Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight & Win a Nuclear War
In a recent interview with the New Republic, Paul Warnke, the newly appointed head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, responded as follows to the question of how the United States ought to react to indications that the Soviet leadership thinks it possible to fight and win a nuclear war. “In my view,” he replied, “this kind of thinking is on a level of abstraction which is unrealistic. It seems to me that instead of talking in those terms, which would indulge what I regard as the primitive aspects of Soviet nuclear doctrine, we ought to be trying to educate them into the real world of strategic nuclear weapons, which is that nobody could possibly win.”1
Even after allowance has been made for Mr. Warnke’s notoriously careless syntax, puzzling questions remain. On what grounds does he, a Washington lawyer, presume to “educate” the Soviet general staff composed of professional soldiers who thirty years ago defeated the Wehrmacht—and, of all things, about the “real world of strategic nuclear weapons” of which they happen to possess a considerably larger arsenal than we? Why does he consider them children who ought not to be “indulged”? And why does he chastise for what he regards as a “primitive” and unrealistic strategic doctrine not those who hold it, namely the Soviet military, but Americans who worry about their holding it?
Be all that as it may, even if Mr. Warnke refuses to take Soviet strategic doctrine seriously, it behooves us to take Mr. Warnke’s views of Soviet doctrine seriously. He not only will head our SALT II team; his thinking as articulated in the above statement and on other occasions reflects all the conventional wisdom of the school of strategic theory dominant in the United States, one of whose leading characteristics is scorn for Soviet views on nuclear warfare.
American and Soviet nuclear doctrines, it needs stating at the outset, are starkly at odds. The prevalent U.S. doctrine holds that an all-out war between countries in possession of sizable nuclear arsenals would be so destructive as to leave no winner; thus resort to arms has ceased to represent a rational policy option for the leaders of such countries vis-à-vis one another. The classic dictum of Clausewitz, that war is politics pursued by other means, is widely believed in the United States to have lost its validity after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soviet doctrine, by contrast, emphatically asserts that while an all-out nuclear war would indeed prove extremely destructive to both parties, its outcome would not be mutual suicide: the country better prepared for it and in possession of a superior strategy could win and emerge a viable society. “There is profound erroneousness and harm in the disorienting claims of bourgeois ideologies that there will be no victor in a thermonuclear world war,” thunders an authoritative Soviet publication.2 The theme is mandatory in the current Soviet military literature. Clausewitz, buried in the United States, seems to be alive and prospering in the Soviet Union.
The predisposition of the American strategic community is to shrug off this fundamental doctrinal discrepancy. American doctrine has been and continues to be formulated and implemented by and large without reference to its Soviet counterpart. It is assumed here that there exists one and only one “rational” strategy appropriate to the age of thermonuclear weapons, and that this strategy rests on the principle of “mutual deterrence” developed in the United States some two decades ago. Evidence that the Russians do not share this doctrine which, as its name indicates, postulates reciprocal attitudes, is usually dismissed with the explanation that they are clearly lagging behind us: given time and patient “education,” they will surely come around.
It is my contention that this attitude rests on a combination of arrogance and ignorance; that it is dangerous; and that it is high time to start paying heed to Soviet strategic doctrine, lest we end up deterring no one but ourselves. There is ample evidence that the Soviet military say what they mean, and usually mean what they say. When the recently deceased Soviet Minister of Defense, Marshal Grechko, assures us: “We have never concealed, and do not conceal, the fundamental, principal tenets of our military doctrine,”3 he deserves a hearing. This is especially true in view of the fact that Soviet military deployments over the past twenty years make far better sense in the light of Soviet doctrine, “primitive” and “unrealistic” as the latter may appear, than when reflected in the mirror of our own doctrinal assumptions.
Mistrust of the military professional, combined with a pervasive conviction, typical of commercial societies, that human conflicts are at bottom caused by misunderstanding and ought to be resolved by negotiations rather than force, has worked against serious attention to military strategy by the United States. We have no general staff; we grant no higher degrees in “military science”; and, except for Admiral Mahan, we have produced no strategist of international repute. America has tended to rely on its insularity to protect it from aggressors, and on its unique industrial capacity to help crush its enemies once war was under way. The United States is accustomed to waging wars of its own choosing and on its own terms. It lacks an ingrained strategic tradition. In the words of one historian, Americans tend to view both military strategy and the armed forces as something to be “employed intermittently to destroy occasional and intermittent threats posed by hostile powers.”4
This approach to warfare has had a number of consequences. The United States wants to win its wars quickly and with the smallest losses in American lives. It is disinclined, therefore, to act on protracted and indirect strategies, or to engage in limited wars and wars of attrition. Once it resorts to arms, it prefers to mobilize the great might of its industrial plant to produce vast quantities of the means of destruction with which in the shortest possible time to undermine the enemy’s will and ability to continue the struggle. Extreme reliance on technological superiority, characteristic of U.S. warfare, is the obverse side of America’s extreme sensitivity to its own casualties; so is indifference to the casualties inflicted on the enemy. The strategic bombing campaigns waged by the U.S. Air Force and the RAF against Germany and Japan in World War II excellently implemented this general attitude. Paradoxically, America’s dread of war and casualties pushes it to adopt some of the most brutal forms of warfare, involving the indiscriminate destruction of the enemy’s homeland with massive civilian deaths.
These facts must be borne in mind to understand the way the United States reacted to the advent of the nuclear bomb. The traditional military services—the army and the navy—whose future seemed threatened by the invention of a weapon widely believed to have revolutionized warfare and rendered conventional forces obsolete, resisted extreme claims made on behalf of the bomb. But they were unable to hold out for very long. An alliance of politicians and scientists, backed by the Air Force, soon overwhelmed them. “Victory through Air Power,” a slogan eminently suited to the American way of war, carried all before it once bombs could be devised whose explosive power was measured in kilotons and megatons.
The U.S. Army tried to argue after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the new weapons represented no fundamental breakthrough. No revolution in warfare had occurred, its spokesman claimed: atomic bombs were merely a more efficient species of the aerial bombs used in World War II, and in themselves no more able to ensure victory than the earlier bombs had been. As evidence, they could point to the comprehensive U.S. Strategic Bombing Surveys carried out after the war to assess the effects of the bombing campaigns. These had demonstrated that saturation raids against German and Japanese cities had neither broken the enemy’s morale nor paralyzed his armaments industry; indeed, German productivity kept on rising in the face of intensified Allied bombing, attaining its peak in the fall of 1944, on the eve of capitulation.
And when it came to horror, atomic bombs had nothing over conventional ones: as against the 72,000 casualties caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, conventional raids carried out against Tokyo and Dresden in 1945 had caused 84,000 and 135,000 fatalities, respectively. Furthermore, those who sought to minimize the impact of the new weapon argued, atomic weapons in no sense obviated the need for sizable land and sea forces. For example, General Ridgway, as Chief of Staff in the early 1950’s, maintained that war waged with tactical nuclear weapons would demand larger rather than smaller field armies since these weapons were more complicated, since they would produce greater casualties, and since the dispersal of troops required by nuclear tactics called for increasing the depth of the combat zone.5
As we shall note below, similar arguments disputing the revolutionary character of the nuclear weapon surfaced in the Soviet Union, and there promptly came to dominate strategic theory. In the United States, they were just as promptly silenced by a coalition of groups each of which it suited, for its own reasons, to depict the atomic bomb as the “absolute weapon” that had, in large measure, rendered traditional military establishments redundant and traditional strategic thinking obsolete.
Once World War II was over, the United States was most eager to demobilize its armed forces. Between June 1945 and June 1946, the U.S. Army reduced its strength from 8.3 to 1.9 million men; comparable manpower cuts were achieved in the navy and air force. Little more than a year after Germany’s surrender, the military forces of the United States, which at their peak had stood at 12.3 million men, were cut down to 3 million; two years later they declined below 2 million. The demobilization proceeded at a pace (if not in a manner) reminiscent of the dissolution of the Russian army in the revolutionary year of 1917. Nothing could have stopped this mass of humanity streaming homeward. To most Americans peacetime conditions meant reversion to a skeletal armed force.
Yet, at the same time, growing strains in the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, and mounting evidence that Stalin was determined to exploit the chaotic conditions brought about by the collapse of the Axis powers to expand his domain, called for an effective military force able to deter the Soviets. The United States could not fulfill its role as leader of the Western coalition without an ability to project its military power globally.
In this situation, the nuclear weapon seemed to offer an ideal solution: the atomic bomb could hardly have come at a better time from the point of view of U.S. international commitments. Here was a device so frighteningly destructive, it was believed, that the mere threat of its employment would serve to dissuade would-be aggressors from carrying out their designs. Once the Air Force received the B-36, the world’s first intercontinental bomber, the United States acquired the ability to threaten the Soviet Union with devastating punishment without, at the same time, being compelled to maintain a large and costly standing army.
Reliance on the nuclear deterrent became more imperative than ever after the conclusion of the Korean war, in the course of which U.S. defense expenditures had been sharply driven up. President Eisenhower had committed himself to a policy of fiscal restraint. He wanted to cut the defense budget appreciably, and yet he had to do so without jeopardizing either America’s territorial security or its worldwide commitments. In an effort to reconcile these contradictory desires, the President and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, enunciated in the winter of 1953-54 a strategic doctrine which to an unprecedented degree based the country’s security on a single weapon, the nuclear deterrent. In an address to the United Nations in December 1953, Eisenhower argued that since there was no defense against nuclear weapons (i.e., thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs, which both countries were then beginning to produce), war between the two “atomic colossi” would leave no victors and probably cause the demise of civilization. A month later, Dulles enunciated what came to be known as the doctrine of “massive retaliation.” The United States, he declared, had decided “to depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our choosing.” Throughout his address, Dulles emphasized the fiscal benefits of such a strategy, “more basic security at less cost.”
The Eisenhower-Dulles formula represented a neat compromise between America’s desires to reduce the defense budget and simultaneously to retain the capacity to respond to Soviet threats. The driving force was not, however, military but budgetary: behind “massive retaliation” (as well as its offspring, “mutual deterrence”) lay fiscal imperatives. In the nuclear deterrent, the United States found a perfect resolution of the conflicting demands of domestic and foreign responsibilities. For this reason alone its adoption was a foregone conclusion: the alternatives were either a vast standing army or forfeiture of status as a leading world power. The Air Force enthusiastically backed the doctrine of massive retaliation. As custodian of the atomic bomb, it had a vested interest in a defense posture of which that weapon was the linchpin. And since in the first postwar decade the intercontinental bomber was the only available vehicle for delivering the bomb against an enemy like the Soviet Union, the Air Force could claim a goodly share of the defense budget built around the retaliation idea.
Although the Soviet Union exploded a fission bomb in 1949 and announced the acquisition of a fusion (or hydrogen) bomb four years later, the United States still continued for a while longer to enjoy an effective monopoly on nuclear retaliation, since the Soviet Union lacked the means of delivering quantities of such bombs against U.S. territory. That situation changed dramatically in 1957 when the Soviets launched the Sputnik. This event, which their propaganda hailed as a great contribution to the advancement of science (and ours as proof of the failures of the American educational system!), represented in fact a significant military demonstration, namely, the ability of the Russians to deliver nuclear warheads against the United States homeland, until then immune from direct enemy threats. At this point massive retaliation ceased to make much sense and before long yielded to the doctrine of “mutual deterrence.” The new doctrine postulated that inasmuch as both the Soviet Union and the United States possessed (or would soon possess) the means of destroying each other, neither country could rationally contemplate resort to war. The nuclear stockpiles of each were an effective deterrent which ensured that they would not be tempted to launch an attack.
This doctrine was worked out in great and sophisticated detail by a bevy of civilian experts employed by various government and private organizations. These physicists, chemists, mathematicians, economists, and political scientists came to the support of the government’s fiscally-driven imperatives with scientific demonstrations in favor of the nuclear deterrent. Current U.S. strategic theory was thus born of a marriage between the scientist and the accountant. The professional soldier was jilted.
A large part of the U.S. scientific community had been convinced as soon as the first atomic bomb was exploded that the nuclear weapon, which that community had conceived and helped to develop, had accomplished a complete revolution in warfare. This conclusion was reached without much reference to the analysis of the effects of atomic weapons carried out by the military, and indeed without consideration of the traditional principles of warfare. It represented, rather, an act of faith on the part of an intellectual community which held strong pacifist convictions and felt deep guilt at having participated in the creation of a weapon of such destructive power. As early as 1946, in an influential book sponsored by the Yale Institute of International Affairs, under the title The Absolute Weapon, a group of civilian strategic theorists enunciated the principles of the mutual-deterrence theory which subsequently became the official U.S. strategic doctrine. The principal points made in this work may be summarized as follows:
- Nuclear weapons are “absolute weapons” in the sense that they can cause unacceptable destruction, but also and above all because there exists against them no possible defense. When the aggressor is certain to suffer the same punishment as his victim, aggression ceases to make sense. Hence war is no longer a rational policy option, as it had been throughout human history. In the words of Bernard Brodie, the book’s editor: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment had been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose” (p. 76).
- Given the fact that the adjective “absolute” means, by definition, incapable of being exceeded or surpassed, in the nuclear age military superiority has become meaningless. As another contributor to the book, William T.R. Fox, expressed it: “When dealing with the absolute weapon, arguments based on relative advantage lose their point” (p. 181). From which it follows that the objective of modern defense policy should be not superiority in weapons, traditionally sought by the military, but “sufficiency”; just enough nuclear weapons to be able to threaten a potential aggressor with unacceptable retaliation—in other words, an “adequate” deterrent, no more, no less.
- Nuclear deterrence can become effective only if it restrains mutually—i.e., if the United States and the Soviet Union each can deter the other from aggression. An American monopoly on nuclear weapons would be inherently destabilizing, both because it could encourage the United States to launch a nuclear attack, and, at the same time, by making the Russians feel insecure, cause them to act aggressively. “Neither we nor the Russians can expect to feel even reasonably safe unless an atomic attack by one were certain to unleash a devastating atomic counterattack by the other,” Arnold Wolfers maintained (p. 135). In other words, to feel secure the United States actually required the Soviet Union to have the capacity to destroy it.
Barely one year after Hiroshima and three years before the Soviets were to acquire a nuclear bomb, The Absolute Weapon articulated the philosophical premises underlying the mutual-deterrence doctrine which today dominates U.S. strategic thinking. Modern strategy, in the opinion of its contributors, involved preventing wars rather than winning them, securing sufficiency in decisive weapons rather than superiority, and even ensuring the potential enemy’s ability to strike back. Needless to elaborate, these principles ran contrary to all the tenets of traditional military theory, which had always called for superiority in forces and viewed the objective of war to be victory. But then, if one had decided that the new weapons marked a qualitative break with all the weapons ever used in combat, one could reasonably argue that past military experience, and the theory based on it, had lost relevance. Implicit in these assumptions was the belief that Clausewitz and his celebrated formula proclaiming war an extension of politics were dead. Henry Kissinger, who can always be counted upon to utter commonplaces in the tone of prophetic revelation, announced Clausewitz’s obituary nearly twenty years after The Absolute Weapon had made the point, in these words: “The traditional mode of military analysis which saw in war a continuation of politics but with its own appropriate means is no longer applicable.”6
American civilian strategists holding such views gained the dominant voice in the formulation of U.S. strategic doctrine with the arrival in Washington in 1961 of Robert S. McNamara as President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. A prominent business executive specializing in finance and accounting, McNamara applied to the perennial problem of American strategy—how to maintain a credible global military posture without a large and costly military establishment—the methods of cost analysis. These had first been applied by the British during World War II under the name “operations research” and subsequently came to be adopted here as “systems analysis.” Weapons’ procurement was to be tested and decided by the same methods used to evaluate returns on investment in ordinary business enterprises. Mutual deterrence was taken for granted: the question of strategic posture reduced itself to the issue of which weapons systems would provide the United States with effective deterrence at the least expense. Under McNamara the procurement of weapons, decided on the basis of cost effectiveness, came in effect to direct strategy, rather than the other way around, as had been the case through most of military history. It is at this point that applied science in partnership with budgetary accountancy—a partnership which had developed U.S. strategic theory—also took charge of U.S. defense policy.
As worked out in the 1960’s, and still in effect today, American nuclear theory rests on these propositions: All-out nuclear war is not a rational policy option, since no winner could possibly emerge from such a war. Should the Soviet Union nevertheless launch a surprise attack on the United States, the latter would emerge with enough of a deterrent to devastate the Soviet Union in a second strike. Since’ such a retaliatory attack would cost the Soviet Union millions of casualties and the destruction of all its major cities, a Soviet first strike is most unlikely. Meaningful defenses against a nuclear attack are technically impossible and psychologically counterproductive; nuclear superiority is meaningless.
In accord with these assumptions, the United States in the mid-1960’s unilaterally froze its force of ICBM’s at 1,054 and dismantled nearly all its defenses against enemy bombers. Civil-defense was all but abandoned, as was in time the attempt to create an ABM system which held out the possibility of protecting American missile sites against a surprise enemy attack. The Russians were watched benignly as they moved toward parity with the United States in the number of intercontinental launchers, and then proceeded to attain numerical superiority. The expectation was that as soon as the Russians felt themselves equal to the United States in terms of effective deterrence, they would stop further deployments. The frenetic pace of the Soviet nuclear build-up was explained first on the ground that the Russians had a lot of catching up to do, then that they had to consider the Chinese threat, and finally on the grounds that they are inherently a very insecure people and should be allowed an edge in deterrent capability.
Whether mutual deterrence deserves the name of a strategy at all is a real question. As one student of the subject puts it:
Although commonly called a “strategy,” “assured destruction” was by itself an antithesis of strategy. Unlike any strategy that ever preceded it throughout the history of armed conflict, it ceased to be useful precisely where military strategy is supposed to come into effect: at the edge of war. It posited that the principal mission of the U.S. military under conditions of ongoing nuclear operations against [the continental United States] was to shut its eyes, grit its teeth, and reflexively unleash an indiscriminate and simultaneous reprisal against all Soviet aim points on a preestablished target list. Rather than deal in a considered way with the particular attack on hand so as to minimize further damage to the United States and maximize the possibility of an early settlement on reasonably acceptable terms, it had the simple goal of inflicting punishment for the Soviet transgression. Not only did this reflect an implicit repudiation of political responsibility, it also risked provoking just the sort of counterreprisal against the United States that a rational wartime strategy should attempt to prevent.7
I cite this passage merely to indicate that the basic postulates of U.S. nuclear strategy are not as self-evident and irrefutable as its proponents seem to believe; and that, therefore, their rejection by the Soviet military is not, in and of itself, proof that Soviet thinking is “primitive” and devoid of a sense of realism.
The principal differences between American and Soviet strategies are traceable to different conceptions of the role of conflict and its inevitable concomitant, violence, in human relations; and secondly, to different functions which the military establishment performs in the two societies.
In the United States, the consensus of the educated and affluent holds all recourse to force to be the result of an inability or an unwillingness to apply rational analysis and patient negotiation to disagreements: the use of force is prima facie evidence of failure. Some segments of this class not only refuse to acknowledge the existence of violence as a fact of life, they have even come to regard fear—the organism’s biological reaction to the threat of violence—as inadmissible. “The notion of being threatened has acquired an almost class connotation,” Daniel P. Moynihan notes in connection with the refusal of America’s “sophisticated” elite to accept the reality of a Soviet threat. “If you’re not very educated, you’re easily frightened. And not being ever frightened can be a formula for self-destruction.”8
Now this entire middle-class, commercial, essentially Protestant ethos is absent from Soviet culture, whose roots feed on another kind of soil, and which has had for centuries to weather rougher political climes. The Communist revolution of 1917, by removing from positions of influence what there was of a Russian bourgeoisie (a class Lenin was prone to define as much by cultural as by socioeconomic criteria), in effect installed in power the muzhik, the Russian peasant. And the muzhik had been taught by long historical experience that cunning and coercion alone ensured survival: one employed cunning when weak, and cunning coupled with coercion when strong. Not to use force when one had it indicated some inner weakness. Marxism, with its stress on class war as a natural condition of mankind so long as the means of production were privately owned, has merely served to reinforce these ingrained convictions. The result is an extreme Social-Darwinist outlook on life which today permeates the Russian elite as well as the Russian masses, and which only the democratic intelligentsia and the religious dissenters oppose to any significant extent.
The Soviet ruling elite regards conflict and violence as natural regulators of all human affairs: wars between nations, in its view, represent only a variant of wars between classes, recourse to the one or the other being dependent on circumstances. A conflictless world will come into being only when the socialist (i.e., Communist) mode of production spreads across the face of the earth.
The Soviet view of armed conflict can be illustrated with another citation from the writings of the late Marshal Grechko, one of the most influential Soviet military figures of the post-World War II era. In his principal treatise, Grechko refers to the classification of wars formulated in 1972 by his U.S. counterpart, Melvin Laird. Laird divided wars according to engineering criteria—in terms of weapons employed and the scope of the theater of operations—to come up with four principal types of wars: strategic-nuclear, theater-nuclear, theater-conventional, and local-conventional. Dismissing this classification as inadequate, Grechko applies quite different standards to come up with his own typology:
Proceeding from the fundamental contradictions of the contemporary era, one can distinguish, according to sociopolitical criteria, the following types of wars: (1) wars between states (coalitions) of two contrary social systems—capitalist and socialist; (2) civil wars between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, or between the popular masses and the forces of the extreme reaction supported by the imperialists of other countries; (3) wars between imperialist states and the peoples of colonial and dependent states fighting for their freedom and independence; and (4) wars among capitalist states.9
This passage contains many interesting implications. For instance, it makes no allowance for war between two Communist countries, like the Soviet Union and China, though such a war seems greatly to preoccupy the Soviet leadership. Nor does it provide for war pitting a coalition of capitalist and Communist states against another capitalist state, such as actually occurred during World War II when the United States and the Soviet Union joined forces against Germany. But for our purposes, the most noteworthy aspect of Grechko’s system of classification is the notion that social and national conflicts within the capitalist camp (that is, in all countries not under Communist control) are nothing more than a particular mode of class conflict of which all-out nuclear war between the superpowers is a conceivable variant. In terms of this typology, an industrial strike in the United States, the explosion of a terrorist bomb in Belfast or Jerusalem, the massacre by Rhodesian guerrillas of a black village or a white farmstead, differ from nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States only in degree, not in kind. All such conflicts are calibrations on the extensive scale by which to measure the historic conflict which pits Communism against capitalism and imperialism. Such conflicts are inherent in the stage of human development which precedes the final abolition of classes.
Middle-class American intellectuals simply cannot assimilate this mentality, so alien is it to their experience and view of human nature. Confronted with the evidence that the most influential elements in the Soviet Union do indeed hold such views, they prefer to dismiss the evidence as empty rhetoric, and to regard with deep suspicion the motives of anyone who insists on taking it seriously. Like some ancient Oriental despots, they vent their wrath on the bearers of bad news. How ironic that the very people who have failed so dismally to persuade American television networks to eliminate violence from their programs, nevertheless feel confident that they can talk the Soviet leadership into eliminating violence from its political arsenal!
Solzhenitsyn grasped the issue more profoundly as well as more realistically when he defined the antithesis of war not as the absence of armed conflict between nations—i.e., “peace” in the conventional meaning of the term—but as the absence of all violence, internal as well as external. His comprehensive definition, drawn from his Soviet experience, obversely matches the comprehensive Soviet definition of warfare.
We know surprisingly little about the individuals and institutions whose responsibility it is to formulate Soviet military doctrine. The matter is handled with the utmost secrecy, which conceals from the eyes of outsiders the controversies that undoubtedly surround it. Two assertions, however, can be made with confidence.
Because of Soviet adherence to the Clausewitzian principle that warfare is always an extension of politics—i.e., subordinate to overall political objectives (about which more below)—Soviet military planning is carried out under the close supervision of the country’s highest political body, the Politburo. Thus military policy is regarded as an intrinsic element of “grand strategy,” whose arsenal also includes a variety of non-military instrumentalities.
Secondly, the Russians regard warfare as a science (nauka, in the German sense of Wissenschaft). Instruction in the subject is offered at a number of university-level institutions, and several hundred specialists, most of them officers on active duty, have been accorded the Soviet equivalent of the Ph.D. in military science. This means that Soviet military doctrine is formulated by full-time specialists: it is as much the exclusive province of the certified military professional as medicine is that of the licensed physician. The civilian strategic theorist who since World War II has played a decisive role in the formulation of U.S. strategic doctrine is not in evidence in the Soviet Union, and probably performs at best a secondary, consultative function.
Its penchant for secrecy notwithstanding, the Soviet military establishment does release a large quantity of unclassified literature in the form of books, specialist journals, and newspapers. Of the books, the single most authoritative work at present is unquestionably the collective study, Military Strategy, edited by the late Marshal V. D. Sokolovskii, which summarizes Soviet warfare doctrine of the nuclear age.10 Although published fifteen years ago, Sokolovskii’s volume remains the only Soviet strategic manual publicly available—a solitary monument confronting a mountain of Western works on strategy. A series called “The Officer’s Library” brings out important specialized studies.11 The newspaper Krasnaia zvezda (“Red Star”) carries important theoretical articles which, however, vie for the reader’s attention with heroic pictures of Soviet troops storming unidentified beaches and firing rockets at unnamed foes. The flood of military works has as its purpose indoctrination, an objective to which the Soviet high command attaches the utmost importance: indoctrination both in the psychological sense, designed to persuade the Soviet armed forces that they are invincible, as well as of a technical kind, to impress upon the officers and ranks the principles of Soviet tactics and the art of operations.
To a Western reader, most of this printed matter is unadulterated rubbish. It not only lacks the sophistication and intellectual elegance which he takes for granted in works on problems of nuclear strategy; it is also filled with a mixture of pseudo-Marxist jargon and the crudest kind of Russian jingoism. Which is one of the reasons why it is hardly ever read in the West, even by people whose business it is to devise a national strategy against a possible Soviet threat. By and large the material is ignored. Two examples must suffice. Strategy in the Missile Age, an influential work by Bernard Brodie, one of the pioneers of U.S. nuclear doctrine, which originally came out in 1959, and was republished in 1965, makes only a few offhand allusions to Soviet nuclear strategy, and then either to note with approval that it is “developing along lines familiar in the United States” (p. 171), or else, when the Russians prefer to follow their own track, to dismiss it as a “ridiculous and reckless fantasy” (p. 215). Secretary of Defense McNamara perused Sokolovskii and “remained unimpressed,” for nowhere in the book did he find “a sophisticated analysis of nuclear war.”12
The point to bear in mind, however, is that Soviet military literature, like all Soviet literature on politics broadly defined, is written in an elaborate code language. Its purpose is not to dazzle with originality and sophistication but to convey to the initiates messages of grave importance. Soviet policy-makers may speak to one another plainly in private, but when they take pen in hand they invariably resort to an “Aesopian” language, a habit acquired when the forerunner of today’s Communist party had to function in the Czarist underground. Buried in the flood of seemingly meaningless verbiage, nuggets of precious information on Soviet perceptions and intentions can more often than not be unearthed by a trained reader. In 1958-59 two American specialists employed by the Rand Corporation, Raymond L. Garthoff and Herbert S. Dinerstein, by skillfully deciphering Soviet literature on strategic problems and then interpreting this information against the background of the Soviet military tradition, produced a remarkably prescient forecast af actual Soviet military policies of the 1960’s and 1970’s.13 Unfortunately, their findings were largely ignored by U.S. strategists from the scientific community who had convinced themselves that there was only one strategic doctrine appropriate to the age of nuclear weapons, and that therefore evidence indicating that the Soviets were adopting a different strategy could be safely disregarded.
This predisposition helps explain why U.S. strategists persistently ignored signs indicating that those who had control of Soviet Russia’s nuclear arsenal were not thinking in terms of mutual deterrence. The calculated nonchalance with which Stalin at Potsdam reacted to President Truman’s confidences about the American atomic bomb was a foretaste of things to come. Initial Soviet reactions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki were similar in tone: the atomic weapon had not in any significant manner altered the science of warfare or rendered obsolete the principles which had guided the Red Army in its victorious campaigns against the Wehrmacht. These basic laws, known as the five “constant principles” that win wars, had been formulated by Stalin in 1942. They were, in declining order of importance: “stability of the home front,” followed by morale of the armed forces, quantity and quality of the divisions, military equipment, and, finally, ability of the commanders.14 There was no such thing as an “absolute weapon”—weapons altogether occupied a subordinate place in warfare; defense against atomic bombs was entirely possible.15 This was disconcerting, to be sure, but it could be explained away as a case of sour grapes. After all, the Soviet Union had no atomic bomb, and it was not in its interest to seem overly impressed by a weapon on which its rival enjoyed a monopoly.16
In September 1949 the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear device. Disconcertingly, its attitude to nuclear weapons did not change, at any rate not in public. For the remaining four years, until Stalin’s death, the Soviet high command continued to deny that nuclear weapons required fundamental revisions of accepted military doctrine. With a bit of good will, this obduracy could still have been rationalized: for although the Soviet Union now had the weapon, it still lacked adequate means of delivering it across continents insofar as it had few intercontinental bombers (intercontinental rockets were regarded in the West as decades away). The United States, by contrast, possessed not only a fleet of strategic bombers but also numerous air bases in countries adjoining Soviet Russia. So once again one could find a persuasive explanation of why the Russians refused to see the light. It seemed reasonable to expect that as soon as they had acquired both a stockpile of atomic bombs and a fleet of strategic bombers, they would adjust their doctrine to conform with the American.
Events which ensued immediately after Stalin’s death seemed to lend credence to these expectations. Between 1953 and 1957 a debate took place in the pages of Soviet publications which, for all its textural obscurity, indicated that a new school of Soviet strategic thinkers had arisen to challenge the conventional wisdom. The most articulate spokesman of this new school, General N. Talenskii, argued that the advent of nuclear weapons, especially the hydrogen bomb which had just appeared on the scene, did fundamentally alter the nature of warfare. The sheer destructiveness of these weapons was such that one could no longer talk of a socialist strategy automatically overcoming the strategy of capitalist countries: the same rules of warfare now applied to both social systems. For the first time doubt was cast on the immutability of Stalin’s “five constant principles.” In the oblique manner in which Soviet debates on matters of such import are invariably conducted, Talenskii was saying that perhaps, after all, war had ceased to represent a viable policy option. More important yet, speeches delivered by leading Soviet politicians in the winter of 1953-54 seemed to support the thesis advanced by President Eisenhower in his United Nations address of December 1953 that nuclear war could spell the demise of civilization. In an address delivered on March 12, 1954, and reported the following day in Pravda, Stalin’s immediate successor, Georgii Malenkov, echoed Eisenhower’s sentiments: a new world war would unleash a holocaust which “with the present means of warfare, means the destruction of world civilization.”17
This assault on its traditional thinking—and, obliquely, on its traditional role—engendered a furious reaction from the Soviet military establishment. The Red Army was not about to let itself be relegated to the status of a militia whose principal task was averting war rather than winning it. Malenkov’s unorthodox views on war almost certainly contributed to his downfall; at any rate, his dismissal in February 1955 as party leader was accompanied by a barrage of press denunciations of the notion that war had become unfeasible. There are strong indications that Malenkov’s chief rival, Khrushchev, capitalized on the discontent of the military to form with it an alliance with whose help he eventually rode to power. The successful military counterattack seems to have been led by the World War II hero, Marshal Georgii Zhukov, whom Khrushchev made his Minister of Defense and brought into the Presidium. The guidelines of Soviet nuclear strategy, still in force today, were formulated during the first two years of Khrushchev’s tenure (1955-57), under the leadership of Zhukov himself. They resulted in the unequivocal rejection of the notion of the “absolute weapon” and all the theories that U.S. strategists had deduced from it. Stalin’s view of the military “constants” was implicitly reaffirmed. Thus the re-Stalinization of Soviet life, so noticeable in recent years, manifested itself first in military doctrine.
To understand this unexpected turn of events—so unexpected that most U.S. military theorists thus far have not been able to come to terms with it—one must take into account the function performed by the military in the Soviet system.
Unlike the United States, the Soviet government needs and wants a large military force. It has many uses for it, at home and abroad. As a regime which rests neither on tradition nor on a popular mandate, it sees in its military the most effective manifestation of government omnipotence, the very presence of which discourages any serious opposition from raising its head in the country as well as in its dependencies. It is, after all, the Red Army that keeps Eastern Europe within the Soviet camp. Furthermore, since the regime is driven by ideology, internal politics, and economic exigencies steadily to expand, it requires an up-to-date military force capable of seizing opportunities which may present themselves along the Soviet Union’s immensely long frontier or even beyond. The armed forces of the Soviet Union thus have much more to do than merely protect the country from potential aggressors: they are the mainstay of the regime’s authority and a principal instrumentality of its internal and external policies. Given the shaky status of the Communist regime internally, the declining appeal of its ideology, and the non-competitiveness of its goods on world markets, a persuasive case can even be made that, ruble for ruble, expenditures on the military represent for the Soviet leadership an excellent and entirely “rational” capital investment.
For this reason alone (and there were other compelling reasons too, as we shall see), the Soviet leadership could not accept the theory of mutual deterrence.18 After all, this theory, pushed to its logical conclusion, means that a country can rely for its security on a finite number of nuclear warheads and on an appropriate quantity of delivery vehicles; so that, apart perhaps from some small mobile forces needed for local actions, the large and costly traditional military establishments can be disbanded. Whatever the intrinsic military merits of this doctrine may be, its broader implications are entirely unacceptable to a regime like the Soviet one for whom military power serves not only (or even primarily) to deter external aggressors, but also and above all to ensure internal stability and permit external expansion. Thus, ultimately, it is political rather than strictly strategic or fiscal considerations that may be said to have determined Soviet reactions to nuclear weapons and shaped the content of Soviet nuclear strategy. As a result, Soviet advocates of mutual deterrence like Talenskii were gradually silenced. By the mid-1960’s the country adopted what in military jargon is referred to as a “war-fighting” and “war-winning” doctrine.
Given this fundamental consideration, the rest followed with a certain inexorable logic. The formulation of Soviet strategy in the nuclear age was turned over to the military who are in complete control of the Ministry of Defense. (Two American observers describe this institution as a “uniformed empire.”19 ) The Soviet General Staff had only recently emerged from winning one of the greatest wars in history. Immensely confident of their own abilities, scornful of what they perceived as the minor contribution of the United States to the Nazi defeat, inured to casualties running into tens of millions, the Soviet generals tackled the task with relish. Like their counterparts in the U.S. Army, they were professionally inclined to denigrate the exorbitant claims made on behalf of the new weapon by strategists drawn from the scientific community; unlike the Americans, however, they did not have to pay much heed to the civilians. In its essentials, Soviet nuclear doctrine as it finally emerged is not all that different from what American doctrine might have been had military and geopolitical rather than fiscal considerations played the decisive role here as they did there.
Soviet military theorists reject the notion that technology (i.e., weapons) decides strategy. They perceive the relationship to be the reverse: strategic objectives determine the procurement and application of weapons. They agree that the introduction of nuclear weapons has profoundly affected warfare, but deny that nuclear weapons have altered its essential quality. The novelty of nuclear weapons consists not in their destructiveness—that is, after all, a matter of degree, and a country like the Soviet Union which, as Soviet generals proudly boast, suffered in World War II the loss of over 20 million casualties, as well as the destruction of 1,710 towns, over 70,1300 villages, and some 32,000 industrial establishments to win the war and emerge as a global power, is not to be intimidated by the prospect of destruction.20 Rather, the innovation consists of the fact that nuclear weapons, coupled with intercontinental missiles, can by themselves carry out strategic missions which previously were accomplished only by means of prolonged tactical operations:
Nuclear missiles have altered the relationship of tactical, operational, and strategic acts of the armed conflict. If in the past the strategic end-result was secured by a succession of sequential, most often long-term, efforts [and] comprised the sum of tactical and operational successes, strategy being able to realize its intentions only with the assistance of the art of operations and tactics, then today, by means of powerful nuclear strikes, strategy can attain its objectives directly.21
In other words, military strategy, rather than a casualty of technology, has, thanks to technology, become more central than ever. By adopting this view, Soviet theorists believe themselves to have adapted modern technological innovations in weaponry to the traditions of military science.
Implicit in all this is the idea that nuclear war is feasible and that the basic function of warfare, as defined by Clausewitz, remains permanently valid, whatever breakthroughs may occur in technology. “It is well known that the essential nature of war as a continuation of politics does not change with changing technology and armament.”22 This code phrase from Sokolovskii’s authoritative manual was certainly hammered out with all the care that in the United States is lavished on an amendment to the Constitution. It spells the rejection of the whole basis on which U.S. strategy has come to rest: thermonuclear war is not suicidal, it can be fought and won, and thus resort to war must not be ruled out.
In addition (though we have no solid evidence to this effect) it seems likely that Soviet strategists reject the mutual-deterrence theory on several technical grounds of a kind that have been advanced by American critics of this theory like Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, and Paul Nitze.
- Mutual deterrence postulates a certain finality about weapons technology: it does not allow for further scientific breakthroughs that could result in the deterrent’s becoming neutralized. On the offensive side, for example, there is the possibility of significant improvements in the accuracy of ICBM’s or striking innovations in anti-submarine warfare; on the defensive, satellites which are essential for early warning of an impending attack could be blinded and lasers could be put to use to destroy incoming missiles.
- Mutual deterrence constitutes “passive defense” which usually leads to defeat. It threatens punishment to the aggressor after he has struck, which may or may not deter him from striking; it cannot prevent him from carrying out his designs. The latter objective requires the application of “active defense”—i.e., nuclear preemption.
- The threat of a second strike, which underpins the mutual-deterrence doctrine, may prove ineffectual. The side that has suffered the destruction of the bulk of its nuclear forces in a surprise first strike may find that it has so little of a deterrent left and the enemy so much, that the cost of striking back in retaliation would be exposing its own cities to total destruction by the enemy’s third strike. The result could be a paralysis of will, and capitulation instead of a second strike.
Soviet strategists make no secret of the fact that they regard the U.S. doctrine (with which, judging by the references in their literature, they are thoroughly familiar) as second-rate. In their view, U.S. strategic doctrine is obsessed with a single weapon which it “absolutizes” at the expense of everything else that military experience teaches soldiers to take into account. Its philosophical foundations are “idealism” and “metaphysics”—i.e., currents which engage in speculative discussions of objects (in this case, weapons) and of their “intrinsic” qualities, rather than relying on pragmatic considerations drawn from experience.23
Since the mid-1960’s, the proposition that thermonuclear war would be suicidal for both parties has been used by the Russians largely as a commodity for export. Its chief proponents include staff members of the Moscow Institute of the USA and Canada, and Soviet participants at Pugwash, Dartmouth, and similar international conferences, who are assigned the task of strengthening the hand of anti-military intellectual circles in the West. Inside the Soviet Union, such talk is generally denounced as “bourgeois pacifism.”24
In the Soviet view, a nuclear war would be total and go beyond formal defeat of one side by the other: “War must not simply [be] the defeat of the enemy, it must be his destruction. This condition has become the basis of Soviet military strategy,” according to the Military-Historical Journal.25 Limited nuclear war, flexible response, escalation, damage limiting, and all the other numerous refinements of U.S. strategic doctrine find no place in its Soviet counterpart (although, of course, they are taken into consideration in Soviet operational planning).
For Soviet generals the decisive influence in the formulation of nuclear doctrine were the lessons of World War II with which, for understandable reasons, they are virtually obsessed. This experience they seem to have supplemented with knowledge gained from professional scrutiny of the record of Nazi and Japanese offensive operations, as well as the balance sheet of British and American strategic-bombing campaigns. More recently, the lessons of the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 in which they indirectly participated seem also to have impressed Soviet strategists, reinforcing previously held convictions. They also follow the Western literature, tending to side with the critics of mutual deterrence. The result of all these diverse influences is a nuclear doctrine which assimilates into the main body of the Soviet military tradition the technical implications of nuclear warfare without surrendering any of the fundamentals of this tradition.
The strategic doctrine adopted by the USSR over the past two decades calls for a policy diametrically opposite to that adopted in the United States by the predominant community of civilian strategists: not deterrence but victory, not sufficiency in weapons but superiority, not retaliation but offensive action. The doctrine has five related elements: (1) preemption (first strike), (2) quantitative superiority in arms, (3) counterforce targeting, (4) combined-arms operations, and (5) defense. We shall take up each of these elements in turn.
Preemption. The costliest lesson which the Soviet military learned in World War II was the importance of surprise. Because Stalin thought he had an understanding with Hitler, and because he was afraid to provoke his Nazi ally, he forbade the Red Army to mobilize for the German attack of which he had had ample warning. As a result of this strategy of “passive defense,” Soviet forces suffered frightful losses and were nearly defeated. This experience etched itself very deeply on the minds of the Soviet commanders: in their theoretical writings no point is emphasized more consistently than the need never again to allow themselves to be caught in a surprise attack. Nuclear weapons make this requirement especially urgent because, according to Soviet theorists, the decision in a nuclear conflict in all probability will be arrived at in the initial hours. In a nuclear war the Soviet Union, therefore, would not again have at its disposal the time which it enjoyed in 1941-42 to mobilize reserves for a victorious counteroffensive after absorbing devastating setbacks.
Given the rapidity of modern warfare (an ICBM can traverse the distance between the USSR and the United States in thirty minutes), not to be surprised by the enemy means, in effect, to inflict surprise on him. Once the latter’s ICBM’s have left their silos, once his bombers have taken to the air and his submarines to sea, a counterattack is greatly reduced in effectiveness. These considerations call for a preemptive strike. Soviet theorists draw an insistent, though to an outside observer very fuzzy, distinction between “preventive” and “preemptive” attacks. They claim that the Soviet Union will never start a war—i.e., it will never launch a preventive attack—but once it had concluded that an attack upon it was imminent, it would not hesitate to preempt. They argue that historical experience indicates outbreaks of hostilities are generally preceded by prolonged diplomatic crises and military preparations which signal to an alert command an imminent threat and the need to act. Though the analogy is not openly drawn, the action which Soviet strategists seem to have in mind is that taken by the Israelis in 1967, a notably successful example of “active defense” involving a well-timed preemptive strike. (In 1973, by contrast, the Israelis pursued the strategy of “passive defense,” with unhappy consequences.) The Soviet doctrine of nuclear preemption was formulated in the late 1950’s, and described at the time by Garthoff and Dinerstein in the volumes cited above.
A corollary of the preemption strategy holds that a country’s armed forces must always be in a state of high combat readiness so as to be able to go over to active operations with the least delay. Nuclear warfare grants no time for mobilization. Stress on the maintenance of a large ready force is one of the constant themes of Soviet military literature. It helps explain the immense land forces which the USSR maintains at all times and equips with the latest weapons as they roll off the assembly lines.
Quantitative superiority. There is no indication that the Soviet military share the view prevalent in the U.S. that in the nuclear age numbers of weapons do not matter once a certain quantity had been attained. They do like to pile up all sorts of weapons, new on top of old, throwing away nothing that might come in handy. This propensity to accumulate hardware is usually dismissed by Western observers with contemptuous references to a Russian habit dating back to Czarist days. It is not, however, as mindless as it may appear. For although Soviet strategists believe that the ultimate outcome in a nuclear war will be decided in the initial hours of the conflict, they also believe that a nuclear war will be of long duration: to consummate victory—that is, to destroy the enemy—may take months or even longer. Under these conditions, the possession of a large arsenal of nuclear delivery systems, as well as of other types of weapons, may well prove to be of critical importance. Although prohibited by self-imposed limitations agreed upon in 1972 at SALT I from exceeding a set number of intercontinental ballistic-missile launchers, the Soviet Union is constructing large numbers of so-called Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile launchers (i.e., launchers of less than intercontinental range), not covered by SALT. Some of these could be rapidly converted into regular intercontinental launchers, should the need arise.26
Reliance on quantity has another cause, namely, the peculiarly destructive capability of modern missiles equipped with Multiple Independently-targettable Reentry Vehicles, or MIRV’s. The nose cones of MIRVed missiles, which both super-powers possess, when in mid-course, split like a peapod to launch several warheads, each aimed at a separate target. A single missile equipped with three MIRV’s of sufficient accuracy, yield, and reliability can destroy up to three of the enemy’s missiles—provided, of course, it catches them in their silos, before they have been fired (which adds another inducement to preemption). Theoretically, assuming high accuracy and reliability, should the entire American force of 1,054 ICBM’s be MIRVed (so far only half of them have been MIRVed), it would take only 540 American ICBM’s, each with three MIRV’s, to attack the entire Soviet force of 1,618 ICBM’s. The result would leave the United States with 514 ICBM’s and the USSR with few survivors. Unlikely as the possibility of an American preemptive strike may be, Soviet planners apparently prefer to take no chances; they want to be in a position rapidly to replace ICBM’s lost to a sudden enemy first strike. Conversely, given its doctrine of preemption, the Soviet Union wants to be in a position to destroy the largest number of American missiles with the smallest number of its own, so as to be able to face down the threat of a U.S. second strike. Its most powerful ICBM, the SS-18, is said to have been tested with up to 10 MIRV’s (compared to 3 of the Minuteman-3, America’s only MIRVed ICBM). It has been estimated that 300 of these giant Soviet missiles, authorized under SALT I, could seriously threaten the American arsenal of ICBM’s.
Counterforce. Two terms commonly used in the jargon of modern strategy are “counterforce” and “countervalue.” Both terms refer to the nature of the target of a strategic nuclear weapon. Counterforce means that the principal objective of one’s nuclear missiles are the enemy’s forces—i.e., his launchers as well as the related command and communication facilities. Countervalue means that one’s principal targets are objects of national “value,” namely the enemy’s population and industrial centers.
Given the predominantly defensive (retaliatory) character of current U.S. strategy, it is naturally predisposed to a countervalue targeting policy. The central idea of the U.S. strategy of deterrence holds that should the Soviet Union dare to launch a surprise first strike at the United States, the latter would use its surviving missiles to lay waste Soviet cities. It is taken virtually for granted in this country that no nation would consciously expose itself to the risk of having its urban centers destroyed—an assumption which derives from British military theory of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and which influenced the RAF to concentrate on strategic bombing raids on German cities in World War II.
The Soviet high command has never been much impressed with the whole philosophy of counter-value strategic bombing, and during World War II resisted the temptation to attack German cities. This negative attitude to bombing of civilians is conditioned not by humanitarian considerations but by cold, professional assessments of the effects of that kind of strategic bombing as revealed by the Allied Strategic Bombing Surveys. The findings of these surveys were largely ignored in the United States, but they seem to have made a strong impression in the USSR. Not being privy to the internal discussions of the Soviet military, we can do no better than consult the writings of an eminent British scientist, P.M.S. Blackett, noted for his pro-Soviet sympathies, whose remarkable book Fear, War and the Bomb, published in 1948-49, indicated with great prescience the lines which Soviet strategic thinking were subsequently to take.
Blackett, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948, had worked during the war in British Operations Research. He concluded that strategic bombing was ineffective, and wrote his book as an impassioned critique of the idea of using atomic weapons as a strategic deterrent. Translating the devastation wrought upon Germany into nuclear terms, he calculated that it represented the equivalent of the destruction that would have been caused by 400 “improved” Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. Yet despite such punishment, Nazi Germany did not collapse. Given the much greater territory of the Soviet Union and a much lower population density, he argued, it would require “thousands” of atomic bombs to produce decisive results in a war between America and Russia.27 Blackett minimized the military effects of the atomic bombing on Japan. He recalled that in Hiroshima trains were operating forty-eight hours after the blast; that industries were left almost undamaged and could have been back in full production within a month; and that if the most elementary civil-defense precautions had been observed, civilian casualties would have been substantially reduced. Blackett’s book ran so contrary to prevailing opinion and was furthermore so intemperately anti-American in tone that its conclusions were rejected out of hand in the West.
Too hastily, it appears in retrospect. For while it is true that the advent of hydrogen bombs a few years later largely invalidated the estimates on which he had relied, Blackett correctly anticipated Soviet reactions. Analyzing the results of Allied saturation bombing of Germany, Soviet generals concluded that it was largely a wasted effort. Sokolovskii cites in his manual the well-known figures showing that German military productivity rose throughout the war until the fall of 1944, and concludes: “It was not so much the economic struggle and economic exhaustion [i.e., countervalue bombing] that were the causes for the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, but rather the armed conflict and the defeat of its armed forces [i.e., the counterforce strategy pursued by the Red Army.]”28
Soviet nuclear strategy is counterforce oriented. It targets for destruction—at any rate, in the initial strike—not the enemy’s cities but his military forces and their command and communication facilities. Its primary aim is to destroy not civilians but soldiers and their leaders, and to undermine not so much the will to resist as the capability to do so. In the words of Grechko:
The Strategic Rocket Forces, which constitute the basis of the military might of our armed forces, are designed to annihilate the means of the enemy’s nuclear attack, large groupings of his armies, and his military bases; to destroy his military industries; [and] to disorganize the political and military administration of the aggressor as well as his rear and transport.29
Any evidence that the United States may contemplate switching to a counterforce strategy, such as occasionally crops up, throws Soviet generals into a tizzy of excitement. It clearly frightens them far more than the threat to Soviet cities posed by the countervalue strategic doctrine.
Combined-arms operations. Soviet theorists regard strategic nuclear forces (organized since 1960 into a separate arm, the Strategic Rocket Forces) to be the decisive branch of the armed services, in the sense that the ultimate outcome of modern war would be settled by nuclear exchanges. But since nuclear war, in their view, must lead not only to the enemy’s defeat but also to his destruction (i.e., his incapacity to offer further resistance), they consider it necessary to make preparations for the follow-up phase, which may entail a prolonged war of attrition. At this stage of the conflict, armies will be needed to occupy the enemy’s territory, and navies to interdict his lanes of communications. “In the course of operations [battles], armies will basically complete the final destruction of the enemy brought about by strikes of nuclear rocket weapons.”30 Soviet theoretical writings unequivocally reject reliance on any one strategy (such as the Blitzkrieg) or on any one weapon, to win wars. They believe that a nuclear war will require the employment of all arms to attain final victory.
The large troop concentrations of Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe—well in excess of reasonable defense requirements—make sense if viewed in the light of Soviet combined-arms doctrine. They are there not only to have the capacity to launch a surprise land attack against NATO, but also to attack and seize Western Europe with a minimum of damage to its cities and industries after the initial strategic nuclear exchanges have taken place, partly to keep Europe hostage, partly to exploit European productivity as a replacement for that of which the Soviet Union would have been deprived by an American second strike.
As for the ocean-going navy which the Soviet Union has now acquired, it consists primarily of submarines and ground-based naval air forces, and apparently would have the task of cleaning the seas of U.S. ships of all types and cutting the sea lanes connecting the United States with allied powers and sources of raw materials.
The notion of an extended nuclear war is deeply embedded in Soviet thinking, despite its being dismissed by Western strategists who think of war as a one-two exchange. As Blackett noted sarcastically already in 1948-49: “Some armchair strategists (including some atomic scientists) tend to ignore the inevitable counter-moves of the enemy. More chess playing and less nuclear physics might have instilled a greater sense of the realities.”31 He predicted that a World War III waged with the atomic bombs then available would last longer than either of its predecessors, and require combined-arms operations—which seems to be the current Soviet view of the matter.
Defense. As noted, the U.S. theory of mutual deterrence postulates that no effective defense can be devised against an all-out nuclear attack: it is this postulate that makes such a war appear totally irrational. In order to make this premise valid, American civilian strategists have argued against a civil-defense program, against the ABM, and against air defenses.
Nothing illustrates better the fundamental differences between the two strategic doctrines than their attitudes to defense against a nuclear attack. The Russians agreed to certain imprecisely defined limitations on ABM after they had initiated a program in this direction, apparently because they were unable to solve the technical problems involved and feared the United States would forge ahead in this field. However, they then proceeded to build a tight ring of anti-aircraft defenses around the country while also developing a serious program of civil defense.
Before dismissing Soviet civil-defense efforts as wishful thinking, as is customary in Western circles, two facts must be emphasized.
One is that the Soviet Union does not regard civil defense to be exclusively for the protection of ordinary civilians. Its chief function seems to be to protect what in Russia are known as the “cadres,” that is, the political and military leaders as well as industrial managers and skilled workers—those who could reestablish the political and economic system once the war was over. Judging by Soviet definitions, civil defense has as much to do with the proper functioning of the country during and immediately after the war as with holding down casualties. Its organization, presently under Deputy Minister of Defense, Colonel-General A. Altunin, seems to be a kind of shadow government charged with responsibility for administering the country under the extreme stresses of nuclear war and its immediate aftermath.32
Secondly, the Soviet Union is inherently less vulnerable than the United States to a counter-value attack. According to the most recent Soviet census (1970), the USSR had only nine cities with a population of one million or more; the aggregate population of these cities was 20.5 million, or 8.5 per cent of the country’s total. The United States 1970 census showed thirty-five metropolitan centers with over one million inhabitants, totaling 84.5 million people, or 41.5 per cent of the country’s aggregate. It takes no professional strategist to visualize what these figures mean. In World War II, the Soviet Union lost 20 million inhabitants out of a population of 170 million—i.e., 12 per cent; yet the country not only survived but emerged stronger politically and militarily than it had ever been. Allowing for the population growth which has occurred since then, this experience suggests that as of today the USSR could absorb the loss of 30 million of its people and be no worse off, in terms of human casualties, than it had been at the conclusion of World War II. In other words, all of the USSR’s multimillion cities could be destroyed without trace or survivors, and, provided that its essential cadres had been saved, it would emerge less hurt in terms of casualties than it was in 1945.
Such figures are beyond the comprehension of most Americans. But clearly a country that since 1914 has lost, as a result of two world wars, a civil war, famine, and various “purges,” perhaps up to 60 million citizens, must define “unacceptable damage” differently from the United States which has known no famines or purges, and whose deaths from all the wars waged since 1775 are estimated at 650,000—fewer casualties than Russia suffered in the 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II alone. Such a country tends also to assess the rewards of defense in much more realistic terms.
How significant are these recondite doctrinal differences? It has been my invariable experience when lecturing on these matters that during the question period someone in the audience will get up and ask: “But is it not true that we and the Russians already possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other ten times over” (or fifty, or a hundred—the figures vary)? My temptation is to reply: “Certainly. But we also have enough bullets to shoot every man, woman, and child, and enough matches to set the whole world on fire. The point lies not in our ability to wreak total destruction: it lies in intent.” And insofar as military doctrine is indicative of intent, what the Russians think to do with their nuclear arsenal is a matter of utmost importance that calls for close scrutiny.
Enough has already been said to indicate the disparities between American and Soviet strategic doctrines of the nuclear age. These differences may be most pithily summarized by stating that whereas we view nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the Russians see them as a “compellant”—with all the consequences that follow. Now it must be granted that the actual, operative differences between the two doctrines may not be quite as sharp as they appear in the public literature: it is true that our deterrence doctrine leaves room for some limited offensive action, just as the Russians include elements of deterrence in their “war-fighting” and “war-winning” doctrine. Admittedly, too, a country’s military doctrine never fully reveals how it would behave under actual combat conditions. And yet the differences here are sharp and fundamental enough, and the relationship of Soviet doctrine to Soviet deployments sufficiently close, to suggest that ignoring or not taking seriously Soviet military doctrine may have very detrimental effects on U.S. security. There is something innately destabilizing in the very fact that we consider nuclear war unfeasible and suicidal for both, and our chief adversary views it as feasible and winnable for himself.
SALT misses the point at issue so long as it addresses itself mainly to the question of numbers of strategic weapons: equally important are qualitative improvements within the existing quotas, and the size of regular land and sea forces. Above all, however, looms the question of intent: as long as the Soviets persist in adhering to the Clausewitzian maxim on the function of war, mutual deterrence does not really exist. And unilateral deterrence is feasible only if we understand the Soviet war-winning strategy and make it impossible for them to succeed.
1 “The Real Paul Warnke,” the New Republic, March 26, 1977, p. 23.
2 N.V. Karabanov in N.V. Karabanov, et al., Filosofskoe nasledie V. I. Lenina i problemy sovremennoi voiny (“The Philosophical Heritage of V.I. Lenin and the Problems of Contemporary War”) (Moscow, 1972), pp. 18-19, cited in Leon Gouré, Foy D. Kohler, and Mose L. Harvey, eds., The Role of Nuclear Forces in Current Soviet Strategy (1974), p. 60.
3 A.A. Grechko, Vooruzhonnye sily sovetskogo gosudarstva (“The Armed Forces of the Soviet State”) (Moscow, 1975), p. 345.
4 Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War (1973), p. 368.
5 Matthew B. Ridgway, Soldier (1956), pp. 296-97.
6 In Michael Howard, ed., The Theory and Practice of War (London, 1965), p. 291.
7 Benjamin S. Lambeth, Selective Nuclear Options in American and Soviet Strategic Policy (Rand Corporation, R-2034-DDRE, December 1976), p. 14. This study analyzes and approves of the refinement introduced into the U.S. doctrine by James R. Schlesinger as Secretary of Defense in the form of “limited-response options.”
8 Interview with Playboy, March 1977, p. 72.
9 Grechko, Voorozhunnye sily sovetskogo gosudarstva, pp. 347-48, emphasis added.
10 Voennaia strategiia (Moscow, 1962). Since 1962 there have been two revised editions (1963 and 1968). The 1962 edition was immediately translated into English; but currently the best version is that edited by Harriet Fast Scott (Crane-Russak, 1975) which renders the third edition but collates its text with the preceding two.
11 To date, twelve volumes in this series have been translated into English and made publicly available through the U.S. Government Printing Office.
12 William W. Kaufmann, The McNamara Strategy (1964), p. 97.
13 Garthoff's principal works are Soviet Military Doctrine (1953), Soviet Strategy in the Nuclear Age (1958), and The Soviet Image of Future War (1959). Dinerstein wrote War and the Soviet Union (1959).
14 Cited in J.M. Mackintosh, The Strategy and Tactics of Soviet Foreign Policy (London, 1962), pp. 90-91, emphasis added.
15 Articles in the New Times for 1945-46 cited in P.M.S. Blackett, Fear, War and the Bomb (1949), pp. 163-65.
16 We now know that orders to proceed with the development of a Soviet atomic bomb were issued by Stalin in June 1942, probably as a result of information relayed by Klaus Fuchs concerning the Manhattan Project, on which he was working at Los Alamos, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, XXIII, No. 10, December 1967, p. 15.
17 Dinerstein, War and the Soviet Union, p. 71.
18 I would like to stress the word “theory,” for the Russians certainly accept the fact of deterrence. The difference is that whereas American theorists of mutual deterrence regard this condition as mutually desirable and permanent, Soviet strategists regard it as undesirable and transient: they are entirely disinclined to allow us the capability of deterring them.
19 Matthew P. Gallagher and Karl F. Spielmann, Jr., Soviet Decision-Making for Defense (1972), p. 39.
20 The figures are from Grechko, Vooruzhonnye sily, p. 97.
21 Metodologicheskie problemy voennoi teorii i praktiki (“Methodological Problems of Military Theory and Practice”) (Moscow, Ministry of Defense of the USSR, 1969), p. 288.
22 V.D. Sokolovskii, Soviet Military Strategy (Rand Corporation, 1963), p. 99, emphasis added.
23 See, e.g., Metodologicheskie problemy, pp. 289-90.
24 Gouré et al., The Role of Nuclear Forces, p. 9.
25 Cited ibid., p. 106.
26 I have in mind the SS-20, a recently developed Soviet rocket. This is a two-stage version of the intercontinental SS-16 which can be turned into an SS-16 with the addition of a third booster and fired from the same launcher. Its production is not restricted by SALT I and not covered by the Vladivostok Accord.
27 Blackett, Fear, p. 88. As a matter of fact, recent unofficial Soviet calculations stress that the United States dropped on Vietnam the TNT equivalent of 650 Hiroshima-type bombs—also without winning the war: Kommunist Vooruzhonnykh Sil (“The Communist of the Armed Forces”), No. 24, December 1973, p. 27, cited in Gouré et al., The Role of Nuclear Forces, p. 104.
28 Sokolovskii, Soviet Military Strategy (3rd edition), p. 21.
29 A.A. Grechko, Na strazhe mira i stroitel'stva Kommunizma, (“Guarding Peace and the Construction of Communism”) (Moscow, 1971), p. 41.
30 Metodologicheskie problemy, p. 288.
31 Blackett, Fear, p. 79.
32 On the subject of civil defense, see Leon Gouré, War Survival in Soviet Strategy (1976).