Soviet Vulnerabilities

Sept. 1, 1981
As Soviet authors tell us, the USSR assesses the international situation in terms of the broad concept of “the correlation of forces,” not the narrow idea of the strategic balance. Some Western defense and foreign-policy analysts have discerned a “window of [Western] vulnerability”—(all-too) rapidly translated into a “window of [Soviet] opportunity”—which should endure through much of the 1980s. No less an authority on the tide of history than Henry Kissinger has given credence to this view. If he is to be believed, we face five to seven perilous years.

The “window of vulnerability/opportunity” thesis is exclusively Western: No Soviet authority can be cited to support it. The somewhat simpleminded Western view is that the Soviet Union:

  • Remains, and will remain, superior to NATO in conventional forces in the European theater;
  • Achieved superiority in the 1970s in nearly all elements of theater nuclear firepower;
  • Is outbuilding (and perhaps outthinking) US/NATO navies; and
  • Has achieved what may be characterized as strategic nuclear superiority through its ability (theoretically) to reduce US silo-housed ICBM assets to a near-trivial level in a first strike.

The Soviet View

This view constitutes an easily-defensible Western assessment of the state of the multitier East-West arms competition. However, the important question is: How does the Soviet Union: assess its problems and prospects?

Paradoxically, although they are the least “usable” of forces, the “strategic forces” of both sides have an importance in Soviet-American competition that is not generally recognized. On the Western side, central (US-based, strategic nuclear) systems, for more than thirty years, have constituted ‘”the great equalizer” to Soviet local superiority in general-purpose forces around Eurasian rimlands. Looming over every crisis, or latent crisis, was the potential of US central-system intervention. The USSR learned during the Cuban missile crisis (October 1962) what it should have known from theory—that the prospect of escalation in “local” crisis can be dominated by expectations concerning “central-system” use.

Soviet leaders appreciate, indeed may even overappreciate, the political value of military power, but they do not make the mistake, so common in the West, of appreciating that power in a near vacuum—innocent of political, economic, technological, and societal considerations.

In narrow military terms, Mr. Brezhnev has ample cause for pride in accomplishment. By dint of steady, cumulatively prodigious effort since 1964, the Soviet Union has modernized its armed forces across the board. Particularly impressive has been the achievement of “parity plus” at the high-technology end of the competitive spectrum. In strategic and theater nuclear forces, where the USSR has a grave, inherent, and enduring competitive disadvantage resulting from the relative backwardness of the Soviet electronics industry, the USSR has achieved the most noteworthy of its competitive leads.

Soviet military power, as already attested here, has achieved levels of quality and quantity vis-à-vis potential enemies almost unprecedented in Soviet (or Russian) history. In a plausible characterization of the current situation, William Hyland, senior fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies, has offered the thought that:

“. . . he [Brezhnev] would pass on an inheritance of military power unrivalled in Russian history since the days when the Czar strode into Paris at the end of the long march from Borodino.” (Foreign Affairs, Fall 1979, p. 61.)

The case for alarm concerning the growth of Soviet military power is clearly a strong one. However, an alternative analysis, framed insofar as possible in Soviet terms, also merits close attention. Far from having reached Winston Churchill’s “broad sunlit uplands” of across-the-board military superiority, Soviet leaders and commentators may see a distressingly bleak future for their likely competitive performance.

High Cost of Parity

The Soviet Union knows that it has competed successfully only in the military realm, and that required allocating to defense probably well in excess of fifteen percent of a GNP only fifty-five percent the size of the American GNP. Moreover, Soviet officials know very well that their success in military competition, although well-earned, was also a “gift.” They achieved parity, or even parity plus, because the United States chose not to compete vigorously for the better part of fifteen years.

It is plausible to argue that although the USSR would welcome the achievement of a genuine measure of strategic superiority, it has not sought such an achievement and neither does it expect, realistically, such an achievement to be sustainable. In terms of mobilization potential and high-technology accomplishment, the USSR simply cannot compete successfully with the United States (or, really, with Japan or West Germany either), if the United States chooses to flex its defense-industrial muscles.

If this assessment is correct, the Soviet Union knows that the best it can achieve, over the long term, is strategic nuclear parity with the United States. Therefore, a prime, though far from exclusive, function of the SALT process is to discourage the United States from pursuing new strategic technological possibilities to the point where the old condition of Soviet strategic inferiority is reimposed.

Contrary to the thesis of some Western analysts, the Soviet Union is fortunate since it does not need to achieve a condition of strategic superiority to pursue a genuinely forward diplomacy. Although Soviet military science holds, as it must (for reason of its political ideological referents), that wars at any level can be won (or lost!), the basic requirement that Soviet foreign policy places on Soviet strategic nuclear forces is that they operate as a robust “counterdeterrent” to US central systems. Superiority in prospective central-system prowess will be accepted and fits admirably into the precepts of Soviet military science, but it is not necessary.

Indeed, if anything, such superiority is probably counterproductive because, relating as it does to the most sensitive regions of Soviet-American military competition, recognition of Soviet superiority by American politicians, officials, and policy commentators may serve to trigger an across-the-board American defense mobilization policy response that could impact very negatively on the areas of competition “where the action really is.”

In the strategic nuclear forces realm—the centerpiece of Western “window of survivability/opportunity” theorizing—the USSR faces an unattractive medium-term future. Although the US silo-housed Minuteman-Titan ICBM force will be (theoretically) vulnerable to a superbly timed mass attack through most of the 1980s, Soviet General Staff analysts have to be disturbed by the possibility of a US “launch under attack” and the threat to their silo-housed strategic assets posed by the coming US MX ICBM program.

Although the MX ICBM is not due to come “on line” (one flight of ten missiles) until July 1986, that missile system alone will pose eventually a near-total first-strike threat to more than seventy percent of the Soviet strategic forces payload. Minuteman and Titan, though critically important for orderly US SIOP execution, constitute only approximately thirty percent of US strategic forces’ payload.

Impact of MX

The threat that MX will pose to hard targets affords a competitive leverage that may easily be underappreciated since it is greater than simply the vulnerability of the USSR’s payloads. US estimates of the economic burden that defense expenditures place on the Soviet Union almost certainly underprice the cost of the highest technology items. The fact that the Soviet Union appears to have spent three times as much on strategic nuclear forces during the 1970s than did the United States attests at least as much to the inefficiency of the Soviet defense industry as it does to the importance attached by the Soviet leadership to the mission. At the time of writing, for example, the Soviet Union is judged, very authoritatively by US defense experts, to be upgrading the blast resistance of some of its ICBM silos to better than 5,000 psi.

The Soviet Union could reply to the 200-strong MX ICBM program simply by increasing dramatically the fractionation of its ICBM payload (if missile accuracy allows), and/or, if SALT limits on launcher deployment do not apply, by augmenting the payload of its ICBM force. However, if the Soviet Union were to increase its ICBM warhead count to the level of 14,000-17,000 by 1990—as projected, in the absence of SALT constraints, by former US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown—those additional warheads, placed on ICBMs in super-hard silos, would offer a very cost-effective target for US MX missiles.

In short, because of the way the two superpowers have chosen to distribute payload among their strategic-force triads, the MX ICBM should pose, eventually, a far more severe problem for Soviet defense planners than Soviet hard-target competence poses for US defense planners. Unfortunately for the putative achievement of what might have been a truly strategically noteworthy SALT II agreement, the vulnerable silo problem is emerging sequentially as between the US and the USSR.

On the basis of the admittedly imperfect evidence available, it is not at all obvious that the Soviet Union has sufficient slack in its high-technology defense industry (or has available civilian high-technology productive resources that could be reoriented to defense production) to “surge” in response to a US program of even limited defense mobilization. Those American commentators (including some in the CIA) who predict a Soviet ICBM warhead count climbing precipitously from, say, the 8,600 anticipated under SALT II rules by late 1985, to 14,000, 20,000, or even 25,000 by 1989-90 choose to ignore the facts that the USSR—in the same period—has to deploy a new air defense system capable of defending against new penetrating bombers and B-52G-carried ALCMs; has to modernize its SLBM force; and has to consummate its modernization of theater nuclear strike systems.

Potential Instability

American defense commentators tend to think of Soviet-American military relations in terms of a bilateral relationship—a preference encouraged by the SALT exercise, of course. However, the USSR is obliged by geopoitics to contemplate the world in a rather more complex way Soviet leaders must cope with an actually, or potentially, hostile United States. NATO-Europe, and China (with Japan an as yet unmobilized threat of potentially superpower proportions). A Soviet defense planner confronts a not-implausible nightmare future. If asked to brief the Politburo on the situation that could obtain as of, say, the year 2000, he would have to itemize the following possibilities:

  • A United States well recovered from its post-Vietnam syndrome and determined to achieve at least parity in the major indices of relative US-Soviet military power.
  • A China well on the road to military modernization.
  • A Western Europe still internally divided, but providing a quality and quantity of military capabilities that is impressive by any standard.

Notwithstanding its (long-run) optimistic state ideology, and the short-run optimistic military analyses, the Soviet Union in the 1980s faces a set of weaknesses of daunting proportions. First, the Soviet Union essentially stands alone in the major international competition. East German, Polish, and Czech divisions are counted appropriately by NATO analysts in the Warsaw Pact order of battle, but the loyalty of those divisions and their governments to Soviet purposes has to be questionable under many circumstances. The Eastern European imperium of the USSR is essential as a defensive glacis, but it is ever vulnerable to local nationalistic impulses.

Politically, the stability of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) authority is less convincing in prospective practice than peacetime experience might suggest. The Soviet Union is a true empire of nationalities, dominated by Great Russians. Loyalty to Moscow is ensured so long as Moscow is believed to be successful. If the USSR should lose a war, or appear to lose it, then the loyalty of the non-Great Russian peoples would be put to a major test. In short, the Soviet Empire is politically solid in peacetime and even in periods of brief war-waging abroad, but it is unlikely that the Soviet imperial structure could sustain the shock of undeniable military defeat.

The publicized American decision in Presidential Directive PD-59 to place greater emphasis than before on the Soviet political control structure as a target set has to promote acute anxiety in Moscow. The Soviet Empire has the strengths and weaknesses of (over-centralized) leadership. Because the authority of the CPSU, by and large, is imposed on Soviet society and looks to Moscow for direction on virtually all issues, that authority has to be vulnerable to “the decapitation [or isolation] strike.”

There are several elements of ambiguity, shallow reasoning, and prospective operational uncertainty about the new US threat, but—generically—PD-59 appears to speak to the worst of Soviet fears. Soviet leaders are painfully aware of the costs of the overcentralization of Soviet political-economic life, but they can discern no acceptable alternatives. Similarly, they are all too aware of the costs of holding to their extant imperium in Eastern Europe, but, again, the alternatives look worse. Moscow will always choose centralized control, with its associated major inefficiencies, to a decentralization (i.e. loss) of control and the possibility of much greater efficiency.

More to the point perhaps, Soviet leaders must be aware that the Soviet system lacks genuine roots, even in Great Russian soil, and consequently probably has little resilience in the event of an intelligent attack by an enemy. It is not difficult to paint a very depressing picture of Soviet problems and prospects. By way of illustration, the Soviet Union:

  • Very likely will fail as an economic system in the 1980s, as less productive non-Great Russians assume a larger share of work duties and as its energy supply becomes more expensive to maintain;
  • Is presiding over a domestic ethnic “time bomb” since many nationalities in the Soviet Empire are not truly resigned to Great Russian rule;
  • May well have to navigate a protracted period without benefit of an authoritative, legitimate helmsman. A major succession crisis is brewing for the mid-1980s;
  • Will have to survive in a world with no genuine friends or allies worthy of note. The actual and potential major centers of power in the world, outside the USSR, are all more or less hostile to the USSR; and
  • Can never feel secure and relaxed concerning its authority in Eastern Europe. The current set of Polish problems reflects an enduring instability.

Without denigrating the significance of the quantity and quality of Soviet military power assembled today, it is still difficult to view the world optimistically in Soviet perspective. The correlation of forces moved favorably through the 1970s and permitted a forward diplomacy in Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Afghanistan, but the fact remains that most centers of industrial power continue to be directed by political leaders hostile to Soviet purposes. American theoreticians may point, with some plausible reason, to a Soviet “window of opportunity” in the early-to-mid-1980s (i.e. a period of military imbalance unlikely to be repeated—a historic opportunity), but probably it would be adventurism, a cardinal Soviet sin, to seek to exploit such a fleeting moment.

The fundamental weakness of the Soviet system is that it thrives only on success, or believed success. Because of its shallow domestic, and purely coercive external (in Eastern Europe) roots, the Soviet system is vulnerable to solid opposition. Military stalemate, in Soviet terms, should be the functional equivalent of defeat. In terms of its own (sole) legitimizing ideology, a Soviet government that is not successful is a Soviet government unworthy of obedience.

The picture that emerges from this analysis is a little from that conventionally portrayed by professional Soviet-threat assessors in the West. While the apparent fact of a temporary Soviet partial military preponderance is not contested, it is argued here that the Soviet leadership is persuaded to be cautious not only for the usual, transcultural reasons of military analytical uncertainty, but also because they judge the Soviet political system to be inherently fragile and vulnerable to the effects of popular displeasure in the event of a serious military reverse. Soviet assessments of “the correlation of forces” have to take account not only of pusillanimity in the West, but also of indifference or even latent hostility to the regime at home. Soviet military science prefers short, sharp, and victorious military campaigns, but also makes provision for protracted war—and how does the imposed Soviet imperium fare in such a war?

Colin S. Gray is Director of National Security Studies at the Hudson Institute, Croton-on-Hudson, N. Y., and a consultant to the Department of State. His most recent book is The MX ICBM and National Security (New York: Praeger, 1981). Dr. Gray is working at present in the areas of strategic targeting policy, ballistic missile defense options, and strategic culture.