing them with a rather sophisticated system of categories for dealing with such practical military problems as the kinds and numbers of weapons and forces. A tough-minded, empirically grounded, military professionalism has emerged in Soviet military science and doctrine that deserves our serious attention, if not respect and envy.

"Military science," in the definition of the Soviet Dictionary of Basic Military Terms, is "a system of knowledge concerning the nature, essence, and content of armed conflict and concerning the manpower, facilities, and methods for conducting combat operations with armed forces and their comprehensive support." It derives its findings from the study of historical experience in war, training exercises, human behavior, physical sciences, technology and industry. Such findings become the foundation for "military doctrine" for the armed forces of the state.

"Military doctrine," as defined by the same Soviet work, is "a state’s officially accepted system of scientifically founded views on the nature of modern wars and the use of the armed forces in them. . . . Military doctrine has two aspects: social-political and military-technical." The two aspects are viewed as highly interactive, and are unique for each state because the political, social, economic, cultural and geographical realities of no two states are precisely the same. While much of military science holds for all states, military doctrine must be designed for the realities of a single state. A shared U.S. and Soviet military doctrine, therefore, would strike a student of Soviet military thought as either absurd or a misunderstanding of the definition.

The social-political aspect of Soviet military doctrine is elaborated by the political leadership, whereas the military-technical aspect falls primarily to the General Staff of the armed forces. Practical questions as to how military doctrine will affect policies for the civil sector are decided in the Defense Council, the small body within the Politburo that ties together the top military, economic and political leadership for defense policy-making. On the civil side, the State Planning Commission, the State Committee for Science and Technology, the Military-Industrial Commission and other organizations receive constraints and parameters for planning. On the military side, the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff receive guidelines within which they must develop forces and war plans.

The rationale for this complex political-economic-military structure derives from its historical and ideological foundations. The Bolsheviks had seized power in a backward country, not in the advanced industrial West as Marx had prophesied. They asked whether socialism could survive and expand from one country, particularly a backward one. Stalin’s answer, "Socialism in One Country," built upon Lenin’s new concept, "peaceful coexistence," which was a policy of seeking a breathing period. It included developing correct state-to-state relations with the West, raising the level of economic interaction in order to build a modern industrial base in the Soviet Union, and relegating the international class struggle to the Third World. The first Five-Year Plan and the entire effort to accelerate industrialization had as its major aim the creation of sufficient military potential for both the defense of the single socialist state and the eventual resumption of the struggle between socialism and capitalism on a global scale.

Whether one accepts this official reasoning as the actual motive for Soviet policy, it certainly did guide the building of institutional arrangements which exist today. World War II vindicated these arrangements and seated them ever more firmly within the Soviet state and party administrative structure. The primacy of military forces in Soviet economic development should be kept clearly in mind as we observe Gorbachev’s contemporary struggle for perestroika. Unless he changes the institutional arrangements at their very foundations, it is doubtful that the primacy of military forces in much of Soviet policy will alter significantly.

Because Gorbachev has announced a new military doctrine, "reasonable sufficiency," it is important to understand what it could mean both for the structure of Soviet forces and for the institutional arrangements. This is possible only by looking back on the evolution of Soviet military doctrine, particularly its "military-technical" aspect.


Over the seven decades of Soviet military activity, a recurring pattern is discernible. It begins with a recognition by the political and military leaders that Soviet military capabilities are limited by objective conditions. Essentially they are three. First, the manpower base has a low technical-cultural level when measured against the requirements for modern war. Second, the Soviet industrial base is insufficiently developed to provide modern technology and weaponry, either qualitatively or quantitatively. Third, several new technologies are beginning to change the nature of modern weaponry. Once these conditions have been adequately recognized, the question naturally follows, what is to be done about them?

Their first step has repeatedly been to define the nature of future war in light of the new technologies. That, of course, is not easy to explicate unambiguously, and several analysts, all being equally trained in the fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, are likely to produce different definitions. Debate within key military and some party circles, therefore, characterizes the effort to reach a commonly accepted view. The period of debate varies in duration, but it leads to an official general vision which is set forth as the reference point for changing military doctrine. The basic Marxist-Leninist tenets are retained concerning politics, class struggle, the two-camp world and so forth, but the new technology becomes the factor of change, the basis for new assumptions and new requirements for war.

The new requirements are not limited to military issues alone. They affect every sphere of social, economic and political life. To recall the official definition, the social-political side "encompasses all questions concerning methodology, economic, and social bases, the political goals of war. It is the defining and the more stable side." The other side, the military-technical, must accord with the political goals. It includes the "creation of military structure, technical equipping of the armed forces, their training, definition of forms and means of conducting operations and war as a whole."

For Soviet planners, defining the character of future war is the work of military science. It is determined by the nature of technology and the proven and potential methods of applying that technology to warfare. The proven methods, of course, are learned from the study of military history, that is, from practical experience. The potential methods are speculative hypotheses about future combat. Once the debate about the nature of future wars has ended, the Soviet military can proceed to develop the social, economic and military requirements in the context of an officially promulgated military doctrine.

The sequence here is important. The intellectual process starts with ideological assumptions and propositions about historical process, about politics, class struggle, international relations and so on. The basic stimulus seems to originate with the political preferences expressed in the official ideology. The next stimulus, however, is not, as is often believed, the size and nature of foreign armies in the imperialist camp. Rather, it is the nature of technology. The justification for Soviet weapons developments, therefore, arises in the first instance from new technology rather than from the adversaries’ force structure. Only next in the sequence comes an assessment of the forces at the disposal of the socialist and capitalist camps as well as the resources—military, economic and social—at the disposal of the Soviet Union.

Once this work is done, planners are ready to lay out the industrial, social and manpower policies required to support Soviet force structure. Since the Soviet predicament has repeatedly been one in which an adequate industrial and technical base either does not exist or has been destroyed by war, in which the cultural level of the manpower base is far too low to master modern military technology, and in which new generations of technology have altered radically the nature of war, there is, not surprisingly, a dramatic impact of military policy on every other sector of society.

The early 1920s saw the first cycle. Three new technologies—aviation, chemical weapons and motorization—had shown their impact during World War I, giving impetus to a fundamental reassessment of the nature of future war among the new "Red Commanders" in the Soviet Commissariat of War. Their findings can be summed up in four key points. First, the previous distinction between "front" and "rear" in war would disappear in light of airpower. Second, motorization would make possible much swifter and deeper offensive operations than seen before. Third, the stocks of weapons and ammunition for war could not all be produced in peacetime as it was assumed before World War I. Industry would have to be able to mobilize, defend itself against air attack and maintain high production levels throughout the war. Organizing the economy for war would require far more than had been conceived earlier, either in Russia or the West. Fourth, the technical-cultural level of military manpower would have to be quite high, a particularly troublesome point for the U.S.S.R. when the Red Commanders compared their officer corps and recruiting base with those of the West.

When the image of future war as it was richly described in the 1920s in uncensored journals and books is compared with the actual character of World War II, the congruence is impressive. Red Army leaders never accepted Western images like General Giulio Douhet’s, which put excessive emphasis on airpower. While they did not underrate airpower, they insisted on a "combined arms" approach, arguing that no single service or weapons system could win wars alone. Their image proved more prescient.

After World War II the Soviet marshals found themselves in a predicament remarkably similar to the 1920s. Confronted with a war-torn industrial base and a poorly educated manpower base, they also saw three new technologies that had begun to change future war even more radically than had been the case in the 1920s. Nuclear weapons, rocketry and cybernetics (early computers) created what Soviet military thinkers characterized as a "revolution in military affairs."

A new cycle began in Soviet military science and then doctrine, only this time it was confined in its early phase to classified circles. By 1962, however, with the publication in the Soviet Union of Marshal V. D. Sokolovskiy’s volume, Military Strategy, the West was provided with a synthesis of Soviet thought on the matter, a general vision of a nuclear conflict and the requisites for coping with it. The Soviet forces that emerged over the succeeding two decades look quite rational, both in quality and quantity, when viewed against the Sokolovskiy image. Just as two essays by M. V. Frunze in the 1920s provided a general synthesis and image of the future at the time, so too Sokolovskiy provided a conceptual outline for the future of force building in the 1960s.

In the West, theorists often assert that the logic of war in the nuclear age must be the same for both sides. In the 1960s it was believed in the United States that Soviet doctrine would sooner or later parallel our own. To some degree, of course, that has proved true, but the premises of the Soviet military science and doctrine are sufficiently different to ensure some fundamentally different results.

The most significant difference concerns what the Soviet military theorists call "the preparation of the rear," that is, homeland defense and preparation for mobilization. Both world wars had taught them that this is first priority. Unless the "rear" can be defended and its resources mobilized, there is little use in speaking of campaigns elsewhere. The Soviet starting point, therefore, is strategic defense, survivable command and control, and military and industrial mobilization. After a brief concern with this problem in the 1950s, many in the West came to believe the task is beyond our means and therefore not worth the effort. A renewed interest in some of the defensive capabilities surfaced in the Carter Administration and were carried forward with more resources in the Reagan Administration, but the lack of consensus for the Strategic Defense Initiative and civil defense indicates a limit to which the West agrees with the U.S.S.R. on this issue.

The next most significant difference is found in the Soviet obsession with contiguous theaters and how to seize them swiftly. Air power, rocketry and naval power have generally taken a back seat to the problem of how to attack Europe, the Far East and Southwest Asia, the three contiguous land theaters. Strategic nuclear forces have enjoyed high priority, but they also must support these theater campaigns. Until lately, aviation was focused primarily on the theater mission. The navy must defend the naval approaches during these campaigns and also defend the submarine-based nuclear missile force.

The United States and its allies have been concerned with defense of the theater (e.g., Europe), but that has consistently taken second priority to the maintenance of strategic nuclear forces able to attack the U.S.S.R. independently of the theater campaign. For the most part, U.S. strategic forces have been considered separately from the theater defensive campaign; targeted to achieve "deterrence" objectives in the first place, with little attention to how they could affect Soviet theater capabilities. A basic change in U.S. doctrine did occur in 1980, however, with the issuance of Presidential Directive 59, in which a linkage between theater objectives for defense and traditional deterrence objectives was dictated.

A third difference is the persistent Soviet focus on "combined arms"; that is, making all branches of service and weapons work jointly for a common military objective, giving no single service or weapons system a wholly dominant role. Again, this stands in contrast to the U.S. approach which gives the dominant role to strategic nuclear forces and allows a relatively independent "maritime strategy" and "Air Land Battle."

Americans might more easily understand the Soviet outlook if we assumed for a moment that our most threatening enemies were in Canada and Mexico. That would cause us to focus on theater warfare and preparation of the United States against direct attack. Our naval and air forces would more likely be designed for what they could do to facilitate the success of our ground forces attacking these two theaters. We might be interested in seizing them without resorting to nuclear war if that seemed even remotely possible. But if nuclear weapons seemed likely to be used, we would still be faced with trying to occupy these countries with land forces, a requirement keeping a "combined arms" approach sharply in focus.

To carry this analogy further, let us assume that the U.S.S.R. supported Canada and Mexico and also backed them with ground and air forces deployed in both countries. Furthermore, suppose that the U.S.S.R. promised them a nuclear umbrella provided by ICBMs, bombers and submarines. We would face two problems. Not only would we want to neutralize these Soviet nuclear forces, but we would also try to prevent the projection of additional Soviet forces and supplies from the U.S.S.R. to Canada and Mexico. These problems, of course, would become tasks for our nuclear and naval forces, and they would be tied to supporting the theater campaigns, not allowed to develop independent campaigns under separate doctrines.

Keeping this analogy in mind, consider now the issue raised in Marshal Sokolovskiy’s Soviet Military Strategy. He wrote:

The question arises of what, under these [nuclear] conditions, constitutes the main military-strategic goal of the war: the defeat of the enemy’s armed forces, as was the case in the past, or the annihilation and destruction of the objectives in the enemy interior and the disorganization of the latter? The theory of Soviet military strategy gives the following answer to this question: both of these goals should be achieved simultaneously.

In other words, the Soviet General Staff could not give up its primary focus on the theater campaign. It would have to plan attacks on the enemy’s theater forces and his rear areas in a combined effort. Because the enemy was not just in Europe and East Asia but also in North America, that meant operations would have to be conducted both in the contiguous and in certain noncontiguous theaters. In contrast, the U.S. military attention has been focused almost wholly on carrying war to noncontiguous theaters, and even then not always in a "combined arms" fashion.

We can now see with reasonable clarity the force-building goals of the General Staff as they emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Soviet forces had to be able to attack successfully first Europe and then the Far East and Southwest Asia under both nuclear and non-nuclear conditions. This required three major capabilities.

First, an adequate defense of the rear had to be built. That is why the Soviet forces include 1,760 interceptor aircraft, 9,000 surface-to-air missile launchers and 10,000 warning systems such as radars and satellites. It also explains the ABM system around Moscow and the extensive deep underground sheltering for command staffs and communications.

Second, it required large mobile and armor-protected forces that could carry the offensive to great depths, hundreds of kilometers in weeks. That is why we see such a large tank force and why all Soviet infantry is mounted in armored fighting vehicles with anti-radiation liners. Such forces can be deployed in echelons dispersed evenly to the rear, disallowing concentrations attractive as nuclear targets. At the same time, their mobility allows them to move forward rapidly, accumulating mass against and within NATO’s defenses, too close for nuclear targeting.

Third, means are required to attack the adversary’s rear, his economy, his means of projecting forces to Eurasia and his command and control. This accounts for the strategic rocket forces buildup followed by the contemporary addition of long-range bombers. It also accounts for some of the naval developments, the submarine-based ballistic missiles and attack submarines.

Such military requirements are not only large, they are also quite different from the Western alliance’s conception of its own military needs. They imply enormous offensive military power, but the offense is predicated on a defense of the homeland from air, land and sea attack. They are not designed for a short war—although Soviet theorists clearly envision an intense initial period of conflict, most probably involving nuclear weapons, more intense than in any previous conflict, and one likely to determine the eventual outcome—but for one that will be followed by lengthy subsequent phases. Not least, they imply a remarkable command and control apparatus that can ensure the combined purposeful use of all types of forces.

In sum, at the risk of imposing too tidy a structure, we can see a unique Soviet "triad" of capabilities: to defend the rear; to seize the contiguous land theaters; and to project war into the noncontiguous theaters that may affect the campaigns in Eurasia.


A third cycle in Soviet doctrinal evolution began in the late 1970s and continues today. While it is not as dramatic as the previous two, it nonetheless involves significant changes which are unquestionably related to some aspects of Gorbachev’s new foreign and domestic policies.

As in the past, the present cycle was stimulated, according to Soviet theorists, by changing technologies. Microcircuitry and the modern semiconductor have had a dramatic impact on many aspects of military weaponry, computations and communications. Avionics for aircraft, accuracy of missiles and bombs, management and storage of information for logistics and control of operations are merely a few of the military uses of the products of the semiconductor revolution. Directed energy, or laser, technology has a similar impact on many aspects of military equipment and operations. These two technology families have been heralded in the West as likely to create major improvements in military capabilities.

The so-called emerging technologies are being closely followed in the Soviet Union. In fact, some elementary applications of them are actually being fielded in Soviet forces more rapidly than in the West. A third technology, genetic engineering, has also galvanized a massive Soviet research effort, but whether it will yield practical military applications in chemical and biological warfare weaponry is questionable.

There are other changes, much higher-yield non-nuclear explosives for example, that also compel this basic review in Soviet military circles of the nature of future war. At the same time, improved designs in nuclear weapons, combined with improved accuracies, have the effect of moving nuclear arsenals toward small-yield warheads, actually reducing total mega-tonnage. This trend in the U.S. arsenal is much further along than in the U.S.S.R., but we can expect technology and tactical applications to lead Soviet designers in the same direction.

In the tradition of the 1920s and the 1950s, the General Staff has worked through a major change in doctrine, based on what it believes these new technologies will do to the nature of future war. The pattern is not as precise as it was previously, but by the early 1980s, change in ground force organization began to appear. It continues with the emergence of a new level of operational command, the "high command" in a "theater of military operations." It stands between the "front commands" and the General Staff, linking "strategic" and "operational" levels of command, greatly expanding overall command and control means for the enormous campaigns Soviet planners envision.

The new goal for the high command is to be able to conduct a multifront operation on a frontage of about 700 kilometers, driving about 1,200 kilometers deep in three or four weeks. This goal cuts in half what earlier doctrine specified for the speed and depth of the theater offensive, a truly breathtaking aspiration, making blitzkrieg campaigns in World War II pale by comparison. For the Central Front in Europe, it means reaching the English Channel and the Pyrenees in less than a month on a front extending from the Alps to Denmark.

It is, of course, natural for the General Staff to put such emphasis on the theater campaign, and some of its dynamic features have implications both for Soviet military doctrine and for foreign policy. The concern for a much longer conventional phase at the beginning of a war is evident in Soviet thought and, during that phase, a priority aim is the destruction of NATO’s nuclear means with Soviet conventional weapons. We can only infer the meaning of that emphasis, but if a large part of NATO’s nuclear forces are destroyed quickly during the conventional phase, the Soviet marshals must reason that NATO’s incentive to use nuclear weapons will decline, as the balance of NATO and Warsaw Pact theater nuclear forces shifts dramatically against NATO. Such reasoning is probably behind statements like Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov’s in May 1984 to an interviewer for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) that the nature of new non-nuclear weapons is such that he could conceive of a global war in which nuclear weapons are not used. Corroborative evidence may also be seen in Moscow’s enthusiasm for the INF treaty, which would remove 572 nuclear targets in NATO territory. Soviet conventional forces therefore would not have to destroy these targets as they seek to alter radically the theater nuclear weapons balance.

In other words, it appears that Soviet diplomacy in arms control is coupled with this change in theater doctrine to achieve essentially military objectives. The same is true, of course, for other dimensions of Soviet diplomacy and propaganda aimed at the denuclearization of Europe.

The doctrinal change in the third leg of the Soviet triad, projection of war to noncontiguous theaters, is less radical than for the second leg, the theater campaign, but it is nonetheless evident. In strategic nuclear forces, the silo-based ICBM force has leveled off in size, although it is still being modernized. Expansion is occurring in land mobile ICBMs, particularly the SS-25 and the SS-24. Presumably this more survivable force is designed not for the initial period of war, but for subsequent phases after the silo-based force has been expended. Parallel to this ICBM development, a modern strategic bomber force is emerging. The Bear H bomber fleet and the new Blackjack bomber, still in its infancy, portend an eventual large nuclear-capable bomber force. And the launching of both large Delta-class and Typhoon-class submarines permits keeping the submarine-based strategic force within protected ocean bastions near the Soviet Union, still able to reach the United States with submarine-launched ballistic missiles but much less vulnerable to destruction by U.S. naval forces.

The Soviet navy has not yet pretended to have the capability to attack the sea-lanes in which U.S. forces would move to Europe or East Asia. But the logic of the changing Soviet image of war, one in which the conventional period is longer, would seem to require that the navy assist the theater campaigns by interfering with U.S. forces en route to Europe and the Far East. Soviet naval lodgments in Cuba could also support this mission, making the strategic significance of Cuba potentially quite large. In any event, we should anticipate a continuing expansion of the Soviet navy to meet this general war mission.

In the first leg of the Soviet triad, preparation of the rear and remarkable hardening of command and control facilities is proceeding, as is steady work on the ABM system around Moscow. Air defense against low-altitude attack by bombers and cruise missiles is also receiving much programmatic attention with the fielding of the SA-10 surface-to-air missile system and a look-down/shoot-down capability on interceptor aircraft.

The preparation of the rear, however, includes more than military forces. It involves the industrial and the science and technology bases. Here the trends are quite different from those in weaponry and forces, and they reflect a fundamental problem for Soviet doctrine.

It is one thing to work out the findings of military science in light of the three new technologies of microcircuitry, directed energy and genetic engineering. It is quite another thing to build a modern industrial base that can produce the modern weapons these technologies make possible.

To some degree, the military-industrial and scientific sectors can be isolated from the remainder of the economy, given priority and built at the expense of the rest of the economy. The logic of Soviet military doctrine, however, in its two aspects, social-political and military-technical, emphasizes not isolation of the military sector but rather its organic relation to the rest of society and the economy. Military potential, a term Soviet authorities invest with a special "scientific" definition, takes into account all of a state’s economic and social resources for assessing the "international correlation of forces." Soviet military leaders, therefore, must consider more than their narrow sector; they must look at the economy and the society as a whole in preparing for war or an arms race.

A large lag in the development of civil sectors can reach a point where it becomes a major constraint on the military sectors. Marshal Ogarkov was fairly explicit on this point in a number of his articles while he was still chief of the General Staff. Undoubtedly, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the present chief of the General Staff, and several other senior officers who helped Ogarkov in the doctrinal revisions of the late 1970s and early 1980s, still share his concern about Soviet means for carrying through the force-building implications of the new requirements. They must share the view so widely expressed under glasnost by Gorbachev and others that the Soviet economy must accelerate its modernization, that it must reach world standards. Otherwise, there is little hope for eventually fielding the kind of weapons and forces in the numbers the revised Soviet doctrine dictates.

There is adequate precedent in Soviet history for the military to support a reduction in contemporary military procurement in order to ensure enhanced future production of modern weaponry. It happened in the 1920s, in the late 1940s and possibly, with regard to conventional forces, in the early 1960s when, for a time, the priority was nuclear forces. The conditions are different today, however, because very large and expensive forces already exist. They did not exist in the 1920s, 1940s and late 1950s. Neither did the large military industrial plant stock which exists today.

Finding a way to convert the present-day large stock of Soviet "guns" to modern economic "butter" is neither an easy nor a short-term task. Much of the Soviet military sector, weapons and industrial plants, is a sunk cost. Manpower is easier to convert, but tank and radar factories, relatively modern by Soviet standards, cannot be quickly transformed into modern automotive and semiconductor-based electronic plants. In the best event, the shift from guns to butter will require five to ten years, perhaps even longer.

Another set of constraints is also beginning to confront the social-political aspect of Soviet doctrine. Morale and discipline in the armed forces have increasingly become a problem. Mutinies and disorders in the navy have been reported, and suicides and breaches of discipline are apparently frequent in the ground forces. At the same time, the effects of the war in Afghanistan are working their way among Soviet youth and parents, particularly in attitudes toward military service. In a few instances, officers have been active in the Soviet dissident movement. These developments are difficult to assess for their overall impact; they are subjective factors, changeable, but nonetheless probably worrying to the political and military leadership. Glasnost and perestroika are bound to give them greater vent, creating ambivalence in the General Staff about the price paid for the promise of industrial modernization.

Against this backdrop of new Soviet force buildup requirements and the constraints the Soviet leadership faces in achieving them, we can interpret several developments in declared Soviet policy on military doctrine and East-West competition.

In his book, Perestroika, Gorbachev advances a rather fundamental change in ideology. Acknowledging that the 20th Party Congress in 1956 saw war as no longer inevitable in the nuclear age, he insists that the advent of nuclear weapons has created a new kind of interest apart from class interests. This new interest, "humankind interest," transcends class struggle because it involves saving mankind from total destruction. In traditional Marxist-Leninist thought, he admits, the relationship between war and revolution has always been viewed positively, since war traditionally has triggered revolutions. Today, however, when war involves nuclear weapons, that cannot be so. The 27th Party Congress has taken account of this "deep conceptual turn," a new understanding of the relation between war and revolution, between class and humankind interests. The Soviet Union, therefore, must join with imperialist states in efforts to prevent nuclear war. Gorbachev rhetorically asks:

Does this imply that we have given up the class analysis of the causes of the nuclear threat and of other global problems? No. It would be wrong to ignore the class heterogeneity of the forces acting in the international arena or to overlook the influence of class antagonism on international affairs and on the approaches to the accomplishment of all other tasks of mankind.

In short, the change in competition between the two camps appears to be confined largely to nuclear concerns.

In this context, Gorbachev has introduced the idea of "reasonable sufficiency" as the basis for a purely defensive military doctrine for both East and West. Civilian analysts in Moscow have used this opening to argue that Soviet military requirements have been based on an exaggerated estimate of the likelihood of an attack on the U.S.S.R. One Central Committee official, V. V. Zagladin, was quoted in the Soviet press as admitting that the Soviet Union had previously "proceeded on the possibility of victory" in nuclear war, adding, however, that Soviet policy now rejects this assumption.

Marshal Akhromeyev, during his visit to the United States, threw additional light on "reasonable sufficiency." It resulted from a two-year discussion in the Defense Council, where a decision was taken about the social-political aspect of military doctrine in favor of a defensive variant. On the military-technical side Akhromeyev insisted that the new doctrine means the Soviet Union will initially remain on the defensive for about twenty days while trying to negotiate a peace. If that fails, Soviet forces will have to launch a "counteroffensive." He carefully avoided questions about possible reductions or other changes in Soviet forces that the new doctrine ought to entail.

In late July 1988 Gorbachev’s Politburo colleague, Yegor Ligachev, publicly challenged the wisdom of parts of Gorbachev’s new ideological foundation for his change in foreign and military policy. Talk about "humankind interests" transcending class interests in the international class struggle, in Ligachev’s view, is confusing Soviet friends abroad.

What sense are we to make of these not wholly compatible statements? We know with reasonable confidence that the military-technical aspect of military doctrine was revised in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, and we can infer with equal confidence the large demands that the revision puts on the Soviet economy and society. Gorbachev apparently does not want to pay the price of meeting them in the short run. If Akhromeyev is to be believed, Gorbachev has been able to push through a halfway change, a new version of the social-political aspect of military doctrine. That is much easier than revising the military-technical aspect.

Because the military scientific work on which the present version is based is not a matter of policy whim but developed in light of new technological realities, the military can advance strong reasons not to change it. Akhromeyev’s concept of a defensive phase for a few weeks followed by a counteroffensive is not a change of doctrine. It is a change of war plans. Gorbachev and the civilian analysts seem to want more than a change of war plans; they are building a case for a reduction in Soviet forces. In other words, military policy in the Soviet Union is still a matter of debate, far from resolved.

At the same time, Gorbachev’s new ideological position on nuclear weapons and Zagladin’s assertion that victory in nuclear war is no longer assumed possible are acceptable to military planners. They are compatible with, and even supportive of, trends in the military-technical aspect of the doctrine worked out a decade ago. It makes sense to encourage a broad downgrading of the idea that nuclear weapons can have political utility. From a purely operational viewpoint, if the new doctrine were accepted both in NATO and the Warsaw Pact, it might well relegate nuclear weapons to the role to which chemical weapons were confined in World War II.

Marshal Ogarkov’s public assertions about global war without nuclear weapons also suggests a genuine military interest in the denuclearization of warfare. Moreover, the experience of the Chernobyl nuclear accident may have served to reinforce such attitudes. If the inference about a Soviet triad—defense of the rear, the theater offensive and the projection of war to noncontiguous theaters—is an accurate characterization of the peculiar Soviet view of how to prepare for war, then abandoning nuclear weapons must appear highly desirable to the General Staff and lower-level echelons which may have to direct and control operations. That would make defense of the rear much easier and also facilitate the theater offensive by removing the prospect of contaminated areas to be traversed in the enemy’s rear, not to mention fallout from nuclear bursts carried eastward.

In addition to these purely military considerations, a denuclearization policy also attacks the NATO doctrine of deterrence through nuclear weapons. Gorbachev’s ideological innovation, insisting that nuclear weapons can have no political utility, means that U.S. deterrence doctrine is against the interests of mankind. Deterrence doctrine, of course, implies a political utility for nuclear weapons, a utility that Gorbachev’s ideological proposition would take away.


What are the implications of these numerous Soviet military developments? At least three seem to stand out, demanding special emphasis.

First, there is a fundamental asymmetry between the American and the Soviet ways of conceiving and developing military force structure goals. While the Soviet Union does take into serious account what weapons the West builds and fields, it does not start with that factor. Rather, it proceeds from deeply held political assumptions and then looks at what technology makes possible for military means. Given its continental geographical position and the existence of potential adversaries on the contiguous land theaters, the Soviet Union creates for itself dramatically larger military requirements. It could reduce them, but to do so would call for not just a new tactical variant of the old "peaceful coexistence" policy but a surrender of the ideological tenet that there is a basic conflict between the two camps.

Second, the most recent cycle in the development of Soviet military doctrine has thrown up requirements that the Soviet economy, in its present condition, cannot fulfill. Large constraints now confront both the political and the military leadership. The idea that the West could spend the Soviet Union into bankruptcy through an arms race is certainly overdrawn, but the public caricature of the idea has served to obscure very real potential leverage that military and economic competition gives the West. As long as the West chooses to de-link the political-military component from the economic component of East-West relations, it denies itself a large security advantage, and it probably discourages some of the more fundamental changes in the U.S.S.R. by relieving the economic pressures that would prompt them.

Finally, the United States and its allies are facing a three-pronged offensive against their basic security strategy, nuclear deterrence. First, the trends in technology and weapons development, not only as the Soviet General Staff views them but also as they are emerging in the West, are working against the basic reliance we have placed on nuclear weapons. The new technologies cannot put the nuclear genie back in the bottle any more than the Luddites could stop the British industrial revolution, but they might displace them from use, like chemical weapons, by canceling their political utility.

The second prong of the attack is in arms control. It took Moscow a surprisingly long time to recognize the opening that the INF "zero option" provided for a general offensive against Western deterrence policy. Once the Soviet leadership perceived it, however, they exploited it. Not only could the removal of INF weapons from Europe set in motion greater demands for the removal of all nuclear weapons, it would also enhance the new operational doctrine which seeks to avoid nuclear war in Europe through destruction of NATO’s nuclear means during the conventional phase of a theater campaign.

The third prong of the Soviet offensive is directed against Western public attitudes toward security in general and nuclear weapons in particular. Gorbachev is committing almost as much energy to convincing Western publics of the virtue of perestroika as he is to his domestic struggle to permit it. This enormous political engagement tends to confuse and disorient Western publics on security matters. It requires little intellectual energy to work up enthusiasm for "humankind interests" such as the avoidance of nuclear war. It requires a great deal of intellectual energy and sophistication to see the connection between nuclear weapons, deterrence strategy and the avoidance of nuclear war.

These three implications portend both challenges and opportunities for the Bush Administration.

The first challenge is to re-couple our strategic programs and arms control policies to support deterrence rather than undercut it. Even if we achieve that, a number of other factors, vividly clear in Soviet doctrinal developments, suggest that both technology and changing military imperatives will force us to abandon nuclear deterrence in the form we have known it since the 1950s. During the 1990s we surely will have to modernize and redesign our conventional forces if we are to continue to maintain the postwar order in Europe.

Another challenge is public education about Soviet strategy, its ideological component and its arms control component. That will be essential for gaining adequate public support for future arms control negotiations and for defense programs in Europe and Asia.

Opportunities for constructive negotiations are probably greater than at any time in the postwar period, but we are unlikely to exploit them unless we recognize correctly what created them. The Gorbachev phenomenon is not wholly a function of his personality. Nor are improved U.S.-Soviet relations largely the result of diplomatic skill and flexibility. The change in Soviet policy is more directly attributable to an internal Soviet assessment that the international correlation of forces is moving against Soviet power. Moscow has confronted both domestic and foreign policy defeats. Gorbachev has been willing to recognize this in the state of his economy and in Afghanistan. He also realizes that his military is losing the qualitative arms competition. These defeats have forced the Politburo to review the basic elements of Soviet power, not just military factors.

It would be a grave error for the new administration to relax all the competitive pressures the Soviet Union feels from the sustained U.S. military buildup and from U.S. assertiveness in regional conflicts. An equally grave error would be to offer massive credits and economic assistance without a political quid pro quo.

A modicum of tension will help Gorbachev if it is not excessive. Is it conceivable that he could have convinced his colleagues to pursue glasnost and perestroika if the United States and other states had not supported the insurgents in Afghanistan? If U.S.-Chinese relations had not developed as they have? If technology transfers and East-West trade had proceeded unabated from 1975 to the present? It is doubtful that the more conservative party leaders could have been convinced to take the large risks Gorbachev has led them to accept.

To be sure, we must meet Gorbachev halfway. We must help him lower East-West military tensions, but we must not bet our security on his success. That might help him in the short run, but in the longer run it will hurt him if he truly intends systemic change in the Soviet Union. It might well diminish the sense of internal crisis that he has convinced his colleagues exists in the Soviet Union.

The military competition has contributed to the forces of change in the Soviet Union, and it can continue to do so if we provide adequate Western military power to back skillful Western diplomacy. Without that military power, our diplomacy cannot succeed. With it, we may hasten the "mellowing" of Soviet ideology that George Kennan foresaw more than forty years ago in the pages of Foreign Affairs. The signs of a beginning are at hand.

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  • Lieutenant General William E. Odom, U.S. Army, Retired, is a director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute. He was Director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988.
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