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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Soviet Doctrine - Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Until the mid-1960s Soviet declaratory doctrine held that a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact would automatically escalate to theater-wide nuclear war in Europe and possibly to global nuclear war. Some Soviet military writers continued to express skepticism that a European conflict could be kept limited. At the same time, other Soviet military writings paid increased attention to the possibilities of limiting a war in Europe.

General A. Gastilovich advocated the idea of a "blitzkrieg", determining the direction of Soviet military development in accordance with this. In his opinion the Soviets had "no need to fear the term 'blitzkrieg' just because this concept was compromised by the experience of past world wars. Under the conditions of nuclear war only 'blitz' operations can promise victory." With this basic argument in defense of the theory of "blitzkrieg", General A. Gastilovich cited the availability in the armament of modern armies of nuclear/missile weapons, by means of which entire countries can be put out of a war in its first days. This situation, he indicates, "will hardly evoke enthusiasm in the remaining countries for its prolongation." Therefore, the author concludes, "he who has withstood the first strikes, must and can conclude the war rapidly if he prepares his armed forces properly in peacetime."

While in the past it was essential to concentrate a large number of forces and weapons to execute the breakthrough from a position of direct contact, and to conduct the offensive itself on the entire front and in close formations, in order to effect a breakthrough of prepared defenses under modern conditions this question will be solved differently. The primary means of breakthrough would be nuclear / missile weapons, with which the enemy's defenses can be broken to the entire depth in short periods of t:iime and by subsequent swift operations of troops from the rear they can be broken through with a rush and the rout of the opposing grouping completed.

After Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964, his successors eschewed reliance on a single massive nuclear war scenario and supported the expansion of conventional forces to complement the growing Soviet strategic arsenal. In accepting the possibility that a war might begin with an indeterminate non-nuclear phase, Soviet strategists recognized the crucial importance of the transition to nuclear war and the need for centralized control of all operational forces to meet any contingency. Since Khrushchev's departure this control has been returned to the General Staff, which has brought all major field commands under its direct operational authority. In short, the shift involved a lessened emphasis on the nuclear component of strategy and an acceptance that the role of conventional forces still maintained significance.

The policies of Khrushchev, who downgraded the importance of conventional forces and tried to buy a strategic nuclear deterrent cheaply, gave way in the mid-1960s to more functional concepts of military power under Brezhnev and Kosygin. Soviet military policy was also influenced by fundamental changes in the way the USSR viewed its own power in relation to the other major countries of the world, by its estimate of the external threat, and by the impact of new technology on Soviet weaponry and on the capabilities of potential enemies.

The US Army’s obsession with atomic weapons reached a pinnacle in the mid-1950s with the development and fielding of the pentomic division. Soviet and Warsaw Pact documents released after the collapse of the Soviet Union indicate an almost parallel line of thinking regarding warfare in Western Europe. Nearly all Soviet war plans envisioned a conflict beginning with a NATO attack on East Germany. Under one early pla, the initial Soviet response included a barrage of some 131 tactical nuclear missiles and bombs against NATO airfields, communications centers, supply depots, and troop concentrations.

Plans for the Warsaw Pact’s counter-offensive against the Western aggressors included a primary strike across the North German Plain, turning north to the Netherlands and the Danish peninsula. A supporting attack emerging from Czechoslovakia would advance through the Fulda and Hof Gaps with a goal of crossing the Rhine within seven days. Interviews with Warsaw Pact leaders, particularly commanders of allied formations, reflected skepticism toward the utility of nuclear weapons akin to that expressed by Western officers. Nuclear war was impossible, they believed, because both sides would annihilate each other.

The tradition-bound military did not share Khrushchev's belief in the adequacy of nuclear weapons in waging war or his reliance upon such weapons not only to deter war but also to score political points through diplomatic pressure or even blackmail. Obedient though Russian generals always were to their country's autocratic rulers, they nevertheless proceeded to map out operations in which conventional forces would play a secondary role to massive nuclear strikes in bringing about a quick victory, thus trying to adapt theory to reality or, as it were, reality to theory. The 1964 plan is an authentic specimen of that exertion. Khrushchev was overthrown on the very day the plan for the offensive of the Czechoslovak 'front' was formally approved -- 14 October 1964.

In the context of intercontinental warfare, there was no indication in available materials that the Soviets accepted the feasibility of limited strategic nuclear warfare or war bargaining. At least in public they consistently rejected the possibility that either the US or the USSR would be able to exercise restraint, once nuclear weapons had been employed against its homeland. Despite these disclaimers, the Soviet strategic arsenal could support a strategy of controlled strategic attack, raising the possibility that such a contingency may be included in Soviet targeting and attack planning.

In the context of warfare in Europe, Soviet doctrine on escalation had been modified since the mid-1960s. An earlier position that any war involving NATO and the Warsaw Pact would automatically escalate to theater-wide nuclear war was altered to allow for an initial conventional phase. Soviet writings and Warsaw Pact exercises paid increasing attention to the importance of having armed forces equipped and trained for conventional as well as nuclear tactical warfare.

In 1970, Marshal A. A. Sidorenko published his book The Offensive, which dealt at considerable length with the tactical problems of nuclear warfare in land theaters. In this and other works, Soviet theorists explored an impressive array of theoretical topics from the problems of targeting nuclear weapons to moving infantry through areas undergoing nuclear attack. The mere fact that Soviet discussion of battlefield tactics in land nuclear warfare is occurring is evidence of their conviction that there existed an important role for ground troops and army units in nuclear war; indeed, tactical and theater employment of nuclear weapons received as much or more attention in Soviet writings as strategic nuclear employment.

Sidorenko's thesis is that nuclear weapons in both a tactical and strategic sense had reduced the distinction between the front and rear lines of the enemy forces; and that by giving the attacker the capability of quickly and decisively penetrating huge areas of the enemy's positional defenses, nuclear weapons have extended the tactical and strategic advantage of the offensive. Modern large-scale ground warfare has, therefore, become more than ever before a contest of maneuver and initiative rather than of attrition. An important corollary to this thesis is that although a general war employing nuclear weapons will be much more destructive than any previous war, it will proceed along analogous lines.

By the early 1970s Pact planning for a war in Europe recognized the possibility of both a conventional or non-nuclear phase and a nuclear strike phase. Pact planners apparently believed that successful conventional operations by the Pact would force NATO to resort to nuclear weapons, and they enphasized the importance of the timing of their initial use.

Soviet military writers had given little attention to the concept of controlled nuclear war in Europe. They emphasized the decisiveness of an initial nuclear attack and the need for effective coordination. The first salvo of intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles by the Strategic Rocket Forces evidently would be the signal for nuclear strikes by other Warsaw Pact forces. For the Soviet political leadership, a broader range of options was likely to exist than was evident in Pact exercises and documents. Authorization for the scale of fighting to be pursued, the use of nuclear weapons, and the scope of permitted nuclear operations would rest with the political leaders. Under actual combat conditions they could decide to employ nuclear forces in a more carefully controlled manner than indicated in military writings and exercises.

While the Soviets still considered nuclear war to be a strong possibility, they increasingly indicated an acceptance of and perhaps a desire for a nonnuclear phase of operations. They seem to conclude that the existence of a strategic or tactical nuclear balance on both sides may generate a reluctance on both sides to use those weapons, a sort of mutual deterrence that increases the likelihood that conventional operations will remain conventional. At a minimum, the Soviets have prepared themselves to fight either a nuclear war or a conventional war in a nuclear-scarred posture. The Soviet version of "flexible response" emphasizes the necessity for expanding and perfecting the combined arms concept. It indicated Soviet willingness to fight a longer war while their precise force structuring and their military doctrine are aimed at keeping any war short.

Doctrinal writings of the later years of the Cold War began to enunciate these views more clearly. The pages of the new eight-volume Soviet Military Encyclopedia, published between 1976 and 1980, are illustrative of these changing views. The signed articles on offensive operations, on fronts, armies, and tactics all consider both nuclear and nonnuclear operations. They stress the increased capabilities of all types of units, the growth in the scope of the offensive, and the increased dynamism of battle. To a greater extent than earlier works, these articles delineate the role of units in the offensive, both in the nuclear and the conventional context. A typical passage from the encyclopedia reads as follows:

"In an offensive using nuclear weapons, after nuclear strikes by the enemy, commanders take necessary measures to restore combat effectiveness and specify or establish new missions to complete the destruction of remaining enemy forces. Divisions move forward on their directions of attack from regions where they have regrouped and decisively advanced forward. In favorable conditions the offensive can be begun by forward detachments. . . During the conduct of military action with conventional means of destruction the enemy covering zone will be overcome by forces from the first echelon combined arms units after strong aviation and artillery strikes on the most important objectives in the entire depth of the enemy defense. Forward detachments from each division will destroy security and covering units of the enemy and secure important objectives and regions in the forward defense position. Their action is supported by artillery fire, aviation strikes and action by air assault units. Having overcome the security belt, forward detachments supported by other first echelon units (regiments) from the march penetrate the forward defensive positions. If it is not possible to create conditions for the advance of the main force, the positions are overcome after suitable preparations. . . . During army offensive operations, in all sectors of the army offensive or on separate directions meeting engagements can occur. The army conducts then with all or part of its forces. Meeting engagements can occur at the beginning or during the operation, during the destruction of counterattacking enemy forces or forces advancing from the depth to deblockade encircled forces or occupy new defensive positions." [M. M. Kirian, "Armeiskaia Nastupatel’naia Operatsiia" (Army Offensive Operations), S. V.E., T1, Moscow: Voenizdat 1976, pp. 239-44.]

After the end of the Cold War, the Polish government made secret Soviet documents open to the public, revealing possible plans for waging war. This plan, called “Seven days before the Rhine River” [Sem' dney do reki Reyn], was the basis for conducting military exercises in 1979, during which NATO played the role of an aggressor, having subjected 25 targets to a nuclear attack in Poland, including Warsaw and the port of Gdansk. The legend of these teachings on countering aggression was only a fig leaf, which they tried to cover up the true nature of the alleged conflict - an unexpected Soviet attack on the NATO countries.

According to the concept “Seven days to the river Rhine”, the Soviet nuclear forces were to destroy Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, as well as Bonn, the capital of West Germany. NATO headquarters in Brussels would have been destroyed, as well as the Belgian port of Antwerp. Amsterdam, the capital and port of Holland, would also have been destroyed. Denmark would have had two nuclear strikes. After the Warsaw Pact launched nuclear strikes, it was planned to use conventional forces to conquer the territory.

Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the new chief of the General Staff, was tasked with developing a credible strategy for defeating NATO with conventional forces alone. Ogarkov knew that many in NATO doubted that their political leaders would agree quickly to use nuclear weapons. A key aim, therefore, was to fight the war in such a way as to delay NATO taking the decision to use nuclear weapons until it was too late for them to be able to influence the outcome of the war. A key element in Ogarkov’s strategy was the new fast moving armored “operational maneuver groups,” or OMG.

General Andrian Danilevich, probably the most talented Soviet strategist of the Cold War era, did the bulk of the work. The results were later encapsulated into a three-volume, top secret “directive” on The Strategy of Deep Operations (Global and Theater) that would guide Soviet military operations in time of war. The key innovation was the concept of fighting an integrated air and land battle over a vastly greater area than ever before.

The central concept was a high-speed offensive launched from under the cover of military exercises in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Simultaneously, 2,000 aircraft would attack all of NATO’s nuclear weapons facilities and seek to pin down NATO aircraft for 48 hours. This latter task was gaining importance because NATO aircraft were soon expected to be carrying “assault breaker” munitions that would be far more effective than conventional bombs against Soviet armored forces.

The ZAPAD-81 [zapad = West] was the largest armored Soviet military exercise since 1945. Parts of the exercise took place in the Baltic Sea, with ground, air and naval units participating. Over one hundred thousand troops and eighty ships from all four of the Soviet fleets participated in an operation that was the first real test of command and control of an inter-service operation. The Zapad '81 exercise was designed to test new concepts and methods of Soviet military science and military art, to develop greater initiative and independence of commanders at all levels, and to measure the performance and response time of (mobilized) reservo elements and the combat readiness of the participating units. They Soviet Forces employed a wide range of highly mobile, maneuverable, and flexible formations, including a mobile group, as well as airborne, air assault, amphibious desant, and deep strikes into the rear of the defending NATO forces.

Among Soviet military men, Marshal Ogarkov used some of the strongest language possible to express the inadmissibility of a limited nuclear war. In his 1982 book, he discussed the Pentagon's plans to wage a limited nuclear war in Europe: "One can, of course, reason theoretically in this manner. But any sober-minded person can understand, without any particular difficulty, that to realize this in practice-that is, to confine nuclear war within some kind of limited framework-is impossible."

Ogarkov used a variation of the "impossible in practice" formula in his May 1983 article in Izvestiya: If the imperialists succeed in unleashing a new war, "it will be impossible to confine military action within some kind of limited framework,.... The war would inevitably encompass the entire territories of the belligerent states, and it would be difficult to distinguish the front from the rear." His 1985 book reiterates that "once begun, it is impossible in practice to confine a nuclear war within some kind of limited framework".

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Page last modified: 16-06-2019 19:05:08 ZULU