Implications of Soviet Strategy

Implications of Soviet Strategy

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Rebecca Strode. Originally published in the HIR March 1980 Issue.

Over the past fifteen years, both the intensity and direction of Soviet military developments have repeatedly surprised the American leaders. The Soviet leaders increased their military power far beyond the level their security seems to require, and they developed certain types of weapons which the West considers dangerously destabilizing. The persistent inability of U.S. analysts to foresee these developments springs from their failure to appreciate the very real differences that exist between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning the essence of modern warfare. Yet these differences produce divergent strategies of nuclear conflict that must be understood in order to formulate an adequate national security policy. A serious examination of Soviet military doctrine is therefore imperative.

Western analysts can glean the principles of Soviet military strategy from several sources. There are doctrinal statements in books, monographs, and numerous military journals. In studying this literature, bear in mind two points. First, Soviet military officers write all doctrinal statements, reflecting the fact that military doctrine in the Soviet Union, unlike in the United States, is the exclusive domain of professional military officers, subordinate only to the overall political objectives of the highest governing body, the Politburo. Second, Soviet strategic literature is both descriptive and prescriptive: it not only describes the types of warfare the Soviet leaders would pursue if war broke out today, but also outlines what the Soviets consider the optimal strategy.

The types and quantities of weapons the Soviets deploy and the way they practice using these weapons in maneuvers and war games also reveals their military strategy. The general congruence among these three factors - stated doctrine, force structure, and military training exercises - lends additional credibility to Soviet strategic writings. It is all the more important, then, to understand the Soviet view of strategic conflict.

On Thermonuclear War

Soviet strategic doctrine explicitly rejects the fundamental tenets of the prevailing Western strategy. Most Western analysts hold that nuclear weapons render war so horrible that every nation's primary concern must be to avoid their use. Nuclear war, they claim, has lost its political utility because it would destroy the very values for which it was waged. Consequently, a nation cannot win a nuclear war in any meaningful sense and should structure its nuclear forces less to prosecute a war than to prevent it. This is best done, first, by assuring other nuclear powers of one's peaceful intent by foregoing the defense of one's own population, and second, by maintaining a secure second-strike force that deters potential aggressors by threatening them with unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike. If all nuclear powers adopt this strategic reasoning, "mutual assured destruction" results, making it MADness indeed for any state to initiate a nuclear exchange.

Soviet strategists disagree with this analysis at virtually every point. They categorically reject the notion that nuclear weapons alter the relationship between war and politics. In Soviet Military Strategy, V.D. Sokolovskii, the premier Soviet strategist of the 1960s, considered such views to be "the consequence of a metaphysical and unscientific approach to such a phenomenon as war, and a result of idealization of the new weapons. It is well known that the essence of war as a continuation of politics does not change with changing technology and armament." The Soviets contend that nuclear war remains a rational instrument of policy because they believe it can be won.

This does not mean that the Soviets want a nuclear war. On the contrary, the prevention of such a war is a major goal of Soviet policy. However, it may not be the goal: the Soviets may not intend to avoid nuclear war at all costs. So long as nuclear weapons exist, nuclear war remains a possibility. And should such a war occur, the Soviets intend to emerge from the conflict as a viable nation capable of exacting significant concessions from its adversary.

The USSR's Strategic Rocket Forces is therefore structured quintessentially as a war-fighting command. The Soviet Union does recognize a deterrent role for its nuclear weapons, but their deterrence derives not from the suicidal nature of modern war envisaged by Western theory, but precisely from their efficaciousness for attaining victory. Soviet strategy sees no need to base deterrence on mutual assured destruction; assured destruction of the enemy alone is quite sufficient.

Soviet strategists consider the Western notion of security through vulnerability as more than irrational – it is also reckless. They feel that the West, supremely confident that it found a "balance of terror" that makes war unthinkable, ignores or underestimates the very real danger that the scales might be tipped, that a nuclear war all might still somehow break out, whether through militarist  provocation, political miscalculation, technical error, or sheer accident. A deterrence strategy which provides no options between paralytic capitulation and suicidal retaliation, should deterrence fail, is no strategy at all. The sine qua non of any true strategy is that it offers a plan of action designed to avoid precisely those two snares. It is the task of diplomacy to avoid war; that of military strategy is to pick up when diplomacy fails. Thus, Soviet literature defines strategy as "the art of achieving victory in a war with armed forces."

This determination to emerge victorious from a nuclear conflict severely undermines efforts by the United States to achieve strategic stability. The theory of mutual assured destruction only works if neither side challenges the survivability of the other's retaliatory forces or the destructive impact of the retaliatory blow itself. But the Soviet Union has done both by providing active and passive defenses and by upgrading missile accuracy and payload to the point that they now pose a severe threat to U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Nor does Soviet theory belie these actions. In the most thorough discussion of this point available, Major General Bochkarev, writing in the September 1968 issue of Military Thought, rejected mutual assured destruction as a product of confused, bourgeois ideologists who wring their hands before offensive weaponry rather than develop a technology and strategy that can defend the homeland. Such a defense is imperative. Bochkarev contends, for survival, victory, and the attainment of foreign policy goals. Achieving these ends depends upon the possession of military-strategic superiority.

The Meaning of Superiority

In the Soviet view, strategic superiority consists of the ability to extract concessions from one's opponent either through the use or the threat of force. It enables one to escalate a conflict deliberately and confidently in pursuit of a favorable resolution. Strategic superiority thus operates at every level of international relations, for the nation which ultimately could win a strategic nuclear exchange can gain the advantage at any lesser level fo conflict by escalating to some higher level, being reasonably certain that its opponent will be unable or unwilling to match the escalation. And because both nations know that the militarily superior nation has the forces to back up its threats, this is not a resort to psychological brinksmanship or to a reckless game of chicken, but rather, a rational military-political calculation.

In times of peace, strategic superiority offers
diplomatic advantages, and in pre-war crises it enables the stronger nation to confront its adversary with an ultimatum or to accept a resolution of the conflict by violence. As evidence of Soviet cognizance of this dynamic, witness their sensitivity to attempts on the part of the United States to negotiate "from a position of strength" or to engage in "nuclear blackmail."

In time of war, strategic superiority allows a country to escape impending catastrophe in a conventional theater war by initiating a nuclear or strategic war. The employment of nuclear missiles, writes A.A. Sidorenko in The Offensive, "permits changing the situation in one's favor in a decisive manner and in a short time." Conversely, if one wishes to stay at a lower level of violence, strategic superiority acts as a deterrent to escalation by one's enemy.

No Substitute for Victory

If a strategic war were to occur, the Soviets intend to fight until victory is achieved. But just what does victory entail? Soviet strategists focus on four conditions of victory: 1) defeat of the enemy's military potential, 2) seizure of strategic areas, 3) occupation of territory, and 4) installation of pro-Soviet communist governments. The pursuit of these goals imparts to Soviet strategy a number of distinctive features.

The first aim of Soviet strategy is to defeat the enemy's military potential. This primarily involves the destruction of its forces in-being – particularly his nuclear weaponry – so as to forestall immediate retaliation against the USSR. It also includes the destruction of the sources of the enemy's military power – industrial and stocks of strategic equipment and raw materials. It is a fundamental tenet of Soviet military doctrine that no country be allowed to wage war against the Soviet Union twice. The great destructive potential of nuclear weapons, Soviet strategists contend, has, far from rendering warfare suicidal, made possible the attainment of the most decisive political goals – the destruction of the enemy's capacity to oppose Soviet interests.

The Soviets are guided in their target selection primarily by military and political considerations, not by the desire to deliver punitive strikes against the rival society. While Western strategists search for ways to break the enemy's will to resist, their Soviet counterparts aim at destroying his capacity to do so. For once the enemy's capacity is destroyed, he cannot, no matter what his will, threaten the Soviet Union's survival. Especially important in eliminating the enemy's capacity to mount effective resistance is the destruction of its political-administrative centers. Disrupting political authority would serve the dual purpose of undermining military command and control by confusing the lines of authority and of demoralizing the opposing population. The former would serve to protect the Soviet homeland by reducing the enemy's ability to retaliate, while the latter would facilitate the eventual imposition of a pro-Soviet regime.

The Soviets believe that the element of surprise is crucial to the attainment of victory. Soviet military doctrine therefore calls for measures to insure that the West does not take the USSR by surprise and that the Soviet Union secures the advantages of surprise. While nothing in Soviet military doctrine indicates that the Soviets would initiate a nuclear exchange for no apparent reason, that same doctrine leaves no doubt that, once the Soviet leadership becomes convinced that a nuclear war is inevitable, it will not hesitate to strike first. A first-strike gives one the advantage of drawing from undamaged nuclear forces, thereby maximizing the crippling effect of the attack on the enemy.

Soviet doctrine holds that the attainment of a favorable correlation of forces in the initial phase of a nuclear war is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for victory. Conventional forces must consolidate the gains made with nuclear weapons. In particular, they will secure the second Soviet condition of victory –seizure of strategic areas such as straits, enemy military bases, and airfields. In conjunction with Soviet strategic forces, conventional forces will also contribute to the protection of the Soviet homeland by manning air defenses, conducting anti-submarine warfare, coordinating civil defense efforts, and maintaining control over all "socialist" territory in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Finally, the conventional forces will sustain the initiative of attack to complete the rout of all enemy forces.

Once enemy resistance is crushed, Soviet strategy calls for the occupation of territory. This goal refers primarily to Western Europe, though the Soviets may envisage some intercontinental moves as well. The USSR would probably use the human and material resources of the occupied regions to aid postwar reconstruction at home. One finds precedents for this behavior in the massive deportations of Baltic peoples and the removal of East German machinery and equipment to the USSR  following World War II. The desire to expropriate the conquered nations' agricultural, industrial, and technical goods requires a measure of selectivity in Soviet targeting. Although the Soviets cannot completely avoid collateral damage, the objective of Soviet strategy is not to turn "entire countries into piles of wreckage and lifeless deserts," for this would deny the conquering nation the fruits of victory. Deserts cannot provide the USSR with the resources it needs for rapid recovery.

Occupying whatever territory it can, the Soviets would seek to sustain their military victory through political consolidation. Previous leaders would be purged and "peace-loving forces" installed in their place. Soviet writers lead one to believe that this shift in government would occur automatically in response to the will of the people, but the history of Soviet involvement in Central Asia during the 1920s, Eastern Europe in the 1940s, and Afghanistan in 1979-80 suggests otherwise.

The Significance of Strategy

Such then is Soviet strategy: a coherent plan for victory through the use of nuclear and conventional arms should the USSR's leadership decide that war is in the Soviet national interest. But why is Soviet strategy important to the United States? Several answers suggest themselves.

First, Soviet doctrine helps to explain Soviet behavior* The magnitude of the USSR's military buildup would not have surprised United States leaders if they had taken seriously the war-fighting role which Soviet military doctrine ascribes to nuclear weapons. Similarly, the West might have foreseen the direction of Soviet weapons development if it recognized the prescriptive nature of Soviet military doctrine. Developments like heavy ICBMs and anti-satellite weapons conform to the Soviet Union's doctrinal emphases on counterforce targeting, surprise, and homeland defense. In the political sphere, greater attention to Soviet military doctrine would  enhance U.S. understanding of Soviet goals. The frustrations of the prolonged strategic arms limitation negotiations and the inadequacies of the agreements  themselves are functions of the asymmetry in the conceptions of modern warfare held in the two countries.

In addition to its usefulness in analyzing the USSR's  behavior, Soviet military doctrine carries important implications for the American nuclear strategy. A successful defense in the event of nuclear war largely depends on preparations made before hostilities begin. It is therefore important to know what the Soviet Union's course of action in time of war is likely to be if the United States is to fashion an effective defense and a suitable offense. One should not formulate strategy in a vacuum. One must be prepared to fight the real enemy, not a fabrication of one's imagination or a carbon copy of oneself.

Though this would appear to be a self-evident principle, the U.S. has often based its plans on the presumption that the Soviet Union will behave in ways quite alien to its stated doctrine. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's theater war games, for example, often postulate a prolonged conventional combat, despite the fact that both Soviet doctrine and training exercises stress rapid escalation to nuclear warfare. Such incongruities between expectations and probable outcomes seriously degrade our capabilities.

What is to be Done?

Only by understanding the Soviet definition of victory can the United States create a credible deterrent. The U.S. must develop a military force that denies the Soviets victory in their terms. Specifically, the U.S. must be able to protect its nuclear and conventional forces in a surprise attack, to deny the Soviets control of strategic areas, to prevent the entrance of Soviet occupation forces into Western Europe, and to maintain political control. Unfortunately, current American deterrence strategy relies on threats of retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack, not on a capability to render such an attack useless by denying the Soviets their conditions of victory. Apart from the gross immorality of targeting Soviet noncombatants, it is not at all clear that the Soviet leadership considers the destruction even of millions of Soviet citizens and of much of Soviet industry an unacceptable price to pay for the occupation and domination of Europe and the elimination of the American capacity to oppose Soviet activity in any part of the globe.

Soviet military strategy thus poses a serious challenge to the American deterrence posture. Recently, as more analysts have come to recognize its importance for U.S. security, a number of responses have surfaced. Some
maintain that mutual assured destruction remains a credible deterrence strategy and propose only tactical innovations to enhance its effectiveness. Such modifications include abandoning the ICBM force in favor of a predominantly submarine-based deterrent or adopting a policy of launching the nation's ICBMs upon warning of a Soviet attack, thereby circumventing the problem of ICBM vulnerability.

Other analysts go further. They believe that only a shift of U.S. strategy away from cataclysmic counter- population targeting toward a more flexible policy of  limited nuclear strikes against carefully chosen Soviet industrial and military targets can deter the Soviet Union.

This was the reasoning behind Secretary of Defense James Schlessinger's "selective options" policy of 1973. The growing emphasis on counter-military options is also evident in the recent attempt to introduce the enhanced radiation warhead into thee European theater and in the current plans to develop an MX ICBM with the capability of destroying protected Soviet missiles. However, this strategy remains largely reactive to the Soviet Union, in that it is designed to counter Soviet military initiatives without pursuing positive goals of its own.

A few Western strategic analysts, most notably Colin S. Gray of the Hudson Institute, call for a wholesale revamping of U .S. nuclear strategy to provide not only for a war-fighting, but also a war-winning capability. Gray and others do not adopt Soviet strategy, but they, like the Soviets, do seek to define the conditions of victory in a nuclear war. They suggest a strategy not only for countering Soviet moves in a nuclear war, but also for defeating the Soviet state. Such a strategy, its supporters argue, would provide the strongest possible deterrent against Soviet aggression by threatening the Soviet leaders with the one thing they fear most – loss of political control.

Choosing the direction U.S. strategy should take and developing a complementary force structure are immensely complex tasks. But some response must be made in order to break the impasse produced by years of ignoring Soviet strategy. The growing military might of the USSR now forces Western strategists to face squarely Soviet attitudes toward nuclear war. To do otherwise is to leave the United States with a strategic posture irrelevant to the realities of Soviet military power. Nothing could challenge deterrence more or serve United States security interests less.