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Author Andrew Cockburn Zeroes in on the Myth of Soviet Military Superiority

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On September 1, an Su-15 interceptor shot down a Korean Air Lines 747 that had strayed into Russian airspace. To most Americans, this act seemed the very embodiment of Soviet military power—cold, brutal efficiency. But does the perceived image correspond to reality? Hardly, says Andrew Cockburn, author of The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine. Cockburn, 36, contends that the U.S.S.R.’s armed forces are problem-plagued and demoralized—far more than either the Soviet or our own defense establishment would have us believe. Predictably, his views have stirred up a hornet’s nest on Capitol Hill, where the debate about defense spending grows ever more rancorous. Yet Cockburn has received support from all bands of the political spectrum, including former CIA Director William Colby, who deemed The Threat “a healthy antidote to the usual hyperbole of our political debate, which portrays the Soviet Union as all-powerful and the U.S. as relatively weak. “After Cockburn testified recently before Congress’ bipartisan Military Reform Caucus, 535 copies of his book were requested by the caucus chairman—one for each member of the House and Senate.

Cockburn, an Oxford graduate, brings solid credentials to the task of analyzing the U.S.S.R.’s armed forces. For the past seven years—as a military-affairs specialist for American and European magazines and TV programs such as England’s World in Action and ABC’s 20/20—he’s been able to develop sources deep within the defense and intelligence communities. As the controversy swirled over The Threat, Cockburn, who lives in Manhattan, beat a strategic retreat to his vacation home on Cape Cod, where PEOPLE’S Jack Friedman spoke with him.

What does the shooting down of KAL Flight 007 say about the Soviet military?

First, that it’s paranoid. And that’s understandable. In 1978 another KAL flight strayed 1,000 miles into Soviet territory. It was an incredible humiliation, which led to defense shake-ups. The second thing the new attack proves is that the Soviets haven’t improved very much since 1978. Just look at the known facts: The 747 spent over two hours in Soviet airspace. It passed over several highly sensitive defense installations. The Russians scrambled fighters over the Kamchatka Peninsula, but they were unable to find the intruder. They scrambled fighters again over Sakhalin Island and finally did make contact, but just as the 747 was about to pass out of Soviet airspace. I’m certainly not saying there was a reason to shoot down Flight 007, but had there been, they just didn’t do a very good job of it. Morality aside, it was hardly a good military performance.

According to your book, the Russians have a long and rich history of shoddy military performances—and the U.S. has an equally long history of exaggerating Russian military might. Why?

I call it “threat inflation,” the method by which our military establishment blackmails Congress into providing funds for expensive new weaponry and weapons systems.

Can you cite specifics?

There are numerous examples to choose from, but perhaps the classic piece of threat inflation was the MiG-25 jet fighter. First seen at an air show outside Moscow in 1967, it looked very impressive. The Soviets announced it had set all sorts of world altitude and speed records, and the Pentagon accepted this absolutely, without question. They should have known better, because you can soup up a plane for just one test flight. Anyhow, the Russians said the MiG-25 could go 3.3 times the speed of sound. They said it had an action radius of 900 kilometers. The Pentagon used this superplane to lobby for its own version, which became our F-15 fighter.

How do we know the MiG wasn’t all the Russians said it was?

In 1976 Soviet air defense forces Lieutenant Viktor Belenko got fed up with life in the U.S.S.R. and flew his MiG-25 from Siberia to Japan. Western experts started going over this prize, and what they found was that, in many ways, the superplane was a super clunker. It was built of steel, not titanium. Its radar was based not on transistors but on old-style vacuum tubes. Its range was nowhere near the estimates. Rather than Mach 3.3, its top speed was more like 2.5—and you could stay in the air for a maximum of 28 minutes. Without any prompting from the Russians, people in the Pentagon started to make excuses for the MiG-25. They started saying, maybe it was an old one. Or they sent us a lemon so we’d believe that’s the way they all are, but actually the real ones are much better. People on this side felt they had to make excuses for the deficiencies of the Soviet design and manufacture. Sometimes I think that if the Soviets switched from tanks to cavalry, there would be analysts who would say, “Aren’t those Russians brilliant. They’ve gotten around the oil shortage by using horses.” Next thing you know there would be a billion-dollar antihorse missile program in Congress.

Putting aside arms for the moment, don’t the Soviets have an advantage in sheer manpower?

Not really. The Soviets have 5.8 million men in their armed forces, compared to 2.1 million for the U.S. But the numbers are misleading. Many Soviet servicemen are engaged in jobs that have no equivalent in the West, such as internal security and border control. Another thing to remember is that the Soviets inject ideology into defense at every level. They have 70,000 political officers, unmatched by anything on the U.S. side. So the relevant number of military personnel doing comparable jobs is about 2 million on each side.

Conventional wisdom has it that NATO forces are hopelessly outnumbered in Europe. Is that true?

Once again, conventional wisdom comes up short. In manpower, it’s actually fairly even. Both sides have about the same number of tactical fighter planes. The Soviets have more artillery, but NATO has bigger stocks of ammunition. It’s true that the Soviets have more tanks—about 1.8 to 1—but they’re inferior. There’s a lot wrong with Western equipment, but Soviet tanks are even more unreliable. That’s one of the reasons they have so many. Warsaw Pact loyalty is another factor to consider in assessing Soviet strength. If you were a Russian commander, would you want the Polish or the Czech army on your flank?

What’s the morale of the typical Soviet soldier?

Not very good. Despite big incentives in pay and privileges, the re-enlistment rate for draftees, after they serve their obligatory two years, seems to be an awful 1 percent. Food is poor. There’s a vicious hazing system. Except in very rare instances, you can’t go home to visit your family. What’s worse, you’re almost always sent far from home. That’s a deliberate attempt to keep the military away from its civilian roots. If there’s trouble, you don’t want to ask soldiers to shoot their cousins or neighbors. There’s little to do but drink—except you’re not allowed to drink. Of course everyone does drink, and they do so in staggering quantities. According to a Rand expert, nearly a third of the Soviet military suffers from alcoholism.

How is combat readiness affected?

Negatively, of course. I’m not saying the Russians would desert en masse if there were a war. After all, they defeated Napoleon and Hitler. In fact, if the Motherland is attacked it seems the Russians will go through incredible hardships and suffering to destroy the invader. But in an offensive war, like a lightning strike against NATO, I think they’d have difficulties. Successful armies, like the Israeli army, work because of unit cohesion. There’s a military saying that you don’t take a hill for your country, you take it for your buddies. I’m not sure the typical maltreated Soviet soldier would take a West German hill even for his buddies.

How good is the vaunted Soviet reserve system?

On paper, quite good. When the reserves are called up, the ranks of the Russian military machine could easily double. On paper, that is. In reality, the last time the Soviets tried a call-up, it was a complete disaster. In 1980, according to U.S. intelligence sources, the Russians decided to mobilize and invade Poland. The reserves in three of the U.S.S.R.’s 16 military districts were called up. A lot of reservists simply didn’t show. Equipment went to the wrong places. There weren’t enough tents or food. A lot of men who had reported immediately deserted and went back home—so many, they couldn’t all be arrested. This was certainly one very important reason why the invasion never happened.

What was the fallout?

Brezhnev replaced the commander-in-chief of the ground forces, General Pavlovsky, and four other very senior generals. You might say that shows that when something goes wrong, they clean house and put in effective guys. But one general who was not fired was the commander of the Carpathian military district, where the biggest foul-up occurred. He seems to have been a Brezhnev crony. Political skills, rather than military skills, are how you get ahead in the Soviet military.

Soviet arms—like the AK-47 assault rifle—have the reputation of being cheap, simple and reliable. Are they?

Some, like the AK-47, truly are. But for the most part it’s fair to say that Soviet weapons are cheap, simple and highly unreliable. When the Egyptians were clients of the U.S.S.R., they found they had to change a MiG-21 engine every 250 hours. Comparable American engines go 1,000 to 1,200 hours without an overhaul. And now that the Soviets are trying to build high-tech systems like the Americans, they’re getting into even deeper trouble, because their equipment is becoming even less reliable. As we’re getting less bang for the buck, they’re getting less bang for the ruble. A good case in point-is the T-72, which the threat inflators touted as a supertank. It has a number of known defects, but perhaps its main shortcoming is that its automatic loader tends to pick up the tank’s gunner and load him into the breech, which then slams shut automatically, causing severe grief to the gunner. Not surprisingly, gunners in T-72s turn off the system, reducing the tank’s rate of fire to about one round per minute, as compared with three or four rounds per minute in an American M-60.

Isn’t there anything the Soviet military does well?

Sure. They build very effective diesel-electric attack submarines, which we’ve abandoned as obsolete. They make excellent antitank cannons. We’ve invested heavily in less reliable antitank missiles. They’re also good with mines and mortars. In terms of nuclear weapons, you can’t really compare them as you do other weapons: They can blow us up just like we can blow them up.

Two of our more expensive fiascos were the C-5A transport and the F-111 fighter bomber, neither of which could do the job for which they were designed. Have the Russians had any similar experiences?

As a matter of fact, the Russians built an exact copy of the F-111 called the SU-24. And while it looks the same, it seems to be even more deficient than the original. It’s got a shorter range; it’s less maneuverable. What’s especially surprising is they built the SU-24 after it was clear that the F-111 was a real turkey. In 1973 F-111 production virtually ground to a halt. A year later, out comes the Soviet copy. It’s as if the year after the Edsel was withdrawn by Ford, Chrysler decided to build an exact duplicate. One military man told me the best thing that came out of the F-111 program is that the Russians went out and copied it.

What sort of reaction has The Threat received in military circles?

The hands-on guys, the ones who are experts on Soviet tanks, planes, missiles, have said, “Great, that’s what we believe, and we’re glad someone is finally saying it.” The upper echelon guys, the threat inflators who lobby for new weapons systems, have been cool. I’ve heard that the Russians hate the book. They liked being feared.