Paper Tiger or Iron Bear?


Inside the Soviet Army, by Viktor Suvorov, New York: Macmillan. 1982. 296 pp. $15.95.

The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine, by Andrew Cockburn, New York: Random House. 1983. 338 pp. $16.95

Most appraisals of Soviet military power manipulate information and substitute assumptions for missing facts to create preferred impressions. Some even fabricate evidence to fill in blank spots. Policymakers therefore do well to sample products across the opinion spectrum before they shape plans. Laymen should do likewise before they promise support.

Viktor Suvorov and Andrew Cockburn provide vastly different viewpoints on the Soviet military. Both have written books that should be stamped on the cover "HANDLE WITH CARE"—Cockburn because his bias is obvious, Suvorov because his credibility on some subjects is suspect.

British Gen. Sir John Hackett (author of The Third World War novels) introduces Suvorov as a "young, highly trained professional," with 15 years of regular service in the Soviet army before defecting to the West. Suvorov commanded a motor rifle company when Soviet forces subdued Czech rebels in 1968, later studied three years at the prestigious Frunze Academy, and finally served as a junior officer on the General Staff.

That background qualifies him to write about "The Soldier's Life" and "The Officer's Role" (titles of two chapters), ground force structure, tactics, equipment, deployment patterns, mobilization procedures, military education, and training. It also provides him with a good grasp of tactical aviation support for the Red Army. Though Suvorov concedes that important deficiencies exist within the Soviet military, he also underscores its great strengths.

Some of his tales about the Red Army supplement, but are consistent with, data already in the public domain. He has fascinating explanations for offbeat weapon calibers, Soviet preference for smooth-bore mortars instead of rifled models, and predilections for towed antitank guns, rather than self-propelled ones.

Doubts, however, begin to appear when corroboration is absent and Suvorov wanders far afield. Should we believe, for example, that Soviet forces in Central Europe lag several years behind the Baltic, Belorussian, Carpathian, Trans-Baykal, and Far Eastern military districts in receiving modern accoutrements? Could the Soviets really activate 150 divisions (one and a half million men) in 24 hours, equipping reservists with used equipment removed from "mothballs" after a decade or more? Implications for US defense policy are immense. Suvorov's statements appear plausible, but would super-secretive superiors allow a lowly captain access to such data? They normally keep information in many separate compartments and define "need to know" very narrowly.

Doubts double when Suvorov relates diversified Soviet ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) to the commercial availability of US components, which allegedly determine the technological characteristics of Soviet ICBMs and limit production of several types. Qualms increase by orders of magnitude when he advises that some Soviet missiles are armed with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, because there are not enough warheads to go around.

All assertions conceivably could be true—if Suvorov's security clearance allowed him access to high-level classified files, if phony credentials conceal his real identity as a senior officer, if he is a "front" for someone with first-hand knowledge, or if he is feeding back facts picked up incidentally from British intelligence during protracted interrogation when he defected. Conversely, important "revelations" could be false—if he has stretched facts to make a fast buck or is a Soviet plant who duped his sponsors and is spreading disinformation.

There is no question about the inclination of Andrew Cockburn, the journalist who has written on defense issues for publications ranging from the New York Times to Defense Week. The first clue to Cockburn's bias is a quotation that precedes the table of contents: "Welcome to the world of strategic analysis, where we program weapons that don't work to meet threats that don't exist." Sixteen chapters then summarize Soviet shortcomings across the military spectrum, culminating with the comment that calculated deception efforts emanating from Moscow "over the past thirty years [have] not been concealing a real and hidden strength but the fact that that strength has not been there." Ever-larger budgets that buy smaller quantities of complex weapons will reduce—not increase—Soviet capabilities, in Cockburn's view.

His treatise should inspire healthy skepticism in anyone who sees an invincible Soviet military machine devoid of serious defects. The manpower pool is far from perfect. Many recruits are poorly motivated (Suvorov supports that view). Cultural discontinuities complicate training, particularly among recruits who can neither read nor write Russian. They also complicate operations—Moscow admits it was a mistake to commit Muslim troops in Afghanistan. Few weapons are free from flaws (Cockburn reserves rare praise for the original Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle and MIG-21 fighter aircraft). Bureaucratic obstacles to effective performance are prodigious. The list of liabilities is almost endless.

Nevertheless, this entirely negative assessment merely inverts conservative evaluations of Soviet military power, which cause Cockburn so much heartburn. He underrates Soviet strengths (when he reviews them at all) and overrates many Soviet weaknesses. He derides US foreign affairs and defense decisionmakers who are "blind to the consequences of a drunken and half-trained conscript army, a high command riven with political intrigue, progressively less useful weapons systems, and a society more vulnerable than most even to a limited nuclear onslaught." But Cockburn is equally blind if he believes that his pejorative, lop-sided presentation will change many minds in the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, or the informed public. His analysis is too much like appraisals that "prove" democracy won't work, bumblebees can't fly, and smog makes life impossible in Los Angeles.

Beyond that, the book contains easily refutable factual errors. "If anything," he says, "the Soviets have been building down rather than up." Objective surveys of Soviet military statistics, however, indicate a substantial buildup since 1960 (fewer than 50 ICBMs then, 1,398 now; 160 major naval surface combatants then, 281 now; and so on). Most quantitative reductions reflect alternative means (fewer interceptor aircraft, more surface-to-air missiles), qualitative improvements that allow lower force levels (attack submarines and airlift are illustrative), or both.

Inconsistencies also undercut Cockburn's case. He pans diesel-powered submarines at one point, for example, but applauds them later.

Most important, the Soviet threat that Cockburn belittles still looms large on his own canvas, because he paints an incompetent American military establishment whose image, if correctly portrayed, would inspire little respect in Moscow. His assurances might have been more convincing if they depicted strong US forces facing weak Soviet rivals.

Neither book, in short, tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even so, both are useful additions to literature dealing with Soviet armed services, as long as readers realize that each volume has extensive limitations.

John Collins is the senior specialist in national defense at the Library of Congress.