Commentary Magazine


Is There Still a Soviet Threat?

On the campaign trail this fall, George Bush observed that as the result of policies pursued by the Reagan administration, “Peace is breaking out all over.” He is not alone in this assessment, which is hardly limited to Republicans. According to Harold Brown, who served as Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration, the policy of “containment of the Soviet Union,” originally devised by Democrats, “has succeeded.”

Among policy intellectuals, too, there is a general consensus: although few may go so far as Stanley Hoffmann in proclaiming that in recent years the world has learned the inutility of force, many do believe (as Robert Scheer has written) that the Soviet Union has largely abandoned its side of the global tug-of-war and left the U.S. with a limp rope and an embarrassment of peace. Even the foreign-policy establishment’s more sober wing appears to believe that, with the luxury of a reduced military-political threat, we can now concentrate on economic competition from Japan, Europe, and the newly industrialized nations of East Asia. As a piece in the Wall Street Journal put it, “After more than forty years of containing an enemy, the next administration faces the challenge of drawing up a security policy directed more at shared leadership in a world of powerful friends.”

The case for the proposition that “peace is breaking out all over” rests, at best, on American hopes attached to Soviet actions. And there are indeed a few Soviet actions that may (or may not) be part of trends that may (or may not) lead to real peace in the long run: for example, some Soviet troops have left Afghanistan. The case also rests on American interpretations of the general Soviet situation, especially the economic situation, which, it is believed, should force profound changes in the direction of disarmament and peace. Finally, the case rests on American hopes attached to Soviet words—in particular on what Soviet officials say about a new defensive emphasis in Soviet military doctrine and about a total pullback in Angola and Nicaragua.

The now highly unfashionable case to the contrary—that the Soviet Union is as much of a threat as ever, maybe more—is based on a different set of assessments: Soviet military power relative to that of the United States continues to grow, while Soviet efforts to cushion the consequences of military spending by acquiring Western capital and technology are more successful now than they have been in many years.

The contest between these views is of the greatest significance for U.S. policy in the years ahead, regardless of which party controls the White House or the Congress. Shall we continue to cut our military budget in real terms, as (contrary to what many people imagine) we have done every year since 1985; or shall we spend whatever is needed to deter a war by preparing to fight, survive, and win one if it should nevertheless break out? Shall we help to finance and build up the Soviet economy; or shall we work to cut off its access to Western credits and expertise? Shall we help those who are fighting Soviet and Soviet-supported regimes, from Angola to Nicaragua to Poland; or shall we advise them to work as best they can within a Soviet empire that may be evolving in a good direction?

Another consideration is even more important. Ever since the Founding, we Americans have defined ourselves in opposition to tyranny. Since World War II, the ongoing need to counter the Soviet Union has served to remind us that the United States of America is not just another nation among nations but a beacon and a help to free men everywhere. Are we going to live by, or put aside, the concerns with political, personal, and religious liberty that the struggle against Soviet Communism has energized among us? A host of commitments, including our geopolitical relationship with Europe and Japan, make sense only in the context of opposition to Soviet Communism. Have they become obsolete?

In truth, much of the controversy in this country over what is and is not happening in the Soviet Union is really about what directions American policy should take. The focus is less on ascertaining Soviet reality than on vindicating one or another side in an intramural American quarrel. This sort of solipsism is unfortunate, because the extent to which the Soviet Union actually threatens us makes a big difference. It would be worse than wasteful to base our policy on opposition to the Soviet Union if that country were on its way to a true political transformation. But if that is not the case, we would by the same token be criminally foolish to repeat our mistakes of the 1970′s (a succinct summary of which was offered at the time by Harold Brown: “When we stop, they build”). A serious, prudent evaluation of the Soviet threat must begin by eschewing the temptation to treat our own hopes or fears about the future as if they were an incontestable reality.

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It is indeed an incontestable reality that many hope-inspiring words are coming out of the Soviet Union, and even a few correlative actions. But it is also true that the mass of Soviet deeds are not such as to inspire rational hope.

Consider the military balance. If the Soviets were becoming our partners in security, military capacity would not matter. But Soviet thaws can turn to frosts as quickly as smiles can change to frowns, and far more quickly than missiles and anti-missile devices can be built. Moreover, military opportunities have been known to tempt men less inured to violence than the current crop of Soviet leaders. Hence it is important to note that the military balance is continuing its long-term shift in the Soviet Union’s favor, and that recent American cutbacks are accelerating that trend.

Contrary to widespread belief, the U.S. has not become militarily stronger over the past decade relative to the Soviet Union. True, during the early Reagan years the American military waxed. As a result, our Navy is now substantially bigger and much improved. The Army, while shrinking a bit, has largely switched to a new generation of tanks and attack helicopters. U.S. fighter-bombers, though fewer, are better than they were. As for American strategic forces, they have benefited from the addition of 99 new B-l bombers, the loading of air-launched cruise missiles on old B-52s, and the much-delayed arrival of a small fleet of 50 new MX missiles. Finally, electronic command links have also been much improved.

Overall, then, our forces are stronger than they were ten years ago. Yet this is quite irrelevant, since the only comparison that matters is between U.S. and Soviet forces. Here, all the tangible evidence says that we are much worse off than before.

The latest edition of the Secretary of Defense’s annual report to Congress tells the tale. Over the past decade, the U.S. has produced 7,600 tanks to the Soviet Union’s 25,300. In the current fiscal year we are going to produce only about 600, versus about 2,500 for the Soviets. With regard to artillery pieces, the figures are 3,200 for us and 27,300 for them. We do better with fighter planes and fighter-bombers, where we are down only 2 to 1 (3,600 to 7,700). But where nuclear-capable artillery and rocket launchers are concerned, we do worse: there the ratio is 17 to 1 against us.

The days are long gone when we could discount such figures by referring to Soviet technical backwardness. The equipment coming off Soviet production lines today is roughly as good as our best. Often, especially in infantry fighting vehicles, it is superior. And in the field of defense against aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, the Soviets have equipment the likes of which we simply do not possess.

Even in the one area of clear American superiority—the open-ocean Navy—the Soviets have made intelligent use of their peculiar assets substantially to reduce our advantage. Although the Soviet Navy is not equipped to contest the mid-Pacific or any part of the Atlantic except for the northeast, its swarms of shore-based naval bombers and numerically superior submarines have made the seas around the Soviet Union into secure bastions. These bastions, the Secretary of Defense acknowledges, are being spread into the sea lanes that link North America with Europe and Japan. In the Mediterranean, too, the Soviet Navy is moving forward, not backward, with an expansion of its base in Syria.

To be sure, the Secretary of Defense qualifies this objectively gloomy picture with the subjective caveat that intangible edges in American “operational planning, leadership, training, and morale” offset tangible Soviet leads. Such words are less expensive than tanks or planes. But they also count for less.

Concerning intercontinental missiles and bombers, where subjective factors do not apply, it is much more difficult to slight the numbers. This is perhaps why the Secretary’s report does not mention that whereas a decade ago the Soviets had only about 4,000 warheads with the necessary combination of nuclear yield and accuracy to destroy America’s own strategic forces, today they have about 6,500. Thus, we have gone from roughly two Soviet ICBM warheads per American missile silo, bomber base, command-and-control center, and submarine port, to roughly three nuclear warheads pointed at each of these American targets.

On our side, with the arrival of the MX, the number of warheads capable of attacking Soviet strategic forces with the same degree of confidence with which the Soviets can attack ours has gone from zero to 500. But this is still only about one for every eight Soviet missile silos, submarine pens, command-and-control bunkers, etc.

Even these figures understate the weakness of our position. A decade ago, the Soviet Union’s ICBMs were in fixed silos. The then-Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, thought it necessary to acquire 200 mobile MX missiles, most of whose 2,000 warheads would survive a Soviet attack and threaten the Soviet missile silos that were being held in reserve. This was the heart of the Carter administration’s strategy. But it is now far beyond our means. Today, not only are we unlikely to get more than 50 MXs, and not only are they in fixed, vulnerable locations, but the Soviet Union has taken a giant step toward making even these irrelevant by putting its newest ICBMs on rail cars and in trucks. In other words, they have moved one lap ahead. Moreover, the newest Soviet command bunkers are so deep as to be out of reach of any and all nuclear weapons.

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How does Frank Carlucci, the current Secretary of Defense, deal with such facts? Our strategy, he says, is “to hold at risk those assets that the Soviets value most.” But those assets—their strategic forces and command apparatus—are precisely the ones we are unable to hold at risk. In fact, the only targets we can still confidently hold at risk are the civilians and the industries that the Soviet government has not chosen to protect. Yet as the Secretary’s report also acknowledges, the Soviets “are continuing their enormous investment in expensive and technically demanding active and passive defense systems designed to limit damage to the USSR in the event of war.” These include “industrial preparations for nuclear war,” a massive shelter program, a pervasive air defense, and full production of every part of a comprehensive anti-missile system—all on the back of a “strapped” economy. Thus, little by little, not only the military but even the civilian sectors of the Soviet Union need fear us less and less.

The Secretary concludes that, “left unchallenged, these trends will, over time, remove from risk an increasing portion of those [strategic and command] assets which the Soviets consider vital in retaining control over their society and achieving their wartime goals.” Are we challenging these trends? No. Although the MX “begins to redress the existing asymmetry in prompt, hard-target kill capability,” there are, as we have seen, no U.S. plans to go beyond token numbers of MXs and no plans to give the MX mobility comparable to its Soviet counterpart, the SS-24.

The Secretary says that in the 1990′s the new Trident II submarine-launched missiles “will permit us to hold at risk a greater proportion of the hardened, fixed Soviet target base” (emphasis added). That is literally true—except that such coverage will not be anything like the coverage which the Soviets have of our targets. Moreover, the hardened, fixed target base vulnerable to U.S. retaliation is vanishing, and by the 1990′s substantially all Soviet strategic-force reserves will be mobile; the key parts of the mechanism for control of Soviet society will be out of reach; and Soviet anti-missile defenses will be in place.

So far, the only actual (rather than rhetorical) initiative by the U.S. government to change this situation has been to pursue the series of arms-control agreements which Mikhail Gorbachev proposed at the Reykjavik summit of 1986: a 50-percent reduction in each side’s long-range nuclear warheads, and adherence to the ABM treaty for at least ten years.

The first problem here is that such a reduction would further increase the ratio of Soviet warheads to American strategic targets. Moreover, while the U.S. has interpreted the ABM treaty as a prohibition against producing anti-missile devices, the Soviet Union has not.

Second, while the U.S. has charged that the Soviet Union has violated and circumvented every arms-control agreement it has ever signed, we have neither compelled the Soviets to undo the gains they have made thereby, nor have we matched or offset those gains by new armament programs of our own. Instead, in the words of Kenneth Adelman, the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, having received rotten oranges from the store, we have gone back to the same store for more oranges.

Suppose that the U.S. were to obtain an arms-control agreement from the Soviet Union that would “fix” every one of the looming strategic problems I have mentioned. Any Soviet official who suggested that the USSR abide by it would be derelict in his duty to his country. That is because the U.S. has granted the USSR a license to have its arms-control cake while eating it too, and no American has suggested any way of revoking that license. No, arms control is not a solution. It is part of the problem.

How about an American anti-missile defense? Such a thing could really complicate (and hence discourage) a Soviet attack and protect American society from the collateral damage therefrom. If it were in place, we could afford some complacency about the ratio of offensive warheads to strategic targets. In a crisis, we might even reasonably ignore Soviet threats. But no one seriously believes that the U.S. government has decided to build—as opposed to studying ad infinitum—an anti-missile defense. The unadorned reality is that we are content to watch the Soviet Union widen the margin by which it can safely use—or threaten to use—strategic weapons against us.

What will the Soviets do with this margin, and at what point might they be tempted to use it? Whatever and whenever they, not we, think best. Who will stop them? How? Alas, U.S. military planning has no answer to such questions.

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One of the uses of superiority at the highest level of military operations is to cover military operations or threats at lower levels.

Consider Europe, where some 300,000 U.S. troops are stationed. These represent the bulk of our ground and air-force operational units. Estimates vary, but we spend somewhat over half our military budget on the defense of Europe. The expense notwithstanding, however, the official U.S. judgment is that whereas a decade ago NATO ground forces were inferior to the Warsaw Pact by an overall ratio of 1.5 to 1, today the ratio of ready forces is roughly 2 to 1 against NATO, and almost 3 to 1 against us one month after mobilization. NATO’s disadvantage in the air is perhaps only 1.3 to 1. But Soviet overall superiority on the central front is at least 3 to 1. (Actually, the raw figures are worse than these summary final assessments because the usual “intangibles” are thrown into the balance on the U.S. side.)

The Secretary of Defense concedes that the U.S. has “not been able to calculate adequately” what effects a Soviet combined-arms attack on Europe would have, and that the Soviet Union has reason to believe that it could conquer NATO quickly. Nevertheless, he concludes that “the Soviets may not be confident that their forces are sufficient to guarantee them a high probability of success.” Why? Because of “capabilities NATO is pursuing” (but does not have).

The Secretary’s report mentions something called “competitive strategies,” one of the Pentagon’s latest buzz words. This term is a label that the Pentagon has chosen to pin on some of its longstanding programs and on “efforts under way to identify possible actions we can take.” “Competitive strategies” looks good in budget battles, but it takes a lot of effort to imagine the Soviets cringing.

Meanwhile, as Europe looks East it sees a Red Army with more divisions in East Germany than are in the entire active U.S. Army, and more divisions in Czechoslovakia than there are U.S. divisions in all of Europe. All of these Soviet divisions have forward-deployed mobile bridging equipment that is useful only for offense.

Under Gorbachev, not one of these divisions has been eliminated or even neglected. All continue to be improved.

How then is NATO to be saved from the fate that history normally reserves for the militarily inferior? For a generation the answer was that the threat of intervention by America’s nuclear forces would deter the Soviet Union from taking advantage of its local superiority. But in 1988 the U.S. Secretary of Defense has acknowledged for the first time what has been clear for years: because the strategic balance has moved, and continues to move, in the Soviets’ direction, Europeans should not count “too heavily” on U.S. strategic forces intervening to save NATO from its insufficiences. It would be a wonder if Europeans did not adjust themselves to this changing balance. Despite brave words about their confidence in a peaceful future, Europeans, especially Germans, are in fact modifying their attitudes about the world to reflect Soviet military power. In a crisis, they can be expected to modify yet further.

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Europe’s situation is more typical than atypical of the rest of the world.

A prime example is East Asia. It extends from the Indian Ocean to the Bering Straits. It is next door to the Soviet Union and half a world away from us. It is the most economically vibrant area on the globe, but surely the area least defended by native forces.

The Japanese, Thais, Filipinos, Koreans, Malaysians, Taiwanese, etc., have developed the habit of relying on the U.S. Seventh Fleet for their protection and for the protection of the sea routes through which they receive their raw materials and ship their products. This arrangement made sense until about a decade ago, as long as Soviet power in the Pacific was minimal. But in 1975 the Soviet Union took over Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam from the U.S., and expanded it into one of the world’s largest naval bases. Submarines, aircraft, and cruisers operating from there can bid for control of Asia’s oil routes. If the U.S. is forced to vacate Clark Field and Subic Bay two years hence, as Philippine President Aquino seems to have pledged, the Soviet Navy will clearly have the upper hand around the Straits of Malacca.

This is not to say that the Soviet Navy will be able to sally forth from Cam Ranh Bay and beat the U.S. in a mid-Pacific battle. But the Soviets will certainly be in a position to deny transit along the oil routes to anyone—including the once-mighty Seventh Fleet. To ask the people of East Asia not to heed the new masters of their lifelines is to ask too much.

A similar situation exits 4,000 miles to the north. The Soviet fleet operating out of Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk could not stage a landing in Hawaii, but it could prevent American reinforcements from reaching Japan. The Japanese have accepted responsibility for keeping open the sea routes 1,000 miles out from the home islands; but no one contends that they are equipped to do that. Perhaps that is why Japan is now the Soviet Union’s leading supplier of cash credits. As the military situation in the North Pacific continues to move in the Soviet Union’s favor, the price of its favors is likely to increase.

As if these developments were not ominous enough, during the 1970′s the United States bet the entire military situation in the region on one simple proposition—that, as the current report of the Secretary of Defense restates it, “China is a friend.” But this proposition—which has served to rationalize the general drawdown of American forces in the Pacific, and our actual discouragement of Taiwan’s and South Korea’s desire to defend themselves—is mistaken. China is nobody’s friend. Despite its enmity toward the Soviet Union, it is much too weak to play the role of military counterweight that U.S. strategists have assigned to it. Nor will it be stronger in the foreseeable future. In a crunch, China will avoid trouble by accommodating the one power that is both willing and able to do it serious harm: the Soviet Union.

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In light of all these facts concerning the East-West military balance, the Soviet Union’s claim that it has a brand-new, defensive doctrine rings hollow. As anyone knows who has followed the Soviet military over the years, the Soviet Union has always proclaimed that its operational doctrine is strictly defensive. The words of the current leadership on this subject are no different from those of its predecessors; the difference lies in the willingness of Westerners to accept them, a willingness that comes, significantly, at a moment when Soviet offensive capacity has never been higher, and when the numbers of tanks, planes, missiles, and so forth emerging from Soviet factories are steady at levels several times our own. The effort may be breaking the Soviet Union economically, but it is not broken yet. And, as Gorbachev’s words help cut down the U.S. military, they raise the marginal efficiency of every Soviet military ruble.

Indeed, Gorbachev’s foremost political act has been to disarm (in every sense) the U.S. As he himself explained on the 70th anniversary of the October revolution, “Our perestroika . . . is eliminating the fear of the ‘soviet threat,’ with [American] militarism losing its political justification.” Georgi Arbatov has been even more specific: “Without this bugaboo [of the Soviet threat], the $300-billion-per-year American military presence in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and Near East would be meaningless. Take away the ‘soviet threat’ and this entire costly edifice will crumble like a house of cards.” The Soviet magazine New Times has described glasnost and perestroika as “marvelous keys to American hearts.”

If Soviet leaders were removing the substance of their threat to the rest of the world, and then simply reporting, say, that Warsaw Pact military production had dropped to NATO levels, that would be one thing. But this is not what they are doing. Rather than cutting their own military production in reality, they are attempting to do away with the reality of American military forces by convincing American leaders to accept a certain image of the “Soviet threat.” Glasnost and perestroika have certainly resulted in disarmament—but of the U.S., not of the Soviet Union. There is no reason to confuse what is, after all, a traditional “peace offensive” with peace itself.

The Soviet Union makes no secret that its policies are aimed at, among other things, attracting Western capital and technology. In 1986, as glasnost was beginning to have its effect on the West, the Soviets were able to secure $30 billion in loans from private Western sources, partly in the form of deposits in Soviet-owned banks in the West. This amount was about equal to the Soviet Union’s hard-currency earnings from all sources. Since these loans were not tied to any specific project, they were effectively blank checks to cover the Soviet Union’s subsidies to its empire, and to purchase Western technology. The total is rising, and there is even talk of floating “Gorbybonds” to finance whatever the General Secretary wants to do.

Here we come to the heart of the issue of the Soviet threat, for to many people, money is the bottom line. In the early 1970′s, the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente was justified in part by an intellectual framework according to which a Soviet Union pumped up by Western money and technology would offer less of a threat to the world. But then the Soviets used the technology bought with Western money to build SS-18 missiles which posed strategic problems we have yet to resolve, and to help conquer a host of countries. Hence no one appeals to the old arguments to justify today’s transfer of resources; instead, we hear the nebulous claim that the West has an interest in the outcome of perestroika.

Indeed we do. A Soviet Union governed by traditional Russian conservatives (à la Solzhenitsyn) or by Western-type liberals (à la Sakharov) or by inward-looking Communists (as in Yugoslavia) would be a pleasant problem to have. But there is no evidence whatsoever that by helping Gorbachev economically we will bring about such changes, any more than we did by helping Stalin who, in his time, was the repository of American hopes even more grand than those visited on his latest successor.

This is not the place for a discussion of internal Soviet politics, but we must keep in mind that the Soviet system is peculiarly stacked against a peaceful evolution to either traditional Russian conservatism or Western-type liberalism. Perestroika and glasnost seem to be stimulating anyone who has both a following and a grievance to assert himself, yet none of the people doing so is a moderate in the Western mold. And in the meantime, the food lines are lengthening.

In such a volatile situation, various kinds of violent struggles are likely to break out, followed by the victory of one faction and then a crackdown on the others. We can dream, if we care to, that when the smoke clears the “leader” will suppress his own faction’s interests as well as the others’, blame all the country’s sufferings on his own people, exonerate the “imperialists” who have been every faction’s whipping boy for three generations, ignore the massive military power at his command, and be nice to the wealthy and under-armed West. But we dare not stake our future on it. If Gorbachev himself were the winner, how would he and his band act once they had caused the “house of cards” of Western defense to come tumbling down or at least to suffer from neglect? Is there anything in their background to suggest they would hesitate to raise the price of their forbearance in order to pay off their supporters and avoid another round of unsettling domestic reforms?

For us, faced with such uncertainties, the prudent course is to pay the hardest attention to the hardest facts. Secretary of Defense Carlucci recently reiterated that Soviet words about a reduced military threat are entirely belied by Soviet deeds. Carlucci’s point is clear enough: keep your powder dry. But although he makes a convincing case that the Soviets are lying, and in ways calculated to increase the danger we are in, the administration he has served does not act as if we were being bilked. Instead, pouring cold water on the “powder” of public opinion, it praises the Soviets for relative candor, and looks forward to putting them to the test.

Thus, too, Michael Dukakis, in his principal campaign statement on U.S.-Soviet relations, spoke of putting Gorbachev to five tests, including destruction of the Soviet military edge in Europe. But what reason do Americans of any political persuasion, or Soviets for that matter, have to believe that Soviet failure to pass such “tests” would be followed by anything other than efforts to explain that underlying conditions are propitious for yet another series of tests?

This sort of split thinking seems to be the bipartisan order of the day in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, and it raises the troubling thought that the real Soviet threat consists less of tanks, missiles, or “active measures” than it does of periodic epidemics of American unseriousness.

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