A review of The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine, by Andrew Cockburn and Inside the Soviet Army, by Viktor Suvorov and The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union, by Edward N. Luttwak

In evaluating the Soviet military threat, it is important to remember an old and wise diplomatic saying: “Russia is never as strong as she looks. Russia is never as weak as she looks.” Misled by Stalin’s purge of the Soviet high command and the bungled Finnish campaign, Hitler launched his disastrous 1941 invasion of Russia. Hitler was not alone in disparaging Soviet capabilities: the British and French general staffs rated Russia’s expected performance below Poland’s, and U.S. military experts predicted Russia’s defeat in six to eight weeks.

Within weeks the initial German onslaught captured and killed over three million Russian soldiers, eliminated the Soviet air force, and des­troyed more than half of Russia’s industrial capacity. But within a few months the Germans encountered hardened resistance, soon followed by offensives manned by previously unidentified units. These offensives were preceded by massive artillery barrages and spearheaded by thousands of T-34 tanks, unknown to the Germans before the invasion and rated the best tank of World War II. By early 1942 Soviet production rebounded, and four times as many tanks were being produced as before the invasion; and by the end of the year Russia was producing twice as many aircraft as Germany and more than four times as many tanks. Contrary to universal expectations in the West, Russia prevailed over Germany, giving rise to a postwar belief in Soviet strength, sometimes as exaggerated as the prewar contempt that it supplanted.

Competent military analysts know all too well that many aspects of the Soviet military threat are exaggerated, just as many aspects are undervalued or simply unknown. But military capabilities cannot be measured piecemeal; they must be taken as a whole, under probable battlefield conditions involv­ing real opponents. Three recent books dealing with the Soviet threat illustrate both the pitfalls and the difficulties in assessing Soviet strength. The books are written from distinct perspectives: Cockburn is a journalist; “Suvorov” is the pseudo­nym of a defector from the Soviet army sentenced to death in absentia; and Luttwak is a highly regarded analyst, and consultant to the U.S. Defense Department.

Cockburn’s book The Threat attempts to shatter the myth of Soviet military invincibility. His theme is a simple one: Soviet military power has been vastly exaggerated and inflated by the Pentagon in order to justify new and unnecessary U.S. weapons. Cockburn has obviously conducted wide research and presents many useful and valid snip­pets of information, but his selective presentation suggests that he embraced his theme before review­ing the evidence. One glaring example adequately conveys the flavor of Cockburn’s approach. He claims that through satellite photographs, U.S. analysts are able to monitor new cruiser construc­tion in Leningrad “almost rivet by rivet.” Notwithstanding Cockburn’s confidence in its capabilities, U.S. intelligence failed to detect construction of the first Oscar-class attack submarine at Leningrad for the simple reason that the work was covered by a shed; due to the size of the shed, U.S. analysts postulated that an aircraft carrier was under construction. Like its sister class, the Alpha, the Oscar utilizes a revolutionary double-hulled titanium construction, allowing it to operate at depths and speeds greatly in excess of U.S. nuclear submarines. According to some reports, these new submarines can outrun U.S. torpedoes. But the reader need not fear that Cockburn totally ignores such devel­opments. Despite their overwhelming superiority, the new submarines have one defect shared by all Soviet nuclear submarines, which the author eagerly imparts: They are exceedingly noisy.

Cockburn contends that Soviet conventional weapons suffer from crippling defects. For example, tanks are poorly designed and underpowered, break down frequently, and their smooth-bore cannons are inaccurate. His conclusions are largely based upon examinations of Soviet weapons captured by the Israelis in Mideast wars. But as Suvorov observes, the Soviets manufacture two variants of equipment: the standard model and the stripped-down “monkey” model for export, which is sold abroad as “latest” equipment. In the case of the BMP-1 infantry combat vehicle, Suvorov counted 63 missing features in the “monkey” model. These include the automatic-round selection and loading features of the 73mm cannon, the electric-powered turret rotation system, the lead internal-wall lining to protect the crew from direct hits and radiation, and the automatic rocket target guidance system.

Even though Soviet equipment, on the whole, is not as bad as Cockburn claims, some weapons are inferior to U.S. counterparts, especially under testground conditions. These deficiencies are well known to both Soviet and U.S. planners. As Suvorov points out, the Soviets strive for simple systems that can be readily manufactured and repaired under wartime conditions. Although a manual tank transmission may be inferior, it can be repaired or replaced quicker than an automatic transmission. A smooth-bore cannon barrel may not be as accurate as a rifled barrel, but it can be manufactured for one-tenth the cost in one-tenth the time. And the Soviets prefer to have ten cannons, rather than one. This is the major point missed by Cockburn. The United States attempts to build superior weapons not simply to counter “overrated” weapons on an individual basis, but to counter the sheer weight and number of Soviet weapons. In faulting U.S. planners for exaggerating the capabilities of the T-72 tank to justify procure­ment of the M-l tank, Cockburn ignores the fact that the 5,000 tanks in the U.S. inventory are outnumbered by 50,000 Soviet tanks. Moreover, Cockburn’s abstract approach ignores actual war­time conditions, especially the impact of surprise attack: Contrary to prevalent myths, the French army defeated by the Germans in 1940 enjoyed superiority both in quality and quantity of tanks.

Cockburn belittles the Soviet fighting man as much as his equipment. Based largely upon inter­views with émigrés, he portrays an army divided by hatred between officers and enlisted men, and prejudice among nationalities. Soldiers are poorly trained, educated, fed, and housed; and alcoholism is endemic. Only readers ignorant of the conditions and proclivities of Soviet soldiers in World War II will join Cockburn in pondering whether these qualities destroy the fighting efficiency of the Soviet army. In seeking to demolish the myth of Soviet military invincibility, Cockburn breeds an equally exaggerated and dangerous myth of Soviet weakness.

As a former Soviet army officer, Suvorov knows the shortcomings of the Soviet army firsthand, which he sets out in graphic detail. Unlike Cockburn, however, he contends that the Soviet army is an underestimated and deadly opponent with hidden strengths offsetting apparent weaknesses. Suvorov argues that its key strength is simple design, making weapons easier to repair and maintain, and above all, to train soldiers in their use. Many of these weapons have no counterparts in the West. For example, Soviet heavy mortars give small units unmatched firepower. The largest U.S. mortar is the 106.7mm; the smallest Soviet mortar is the 120mm. Suvorov warns that the newest and most effective weapons are closely guarded secrets unknown to the West, just as the T-34 tank was hidden from the Germans. The latest equipment is issued to Russian frontier military districts; only after five to seven years is it issued to Soviet forces abroad, including front-line forces in East Germany. The Soviets allow the West to see only what they want to be seen. All army units receive constantly updated schedules showing the precise times when U.S. reconnaissance satellites will overfly their areas, so that advanced equipment can be hidden and normal transmitters and signals can be shut down, and deception transmitters and radars used.

Suvorov fears that the most underestimated and least understood aspect of the Soviet army is its mobilization capability. Key officers in Soviet divisions have “understudies.” When the Soviet army mobilizes and moves forward, these “understudies” are left behind in divisional depots to organize, train, and lead arriving reserves. The Soviet army does not throw away old weapons; they are carefully stored and maintained in divi­sional depots for use by reserves. These “invisible” divisions are admittedly old-fashioned, but as Suvorov observes, the arrival of ISO old-fashioned divisions several weeks after the outbreak of war, to join 150 divisions armed with the latest equip­ment, will throw off the calculations of any enemy. This is precisely what happened to the Germans in 1941.

Luttwak’s title recalls his penetrating earlier study, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. The present book, however, contains only a 118-page essay by him, accompanied by two common­place appendices on the Soviet economy, and the evolution of Soviet military power. In the context of his sketch of a theory of Soviet empire, he illuminates Soviet military capacity.

Luttwak is unmoved by claims that the West can take comfort in the inferiority of Soviet weapons. Unlike Cockburn, he believes that the once wide disparities in quality between Soviet and Western weapons, with the exception of air combat weapons, has diminished to the point that they are of slight military significance. To the extent that disparities still exist, Luttwak contends that superior numbers, combined with a military doctrine that recognizes technical inferiority and seeks to circumvent it, can easily erase large differ­ences in the quality of weapons. For example, 1960’s vintage Soviet battle tanks can fight well by the dozen against outnumbered, superior Western tanks by closing rapidly to eliminate the advantage of range, and by firing en masse to nullify the higher rate of engagement of Western tanks.

Luttwak is far more concerned with improved Soviet operational skills than with improved weapons. He notes that the Russian army, capable of retreating and rebuilding within the vast depths of the Russian land mass, has traditionally possessed respectable defensive capabilities. But offensive operations call for different skills: advanced planning, logistical organizations, hundreds of skilled managers and organizers, and tactical flexibility. To the extent that these operational skills are lacking, the military threat posed by the Soviet Union is circumscribed. Although the Soviets conducted cumbersome, yet successful, offensives in World War II, Luttwak argues that until recent years the Soviets lacked confidence in their ability to carry out swift interventions or surprise aggres­sions. He believes that the attitude of the Soviet leadership toward their own military power has undergone a crucial change, marked by the Soviet intervention in Ethiopia in 1977 and in Afghanistan in 1979, both operations being characterized by bold, swift self-confident execution of the sort not previously associated with the Soviet style of warfare.

Luttwak properly observes that military power is relative: Soviet power and confidence have been enhanced by a lack of will in the West to recognize and counter growing Soviet power with increased defense expenditures. To a certain extent, this tendency has ebbed since 1981, and the Soviets can no longer assume that they will continue to enjoy unchallenged superiority and to dominate the field abandoned by post-Vietnam America. While still enjoying superiority and some degree of operational freedom provided by Western lassitude, the Soviets, Luttwak argues, will be tempted to further expansion in order to enhance their security. The appropriate question is not “whether” but “where?” Luttwak believes that the Soviets have concluded that China is the main enemy and that its thinly populated border fringes are a likely target of Soviet aggression.

The prospect of war, even one that is neither Western nor nuclear, is alarming. If Soviet power is allowed to continue to grow in relation to that of the United States and its allies, and if the Soviets come to believe that Western Europe and Japan will respond to nothing short of a direct attack-thereby undermining the inclination and capacity of an American response-then one can only agree with Luttwak that the Soviet Union will be set on the road to war.