Does the Soviet ''operational maneuver group'' really exist? Yes, say the American and British defense establishments two years after the first public reports of this new offensive formation in the Soviet armed forces.
Maybe, say the more skeptical West Germans, even after newly declassified evidence presented at the end-of-June German Strategy Forum conference in Bonn.
The answer colors the crucial estimate of how well NATO could defend itself (and therefore continue to deter war altogether). It also affects the intense intramural rivalry in Western defense ministries about which services get how much money for what missions.
Basically, the operational maneuver group (OMG) is described as a new Soviet raiding formation of at least divisional strength assigned to fast penetration ahead of main attacking forces. Its goal: destruction of nuclear and other high-value targets deep inside enemy territory (30 to 185 miles).
If the OMG does exist, that means either (a) that the Soviet potential for a lightning strike on Western Europe is much more dangerous than previously assumed, or else (b) that Soviet dependence on the OMG as the spearhead for its rigidly prescribed rapid offensive would leave a Soviet attack vulnerable to NATO blunting of that offensive.
If the OMG exists, it means further that (a) the Soviets are serious about building a conventional (nonnuclear) military option in Europe or else (b) the Soviets intend to arm the OMG spearhead in any attack with nuclear artillery.
The controversy about the operational maneuver group arose because the phrase has never been used in Soviet military literature, so far as is known, but only in some East European - especially Polish - professional writing about the Soviet armed forces, beginning in 1981. Soviet military references speak only of ''the reorganization'' of Soviet forces begun in the late 1970s. Since 1977 these references have increasingly discussed ''mobile groups,'' a historical term that Lt. Col. John G. Hines and Phillip A. Petersen, the two Americans who first ferreted out the notion of the OMG in their scanning of Eastern European and Soviet military literature, take to be the Soviet code word for the OMG in relatively open literature.
The latest round of argument about the OMG took place in Bonn at the end-of-June conference of the German Strategy Forum. The forum is a high-powered year-old group that occasionally gathers some 120 West German, American, and British defense officials, commentators, officers, and retired officers to discuss topical defense issues.
At this latest Bonn strategy forum - which was cosponsored by the Boston Foreign Affairs Group - Hines and Petersen presented newly declassified evidence of the OMG's existence. In particular, they revealed in public for the first time that the OMG has been exercised in Soviet maneuvers - and that these exercises have been discussed in three lectures in the Soviet general staff academy.
In their original disclosures about the OMG, Mr. Petersen, assistant for Europe to the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, and Colonel Hines, military assistant to the director of the Defense Department net assessment office, cited traditional Soviet secrecy about military affairs and even names to explain Soviet reticence to name the OMG.
Critics of their thesis, by contrast, have tended to regard the Polish references to the Soviet operational maneuver group as either disinformation or a purely Polish notion, or to see the Soviet raiding groups as only tactical rather than operational in size.
The first exercise mentioned by Hines at the June conference involved a motorized rifle division in spring of 1981; the second, a Soviet tank division in winter of 1982. In addition, a more recent edition of the Soviet general staff journal Military Thought reported on three lectures on the OMG at the Soviet general staff academy.
Further, the Czechoslovak general staff journal Military Thought has also discussed the concept of the OMG, according to Hines and Petersen.
The skeptical view of the OMG, presented at the German strategy forum by West German Lt. Col. Gunter Lippert, pointed out that the original Polish articles about the OMG appeared primarily in Air Force journals as definitive evidence of Army formations. The skeptical view notes that air superiority is an essential prerequisite for successful deep raids behind enemy lines and questions whether the Warsaw Pact could hope for that kind of superiority - and whether the necessary initiative and flexibility could in fact be exercised on the ground by Soviet junior officers drilled in rote obedience to a foreordained battle script.
West German reluctance to acknowledge the OMG reflects not only doubt about the facts but also concern that the OMG might require changes in NATO's present doctrine of ''forward defense.'' Under this concept, since it is impossible to trade space for time in the narrow strip of West Germany, any Warsaw Pact attack must be stopped close to the East-West German border. The implication of the OMG , however, is that Warsaw Pact and NATO troops would soon be inter-penetrated in any war - and some Soviet OMGs would probably get deep into West Germany before being repulsed. This prospect is anathema to Bonn.
In response to critiques, Hines and Petersen argue that the Polish command would hardly be practicing disinformation on its own forces, that the Soviet Air Force is in fact beefing up its aircraft performance and pilot training for just such support of deep, operational-size raids - and that contrary to traditional Soviet practice Soviet junior Army officers are now beginning to have flexibility and initiative drummed into them in training.
They note further that Soviet denials of the first Western article about the OMG - in the September 1982 issue of the International Defense Review in Geneva - have been confined to denying something that article never claimed: namely, that the Soviets were adopting blitzkrieg tactics. The Soviets never specifically denied that the OMG itself exists - Petersen and Hines therefore assume that much as the Soviets might like to throw Western analysts off the trail of the OMG, they don't want to confuse their own troops about something they are currently being introduced to.
In Petersen and Hines's analysis, the background to the Soviet development of the OMG was the Soviet decision in the late 1960s that NATO might not resort to a nuclear defense of Western Europe but might well fight a conventional war, perhaps for a protracted period. In this analysis the Soviets formed the OMG to deal with the dispersal of troops required by the threat of use of nuclear weapons - but to allow quick concentration nonetheless of highly mobile troops to press the offensive and hope to win in the conventional phase.
Hines suggested at the German Strategy Forum that the OMG has many vulnerabilities that the West should be prepared to exploit. Raiding units far ahead of front lines have fragile logistics, command links, and communications and can easily be outgunned if a defender's intelligence is good enough to locate and counter them in time with air power and ground support.