Soviet Military Power

Dec. 1, 1981
Following months of painstaking declassification of intelligence information that heretofore was not available to the public, the Defense Department, in concert with the intelligence community, released an unprecedentedly comprehensive and revealing assessment of the growing Soviet threat.

Released simultaneously in the US and overseas, the document, entitled “Soviet Military Power,” represents a distillation of briefings provided to the NATO Ministers of Defense and limns the totality of the Soviet military buildup in considerable detail.

The document’s section dealing with Soviet strategic capabilities points out—with unintended irony—that the SS-17, S8-18, and SS-19 ICBMs are “in the forefront of ICBM technology”; that certain versions of these missiles are “among the most accurate ICBMs operational anywhere”; and that these “systems have the capability to destroy a large percentage of the more than 1,000 US ICBM launchers, using only part of their total numbers.” Release of this information coincided with the Administration’s decision to begin deployment of MX in refurbished and improved Titan or Minuteman silos in 1986.

Reconfirmation of the fact that Soviet missile accuracies threaten the survivability of silo-based US ICBMs now would not seem to strengthen the case for deploying a small number of new missiles in silos, beginning in 1986—when obviously Soviet ICBM accuracies (and hence lethality) will be even greater. As “Soviet Military Power” points out, four major Soviet design bureaus supported by a strong manufacturing base specialize in the development of new ballistic missiles as well as the modification of existing systems to achieve yet “greater capabilities against such hardened military structures as ICBM silos. . . . Future missiles are expected to include upgraded versions of the present systems as well as new missiles.”

At this time the Soviet ICBM force consists of some 750 SS-17s, SS-18s, and SS-19s, known as the fourth ICBM generation, as well as 640 older SS-11s and SS13s. The older types, however, are expected to be replaced by a like number of fourth-generation ICBMs in the “early 1980s,” according to the new threat analysis. The current Soviet ICBM inventory includes 308 SS-18s, the world’s largest ICBM, about twice the size of the proposed US MX missile. Single RV (reentry vehicle) and MIRVed versions—the latter carrying either eight or ten RVs—have been tested. Each warhead of the ten RV variant, according to the new document, “has a better than fifty percent chance of destroying a Minuteman silo. When used in pairs against a single target, the warheads are even more destructive. The single RV versions of the SS-18, with their large destructive power and accuracy, are capable of destroying any known fixed target with high probability.”

Of the 1,398 Soviet ICBMs permitted under the SALT II accord, more than half are now housed in rebuilt, “vastly more survivable, hardened silos,” according to US intelligence. This silo-upgrading program apparently is in step with the replacement of third-generation ICBMs by fourth-generation weapons. The potency of the Soviet ICBM force could be enhanced further by “contingency plans for reloading and refiring missiles from ICBM launchers which already have fired an initial round. The cold-launch technique [which delays engine ignition to minimize launch damage to the silo] employed by the SS-17 and SS-18 lends itself to such a capability in a protracted nuclear war.

“Additionally, the Soviets may be able to reconstitute a portion of their hot-launched missile force—SS-11, SS-13, and SS-I9—as well. The Soviets probably cannot refurbish and reload silo launchers in a period less than several days—thereby avoiding violation of the SALT II Agreement which precludes a rapid reload capability for ICBM launchers, ” according to “Soviet Military Power.” In this context, the intelligence document points out that the trend is toward replacement or augmentation of existing liquid-propellant designs by solid-propellant systems to “give the Soviets additional flexibility in handling and basing their missile force.”

The Growing Soviet SLBM Force

Some of the most revealing disclosures of the document involve developments affecting the Soviet strategic submarines (SSBNs) and their missiles (SLBMs). That force consists now of sixty-two submarines carrying 950 modern SLBMs. In the aggregate, these missiles accommodate about 2,000 warheads at present. Even though the Soviets outnumber the US Navy’s current inventory of thirty-six SSBNs, which in turn carry 575 SLBMs, this country is still ahead in the number of warheads carried by its subs. The reason, for the moment, is that the US force is more heavily MIRVed. This condition promises to be short-lived. The SS-N-18, a new Soviet SLBM that is rapidly coming in the inventory, can deploy seven RVs, according to “Soviet Military Power.” The SS-NX-20, the latest Soviet SLBM that is still in a test phase, can carry twelve RVs. This missile, by far the world’s largest SLBM, is about the size of the Air Force’s proposed MX. By way of a benchmark, the US Navy’s latest SLBM, the C-4 (or Trident 1), can carry up to eight RVs. Range of the twelve-MIRV SS-NX-20 is 8,300 km, or about 1,800 km more than that of the seven-MIRV SS-N-18.

The SS-NX-20 will be carried by the Typhoon SSBN, a leviathan of the sea that is as long as the Washington Monument is tall (555 feet) and, submerged, displaces some 25,000 tons. According to the intelligence report, the Typhoon/SS-NX-20 weapon system will reach operational status in the mid-1980s, or several years before the D-5 (Trident II), the largest planned US SLBM, could reach the inventory. The D-5, which is one of five elements of this country’s strategic force modernization package announced by the President on October 2, 1981, is still in a preliminary design phase and there is no firm schedule for when the system will complete final design formulation. The size of the Trident SSBN’s launch tubes confine the D-5 SLBM to a size significantly smaller than that of the SS-NX-20. The US SLBM, therefore, won’t be able to carry anywhere near as many warheads over a given range as its Soviet counterpart.

The consequence of the almost frenzied pace of the Soviet SSBN/SLBM development and deployment program is twofold: For one, the Soviet SSBNs will be able to cover targets in the US without having to leave port; and, secondly, the new generation of Soviet SLBMs—the SS-N-18 and SS-NX-20—provides by dint of vast boosts in throw-weight for a massive proliferation in Soviet warheads. What’s more, as “Soviet Military Power” points out, these RVs will be more accurate, and hence more lethal, than the current systems.

The Typhoon is being produced at the Severodvinsk Naval Yard, one of five facilities where Soviet submarines are being built. Coincidentally, the same yard builds the world’s largest and possibly fastest submarines. These behemoths, considerably larger than the Typhoon, are the Oscar-class guided missile nuclear-powered subs that can fire twenty-four long-range antiship cruise missiles while remaining submerged, according to the intelligence report.

The Oscar’s cruise missiles, “Soviet Military Power” suggests, are a variant of a new antiship cruise missile of the nuclear-powered guided cruiser Kirov, which began sea trials last year. These missiles, according to US intelligence, have a range of about 450 km. These Soviet cruise missile subs—along with a large number of other modern, nuclear-powered attack submarines and missile-launching bomber forces—represent the “greatest threat to Allied naval surface forces operating at the high seas. This is especially so when [the forces are] within range of Soviet air bases where the Soviets can launch coordinated attacks using not only reconnaissance aircraft to provide target data for submarine-launched missiles but also their extensive force of Naval and Air Force missile-equipped bombers,” according to “Soviet Military Power.”

Superior Soviet submarine technology, the Soviet threat assessment document brings out with stark clarity, is also evident in the case of the Alfa-class attack submarine, “believed to be the fastest submarine in service today in any navy.” The deep-diving, superfast Alfa, according to US intelligence, is probably in series production. These subs are estimated to have a submerged speed capability in excess of forty knots and because of their titanium hulls and other advanced design features are difficult to detect and even more difficult to destroy.

Soviet Militarization of Space

Some of the most intriguing disclosures of “Soviet Military Power” are in the area of Soviet military space programs, revolving around this assertion: “A very large space booster similar in performance to the Apollo Program’s Saturn V is under development and will have the capability to launch very heavy payloads into orbit, including even larger and more capable laser weapons.” It might be tempting to ask, “Larger and more capable than what?” but the answer probably boils down to no more than speculation, according to intelligence experts contacted by this writer. They point out there has been no evidence that any Soviet—or for that matter any other, including American—laser weapons have yet been put in space.

But this vagueness in language does not extend to the document’s subsequent statement that the new Soviet space booster “is estimated to have six to seven times the launch weight capability of the US Space Shuttle [and] will be capable of putting very large permanently manned space stations in orbit.” The intelligence document goes on to say that “the Soviet goal of having continuously manned space stations may support both defensive and offensive weapons in space, with man in the space station for target selection, repairs, and adjustments and positive command and control.”

In statistical terms, the just-released intelligence report asserts that in the past ten years the Soviets have been launching spacecraft at a rate four or five times that of the US, or an average of seventy-five per year. The payload weight placed in orbit by the Soviets each year is even more impressive—averaging about 660,000 pounds, or ten times the US payload. The dynamics of the Soviet space program obviously don’t come cheap, but Moscow seems willing to crank out space hardware at a rate that spirals upward at an annual growth of eight percent per year, measured in constant dollars.

The key reason for this relentless growth of Soviet space investments, the US intelligence document suggests, is that more than seventy percent of all Russian space systems seem to serve a purely military role; that another fifteen percent perform dual military and civil roles; and that only fifteen percent have no national security overtones. Russian military spacecraft, the US intelligence document asserts, “perform a wide variety of reconnaissance and collection missions. Military research and development experiments are performed on board Soviet manned space stations, and the Soviets continue to develop and test an ASAT antisatellite coorbital interceptor. “

The document hints that the Soviets also may be developing an “improved ASAT,” presumably a weapon capable of threatening US military spacecraft at altitudes higher than those the current generation of Soviet ASATs can reach. It is in the context of the latter that development of the Saturn V-like Soviet space booster takes on especially ominous meaning. A vehicle of this size and payload capability is a prerequisite for a direct-ascent ASAT, meaning a weapon that can be launched from the ground to reach the high orbital altitudes where many critical US spacecraft operate, without the need of one or more transfer stages.

The latter approach obviously takes more time and is far more observable—and vulnerable to countermeasures—than a single stage to orbit weapon. Both in terms of design and location, the new large Soviet space booster differs completely from trouble-plagued earlier designs, at least one of which blew up on the launch site with catastrophic results, this writer has learned.

A Cornucopia of Talent, Money, and Machines

The Soviet defense industrial base—unlike that of the US—is in a state of robust health, and growing. It is “by far the world’s largest in the number of facilities and physical size.” In the matter-of-fact language of the just-released US intelligence document, “the Soviet Union alone produces more weapon systems in greater quantities than any other country.” As Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger points out in the document’s foreword: “The growth of the Soviet Armed Forces is made possible by the USSR’s military production base, which continues to grow at the expense of all other components of the Soviet economy. There are 135 major military industrial plants now operating in the Soviet Union with over 40,000,000 square meters in floor space, a thirty-four percent increase since 1970. In 1980, these plants produced more than 150 types of weapon systems for the Soviet forces and for export to client states and developing countries.”

One of the giants of the Soviet military-industrial complex is the Nizhniy Tagil tank plant, a facility occupying 827,000 square meters of floor space that last year pumped out 2,500 T-72 tanks. Superimposed on a map of Washington, D. C., Nizhniy Tagil extends from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capitol building in one direction and from the Tidal Basin to beyond the White House in the other.

By lavishing on the defense sector a steady twelve to fourteen percent of its gross national product, the USSR has kept up the unprecedented growth of its military industrial base for about a quarter of a century. While rapid growth and pampering—in terms of financial and human resources—of the Soviet military industry induce unabashed envy on the part of Western defense industry managers, the rock-steady flow of the Soviet weapons pipeline is probably even more impressive.

By Wall Street standards, the prospects of the Soviet armament industry would have to be rated as a gilt-edged AAA. By direct Kremlin ukase, production plants are never permitted to idle. There are no boom or bust cycles. As old weapon programs are phased out, new ones are begun, leaving no downtime or long periods of layoffs or inactivity. As “Soviet Military Power” points out, the imperturbability of the process, “the continuing facility growth, and the high rates of production keep the arms industry in a high state of readiness to meet any contingency and any demand for new weapons. “

The result of Soviet cossetting of its military industry is awesome. Last year, US intelligence estimates, the Soviet military-industrial complex spewed out some 3,000 tanks, 5,500 infantry fighting vehicles, 550 artillery and rocket launcher units, and about 400,000 other infantry weapons.

During the same year, the Soviets produced 2,765 military aircraft and about 53,000 missiles, ranging from 200 ICBMs to 50,000 surface-to-air missiles. In the naval sector, Soviet shipyards kept an equally fast pace, producing eighty-seven combatants, including, as noted, the world’s largest submarine.

Toward Scientific and Technological Superiority

The fecundity of the Soviet arms industry proceeds in step with broad expansion of the technology base and across-the-board quality advances of new Soviet weaponry, according to “Soviet Military Power.” The motor driving, the growing sophistication of Soviet armament is a vast pool of scientifically and technically trained manpower. Last year, US intelligence finds, about 900,000 scientists and engineers worked in the field of research and development. “This is the world’s largest aggregation of scientists and engineers and is compared to about 600,000 for the US. While the number of scientists and engineers specifically engaged in Soviet military R&D is unknown, it is clearly a large percentage of their total effort,” according to the new intelligence document.

Payoffs from these investments abound. In the field of directed energy weapons, the document suggests that “in the latter half of this decade, it is possible that the Soviets could demonstrate laser weapons in a wide variety of ground, ship, and aerospace applications.” Even earlier, by the mid-1980s, the Soviets may be able to field short-range laser weapons for tactical air defense and in antipersonnel roles, according to “Soviet Military Power.”

The Soviet directed-energy weapons program—in the main high-energy laser designs—got under way in the mid-1960s and proceeds now at “three to five times the US level of effort,” according to the intelligence estimate. Unlike the US program—which is exploratory—the Soviet effort is tailored to the development of specific weapons and exploits a variety of technological approaches, according to “Soviet Military Power.”

Another area of Soviet R&D that bears watching centers on fuel-air explosives, according to US intelligence. These nonnuclear munitions, involving, basically, ignition of a highly explosive gas cloud to distribute lethal overpressures over a relatively wide area, are highly effective against troops and such soft targets as radar vans and aircraft on the ground.

Advanced Manufacturing Capabilities

Obviously, all products of the armament industry depend heavily on the quality and quantity of the materials that beget them. The USSR has the largest raw materials base in the world. Complementing this advantage are bold Soviet moves to keep their arms industry on the cutting edge of manufacturing technology. To wit, as the operator of the world’s largest forging and extrusion presses, the Soviet aircraft industry can fabricate aircraft structural components in sizes and with efficiencies that are unsurpassed. US intelligence credits the Soviet armament industry with similar prowess in the field of the so-called superalloys, materials strength, low weight, and heat and oxidation resistance.

There is clear-cut evidence, according to “Soviet Military Power,” that the USSR is replicating the US effort to develop and manufacture advanced composite materials such as carbon and boron-fiber reinforced structures. These materials are the key to the low observables or “Stealth” technology in aircraft. The new intelligence report points out that “the large Soviet commitment to physical and manpower resources to the development of a variety of high-modulus fiber-reinforced metals, organic, and inorganic matrix composites should enable them to gain ground quickly in this field.”

Overall, the US intelligence document finds, the consequences of the Soviet military research and development program are stark: “During the 1970s the Soviets have dramatically reduced the US lead in virtually every basic technology. The United States is losing its lead in key technologies, including electro-optical sensors, guidance and navigation, hydroacoustics, optics, and propulsion.”

The Soviet Command Structure

The new intelligence report provides important information concerning the USSR’s organizational arrangements that would be instituted in case of war. At the apex of the Soviet war machine is the State Defense Committee, or GKO, that encompasses the nation’s highest military and civilian leadership and provides centralized control of the total war effort. Under the guidance of the Defense Committee, a Supreme High Command (VGK) would serve as the highest organization of strategic military leadership. According to “Soviet Military Power,” this Supreme High Command apparently includes the CPSU (Communist Party) General Secretary, the Minister of Defense, the first Deputy Ministers of Defense, the Chief of the Main Political Directorate, and the Commanders in Chief of each of the five services. The contributions of the Soviet General Staff, serving as an executive agent for the VGK, would be to ensure the development and execution of unified military strategy for the operational commands.

In order to simplify the planning for war, according to the new document, “the Soviets have divided the world into thirteen Theaters of Military Operations, or TVDs. The Theater of Military Operations is a geographical concept used to denote an area within which their armed forces would function in wartime. There appear to be possibly five continental TVDs, four maritime or naval TVDs, and four intercontinental TVDs.”

In order to blend centralized strategic planning with decentralized battle management the Soviets have created intermediate-level high commands, or Fronts.

Thus, the Theaters of Military Operations not only include the terrain upon which the Fronts would conduct their operations, but also incorporate those Military Districts that would support such operations, according to “Soviet Military Power.” Even if battle operations stray from a Military District, the latter’s structure would be retained to serve as a principal wartime administrative entity. This structure is clearly designed to provide the USSR with continuity of government in case of strategic nuclear war as well as to furnish the means to fight on a protracted basis, and survive.

As the intelligence document points out, “Central to this system is the establishment of the means to ensure the survival of state control. The Soviets have, for years, been building an infrastructure of facilities and procedures which is geared to the survival of the means of control for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during even the worst of conflict situations—a nuclear war. Alternative locations have been established for virtually the entire structure of the Soviet leadership—political, military, security, and industrial—from the highest to the lowest levels.” Supporting this organizational system is an elaborate and efficient command control and communications (C3) network that emphasizes centralized control, survivability, redundancy, and flexibility.

Combined Arms Warfare

At the heart of the Soviet combat doctrine is an iron-clad commitment to integrate all forces without room for interservice rivalry. This concept of combined arms operations is much broader and more profound than its Western counterpart which only aims at the joint and cooperative employment of ground, air, and naval forces. To the Soviets, the intelligence report points out, the combined arms battle is a battle “fought by a combined arms formation or unit, together with attached formations or units of other service branches and aviation and in the maritime sectors, with naval forces as well. The use of nuclear weapons and the participation of the various service branches or forces, in conjunction with great mobility of the troops, impart an especially decisive and maneuver-oriented character to combined arms battle.”

The authority of the Combined Arms Commander within the area under his purview appears to be total and ensures streamlined battle management. The combined military power of all weapon systems, thus, is applied in a fully integrated plan embracing ground, air, missile, air defense, and naval formations.

In a practical sense, “Soviet Military Power” explains, the largest field formation to reflect this integrated combined arms concept is the earlier alluded to Front, typically composed of three to five combined arms armies, plus aviation, air assault, diversionary, artillery, missile, air defense, engineer, signal, intelligence, reconnaissance, and rear service units. As few as one Front and as many as five may exist in a Theater of Military Operations, according to US intelligence.

Augmenting the combined arms structure is a more traditional arrangement that arrays the five services (ground, naval, air, strategic rocket, and air defense forces) under the General Staff. The principal function of the services is to provide for the training, formulate tactics, and manage weapons acquisition, with heavy emphasis of the mutual support that they are expected to provide each other. The overriding concern reflected in this arrangement is a unified command structure that can apply the totality of Soviet military power in a cohesive and synergistic manner.

Unconventional Warfare and Expansionism

Coercion and subversion are as much the underpinnings of Soviet global power projection as is sheer military might. What the just-released intelligence report terms Moscow’s “infrastructure of influence” is a lethal mélange of unconventional warfare forces, diplomats, traditional state-to-state activities, military advisors and aid, treaties and legal ties, support for terrorists and pro-Soviet guerrilla groups, economic aid, cultural, media, and educational diplomacy, and the use of what the Soviets call active measures, such as propaganda, blackmail, and forgery. These are the tools for penetrating areas that may be beyond the immediate reach of Soviet military forces.

Unconventional warfare activities, “Soviet Military Power” explains, are managed at the highest level of government: “The Committee for State Security (KGB) and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the General Staff can be assumed to plan and execute Soviet unconventional warfare operations. These activities are protected by stringent security measures.”

The elite forces for conducting unconventional warfare missions, according to US intelligence, include “special units of the KGB, GRU, Airborne, and Ground and Naval Forces. The KGB special purpose units have a sabotage mission, and are thought to be targeted primarily against the civilian sector. Their tasks would be to create general panic among the civilian population, to disrupt civil government and public utilities, and to damage or destroy key production facilities.” Some of the airborne units of the regular armed forces are designated as “special purpose” troops and trained to operate in small groups against key political, military, command and control, transportation, and industrial targets in the enemy’s rear areas. Each of these teams has an officer in charge who speaks the language of the country fluently as well as a range of specialists in various aspects of clandestine warfare and sabotage. The US intelligence document points out that “use of unconventional warfare is a basic element of Soviet doctrine, and Soviet capabilities in this respect constitute a formidable threat.”

Arms sales represent another instrument of Soviet expansionism. Over the past twenty-five years the Soviets have granted more than $50 billion in military assistance to fifty-four non-Communist nations, especially in the Middle East and along the Indian, Ocean littoral. Other members of the Warsaw Pact sold an additional $4.3 billion in arms to Third World nations during that period, according to US intelligence.

In tandem with arms sales is the dispatching of Soviet military advisors, some 20,000 of whom were stationed last year in twenty-eight countries where “they play a central role in organizing, training, and penetrating client armed forces.” In the same vein, large numbers of military personnel from the less-developed countries are being trained in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Lastly, the Soviets have turned to use of proxy forces of such satraps as Cuba and East Germany into a fine art for promoting anti-Western causes and extending the USSR’s influence. Currently there are some 35,000 Cuban military personnel stationed in twenty countries, according to US intelligence.

Overall, “Soviet Military Power” makes—as US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger puts it—a cogent and strong case for the proposition that “there is nothing hypothetical about the Soviet military machine. Its expansion, modernization, and contribution to projection of power beyond Soviet boundaries are obvious.” If the document can be faulted, it is in the absence of overhead photography. As Gen. Bernard Rogers, SACEUR, told this writer, “I think this will be disappointing. I personally believe . . . that the intelligence community must give just a little bit . . . in order to lend credibility to the assessments that we make.” Yet in spite of remonstrations by him and other military leaders, the intelligence community declined to release any satellite photography on grounds of security concerns.

This factor notwithstanding, there is reason to hope that “Soviet Military Power” will have impact where it is needed most, in pacifism-wracked Western Europe.