Washington — The Soviet armed forces number more than 4.8 million men and are continually being modernized with "an unending flow of new weapons systems, tanks, missiles, ships, artillery, and aircraft."
So writes Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger in a booklet issued by the Defense Department entitled "Soviet Military Power."
The booklet, an unclassified version of briefings provided to NATO defense ministers and published at their suggestion, contains, in Secretary Weinberger's words, "more information on the USSR's armed forces than has ever been brought together under one cover."
But although they praise the glossy, highly illustrated nature of the booklet , defense analysts believe that its failure to compare Soviet forces and weaponry with their US counterparts makes it less useful than it might have been. They also add that, for the greatest usefulness, it should have compared the forces of the Soviet Union and its allies with those of the NATO alliance.
Secretary Weinberger's assertion that Soviet forces exceed 4.8 million men is not supported by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, they point out. According to the institute's estimate for 1980-81, the total strength of Soviet forces stands at 3,658,000, though this figure, as it observes, excludes some 500,000 internal security, railroad, and construction troops.
In a packed Pentagon briefing, Weinberger painted an awesome picture of Soviet power. The Kremlin, he said, can now field 180 divisions equipped with 50,000 tanks and 20,000 artillery pieces.
Last year the huge Nizhniy Tagil railroad car and tank plant, some 2,400 kilometers southeast of Severedvinsk, built 2,500 T-72 tanks, he revealed.
In an introduction to the booklet, which was researched and written by experts in the US intelligence community, Weinberger asserts that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies have deployed more than 3,500 tactical fighters and bombers in Eastern Europe alone. "In each of the last eight years, the Soviets have produced more than 1,000 fighter aircraft," he declared Sept. 29, observing that the United States had manufactured only half that number in the same period.
The defense secretary laid particular stress on the threat posed to the West by the Soviet Union's SS-20 mobile missile which is depicted, albeit in an artist's rendition, in the 99-page booklet.
In an obvious effort to counter continued European opposition to NATO's planned deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles in response to the SS-20 threat, Weinberger declared that the Soviet Union now has fielded some 250 of the intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Targeted against Western Europe, China, and Japan, these SS-20s, he asserted, are fitted with three highly accurate and independently targetable warheads. Moreover, each SS-20 launcher is equipped with one refire missile that also carries three warheads, he declared.
"Soviet Military Power" asserts that the Soviet Union continues to improve the accuracy and warhead throw-weight of both its ground-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It observes also that eight classes of submarines and eight classes of major surface warships, including nuclear-powered cruisers and new aircraft carriers, are at present under construction in Soviet shipyards.
"The growth of the Soviet armed forces is made possible by the USSR's military production base which continues to grow at the expense of all other components of the Soviet economy," Weinberger writes in the preface to the booklet. "There are 135 major military industrial plants now operating in the Soviet Union . . . [a] 34 percent increase over 1970."
Although the defense secretary denies that the publication of the booklet has been timed to dissuade Congress from any defense cuts it may be contemplating, the summary of the Soviet Union's armed might has been released at an opportune time, defense analysts say.
Whatever decisions are taken on the B-1 bomber and MX missile -- and an announcement on their deployment could come shortly, according to informed sources -- they are likely to appear more palatable in the light of the threat that "Soviet Military Power" outlines so graphically. Moreover, it provides an underpinning for the administration's contention that the US needs to rearm as rapidly and as substantially as possible.
In a final chapter, entitled "The Challenge," the booklet maintains that the Soviet Union begins the 1980s with strategic nuclear, theater nuclear, and conventional armed forces that are "substantially more capable" than they were at the outset of the 1970s.
It claims that the Kremlin has superior ground forces in Europe and is "intensely engaged" in a program designed to achieve a dominant role in space. Its armed forces, the booklet adds, "are keyed to assisting the projection of Soviet power abroad and the spreading and solidifying of the Soviet Union's political, economic, and military influence around the world."
Observing that "there is nothing hypothetical about the Soviet military machine," Weinberger points out that the Kremlin has 85,000 troops in Afghanistan and is supporting in military actions Africa, Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.
"The greatest defense forces in the world are those of a free people in free nations well informed to the challenge they face," he declares.
"Soviet Military Power," which the secretary terms "a completely factual document," will reportedly go on sale to the public shortly.