The Soviets are shifting from their old military paranoia and over-insurance to a new concept of ``minimal defense,'' says Col. Serge Chernay, director of Soviet Studies at the United States Air War College. He urges the US to seize the opportunity to engage the Soviets in dialogue and help shape the Soviet rethinking in its formative stage.
``This is a period of tremendous opportunities for us, and if we don't play it right, those opportunities may end up as liabilities,'' says this veteran of five years as an interpreter and adviser on the US negotiating teams for Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties (SALT) I and II and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). The opportunity the West would most like to see open up would be a reduction of the present Soviet offensive superiority in combat troops and heavy conventional weapons all along the East-West fault line in Europe, he said.
Colonel Chernay, who describes himself as an ``operational'' type rather than a theoretician, identifies two aspects of the shift away from Moscow's long-standing preference for the kind of massive armed forces that Soviet neighbors find threatening:
For the first time, the Soviets are questioning their old assumption that ``... `the more weapons the better.' Their traditional way of doing things has been to have enough power to overwhelm any adversary. Now they are admitting that to have a very large amount of weapons doesn't necessarily provide you the security.''
For the first time, the Soviets are seriously exploring the implications of the premise that security cannot be assured by unilateral strength, but can only be attained by mutual restraint.
The code words for this revisionism vary, but not the drift. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sometimes sets ``reasonable sufficiency'' or ``minimal sufficiency'' as the criterion for defense deployment, as in an article in Pravda last September. At other times, ``minimal defense'' is used as the description of the ``new Soviet doctrine'' or ``new Warsaw Treaty doctrine,'' as in the proposal made by the Warsaw Pact last May for talks with NATO on reducing conventional weapons. Not every Western observer is as hopeful as Chernay.
The first caveat - which Chernay freely accepts - is that, so far, the Soviet force structure has not changed at all to reflect the new rhetoric. The Warsaw Pact maintains 2.7 times as many tanks as NATO on the central front in Europe, according to Western figures - far more than any conceivable requirements for pure defense. And Soviet divisions in Central Europe remain armed and configured for - and train for - fast offensive operations deep into Western territory.
The second caveat arises from the consistent Soviet contention in the past that Moscow has always had only military parity in Europe. Gorbachev has recently begun to speak of the need for asymmetrical cuts in categories of weapons in which one side has superiority, and the new Soviet willingness to destroy four times as many intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) warheads as the West in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in December holds out some hope of applying lopsided ratios to cuts in conventional armor as well.
But Western skeptics suspect that the Soviet assertion that both East and West must avoid an offensive posture is less an offer to reduce Soviet forces to Western levels than a propaganda ploy, a ploy to stimulate anti-military pressure by Western publics for no more than a light ``defensive defense'' that Soviet Army divisions could quickly slice through.
In this view, if the Soviet Union in fact continues to claim that East-West conventional equality exists - the new Soviet position is not yet clear - then Moscow's bid to reduce conventional forces in Europe and discuss military ``doctrine'' with the West will turn into nothing more than an accusation against the West. The Soviet concepts could easily be used to berate the West for its readiness to resort to nuclear escalation in an emergency, and for the recently adopted American precept of conducting maneuver operations in Eastern Europe.
A third caveat addresses the difference between Soviet approaches to nuclear and conventional weapons. There is a strong military and financial incentive for Moscow to agree to limits on nuclear weapons, since the Soviets are increasingly persuaded that a nuclear stalemate exists, and they do not want to get into the exorbitant future expense of carrying the stalemate to a higher level through rival deployments of ``star wars'' space defense. They have shown little inclination to doubt the battlefield or political utility of conventional weapons, however. On the contrary, they have always put a high value on massive conventional forces, their favored instrument of power projection, whether in Europe, Afghanistan, or (by proxy) Angola.
Moreover, the incentive of freeing up future resources by limiting nuclear weapons does not necessarily apply to conventional weapons. The logic would apply to a certain extent to new procurement of high-tech weapons. But it hardly mandates unilateral reductions of Moscow's present superiority in tanks and armor in Europe - especially when investments in these arms were already sunk a long time ago and are now irretrievable.
A fourth caveat is that recently there has been some criticism in Soviet military circles about emphasizing defensive over offensive military operations. In particular, a verbal battle has been raging over the revisionist suggestion that the famous soviet tank victory at Kursk in World War II was a defensive rather than an offensive maneuver. Nonetheless, Western skepticism is waning. There is now a broad interest in the new Soviet explorations among American analysts, especially those in military intelligence.
Chernay, as one of the pioneers in scouting the new trend, comments: ``We are on the leading edge of this kind of thinking. But I think a lot of this [Soviet revisionism] will only be accomplished if the West enters a dialogue with Moscow.... I think we are looking at a very different military relationship with the Soviets.''