Shifting Soviet Strategy
But just as massive-retaliation doctrine had encouraged the U.S.S.R. to adopt a greater reliance on the nuclear option, so the United States' move toward flexible response stimulated a renewed Soviet emphasis on conventional means of waging war. Military strategists under Brezhnev who favored greater flexibility received more of a hearing from the political leadership. The result was a shift of strategy in which tactical nuclear war and conventional war planning became guiding principles; emphasis was accordingly shifted in military production. During the 1970s the Soviets engaged in a military buildup that put these principles into effect. Belatedly, Soviet strategists explicitly acknowledged that the danger of introducing nuclear weapons was so great that all other means should first be exhausted. This recognition made Soviet force planning far more complex by introducing a need for a greater variety of weapons systems and requiring planning for varied military contingencies. Thus, in the mid-1970s the aim appeared to be to attain a diverse set of military options designed to dominate each level of escalation from conventional, to operational-tactical nuclear, to general nuclear war. This
approach foresaw the need to preempt NATO's use of tactical nuclear weapons by striking those weapons with tactical nuclear weapons before employing strategic forces based in the Soviet Union. Gradually, however, another option began to appear plausible: the use of conventional attacks by frontal aviation, nonnuclear missiles, and conventionally armed bombers for the same purpose—an approach that might allow the Soviets to avoid introducing nuclear weapons, thus triggering a NATO response in kind.
By the early 1980s Soviet military writers were discussing the possibility that major wars might be fought without nuclear weapons, a contingency that had earlier been ruled out as unrealistic. In these years, Soviet planners became more and more optimistic about emerging conventional technologies. This optimism mirrored that of Western technologists, who were also convinced that emerging conventional technologies, especially the advent of precision-guided munitions, would make it possible to use conventional instead of nuclear explosives against hard targets. The U.S.S.R. looked to longer-range, highly accurate, dual-capable delivery systems, which might be fitted with both conventional explosives and chemical weapons. The major aim of Soviet strategists in using these new armaments was to prevent NATO from using tactical nuclear weapons to respond to a Soviet conventional attack. Soviet defense forces were reorganized in order to take proper advantage of these new technologies. In particular, the Soviets emphasized the development of air operations as substitutes for initial nuclear strikes against major military targets. They also stressed the predeployment of munitions and other supplies in forward areas, so as to support rapidly mounted attacks by mobile groups whose mission would be to penetrate deeply into allied lines. In the 1970s new aircraft—including the SU-24 Fencer, the SU-17 Fitter D/H, and the MiG-27 Flogger D/J—gave the U.S.S.R. a frontal aviation power it had previously lacked. These aircraft were supported by other advances in target acquisition, all-weather operating capacity, and integrated theater command-and-control. The aim of the introduction of aircraft was to reduce reliance on longer-range air forces and nuclear missiles and to enable attacks on NATO military targets by frontal air assault making maximum use of surprise.
At the same time, efforts were made to initiate new programs designed to improve short-range and intermediate-range missiles so as to provide them with accuracy great enough to deliver conventional munitions to military targets, including airfields. The SS-21 was given a conventional payload, and the SS-22 and SS-23 were to be developed for
the same mission. According to U.S. sources, upgraded models of these missiles can deliver payloads to within 30 meters of their targets, evidently by using improved inertial guidance combined with terminal guidance. These accuracies are roughly the same as those reported for the U.S. Pershing IIs. The SS-21s, with a range of 120 km, have reportedly replaced the shorter-range Frog-7 missiles in Soviet divisions in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The SS-23, with a range of 500 km, was to replace the older Scud missile, more than three hundred of which are located facing NATO and have a range of 300 km. The SS-12/Mod (formerly designated the SS-22), with a range of 900 km, was to replace the SS-12 Scaleboard. From locations in the GDR, it would have been capable of reaching Great Britain and would have greatly improved Soviet ability to mount a surprise attack. By banning both Soviet intermediate-range missiles (the SS-20, SS-4, and SS-5) and two of the shorter-range missiles (the SS-12 and SS-23), the 1987 INF Treaty significantly reduced the threat the Soviets were mounting.
In addition to developing missiles with sufficient range and accuracy, the Soviets have also developed area munitions, such as cluster bombs and fuel air explosives that spread destruction over soft targets. The latter weapon has an explosive charge like that of the smallest nuclear weapons and is said to have been used by the Soviets in Afghanistan. So far, there is no firm evidence that the Soviets have deployed kinetic-energy or shaped-charge penetrators, such as the United States has been developing, to cause craters in runways or to penetrate the concrete used to shield headquarters or aircraft hangars, but these innovations may be in the offing.
The military thinking behind these deployments is that the Soviet conventional force can be used to greatest advantage if it can take account of NATO's need for time to mobilize and disperse forces. In the event of war, the intention seems to be to use a combination of ground-launched missiles and aircraft, both using conventional munitions, to attack NATO forces in depth and to open corridors through which mobile ground forces can move in deep-penetration strikes. Soviet planners, heirs of a long-standing tradition that prizes massive artillery barrages, are attracted by the tactic of overwhelming critical enemy targets in a short time with a large fraction of their own offensive firepower. The emphasis is partly on the psychological demoralization to be achieved by heavy initial strikes. Successful blows against NATO airfields and the aircraft themselves could seriously damage NATO's ability to disrupt an attack—an ability on which NATO planners rely heavily. Although
hardened shelters could protect aircraft from such attacks, the infrastructure necessary to enable planes to be refueled and rearmed, as well as to take off and land, is more vulnerable.
A precursor missile attack aimed at airfields, taking advantage of the short flying times of missiles (from thirty seconds to five minutes) could help suppress NATO air defenses and improve the prospects of follow-on air attacks. Missiles cannot substitute for aircraft, which can carry much larger payloads, but serve rather to amplify, or compound, the effectiveness of reusable aircraft. If air defenses are suppressed, aircraft can use higher and deeper routes with heavier payloads, and face fewer allied interceptors. Thus, the use of conventionally armed missiles provides leverage for an air attack.
Soviet respect for Western technological advances, coupled with concern over the adoption of counteroffensive strategies like NATO's Airland Battle and Follow-On Forces Attack, has heightened interest in achieving surprise and in foiling NATO's efforts to carry out its ambitious plans. But the underlying motive is to be in a position to nullify NATO's nuclear threat (using tactical weapons and aircraft) by nonnuclear means.