Assessing The Threat: Past, Present and Future
By Warren Wilkins | July 22, 2009
Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, it has become fashionable in certain intellectual circles to understate the national security threat posed by the Soviets during the Cold War. Those who do so often insinuate, and sometimes outright assert, that the Soviet military was cynically exaggerated and manipulated for political and commercial gain. A recent opinion column on the editorial pages of a major east coast newspaper included a similar, if more subtle, reproach:
"Seven years ago, Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune declared, 'Terrorism has become the new communism.' Whether it's the Red Menace or Islamic Jihadists, they represent fear of 'the other.' Fighting them leads us into alliances with governments we'd rather not be involved with, like Pakistan. It produces bloated military budgets that take money from American domestic needs. It causes us to forget the lessons of history, such as the French failures in Vietnam or the 15,000 Soviet soldiers who died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan."
Underscoring this theme, the same column quipped cavalierly and dismissively that the Soviets "couldn't even make a toaster." Such musings, in addition to being intellectually dishonest insofar as the "toaster" quip and "Red Menace" reference relate to the Soviet military establishment, help establish a prism through which future threats may be dangerously misunderstood. Indeed, even if the Soviets could not "make a toaster," the Soviet military surely possessed the intellectual wherewithal to profoundly influence (if unintentionally) American military doctrine and the forces to defeat NATO in the European theater."
In the early 1980s, the United States Army developed a transformative military concept known as AirLand Battle. Published initially in 1981 and incorporated thereafter in the publication of the 1982 edition of the Army manual, FM 100-5, Operations, AirLand Battle emerged from a number of military-strategic exigencies, not the least of which was dissatisfaction with the perceived inadequacies of its conceptual predecessor, "Active Defense." To forestall and ultimately frustrate a Soviet-Warsaw Pact onslaught against NATO defenses in Europe, Active Defense prescribed a tactically oriented, essentially linear, and largely static defensive posture in which Soviet-Warsaw forces would be engaged and ideally defeated in the vicinity of the international borders. Functional and theoretically sustainable against enemy assault echelons, Active Defense nonetheless failed to address what some regarded as the central challenge confronting American and NATO planners: the enemy's vast array of "follow-on" or second echelon forces. AirLand Battle, on the other hand, advocated waging a "synchronized" and simultaneous air-ground effort at the front against the enemy's assault echelons and in the hinterlands against his rear echelons. The attacking enemy, in other words, was to be engaged "throughout the depth of his formation."
AirLand Battle was multi-dimensional, adaptable, and eminently practical and - incidentally - fairly indebted to Soviet military thought and theory. Decades before the advent of AirLand Battle, beginning in the 1920s, Soviet military theorists endeavored to liberate Soviet forces doctrinally from the incapacitating effects of World War I styled-positional (i.e. trench) warfare. The product of these vigorous intellectual labors was at once innovative and historically consequential. Departing dramatically from the traditional two-level (tactical, strategic) interpretation of the conduct of war, Soviet thinkers envisioned not two but three levels of modern war: tactical, operational, and strategic. The introduction of this intermediate or "operational" level bridged the doctrinal chasm between tactics and strategy. "In the warfare of large modern armies," explained S.S. Kamenev, Commander of the Red Army from 1919 to 1924, "defeat of the enemy results from the sum of continuous and planned victories on all fronts, successfully completed one after another interconnected in time.....The uninterrupted conduct of operations is the main prerequisite for strategic victory."
Further inquiry into the realm of operational art led the Soviets in 1936 to the concept of "deep operations." Imagining the enemy as a "system," Soviet military thinkers espoused striking that system "sequentially and simultaneously" throughout its entire depth to affect a systemic collapse. "Deep operations" would in turn deliver the desired strike and facilitate the desired collapse. According to its conceptual precepts, combined-arms forces would be dispatched to create breaches in the enemy's tactical defensive zone through which highly mobile "exploitation" groups would pass. These groups, later referred to as OMGs or Operation Maneuver Groups, were to push into the enemy's operational depths and, presumably, disintegrate the enemy's entire system.
In its endorsement of viewing the enemy as a system and of attacking the enemy throughout the depths of that system, Soviet theoreticians clearly influenced the subsequent development of AirLand Battle. "The idea of attacking the enemy simultaneously throughout the entire depth of his defensive deployment was at the cornerstone of Soviet military thinking from the 1930s on," wrote a well known American military historian. "By the end of the 1970s, it also lay at the root of American AirLand Battle Doctrine." If, as has been alleged, the Soviet Union could not produce toaster, the same could not be said of military theory.
Moreover, even if the Soviet Union could not "make a toaster," Soviet industrial capacity certainly accommodated the material needs of the Soviet military. Although estimates vary depending upon the timeframe considered and the source or sources consulted, scholars generally concede that, in the militarized European theater, Soviet-Warsaw Pact forces possessed an operationally significant quantitative advantage in military hardware. Qualitatively speaking, Soviet tanks and aircraft may have lacked some of the technical sophistication of their American-NATO counterparts, but the dimensions of this technical-technological disparity was probably never as great as some would like to believe. Few would argue, for example, that the Soviet T-72 or T-80 tank, in the hands of a competently trained crew, posed no threat to American-NATO armor on the field of battle. Similarly, gradual improvement in the technical characteristics of Soviet Frontal Aviation eroded some of the qualitative advantages enjoyed by American-NATO aircraft.
How would an American-NATO military coalition have fared if the Soviet Union had unleashed, in conjunction with its Warsaw satellites, its qualitatively competitive and quantitatively superior forces to conventional offensive action in the 1980s, the final decade of the Cold War? Colonel (ret.) David M. Glantz, the West's foremost authority on the Soviet military, maintains that such an assault would have cast the United States onto the horns of a strategic dilemma: countenance defeat in Europe or exercise the strategic nuclear option. "Given Soviet military capabilities in the early 1980s, a major Soviet ground offensive in NATO's central region would have quickly penetrated NATO forward defenses and forced a decision on the part of NATO and the US whether or not to employ nuclear weapons to halt the Soviet juggernaut," Glantz said. "Since Soviet operational and tactical techniques (specifically operational and tactical maneuver) were carefully designed to prevent or seriously degrade NATO's ability to respond to such an attack with both tactical nuclear and high-precision weapons (PGMs), NATO would have been compelled to decide whether or not to resort to a strategic nuclear response. Fortunately, we will never know what that decision would have been."
As citizens of a free and democratic republic, Americans--irrespective if their ideology or political affiliation--have a civic responsibility to vigorously oppose "bloated military budgets" that inflate the coffers of defense contractors without a concomitant benefit to American national security. Ordinary Americans should also resist the politicization of national security threats. Yet, Americans have a responsibility, to present and future generations, to safeguard the Republic against external threats. Mistaking genuine threats for the sinister machinations of domestic commercial and political interests complicates that sacred trust. Indeed, contrary to the revisionist inclinations of some in the media and academia, the Soviet Union, with its powerful military establishment and rich doctrinal tradition, represented a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States. That a shooting war never resulted from the ideological animus that polarized the two nations was arguably a matter of the vagaries of geo-politics, not affirmation that the Soviet threat was cynically misrepresented. Today, the Chinese military threatens to replace the old Soviet military as a peer (or near peer) competitor of the United States. And while there is no reason to indulge in saber-rattling or fear-mongering, we would be well advised to treat it accordingly.