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Soviet Attack Planning - 1980s

Manchurian OptionIf the Soviet leadership were to decide to take military action against China, they would likely do so because they perceived fundamental national interests at stake, such as the survival of the Soviet Union itself, and thus be prepared to risk escalation. At that point, there would likely be no limits on the use of force against China, including nuclear weapons, as a prelude to or in conjunction with an attack on the West. There was a widespread belief in the Soviet Union that the Chinese did not fear nuclear war and even planned for the postnuclear stage of war in which China would emerge as the world's strongest power. Soviet fears of the threat to their security posed by a perceived nascent U.S.-China alliance diminished in 1981 and 1982. Soviet statements and commentaries expressed increased confidence that differences between Washington and Beijing will strictly limit the development of Sino-American defense ties.

The Chinese evaluated the Soviet threat to China in the context of a perceived strategy aimed at achieving glooal hegemony that uses both diplomatic means and military force. They conclude from their assessment of this strategy that the Soviet Union will not attack China in the foreseeable future, but rather seeks to encircle China as part of its effort to "win, without a fight."

Chinese leaders and officials point to their experience with the Soviets in the 1950s as demonstrating that Chinese suspicions of Moscow's intentions are deep-rooted. Chinese statements imply determination that China never again be vulnerable to Soviet pressure.

By the early 1980s there was a growing convergence of Soviet, American and Chinese views about the possible character of a future global war, including: a future U.S.-Soviet war could start in one theater and quickly spread to other theaters of conflict, becoming a global war; the war could either remain conventional - or escalate to the use of nuclear weapons; in either case, the - war could be protracted; a protracted war, even if nuclear, could require full mobilization of all the resources of the societies involved, and peacetime preparations should be made to do so in a pre-war crisis; and even a nuclear war conceivably could in some meaningful sense, be "won." All three powers see Northeast Asia as one of the key potential theaters -- along with European and Southwest Asia -- where a war could start or to which it could spread.

While the Soviets often discussed the Manchurian model, Western analysts suggested the Soviets had other military options against China, including cross-border attacks, seizure of Xinjiang province or other sparsely-populated areas, massive conventional air attacks against industrial targets, nuclear preemption of Chinese nuclear forces, and large-scale nuclear, chemical or biological warfare attacks to reduce China to chaos.

Although some analysts argued that the Soviets would avoid playing into China's "people's war" strategy by engaging in a large-scale invasion of populated areas, others argued that Soviet conventional superiority in mobility and firepower is so great that a Manchurian-style campaign would be successful.

Some of these scenarios may be realistic: the Soviets deployed a vast and expensive war making potential in the Far East in both conventional and nuclear forces, and they undoubtedly perceived militarily viable options for use of these forces. These are options based on Western perceptions and not on known Soviet perceptions.

Soviet and American writings pointed to the 1945 Soviet route of the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria as a model for a Soviet attack on China. The Manchurian Campaign model began receiving considerable attention in Soviet military writings beginning in the early 1960s, coinciding with the Sino-Soviet split. Western experts suggest that the 1945 Campaign provided the planning model for - the Soviet buildup against China in the Far East in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Manchurian model is premised on avoidance of two-front war as well as on drawing forces from the second front. Chinese analysts and officials insisted that the Soviets would need 3 to 5 million troops to successfully launch an attack into Manchuria, while Soviet analysts believed such Soviet forces would be insufficient to give Moscow assurance of a lightning campaign brought to a quick, successful conclusion.

The Soviets may hope that a Manchurian Campaign-style surprise attack could be so disruptive and disorienting, and achieve its political goals so quickly, that the Chinese would not be able to respond with nuclear weapons. They also may hope not to have to use tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) themselves to achieve rapid success. But they cannot be certain about the Chinese response. China reported for the first time in June 1982 that it had conducted a major combine arms exercise involving simulated use of TNW -- thus signalling the Soviets that China is preparing for possible Soviet use of TNW, and that the People's Liberation Army may be planning to use nuclear weapons against an invading Soviet force.

Chinese analysts pointed to several reasons why the Manchurian Campaign could not be duplicated under current conditions:

  1. the Soviets cannot secure the other front as they did in World War II both to prevent fighting on two fronts simultaneously and to enable them to move large numbers of troops to the East;
  2. they cannot insure secrecy in the buildup and preparations for the attack;
  3. they would not be fighting an occupying army with no popular support; and
  4. they would not have the additional asset of the Chinese Communist 8th Route Army, which played an important role in tying down Kwantung Army units prior to and during the Soviet offensive.

Chinese officials and scholars consistently repeated the estimate that the Soviets would need 3-5 million troops to attack China on a large scale like the Manchurian Campaign.

Chinese strategists believed by the early 1980s that in an attack, the Soviets would employ fast-moving armored forces to seize the principal cities of northeastern China that contained nearly 30 million people, the nation's political center - Beijing - one-third of the nation's industrial capacity including many key defense industries, and most of China's better rail lines.

Acutely aware that existing PLA forces were no match for the highly mobile Soviet forces, the Chinese chose to trade space for the time required to move in massive reinforcements from central and southern China. The Chinese, however, hoped to inflict on the Soviets the heaviest possible losses of men, materiel, and time and to prevent them from gaining control of the population, industrial wealth, and the important rail lines. To this end, they built hundreds of miles of tunnels, shelters, and firing positions beneath key cities to enhance their defensive potential.

Because the Chinese perceived the greatest threat to be to their political and industrial heartland in the northeast - the Beijing and Shenyang Military Regions they emphasized building shelters and tunnels in cities such as Beijing, Shenyang, Harbin, and Dalian. Many northeastern cities have tunnels capable of carrying vehicular traffic that support the interconnecting network of tunnels to be used by defenders. Although other important cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi'an, and Chongqing had well-developed shelter systems, only that in Shanghai appeared comparable to those in the north.

Chinese military planners believed that, if the Soviets moved into northern Manchuria, they would attempt to seize control of major railways to ease the logistical burden of supporting their rapidly advancing armored and mechanized forces. Nearly all the railways in the northeast, however, pass through large cities. In heavily built-up areas, such as the extensive industrial complexes surrounding Harbin and Changchun, armor would have limited usefulness. Hence, Soviet infantry most likely would be used to seize the cities and ensure control of the rails. The Chinese reason that Armed Militia and PLA troops would be of considerable value in opposing enemy infantry from the buildings and streets of a major city.

The urban shelter complexes defended by troops and Armed Militia - would be used to hold the cities and impede the Soviet advance. The Chinese have taken care to construct fighting positions in many of their shelters. In addition, the shelters provide excellent cover and concealment and, because they often are linked together by underground passageways, would permit swift movement of troops and militia from one part of the city to another. In such circumstances, Soviet infantry might become bogged down in lengthy - and costly - street fighting that would slow the rate of advance and produce considerable battle losses. Bunkers would have to be taken street by street from tenacious Chinese defenders.

The alternative to securing the major cities would be semi-permanent deployment of Soviet forces to surround and isolate them. If the Soviets were unwilling to pay the price of clearing the enemy from their shelters, they would face rear area security problems and degradation of their logistical support system.

Chinese defenders could hold out almost indefinitely in their tunnels and bunkers against conventional bombing or artillery fire, though they might succumb to nuclear fallout or to attacks by chemical or biological weapons.

Aside from the boost to morale and propaganda of holding a major city such as Harbin against the Soviets, a city's defenders would serve as constant threat to the Soviet Army's rear, tying down units that could be used elsewhere. Additionally, the Soviets would have to forward bulky supplies such as petroleum and ammunition and to evacuate casualties with only limited use of the rails.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:04:42 ZULU