There are great hopes in the West that fundamental changes are taking place in the Soviet Union. Only two years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, declared that “in the military sphere, we intend to act in such a way as to give nobody grounds for fears, even imagined ones, about their security.”
Many Soviet leaders in the past have expressed similar sentiments, which at the time were taken at their face value. Invariably, some Soviet action—Hungary in 1956, Berlin in 1961, Cuba in 1962, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979—shocked Western publics back to reality.
Now the “new political thinking” in Moscow is said to have brought about the following:
•Soviet military doctrine now has a purely “defensive” character.
•The Kremlin’s military forces are to be maintained at a level of “reasonable sufficiency.”
• Society, industry, and the Soviet armed forces are being “restructured.”
Assertions of changes under way in the USSR currently appear in the Soviet press, are broadcast by Soviet shortwave to the West, and are topics of conversation when NATO political leaders and scholars are invited to Moscow to meet with selected members of the Soviet General Staff and research institutes.
Suggestions that Kremlin leaders are placing increased emphasis on raising the living standard of the Soviet people rather than on a continued military buildup are having considerable impact on NATO defense planners. Some believe that deep cuts in both Soviet and NATO military forces can soon be accomplished.
In May 1987, a resolution of the Warsaw Pact Political Consultative Committee proposed that “authoritative” spokesmen from the Warsaw Pact and NATO get together to discuss their respective military doctrines. This sparked further optimism as to what might be achieved with respect to arms control and force reductions.
But if changes concerning Soviet military posture are really in the making, then significant modifications to Soviet military doctrine should ensue as well. Before defense planners act on the assumption that a new era has begun with regard to the Kremlin’s military policies, they should reexamine basic Soviet military concepts and the current Soviet force structure.
Soviet Military Doctrine
By Soviet definition, military doctrine is the military policy of the Communist Party. It has two sides, political and military-technical. The political side is dominant and is formulated by the Party. The military-technical side is based on the findings of military science. Although the armed forces have primary responsibility for the military-technical side, final decisions are made by the Party leadership, not by the military.
Military doctrine is concerned with the essence, aims, and character of a potential future war, the preparation of the country and its armed forces for it, and the methods by which it will be fought. Provisions of doctrine have the force of law. Doctrine is not the same as military strategy, which executes the dictates of doctrine and is subordinate to it.
While Soviet leaders now assert that their military doctrine has a “purely defensive” character, a review of Soviet publications suggests otherwise.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, statements found in Soviet military textbooks propounded the “offensive” nature of their military doctrine. For example, the Soviet Officer’s Handbook stated in 1971 that “Soviet military doctrine is offensive in character.” Another book issued by the Soviet Academy of Sciences stated that “our military doctrine carries an offensive [nastupatel’nyy] character.” There was no pretense that Soviet military doctrine was otherwise.
This was to change not after Gorbachev rose to power but in 1981, following the 26th Party Congress. A second edition of the work published by the Academy of Sciences appeared. The earlier statement was altered to read: “Our military doctrine, as already pointed out, carries a defensive [oboronitel’nyy] character, with the aim of guarding the gains of socialism.” Emphasis on the “defensive” character of Soviet doctrine has continued since.
For a time, it appeared that there was a contradiction between strategy and doctrine. A 1986 textbook explained that military strategy stresses strategic offensive operations. But how could this be if doctrine is defensive
A 1987 book written for Soviet officers resolved this seeming contradiction. Military doctrine has two sides, the political and the military-technical—and only the political side is “defensive.” This accords with declarations Kremlin leaders have made for decades. The 1939 Soviet attack on Finland, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan—none had been offensive with respect to doctrine. Even the placement of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962 was termed “defensive.”
The Kremlin’s military doctrine is rationalized in the ‘just war” tenet of Marxism-Leninism. Capitalist nations wage “unjust” and “aggressive” wars, unless they are allies of a Communist nation. World War II was an unjust war by all participants until Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. Then it became the Great Patriotic War. In this period, the war was “just” for all nations fighting Hitler’s forces. “Just” wars, the only type of wars in which the “peaceloving” Soviet Union would engage, by definition must be “defensive” wars.
Once a nation becomes involved in war, the military-technical side of doctrine requires that offensive actions be taken. Lenin’s words are still quoted in Soviet texts and should be heeded by NATO planners:
“If we, in the face of such forces that are constantly actively hostile to us, would have to give a pledge, as has been proposed to us, that we would never resort to certain actions that in military-strategic relations might turn out to be offensive, then we would be not only fools but criminals. . .. When fighting, one must not ‘wear down’ the enemy, but destroy him.”
At the same time that Soviet military doctrine became “defensive,” the leadership also became modest about Soviet development of new weapon systems. Marshal Ogarkov had this to say:
“We know, for example, that the United States built the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945 and proceeded to use it to threaten the Soviet Union, which did not develop a similar weapon until four years later. What is more, the United States was the first to test an even more powerful hydrogen bomb in 1952, while the USSR followed suit in 1953. The Americans also were first to build nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic missiles in 1960, while the USSR followed suit in 1967.
This list of strategic weapons could go on and on.”
Such statements bring to mind George Orwell’s 1984. What is presented as “truth” one day is removed from books the next, and a new “truth” is substituted. Prior to the 26th Party Congress, the Kremlin leadership had been very proud of its military research and development capability. A 1980 report contained the following:
“By 1947, the production of nuclear weapons did not represent a secret for us. In 1949, a nuclear bomb was created and tested in the Soviet Union, and, in 1953—earlier than in the United States of America—Soviet scientists created a thermonuclear bomb.”
After the Party Congress in 1981, Washington was accused of developing new weapons that contributed to the arms race. There were no more statements in the Soviet press about specific weapon systems initiated by Soviet scientists.
Some in the West have suggested that the Soviets build up militarily in reaction to real or imagined Western actions. But the foregoing suggests that the action-reaction thesis simply doesn’t explain the continued Soviet military buildup. As former US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown has said: “When we build, the Soviets build. When we stop building, the Soviets build.”
NATO nations are now placing great hopes on Soviet statements about maintaining armed forces at the level of “reasonable sufficiency.” This expression is thought to have originated at the Party Congress in February 1986 when General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev stated, “Our country stands for removing weapons of mass destruction from use, for limiting the military potential to reasonable sufficiency [razumnoy dostatochnosti].”
Calls for “reasonable sufficiency” were gradually given increased notice in the Soviet press. In February 1987, Marshal Sokolov, then Minister of Defense, called attention to this statement by Gorbachev: “The Soviet Union is ready to renounce its status as a nuclear power and reduce all other arms to the minimum of reasonable sufficiency.”
This concept of “reasonable sufficiency,” emerging at a time when there are hopes in the West for a meaningful arms-control agreement with Moscow, is being carefully studied. But it is still not clear what Soviet spokesmen actually mean by “reasonable sufficiency.”
All Soviet authors make clear that Soviet nuclear forces must be able to deliver a retaliatory strike on an opponent. In August 1987, Lev Semeyko, a retired colonel formerly on the faculty of the Frunze Military Academy, wrote that “the concept of reasonable sufficiency is oriented to the future” and implies “long-term action.” It is not expected to be fully implemented until “nuclear weapons and other types of mass-destruction weapons” are eliminated.
Thus, while it may appear that the Kremlin has found a new concept, the words have a familiar ring. The United States has long sought to have an “assured second strike,” meaning a strategic nuclear force that could survive a Soviet first strike and deliver a retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union. Moscow has maintained that they must possess sufficient nuclear forces “to give an aggressor a crushing rebuff.”
It appears that General Secretary Gorbachev’s “reasonable sufficiency” is much the same as had been stated twenty years previously. In March 1966, General Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev told the 23d Party Congress that “the armaments of Soviet troops are maintained at the level of contemporary requirements, and their striking power and firepower are fully sufficient to crush any aggressor.” In his speech at Tula in January 1977, Brezhnev stated that the allegation that the Soviet Union is “going further than is sufficient for defense . . . is absurd and totally unfounded.”
During his brief tenure as the Party’s General Secretary, Yuriy V. Andropov made a similar statement: “The defense capabilities of the Soviet Union and the countries of the socialist community are supported at the necessary level.” There does not appear to be any real difference in the meaning of “fully sufficient” as stated by Brezhnev and “reasonable sufficiency” as used by Gorbachev.
The Revolution in Military Affairs
The Soviet concept of doctrine goes back to the early 1920s. After Joseph Stalin consolidated his hold over the Soviet military in the 1930s, however, all discussion of military doctrine ceased. Stalin alone was the military “genius,” the source of all wisdom. This situation continued until his death in 1953.
While Stalin was alive, nuclear weapons were scarcely mentioned in Soviet writings, despite the fact that a massive nuclear program was under way. Within months after his death, the restricted journal of the Soviet General Staff, Military Thought, began a series of articles on the impact of nuclear weapons on military science.
By 1959, the Kremlin had concluded that the nuclear-missile weapon would be the decisive factor in future war. Therefore, it determined that the Soviet armed forces must achieve superiority over its probable opponents in such weapon systems. This was a doctrinal decision leading to the formation of the Strategic Rocket Forces in 1959.
The new military doctrine demanded a new strategy. This was formulated in the late 1950s and approved by the Party. Marshal V. D. Sokolovskiy, a former chief of the General Staff, headed a group of authors who presented the new strategy in an unclassified form to both the armed forces and the population as a whole in the book Military Strategy, first published in the summer of 1962, shortly before the Cuban missile confrontation.
Soviet strategists at that time anticipated that any future war with NATO forces would begin with a massive nuclear exchange. After all nuclear weapons were exhausted, the war would continue with whatever weapons were available until the final victory of communism was achieved. The slogan, “revolution in military affairs,” was used to impress on the military, as well as the population as a whole, that the methods and consequences of war had changed.
By the latter half of the 1960s, the buildup of the strategic nuclear forces was well under way. Nuclear weapons were available in greater quantities and in different sizes.
Soviet military doctrine was then modified to include the possibility of a nonnuclear phase; that is, a war might begin with only the use of conventional weapons. It was anticipated that the conflict would escalate after several days, or perhaps weeks, to general nuclear war.
Even with this modification to doctrine, nuclear forces continued to have first priority in the Soviet military structure as “the main means of containment of the aggressive aspirations of imperialism.”
The revolution in military affairs has not ended. Marshal Ogarkov in 1985 noted that it “is continuing in our day in connection with the further development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons, rapid development of electronics, and in connection with the significant qualitative improvement of conventional means and methods of armed conflict” (emphasis added).
That same year, General Colonel M. A. Gareyev wrote that the initial period of war may be decisive. “The virtually unlimited range of the nuclear weapon delivery systems, making it possible in a short period of time to defeat any grouping of enemy armed forces, has altered the notions of the nature of war.” This is remarkably similar to statements made in the 1960s.
No Immediate Changes
Soviet leaders seek to link the defensive character of their military doctrine and the concept of reasonable sufficiency with a warning about the consequences of nuclear war. For example, at the 27th Party Congress in 1986, General Secretary Gorbachev stated that it is essential “to prevent nuclear war in order that civilization can survive.”
His predecessors have made similar statements. In the 1950s and 1960s, both G. M. Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev warned that entire continents would be devastated if a nuclear war were to occur.
But the utility of nuclear weapons was recognized. When Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 announced a major change in one of the basic tenets of communism—that war between capitalism and communism is no longer necessarily inevitable—he added that this was because the forces of communism now have “formidable means” that permit them “to give a smashing rebuff to the aggressors and frustrate their adventurist plans.” The “formidable means” were the small stockpile of nuclear weapons then possessed by the Soviet Union.
Primary emphasis from the late 1950s to the present has been given to the deployment of ballistic nuclear weapons, primarily strategic. This was in accordance with the priority set forth by doctrine. In 1972, the trip to Moscow by the President of the United States was an acknowledgment that the Soviet Union was a military superpower—a status gained primarily through its ground-based ICBMs. Without its military power, the USSR would be classified as an underdeveloped nation.
In 1981, Marshal Ogarkov wrote that nuclear weapons were so numerous that their military effectiveness had been negated. Were they to be introduced in a war, their destructive power would bring about an end to civilization. It was believed by many in the West that Ogarkov’s writings signaled that the Soviets no longer thought that there could be any possible gain from nuclear war and were placing increased emphasis on conventional weaponry.
Yet the buildup of Soviet nuclear weapons went on. Conventional weapons are also constantly being improved and deployed. Mobile intercontinental ballistic missile systems are being deployed. Massive, deep, underground shelters have been prepared to house the leadership in event of war. Large signs in major cities provide civil defense information.
The deputy head of the Main Political Administration of the Soviet Army and Navy pointed out that “the concept of new thinking does not go against Leninist teaching on the defense of the socialist homeland.” These same “Leninist teachings” were used to justify the Soviet nuclear buildup in the 1960s and 1970s.
When the “reasonable sufficiency” standard and the “defensive military doctrine” are examined in context, it does not appear that the use of these expressions indicates any immediate change in the posture of the Soviet forces, either nuclear or conventional or any combination of the two.
Since the 1960s, Soviet writers have also warned that no weapon, including the nuclear weapon, should be “absolutized.” Marxist-Leninist dialectics emphasize the constant “struggle” between offensive weapons and defensive weapons.
The ABM system that surrounds Moscow continues to be upgraded. During the December 1987 summit in Washington, Gorbachev acknowledged that Soviet scientists have been working on a more advanced strategic defense system. The Soviet Union is now dominant in manned space systems. New generations of Soviet weapons, superseding nuclear weapons, are currently receiving the Kremlin’s attention.
Perhaps even now, Kremlin leaders have decided which of the new potential weapon systems will be decisive in a future war and are modifying their doctrine accordingly.
Since Gorbachev became the Party leader, the Soviet military press in some areas has become more restrictive than ever before. Foreign subscribers can no longer receive two major military journals, Herald of Air Defense and Foreign Military Observer. Fewer books on military matters are being published than previously. Travel restrictions for foreigners have not changed significantly since the late 1950s.
In 1973, the famed Soviet scientist, Andrei Sakharov, urged the West to speak out against “closed countries where everything that happens goes unseen by foreign eyes. . . No one should dream of having such a neighbor, especially if that neighbor is armed to the teeth.” Fifty or so carefully sanitized areas for NATO arms-control verification teams do not change the cogency of Sakharov’s warning.
Prudent NATO planners should note that there is nothing really new in Moscow’s assertions about the “defensive character” of military doctrine or about force levels of “reasonable sufficiency.” Thus far, the so-called new Kremlin policy of “glasnost” (openness) appears to be one primarily of “pokazuka” (for show). Signs of possible change in the Soviet Union do exist. While hoping that such change is in the best interest of all nations, we must not forget the lessons of Soviet history.
Dr. William F Scott retired from the Air Force in 1972 as a colonel. He served two tours in the US Embassy in Moscow, first as Senior Air Attaché (1962-64) and later (1970-72) as Air and Defense Attaché. Since then, he and his wife, Harriet Fast Scott, have made several return trips to the Soviet Union, the last being in 1987. Their next book, Soviet Military Doctrine, will appear later this year. Dr. Scott is presently a consultant to a number of research institutions and is a frequent lecturer at war colleges and universities. He is a regular contributor to the March issue of this magazine.