“…A Sea of Tanks…”

We have lately been celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the destruction of the Hitlerite Beast by the Krasnaya Armiya (with some help) (here and here). And I see the Russians have a site entitled Our Victory Day by Day, which has some good photos and some cool period music. It is also worth repeating here that the absolute champion of all Great Patriotic War websites remains the incredible Russian Battlefield. (The memoirs on this site are particularly interesting, as are the many photos.)

This is as good a time as any to think again about the blowout war the Soviet Army almost fought, and wanted to fight, but never did. Gary Brecher, a/k/a War Nerd has an excellent column about this interview with retired Colonel General Matvey Burlakov. Brecher says:

If you’re anything like me, you probably spent a lot of the 80s imagining what would happen if the big NATO-Warsaw Pact war in Central Europe came along. It’s still hard for me to believe sometimes that the whole showdown just faded away without a shot fired.

Agreed. (I spent some time playing Firefight, a hexmap-and-cardboard counters tactical wargame from SPI. The Russians always had way more stuff to throw at you if you played NATO.) I thought the Soviets were going to roll. I spent the entire period up to 1989 figuring that there was at least an even chance that all this “glasnost” crap would end with a new crackdown, serious communists would snap out of their funk and start arresting and shooting week people like Gorbachev, and that there would be an all-out attack on the West as a way to call off the economic and political competition they were clearly losing. Fortunately, it never happened. Brecher goes on:

After the Soviets went out of business, I thought we’d get some really solid info on what the Warsaw Pact forces had planned, especially what their nuke and irregular forces (SpetzNaz teams) had in mind in the way of first strike and sabotage. Probably “we” did, meaning the intel community. But whatever they got, they didn’t pass along much of it to us civilians out there.

However, we never really did get a good, blunt statement of what the Soviets were up to, shorn of disinformation and propaganda. Burlakov has this to say:

The height of the Cold War was at the beginning of the 1980s. All they had to do was give the signal and everything would have gone off. Everything was battle-ready. The shells were in the tanks. They just had to be loaded and fired. We would have burned and destroyed everything they had.

This remarkable exchange sounds about right to me:

Was the use of nuclear weapons planned for?

Of course.

We would have struck first?

Of course.

Foreign Minister Gromyko said that the USSR would not use nuclear weapons first.

He said one thing and the military thought another. We are the ones who are responsible for wars.

Isn’t the political leadership responsible for waging war?

The political leadership – Gorbachev and the others – betrayed the Soviet Union. The Americans bought them.

And this:

They say we would have made it to Paris in a week.

Easy. We had a sea of tanks in the Western Group of Forces. Three tank armies! And what did the Germans have? The workweek ends on Friday and then you wouldn’t find anyone, not a minister or a soldier. Just guards. By the time they realized what was happening, we would have burned up their tanks and looted their armories. There was no question about it.

Brecher’s assessment:

I’m inclined to believe the old general when he says the Soviet tank armies would’ve kicked ass. The NATO forces were in a hopeless deployment: jammed into West Germany, an indefensible strip of heavily-populated territory. No strategic depth available, meaning the advantage was with whoever struck first. Once the population realized the Russians were coming, every Beemer and Merc in Germany would have hit the roads, those same roads our tanks were supposed to use. In that chaos, the Bundeswehr would have dissolved into a bunch of terrified locals looking for their families.

So why didn’t they attack? We’ll probably never know. They were deterred, but by what? Not NATO’s conventional army. I tend to think that at the end the Soviet leadership was afraid of the Pershing and cruise missiles which could accurately target their bunkers. They realized that they would not personally survive a nuclear war. I suspect that was it. Perhaps more details will eventually emerge from the scrap pile. But I doubt it. Putin is reimposing authoritarian rule on Russia, the historical norm, and the brief period of partial political and press freedom is now ending and I have no reason to think it will recur. So whatever we know now is probably all we’ll ever know.

Burlakov’s attitude is worth pondering when someone says it would be “irrational” for some country somewhere to start a war. It does not always look that way from the other side, or to certain decision-makers on the other side.

(Interestingly, Burlakov did not just sit on the stoop grumbling about the armored and nuclear holocaust he never got to unleash. He apparently got heavily involved in that specialty of the former Soviet Army, organized crime.)

  1. What were they afraid of? American strategic nukes.

    American doctrine was that if the Soviet Union had invaded western Europe, the US would respond with a saturation nuclear strike on the USSR.

  2. I’ve been far less impressed with Gary than you have obviously. His hindsight isn’t even 20/20. His knowledge of real strategy is pretty weak.

  3. NATO was supposed to be only a tripwire, and it worked as planned.

    We are lucky people like Burlakov was never unleashed. The question is how did they accept so quietly the dismantlement of the Soviet Union.

  4. SDB, I have always wondered if they believed that, or if we would have launched, or if more than a small fraction of the ICBMs would have worked if we did. Until we get the documents that reflect their internal deliberations, we won’t know. I don’t think we ever will.

    Joe, we disagree. I think Gary is pretty astute, particularly on why war and violence are endemic, i.e. they are hardwired into human nature. Also, his self-mockery about dorky guys who love war stuff is a good antidote to dorky guys like me taking themselves too seriously when they talk about this stuff. His criticism of Bush, et al. has struck me as excessively cynical, but at least he offers arguments, and it is early yet and we’ll see if he’s right.

  5. The early 1980s might have been a good time for an attack. Our military was still a shell as the rescue attempt in Iran demonstrated. Our political leadership was still pretty fractured as Reagan had not really established himself and Europe was not ready to defend itself let alone accept Peershing IIs.

    But Soviet arms and doctrine have not held up well in subsequent conflicts, though not with first team players. Though, Afghanistan demonstrated that the Soviet military was not a crack outfit, either. Given the state of discontent in Eastern Europe, the Soviets would have had constand worries from the rear as well.

    The one thing I am sure of is that there would have been a lot of dead Russians. The Generals in this war would have been 15-30 years of age during World War II. They would remember what dead Russians looked like. And for what? Even if they got Paris, what would they do with it? And they still would not have defeated the Americans and maybe not the Brits. And weren’t the Chinese looking for some border adjustments at that time? And wasn’t the west ready to fall apart? If we were surprised, can you imagine the Rusians’ reaction to Thatcher and Reagan a few years later?

    On a hex map it always looks clearer than it does in the real world where the future is unknown and there are no replays.

  6. I think the Warsaw Pact would have had a pretty good chance to succeed in a pure conventional fight until the mid 1980s. With the advent of the Abrams/Bradley and Air Land Battle doctrine, things look a little better for NATO. I also have a higher opinion of West German forces than the Soviets obviously did. History has shown that Germans are not shrinking violets when it comes to fighting, and during World War II the Germans were the masters of conducting an active tenacious defense. The Leopard tank pretty much equal in quality to the Abrams.
    The most important thing for NATO would have been establishing air superiority early and maintaining it. Still in an out of the blue scenario, I don’t like NATOs chances.

  7. How many wars have been started “out of the blue”? Certainly Pearl Harbor does not count.

  8. I think that fundamentally, the USSR in 1989 had the same moral solidity of France in 1939. If anything, it was even more morally bankrupt and hollow of any animating spirit and spine. This Russian general probably feels about the same as former Maginot line officers felt about the leadership of France.

    I believe that the fundamental question of war in the future is going to be in the relative strengths of the sides’ moral spirit and not so much in their material capability. A century from now, even third rank powers will be able to destroy the planet but even first rank material powers will withdraw from a small war if the people are corrupt and the leaders are craven.

  9. I don’t think the Soviets were ever really interested in attacking Western Europe in the 80’s. They really didn’t have anything to gain by doing so. They’re were well on their way to controlling Western Europe by controlling their access to natural resources by the process of communist revolutions in the 3rd world.

    I think the Soviets might have attacked Western Europe to create a diversion from a seizure of the Persian Gulf. They could have invaded Germany and let Saddam invade the Gulf states while the US was tied down in Europe. They could then retreat out of Germany while putting Saddam’s conquest under the Soviet nuclear umbrella.

    In that scenario, the Soviets would have controlled something like 70% of the world’s oil and virtual all the oil supplies of Europe and Japan. If they got control of South Africa as well, they could have pretty much controlled the entire planetary economy.

    Of course, all this depends on the US never deciding to go nuclear in any theater. Nukes are the true weapons of the world. Conventional weapons are to nukes what a police officer’s taser is to his firearm. We use the conventional weapons like tasers to deal with threats that are not life threatening but if pushed we would whip out the firearm.

    Moreover, I think Burlakov is delusional about the state of the Soviet military. Training and readiness levels in the vast majority of Soviet units was notional at best. The entire Soviet system was choked with bad data from all levels of input. Those at the top might have believed the had a military capable of carrying out a massive lightening strike like a Barbarossa in reverse but I seriously doubt they could actually do it. The communist rot infected the military just as badly as it infected the civilian sector. There is really no reason to presume that Soviet military was any better at large scale warfare than the Soviet civilian sector was at making cars.

    If the Soviets had launched such an attack, I think it would have disintegrated even without strong resistance from the West. They’re logistic and coordination would never have survived a real test. Surprise and mass will only get you so far and they wouldn’t have the patriotic motivation of individuals that saved their assess in WWII.

    The danger that will always be with us is that leaders like Burlakov will delude themselves into thinking they can succeed regardless of the objective facts. Internal dynamics combined with a weak or confusing response from outside actors can lead desperate leaders to conclusion that if they just push hard enough they can secure a quick resounding victory with minimal force. Every major military conflict in the 20th century has arisen from just this kind of miscalculation.

    Ronald “Ray-gun” that wild American Cowboy saved the world a lot grief by convincing every potentially miscalculating leader in the world that he would crush them if they tried something. The Soviets in particular were convinced he was just looking for an excuse to start a war and as a result, largely went out of their way to avoid giving him the least pretext for doing so.

    Reagan demonstrated that the best way to avoid wars is to clearly communicate that you both can and will fight if pushed. Far from provoking wars, a little credible saber-rattling can head them off by convincing delusion prone leaders that they will face a serious fight if they start something.

  10. After all the intel failures on our part, you still hold on to the period assessments of the Soviet forces? The failures of the Arab states against the Israelis was always attributed to the ‘inferior’ Arab armies, then Afghanistan happened but the performance of the ground troops was ignored in the larger strategic view. Then Chetchnya unfolded with incompetent displays of leadership and rock bottom unit cohesion, and we still believe the myth of the robot like super Soviet soldier. The actual performance of the Soviet soldier with his leadership and doctrine was nothing better than what the Germans saw on the Eastern Front. You begin to understand the huge sacrifice of manpower in what can only be considered WWI tactics against a WWII army as the Germans had. That is with the Germans lacking airpower, removed to counter the Western air offensive, and lacking substantial supplies and equipment.
    The Soviet hierarchy might have believe they could have pulled out of the motor pools and right into an offensive, but in practice 95% or better of their equipment were hanger queens. The amount of equipment failures just to occupy Czechslovkia in ’68 showed a lot wouldn’t make it to the border, let alone across it. I read an intel report in ’77 which identified a Guards unit receiving new T-72s to replace their old JS-IIs, not JS-IIIs. And we know how effective even the new T-72 actually turned out. There was a book published by Soviet defector who’d been an officer in the army under the pseudonym of Suvorov, that upon the perspective of time, turns out to be far more accurate of the state of the Soviet army than anything American intel produced. The oppression and destructiveness of the organization could not turn out a motivated army to blitz the West, let alone Afghanistan or Chetchnya.
    At best the Soviets would have gotten a single big push with limited gains like the 73 crossing of the Suez. The Soviets hadn’t faced an opponent with uncontested control of the air since the German’s stripped the Eastern front to counter the allied bomber offensive in ’44. Once out of any AA coverage, they would have been blunted with tac air, which would caused a major backup of all their follow on waves. All one big target for allied air. None of this accounts for the behavior factor of Russian conscripts in an environment loaded with looting opportunities on a scale not seen since the Mongols entered Beijing. How are you going to keep them on the tanks once they’ve seen its free? What motivation would have existed in the Soviet conscript in the late 70s, early 80s that was any different than the 90’s to cause him to perform better in Germany than in Afghanistan or Chetchnya? None that I could think of, but I’m certain that the Germans would have been far more motivated to fight to defend what they had.
    This all recalls a passage in Grant’s memoirs when he talks of his fears in his first pending encounter with his opponent. When he clears the hilltop and views the empty camp below, he remarks, “My heart resumed its place. It occured to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterward.”

  11. Well, there is a dispute about how well the Soviets would have done if they had attacked. Don says, look how badly they performed in Chechnya. I say, the Soviet Army of the ealry 1980s was a much more formidable machine. The rot had deeply set in by the time they went into Chechnya. But, good thing we’ll never know for sure. Shannon asks what they would have done with Paris. That’s easy. Looted it. Shannon says “Moreover, I think Burlakov is delusional about the state of the Soviet military.” Maybe so. If so, the Soviet Union was employing delusional army group commanders. That in itself is troubling. Was he delusional at the time? If he had been consulted in a crisis, might his civilian masters have believed his delusions? What people think will happen is the basis for their actions. Was this really what they were planning and really believed? Maybe so. If so the world was a much more dangerous place than many people wanted to believe — whether they would have “won” or not.

  12. Don pretty much sums it up. There is a habit some people have of wanting to fight the next war with the tactics of the last one. Those thousands of T-72s Gary is so fond of would have been perfect at Kursk. Germany 1983 isn’t Kursk. Number of T-72s that made an impact in either Gulf War: 0.

  13. Joe, so you are saying the Soviets were just stupid buying all those tanks all those years? They didn’t understand that Kursk was a long time ago? No. They bought them and trained with them and were prepared to use them because they thought it was a strategy which would work for them. I have no reason to think that NATO thought the Soviet tank armada was an obviously stupid thing. A lot of money and effort was spent planning and preparing to stop the thing. And as to the Gulf War, are you seriously suggesting that fighting Iraq was remotely comparable to fighting the USSR? Where it goes first? Where it precedes the attack with a barrage of SS20s? No way, man.

  14. Burlakov’s attitude is worth pondering when someone says it would be “irrational” for some country somewhere to start a war.

    Actually, he sounds a lot like any professional soldier would who’d spent all his life traing for a big mission against his enemy.

    Imagine the commander of a Ohio class nuclear-ballistic missle sub being interviewed:

    Interviewer: So Captain, were you actually prepared to dozens to hundreds of nuclear warheads on the Russians, each one them capable of delivering 200+ kT of burning hell on some unsuspecting city full of civilians?

    Captain USN: Of course, if I were ordered. That’s my job. I’ve trained all my life for it. This boat was designed to carry and deliver those weapons and this crew and her officers were trained to use this weapon-boat when called upon.

    In the end, those missile boats probably had as much to do with deterring the Sovs as anything. Had there been a war in Europe, it would have been difficult if not impossible to keep it from involving some exchange of nuclear weapons. I believe the civilian leadership on both sides recognized that once a WMD exchange, it would be tough to restrict it to a particular class of weapon or even to limit the exchange to a particular battlefield. I think both sides looked over that chasm at times and both sides stepped back in horror.

    Nuclear weapons **may** have made full scale warfare between major (nuclear armed) powers unwinnable. Possibly unthinkable, unless the initiator were also suicidal.

  15. Nah, Michael, not similar. Even when you are quoting our imaginary sub commander, he is talking about doing his duty and so forth. This Soviet guy was positively enthusiastic about the balloon going up and charging across Europe to the English Channel and burning up everything in his path. Our people are way less likely to talk or think like that. It is a different kind of thing.

  16. Lex, I’m not denigrating our sub commanders. I’ve known several ex-Navy officers and if they are representative of the larger officer cadre, then they’re an impressive lot.

    However, I think you’re kidding yourself if think they don’t get professional satisfaction from carrying out their duties. They do. And that’s fine. That’s why they excel at those duties. Don’t you think Tommy Franks was hyped at conquering Iraq? I’m sure he was. I’d want him to be. I’d expect him to be. It’s his profession. Sort of like you taking on some monster legal challenge and winning, crushing your opponents.

    As for talking like that, you’re probably right, especially with the current senior leadership. Although, some members of the leadership from the WWII era talked that way. Remember Curtis LeMay?

  17. Denigrating our sub commanders? No, I think it is praise to say that they don’t rave with delight at the prospect of releasing nuclear weapons and laying waste whole countries. But if you think these guys you know are like Burlakov, I won’t quibble with you. As to LeMay, no way could LeMay be LeMay today, and that’s OK.

  18. “Joe, so you are saying the Soviets were just stupid buying all those tanks all those years? They didn’t understand that Kursk was a long time ago? No. No way, man.”

    What I am saying is that, unlike Gary and apparently you, an easy “non-theoretical” method of conducting a reality check is to ask the crews. Tank-net is populated with crew from around the world. Not gamers and theorists. These are people that crewed and commanded tanks. We’ve got Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, etc that are very familiar with the T-55s and T-72s. They are also familiar with the newer T series tanks. These crewmen have looked at the lessons of the last 20 years and everyone is in agreement: the T-72s would have been rolling coffins. Even a Bradley can take them out without much effort. You really don’t understand it. Guns and Armor are important but so are a number of other things. Everyone is pretty much in agreement that the Fire Control Systems (FCS) are what decides who wins. Oddly enough, the M60A3s – not the M1s, would have eaten the T-72s for dinner. The TTS FCS systems in them are light years ahead of what the T-72s had. The T-72, compared to a western tank, is about the same as a Spitfire against an F-16. There is no chance of surviving. Get it?

  19. I think the Soviet leadership, if not the Generals, thought, what will happen to our Warsaw Pact Allies if we invade Western Europe? what will the Chinese do?

    My guess is that the Soviet Army was fully deployed repressing Eastern Europe and guarding the southeastern border in the 80’s. They had no more resources to to deploy. By the late 80s, they couldn’t have gathered the food and fuel to mount an invasion.

  20. Joe, I’m not saying that we don’t know NOW that the Soviet equipment was inadequate. Still we cannot know whether the Soviets would have failed if they attacked, even if we now understand these defects. I am saying that the people building thousands of these tanks believed that they were at least “good enough”. I am also saying they people like Burlakov may have sincerely believed, at the time, that an attack could have succeeded. Which means the danger of them starting a war was very real, even if we thought it would be crazy to try. You closed with “get it?” I’ll do the same.

  21. Lex,

    Maybe you missed the comments last month of USMC Gen. Mattis:

    “Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot,” Mattis said, prompting laughter from some military members in the audience. “It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.

    “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil,” Mattis said. “You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

    And he isn’t sitting hidden under hundreds of fathoms of ocean with 200 KT D-3’s, he’s a target in sight with some M-16s, F-18s and M-60s.

    The military, as it should be, is full of latent Curt LeMays. It is only the tolerance of the civilian population for their clear view of reality that changes based on what our enemies do.

  22. The Sovs had the famous maxim that (paraphrasing), “The best is the enemy of the good.” That’s a very concise and insightful phrase. It’s an acknowledgement of the diminishing returns one experiences as you climb the price/performance curve. For example, if a tank of given capability costs ‘X’ dollars, it is often possible to produce a tank with 80% of the first tank’s capability for 50% of the cost. You might also produce a tank of 50% capability for only 20% of the cost.

    Under that rationale, one might choose to produce the 50% capability version yet produce five times as many tanks per dollar spent. Under combat conditions, if one then loses two tanks for each lost by your enemy, you still retain 3/5 of all tanks you’ve produced, battle ready, while your opponent has none left. You can lose tanks at a 4-to-1 ratio and still come out ahead, theoretically.

    Of course, that little calculus is a fairly dramatic oversimplification. Those trade-offs hold true under the ‘all other things being equal’ scenario, which is rarely the case. Battles involve all sorts of synergistic forces: logistics of fuel and ammo, distribution of forces, combined arms effects (like air power and artillery and recon) and the training levels and morale of the troops and leadership. All of those things impact the outcome.

    Still, before everyone laughs off the idea of producing five times as many 50% capability tanks, consider the US Army in WWII. Neither the American Sherman nor the British Cromwell were even in the same league as the German Tiger and Panther tanks. We simply outproduced them by a large margin. We threw them into battle, took our losses, then threw in more tanks. We simply overwhelmed them with numbers. Technologically, the Germans were producing higher quality, more advanced equipment than the Allies almost to the end, by which time their industrial and infrastructure base had taken too much of a beating to continue effectively.

    I recall listening to a fascinating program on NPR in 1995. It was one of their programs commemorating the 60 year anniversary of the end of WWII. In one segment, they were interviewing former German soldiers on their experiences from the pre-war through the post-war years. One of the most fascinating questions was, “When did you first realize that Germany was going to lose the war?” Two stories they told stand out in my memory (not verbatim, obviously):

    1. We were on a hill defending the road into a town from American tanks. We had an 88mm anti-tank gun targeted on a bend in the road where it passed around a hill. The Americans had tanks on the other side of the hill but we had no idea how many were there. When the tanks rounded the bend and came into our target zone, we’d fire. The shell would pierce the tank and detonate inside, destroying it. Another would make the turn. We would wait for it to come around the disabled tanks and try to make a run down the road. We’d kill it too. Then another would come, then another. We destroyed them one after another. Artillery would chase us off the hill and we would set up on another. We’d repeat the whole thing over and over. The Americans tanks were easy to destroy if you could hit them. But they never seemed to run out. After a few days of that I knew. That was it, the war was over. We were being overwhelmed by them. They were everywhere.

    2. I was flying reconnaissance and spotted a wing of American fighters parked on an airfield nearby. That night, our bombers struck them, destroying many of the planes on the ground. Several days later, flying that same route, I was shocked to see the entire air wing back to full strength. This was late in the war. We could not replace a single aircraft if it was lost. They had replaced an entire wing of fighters. That’s when I knew it was over. We were going to lose.

    The point is, sometimes, quantity has quality all it’s own.

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