Pentagon softens its rhetoric in assessment of Soviet might

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stands on deck, saluting a line of sailors. Behind him, the conning tower of the Typhoon submarine rises up like the helmet from a suit of armor, gleaming black and subtly menacing. This striking picture is on the cover of the 1988 version of the Pentagon's annual publication ``Soviet Military Power.'' It's an image that captures the book's tone: serious, but less sensationalistic than previous volumes in the series.

Gone are the glowing red covers and full-page paintings of Soviet weapons.

In their place there is a complex threat assessment that concludes that neither superpower is militarily superior to the other. ``We believe that the strategic balance today is essentially stable,'' the book concludes.

This seventh edition of ``Soviet Military Power'' does contain intriguing disclosures about Soviet hardware. For one thing, it has photos and drawings of a system of deep underground facilities intended to help the Soviet leadership survive in case of nuclear war.

These bunkers, many of them linked by secret subways, could hold thousands of people. With their air filters and food stores they could enable Soviet leaders to direct military operations for months, according to the Pentagon.

Other weapon tidbits in the book:

The SS-24 rail-mobile ballistic missile has been deployed for the first time.

The MAINSTAY radar plane, similar to the US AWACS, is now operational.

A ground-based Soviet radio-frequency weapon, intended to destroy the electronic components of nuclear warheads or satellites, could be ready for testing in the 1990s.

The book concludes that, in general, Soviet weapons-makers are shifting away from high-rate production of simple systems. ``They are not adding more and more so much as increasing quality,'' says a senior US military intelligence officer. The West's technological lead in weaponry, this source says, is narrowing.

This year's ``Soviet Military Power'' also contains detailed analyses of the military balance between the US and the USSR around the world.

In the important Central European front, the Soviets are judged to have clear superiority in ground forces, for instance. But NATO air strength and the deterrent power of US nuclear forces are a powerful counterbalance to this advantage. The Soviets may well take a pessimistic view of their position, the report admits, and they believe that ``they may not have sufficient forces to assure them a high probability of success in the event of war in Europe.''

In the Gulf and other areas of Southwest Asia the two superpowers may be about even, the Pentagon judges. The Soviets are closer to the region, but US capability to move forces rapidly is superior. Rough terrain and fierce resistance from locals would likely slow the Soviets if they thrust into Iran.

In East Asia and the Pacific, ``there are many important theater-wide considerations that favor the United States,'' concludes the report on Soviet weapons. Japan, South Korea, and other allies provide the US with a superior chain of forward bases. The area's vast stretches of open ocean favor the clearly superior US Navy.

US spending on weapons procurement in 1987 was 32 percent higher than comparable Soviet spending, according to the report. But it warns against further budget cuts, saying the USSR is making a concerted effort to improve the level of technology in its weapons.

``The Soviets appear to be gearing up for a more sophisticated level of competition with the West,'' the book concludes.

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