Soviet Theater Nuclear Forces

March 1, 1981
The views, opinions, and conclusions expressed in this paper are those of the author and should not be construed as official Department of Defense, Department of the Army, or US Army War College positions, policy, or decisions unless so designated by other official documents.

In a landmark speech in London at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in October 1977, Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor of West Germany, mindful of the USSR’s improving strategic and theater nuclear capabilities, expressed his concern over the changing strategic conditions that now confront the Alliance. According to Chancellor Schmidt, SALT had codified the Soviet/American strategic nuclear balance, thus neutralizing the strategic nuclear capabilities of the superpowers. As a result, he cautioned, the significance of the East/West balance of tactical nuclear and conventional weapons had been magnified.

Since European and American defense specialist had long been aware of what has generally been perceived as a clear Soviet conventional advantage, Chancellor Schmidt’s remarks focused public attention on a series of issues that were already commanding high-level NATO interest and thus sparked an intensification of the debate over the nature of the Soviet theater nuclear buildup and over the implications of that buildup for deterrence and defense.

Soviet Theater Nuclear Improvements

During the last decade, the Soviet Union has methodically improved its theater nuclear forces at all levels. On the tactical or battlefield level, where the approximate maximum range would be equal to or less than 100 nautical miles, NATO once possessed an overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons. In some quarters that superiority has been considered one of the primary pillars in the deterrence of the overwhelming superior Soviet conventional forces. Today, the Warsaw Pact has more than 600 Frog and Scud A missiles, of which more than 400 can be considered to have a nuclear mission. Moreover, they are now replacing their older Frog rockets with the SS-21. Both the reaction times, low reliability, poor operational accuracy, and a primitive manual interface with Soviet targeting and command and control systems.

And while little data is currently available on the SS-21, it is reported to have a considerably greater range than the Frogs and presumedly has incorporated improvements in reaction time, missile reliability, accuracy, and handling characteristics.

The Soviet Union is also now deploying duel-capable 203-mm and 240-mm artillery. According to former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, nuclear-capable artillery is currently only deployed in the Soviet Union. However, Soviet nuclear artillery could easily be moved to support nuclear artillery could easily be moved to support nuclear operations against NATO.

NATO, on the other hand, while at a disadvantage in tactical missiles, still retains a relative overall advantage in short-range systems as a result of a substantial deployment of nuclear artillery. The gap, however, between NATO and Warsaw Pact battlefield capabilities has narrowed considerably over the past decade and a half, and the overwhelming superiority once enjoyed by NATO has disappeared.

The Soviet Union also has been upgrading its medium-range battlefield support systems (Rx=101-500 NM). Currently the Soviets have deployed approximately 340 battlefield support missiles and nearly 400 tactical aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Moreover, they are now replacing their liquid-propelled Scud-B and SS-12 Scaleboard missiles with SS-23s and SS-22s and are rapidly improving the nuclear-strike capabilities of their tactical air systems. The addition of the Fitter-Cs and Ds are later versions of the MiG-21 aircraft with improved avionics and generally greater ranges than the older Soviet fighters suggests an improved capability for low-altitude penetration and attack.

In comparison, NATO fields 180 Pershing-I missiles and approximately 200 medium-range battlefield-support aircraft (of which only about seventy are likely to be reserved for nuclear missions). Such a contrast suggests a stark imbalance in medium-range systems in favor of the Warsaw Pact. On the other hand, some of NATO’s battlefield-support requirements can be covered by tactical air assets drawn from those that because of their range are considered Eurostrategic. However, tactical air assets so employed would reduce the total number of nuclear strikes likely to be available against Eurostrategic targets.

Perhaps most significant, especially for US European allies, is the slow but methodical change in the balance of nuclear capabilities that is taking place in the Eurostrategic level (Rx=501-4,000 NM). In the mid-and late-1960s, it is generally assumed that the West had a clear advantage in systems that have recently come to be called Eurostrategic. US Polaris submarines committed to SACEUR, NATO medium-range strike aircraft deployed on the Continent or stationed offshore on carriers, the British bomber and Polaris submarine fleets, and the French Mirage IVA strike aircraft and their expanding ballistic missile submarine fleet were considered a more-than-adequate match for the medium bombers and the 750 or so MRBMs and IRBMs the Soviets had deployed to support long-range nuclear operations in Europe.

During the last decade and a half, however, the Soviets have made a determined effort to offset Western capabilities. With the introduction of Fencer- and Flogger-type aircraft, the Soviet Union has substantially improved the range, payload, avionics, and ECM capabilities of its European nuclear strike air arm. Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Fencer in early 1974 as “the first modern Soviet fighter to be developed specifically as a fighter-bomber.” Its main two-man crew (pilot and weapon-systems operator) suggests an increased ability to conduct night, all-weather, low-altitude, and precision-nuclear missions into the heart of Western Europe. Jane’s places the Fencer, which entered squadron service in 1974, in the same class as the USAF F-111. Today the Soviets have deployed more than 1,200 Fencer and Flogger-B and D aircraft in the European theater.

Coupled with continued improvements in their high-performance fighter aircraft, the Soviets have also begun deploying a new generation, variable-geometry, supersonic bomber known in the West by the NATO code name “Backfire.” Manufactured by Tupolev, the Backfire is reported to have a maximum speed at high altitude of Mach 2.5 and an “on-the-deck” supersonic penetration capability. It can carry a full range of freefall gravity weapons as well as the most technically advanced air-to-surface nuclear cruise missiles available in the Soviet inventory.

To date, the Soviets have deployed approximately forty Backfire bombers to the European theater. The Soviet Union, however, is reported to be producing the Backfire at a rate of thirty aircraft a year, with an expected deployment of up to 300 aircraft.

Of the new generations of systems currently being deployed by the Soviet Union in Europe, none has creat3ed as much concern and controversy as has the deployment of the SS-20 IRBM. The SS-20 is a solid-fueled, two-stage, MIRVed, mobile missile currently replacing or supplementing the older, less-accurate, less-reliable SS-4s and SS-5s. One former senior Department of Defense civilian official who now writes under the name of Justin Galen has noted that the reliability, accuracy, reload, and retargeting capability of the SS-20 should permit its use “. . . effectively in first strike, launch-on-warning, or second-strike attacks.” Furthermore, he contends that with the deployment of the SS-20, the Soviet Union “. . . could probably launch a reliable mass strike with such systems against virtually every mass strike with such systems against virtually every NATO air base, weapons storage site, C3 [command control and communications] site, and fixed missile site with negligible warnings.”

A more pointed illustration of the concern raised by the SS-20 is a statement by French strategist Pierre Gallois. M. Gallois has suggested that with the addition of the SS-20 the Soviet Union can now destroy NATO’s entire inventory of nuclear weapons in ten minutes.

As a result of such improvements, today the Soviet Union fields a formidable array of Eurostrategic capabilities. They currently have deployed more than 600 MR/IRBMs and SLBMs and nearly 500 nuclear capable aircraft to support theater-wide nuclear operations. This compares favorably with the West which (including French theater forces) has approximately 190 IR/ SLBMs and 580 tactical/strike aircraft earmarked for the European theater.

The inherent “softness” of the data available on Soviet and Western nuclear capabilities makes precise measurements of the balance the captive of many assumptions. Nevertheless, given the data at hand, the composite of theater nuclear capabilities now available to the Soviet Union suggests that the NATO/Warsaw Pact balance of nuclear forces has shifted from one that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. While the West may retain an advantage at the tactical/battlefield level, the Soviets are clearly ahead in medium-range systems, and now have what appears to be an aggregate numerical advantage in Eurostrategic systems. Moreover, with the addition of Fencer, Flogger, and Backfire aircraft and SS-20 IRBMs, the technological superiority once thought to clearly favor NATO is now being seriously challenged.

This is not to suggest that the Soviet Union has as yet achieved any meaningful overall quantitative or qualitative theater nuclear superiority. However, the data do support the contention that, at best, a kind of rough parity exist at the theater nuclear level. Furthermore, trends suggest that the USSR has not decided to limit or reduce its efforts in the field of theater nuclear forces. On the contrary, the continued improvement of Soviet theater nuclear capabilities portend an increased nuclear threat to the West.

Soviet Doctrine

Soviet theater nuclear force improvements complement and are complemented by Soviet doctrine. Since the Khrushchev period, Soviet military writers have rejected the idea of adopting strategic defense during the first phases of a conflict, as had Stalin in the early part of World War II. Today Soviet doctrine focuses on surprise and rapid offense warfare.

Soviet military writings do not support the notion that the Soviets would launch a “bolt out of the blue”; surprise, however, is viewed as one of the most important principles of military art and a vital prescription for success in conflict. Colonel Vasiliy Ye. Savkin, in one of the early and basic books of the “Officers Library” series published by the Military Publishing House in Moscow and recommended for all officers and students in higher military schools, has written:

The first law of war is that the course and outcome of war . . . depends primarily on the correlation of available, strictly military forces of the combatants at the beginning of the war. . . . [T]he beginning of a war can have a decisive effect on the outcome.

According to Savkin:

From this law come a number of the most important principles of military art, including the principle of surprise. . . . Surprise has been a most important principle of military art since olden times.

As a result, he contends:

The desire for surprise has begun to permeate all decisions for the conduct of operations and battles.

In another major work in the same series, Colonel A. A. Sidorenko contends that the history of conflict itself has emphasized the value of surprise. He noted: “Extremely often the absence of surprise turned out to be the reason for the failure of an operation at its very beginning.”

Equally stressed by Soviet military theorists is the importance of rapid offensive as the main type of military combat action. Savkin has written:

. . . the offensive is the basic form of combat actions, since only by a decisive conducted at a high tempo and to a great depth is total defeat of the enemy achieved.

Similarly, Sidorenko in his seminal work on offensive warfare stressed the need for the “. . . swift development of the breakthrough.” The value of a rapid “. . . offensive in depth,” the importance of night operations in “. . . striving to attain surprise and continuity in the forces to increased attack rates, and ultimately to “. . . the successful conduct of offensive operations” and, in general, the importance of maneuver and shock action on the modern battlefield. Likewise, division Commander Colonel Lobachev argues:

A high tempo is not a goal in itself, but a means to achieving victory in combat. The speed of movement of the attackers denies the enemy the opportunity to freely maneuver with his forces and equipment, to utilize the reserve . . . and it neutralizes many of the strengths of the enemy defense.

From the Soviet perspective, nuclear weapons enhance the importance of surprise and rapid offensive operations, which in turn, synergistically, enhance the value of nuclear weapons in securing victory. In describing the relationship between nuclear warfare and Soviet doctrine and defense planning, Soviet writers have proclaimed the nuclear weapon as the “most important element of the battlefield” and “the basic means of destruction.” They suggest that “. . . the side which employs nuclear weapons with surprise can predetermine the outcome of battle in his favor.” The late Minister of Defense Marshal Grechko has written: “Nuclear missiles will be the decisive means of armed conflict.” Likewise, Major General V. V. Voznenko has concluded that “decisive victory in an offensive is achieved by using the results of nuclear strikes. . . .”

In general, Soviet writers maintain that “nuclear weapons create an opportunity to quickly alter . . . the balance of forces of the sides . . .” and “the high maneuverability and dynamism of warfare . . . [are] a result of equipping the troops with nuclear weapons and their complete motorization.” They believe that “nuclear weapons make it possible in the shortest period of time to cause great losses to the defending side, and to create breaches in its battle formations.” They contend that “nuclear strikes can destroy the strongest centers and strong points in the enemy defense, his reserves, means of mass destruction, and other important objectives.” As a result, Soviet military writers have concluded that through “. . . the stunning effect of surprise attacks by nuclear and conventional weapons and decisive offensive operations by troops, the enemy’s capabilities are sharply lowered,. . . . the correlation of forces changes immediately. . . . He may panic and his morale will be crushed.”

Thus, while there are many reasons the Soviet Union would seek to avoid conflict, their doctrine and the forces they have been methodically building suggest that: (1) they believe that should war occur in Europe it is likely to involve the use of nuclear weapons; (2) they intend to be prepared for such a war should it occur; and (3) they believe that in conjunction with surprise and rapid offensive maneuver, the coordinated use of nuclear weapons will have a decisive effect on the outcome of the conflict.

NATO Planning for the Wrong War?

Despite dramatic improvements in Soviet theater nuclear capabilities and the development by the Soviets of a doctrine that focuses on the integrated use of nuclear as well as chemical and conventional capabilities should war occur in Europe, the US bias for conventional forces and conventional planning, which began during the Kennedy Administration, persists. This bias was an outgrowth of increasing concern among Europeans as well as Americans over the effects of a two-sided nuclear exchange in Europe that had been made possible as a result of the deployment by the Soviets in the late 1950s and early 1960s of a sizable theater nuclear capability. In light of the Soviet deployment, the utility of a defense based on the near-spasmodic nuclear response to a major Warsaw Pact conventional aggression that seemed to have characterized the era of “Massive Retaliation” was seriously questioned. Capturing the essential thrust of Alliance concerns at the time, General Andre Beaufré has written:

. . . as the Soviet nuclear threat developed, it became increasingly difficult to believe that recourse to a “nuclear exchange” would be made for any reason other than the defense of absolutely vital objectives. It seemed wise, therefore, to anticipate a more or less extended period of resistance before unleashing “massive retaliation.”

In response to such concerns, the Kennedy Administration began to refocus its efforts on improving capabilities for defense at the conventional level. The doctrine resulting from a number of studies and pronouncements became known as the doctrine of “flexible response.” In theory, old trip-wire forces would be replaced by forces more adequately prepared to meet a Soviet conventional thrust. This would give pause to the Soviets and permit them to reflect on the consequences of pursuing a conflict that might well escalate to levels at which they were at a clear relative disadvantage. This, Soviet conventional capabilities would be partially offset by an improved NATO conventional force posture. Moreover, through improvements in conventional force posture, the use of nuclear weapons might be forestalled thus raising the nuclear threshold.

The practice effect, however, of this shift to emphasis on a conventional strategy was to all but eliminate serious thinking about the conduct of operations on a nuclear battlefield and the psychological effect on friend and foe alike of being fully prepared for such a conflict should it occur. According to a study by John P. Rose, in the mid-1950s fifty percent of the instruction and training at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College was devoted to theater nuclear conflict. In 1957-58, 614 regular course curriculum hours focused on the nuclear battlefield. Moreover, the weight of military writing during the period clearly indicated an emphasis on theater nuclear operations. In the eight-year period from clear warfare. In contrast, in the eight-year period from 1962 to 1969 only twenty-six articles were published by Military Review on the subject, and by the late 1960s instruction on nuclear conflict had dropped to sixteen hours.

The continued improvement in Soviet strategic and theater nuclear capabilities over the last decade and a half has significantly altered the military environment on the Continent. The US and its NATO allies can no longer rely on an unquestioned Western nuclear superiority to defer all of nuclear weapons on the Soviets. As a result, the assumption that several hundred allied and Warsaw Pact divisions might engage in a conflict in Europe with neither side resorting to nuclear weapons is simply unrealistic. Yet, the US emphasis on conventional forces and planning for conventional conflict remains.

In part, this is no doubt the result of a recognition of a clear imbalance in favor of the Warsaw Pact in conventional weapon systems and force structures and a perceived need in some quarters to provide some relative balance of capabilities at all levels of potential conflict-especially as Soviet strategic and theater nuclear capabilities have improved. In part, the bas toward conventional forces and planning may reflect the difficulty of planning for a nuclear war for which no previous conflict serves as a guide. In part, the bias may reflect the hope that the conventional nuclear “firebreak” would not be crossed. Almost certainly, the bias reflects a strong reluctant to broach a subject that has become extremely politically sensitive in Western Europe. On this latter point, Robert Lawrence has written:

. . . there has been one possible kind of war that has been virtually impossible to discuss publicly in any reasoned and coherent manner. This is tactical nuclear war, the use of nuclear weapons for limited tactical military purposes, a subject that has taken on an almost leprous appearance and seems essentially unable to stir intellectual curiosity, let alone serious consideration by students, pundits, or policymakers.

Likewise, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, USA (Ret.), has noted:

The thought of using any kind of nuclear weapons is so repugnant to civil authorities as to preclude virtually any serious discussion of the possibilities or conditions under which these weapons might be used.

As a result of this reluctance to face seriously the possibility, indeed, given improved Soviet capabilities and the implications of Soviet doctrine, the probability that should war occur in Europe it would involve the use of nuclear weapons, NATO defense posture has failed to keep pace with the changing political and military environment in Europe. It was fashioned at a time when NATO had a significant preponderance of nuclear capabilities. That preponderance has now disappeared. Yet when you strip the rhetoric from policy pronouncements and carefully examine NATO forces, doctrine, and training, you are forced to conclude as William Van Cleave and Sam Cohen had that there is “ . . . little more than confusion concerning the employment of tactical nuclear weapons.”

Today, strategic and theater nuclear parity mandates the US and its NATO allies be prepared for the full spectrum of conflict, should war occur in Europe. Given Soviet capabilities and a Soviet that focuses on the intensive, coordinated use of nuclear and chemical, as well as conventional forces, NATO must now focus its efforts on improving its ability to conduct operations in a combined-arms environment that involves the potential integrated use of nuclear, chemical, and conventional munitions. Training, doctrine, force structures and dispositions, approached to the propositioning of equipment, the time-phasing of reinforcing capabilities, etc., must now be optimized for operations involving the use of nuclear and chemical as well as conventional munitions.

Robert Kennedy is a senior analyst for the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University. He has served on active duty briefly with the Army and then with the Air Force from 1958 to 1971 and is currently a Reserve officer with the Maryland Air National Guard. He has written extensively on defense affairs. Prior to joining the Strategic Studies Institute, he served with the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.