THE embarrassing defeat in the Gulf war of Iraq's largely Soviet-armed and Soviet-trained force occurred in part because of the poor quality of the Iraqi leadership and fighting forces, Soviet officials say. The officials are quick to deny any parallel to their own forces. (NATO's military chief analyzes Gulf victory, Page 4.)
Iraq's military is a ``third-world army,'' says Maj. Ivan Skrylnik, a Defense Ministry spokesman. ``It was not prepared to confront the armies of the West.''
The Iraqi Army was not equipped with top-of-the-line Soviet equipment, the officials point out. Like the West, the Soviets limited the technology and the quantity of the equipment sent to Iraq, explains Lt. Col. Vladimir Lyaschenko, an armored warfare specialist who has been carrying out close analyses of the Gulf events.
For example, even the modern Soviet T-72 tanks in Iraq's arsenal did not have advanced fire control systems or reactive armor designed to absorb the impact of tank attack. Marshal Yazov, speaking to parliament last week, pointed to the limited numbers of advanced Soviet MIG-29 fighters in the Iraqi Air Force and criticized the Iraqis for placing them in vulnerable airfields in southern Iraq.
Such defensive reactions by the Soviet defense establishment are more a response to domestic critics than to foreign observers. They are clearly worried that those favoring a significant cut in defense spending will seize upon this conflict as evidence of waste of funds on inferior equipment.
In a long commentary on military doctrine, published Monday in the Army daily Red Star, the Soviet tank force chief, Marshal Oleg Losik, attacked liberals who call for a smaller military and argued the Soviet Union must maintain nothing less than absolutely parity with the West.
``If somebody today has acquired superiority and the opponent has a deficit or insufficiency problem, ... the temptation grows to show off his force,'' Marshal Losik wrote. ``Doesn't the character and the result of the war between the international forces, with the US at their head, and Iraq, testify to this?''
Such concerns are animating a stiffening Soviet posture on the implementation of the treaty on conventional forces in Europe (CFE). The ratification of the treaty has been held up by the revelations from the data supplied by the Soviets that it reclassified three infantry divisions as naval coastal defense units, placing them technically outside the treaty's purview.
Soviet defense officials defend this move as legal but more broadly argue that the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact places the Soviet Union at a disadvantage. The CFE counterposes NATO forces to those of the Warsaw Pact, but Soviets say the forces of their former Eastern European allies are not realistically in their camp. As a result, Losik says, ``we are one on one with a military force that is 150 to 200 percent stronger.''
The performance of Western military technology and personnel in the Gulf could also encourage increased defense spending in certain areas and even reforms.
Although Soviet officials try to play down the coalition success in public, in private they admit to being impressed by the performance of Western technology and tactics they witnessed in the Gulf. Colonel Lyaschenko, who had predicted a quick coalition victory in an interview before the start of the ground war, generally gave the coalition offensive high marks in an interview this week.
``The envelopment of the Iraqi troops in Kuwait can be compared to the battle of Stalingrad,'' Lyaschenko says, providing a valuable contribution to ``military theory.'' But, he adds, since the Iraqis put up so poor a fight, ``the success was a little diluted, as are the theoretical and practical lessons.''
The Soviet expert, who was provided by the Defense Ministry, points to several areas in which the coalition armies did well. The ability to maneuver rapidly over a wide area was key to the success of the offensive, he says. Within this, the crucial role was played by the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Air Assault Division, whose performance he rates as ``excellent.''
Lyaschenko was strongly impressed with the antitank weaponry used against Iraqi armor, particularly the precision antitank rockets fired by the Apache helicopter and the A-10 aircraft.
``This war will give an impetus to the rapid development of anti-tank weaponry,'' he predicts. ``Laser-homing devices are the future.''
The Soviets also acknowledge the key role of coalition air power in softening up the Iraqi Army.
``Air strikes were complex and accurate and that produced a new factor which had been underestimated,'' Lyaschenko notes. ``It significantly undermined the combat effectiveness of Iraqi troops, because the planes were everywhere and at all times.''
But the Soviet military also sees some shortcomings in the coalition technological wizardry. They see little evidence that the coalition tanks did that well on the ground.
The Iraqi tanks shown on television, Lyaschenko argues, appeared to be mostly damaged by their own crews who he believes fired grenades at their own tanks to avoid going into combat. The gas turbine engine of the Abrams M-1 tank, the most modern in the US arsenal, did not do well in a desert environment, Soviet experts say.
The Soviets also say the super-high-tech F-117 Stealth fighter had little impact on the war, not enough to justify its price. Yazov publicly worried, though, that the Soviets may have to reexamine their air defense system in light of the Gulf war. Still, Yazov and others say that Soviet air defense systems employed by the Iraqis were able to down every type of coalition aircraft used, including a Stealth fighter, suggesting again that the problem was more one of manpower than technology.
Indeed, the war's final and most telling lesson seems to support the view of Soviet military reformers who contend that a highly trained professional army is superior to a huge conscript army of the kind currently fielded. The Gulf war, agrees Lyaschenko, is evidence that higher technology demands well-trained professional soldiers to man and maintain it.