I recently managed to find (ebay!) a book I have been looking for for quite a while: Tom Gervasi’s 1986 The Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy. (ISBN 0-06-015574-4)
Gervasi wrote a couple of big sellers back in the 1980s – well, big sellers if you hang out in the military history aisle – such as Arsenal of Democracy. That book compiled and traced US arms sales worldwide, presenting the inevitable conclusion that the US utterly dominates the arms market. Of course, as the cold war ran down, Gervasi’s work was seen as less relevant. There was a bio piece on Gervasi in the Baltimore Sun, and it described how Gervasi was a wargamer and a lead miniatures painter, and wound up in a wheelchair because of lead toxicity he accumulated from a habit of using his lips to make the paint brush bristles come to a fine point. I may have actually met him, at a napoleonics miniatures event, but at the time I wasn’t inquiring after peoples’ names.
Anyhow, I’ve been carrying this book around with me for a couple weeks, and now it’s full of dog-eared pages, each of which represents some “ooh!” interesting fact or summary of facts. Most of those facts are – you guessed it – infuriating, since they generally are fact-filled refutations of all the stuff that we were encouraged to believe. If you are from the 70s, you may remember that the military scenarios of the time all involved the massive Red Army, in huge waves of armored vehicles, charging across Europe again, bludgeoning their way through the Fulda Gap and on to Berlin, like some latter-day Mongol horde. The strategy games I used to play were full of that – the main question the US player had to deal with was when to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, as the unstoppable Russian horde ground forward. In all these wargamed scenarios, logistics were never a factor: it was seldom considered that the Russians might develop into The Largest Traffic Jam of All Time or something like that, and get shredded by artillery.
Naturally, you are all thinking about Ukraine as you think about this. I sure as hell am, too. I think that most everyone (with the exception of a few radical fringe strategists) expected the Russian army to stomp across Ukraine pretty much unstoppably. Sure, there’d be casualties, but I think the general reaction has been one of surprise that Russia has turned out to be a paper tiger. Gervasi’s book, not that anyone read it outside of a fringe of strategy historians, calls it all out. It turns out that we ought to have known this was going to happen, because, in fact, the size of Russian forces has been deliberately inflated since the 1950s, with the heyday of the inflation being the early 80s. Gervasi’s focus, naturally, was on how the DoD inflated the Soviet/Russian threat for budgetary purposes, similarly to how it inflated the “missile gap” [there was a missile gap, but it was the opposite direction] in the 1960s and the “bomber gap” in the 1950s. Turns out there was a bigger and more problematic “Russian gap.” I have to admit I am disappointed in myself for being in the slightest bit surprised. Really, no amount of cynicism is too much.
In honor of Ukraine, we’ve had a fair bit of “the Russians face off against NATO” reasoning and it’s all bogus and has always been bogus.
If that is the case, then the administration and NATO counted 2,247,450 more Soviet military personnel in Europe than are really “in place” or “stationed” there. This surplus exceeds the entire active Soviet army strength by half a million. We know that large portion of the Soviet Army is on the eastern Soviet border, facing China. The IISS tells us that 385,000 Soviet military personnel are in the Strategic Rocket Forces and that another 550,000 are in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. They cannot all be stationed in Europe. In principle, all Soviet military personnel may “face NATO in Europe” but in reality most of them face NATO at an enormous and tactically futile difference.
If only US military personnel “in place in Europe” are to be considered in such a balance, then only Soviet military personnel “in place in Europe” should be considered. If only the active personnel of both alliances “stationed in Europe” in 1982 are to be compared, then we are left with the following figures:
NATO United States 273,729 Belgium 89,500 United Kingdom 343,646 Canada 3,764 Denmark 32,600 France 504,630 West Germany 495,000 Greece 193,500 Italy 366,000 Luxembourg 690 Netherlands 102,800 Norway 37,000 Portugal 70,926 Spain 342,000 Turkey 569,000 Total: 3,424,785
Warsaw Pact Soviet Union 610,550 Bulgaria 149,000 Czechoslovakia 194,000 East Germany 167,000 Hungary 101,000 Poland 319,500 Romania 184,500 Total: 1,725,550
Obviously, the breakdown has changed. Most significantly the Warsaw pact is now gone and many of those militaries are now NATO members themselves. The size of the Russian army is now significantly smaller than the Soviet army was at its peak, too. Nobody should have been surprised, I guess I am saying, that the Russian army seems to have been able to immediately field 300,000 troops, which it pretty rapidly lost against Ukraine. Some amount of the military staffing of various nations is devoted to logistics: transport and supply. The Russian army seems to have not had very good logistics, to put it mildly, which is why it clustered up and bogged down so rapidly, with catastrophic results.
Those figures also don’t touch on reserves. For example German is expected to be able to mobilize nearly 1,000,000 reserves if necessary. Ukraine had a standing military and has massively mobilized reserves, to great effect. What we’re seeing in Ukraine ought not to be a surprise, in other words. I assume that senior strategists in the pentagon saw all of this coming. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I expect Russia’s nuclear arsenal and navy are also paper tigers, though even a “mostly ineffective nuclear attack” is horrific. [stderr]
America, then, never needed to be rearmed. The nation had never been disarmed; it was already armed to the teeth. Before the Reagan administration ever arrived in office our forces already had more equipment and more military power than they needed to do whatever military power still could do. This equipment was not about to become obsolete; it was the most capable equipment technology could provide. If some of it failed to perform as advertised, that was not for want of resources or expertise. It was only for want of reforms to eliminate waste and fraud in military spending. The Reagan administration has done nothing to curb either of these practices. Its military buildup, instead, has become a monumental example of both.
Just think about that, when you hear about how “80s tech” is being funneled to Ukraine. There’s warehouses full of it. It was part of the huge spending binge that Reagan started, and which continues at the pentagon today.
It’s too much to get into in one posting, but elsewhere Gervasi does a great break-down of how the expenditures on the Pershing missile were justified. There’s so much bait and tons of switch.
If you search for “size of the Russian army” the internet comes back with 1,500,000 – with 2,000,000 potential reserves. Consider that for a second. In Ukraine, the Russians had to forcibly draft tens of thousands of prisoners and deployed about 300,000 troops. Depending on who you listen to, and where and how you count, the Russians have suffered variously around 300,000 casualties, and a couple of significant ships. (more casualties) so, how does that work? Do the drafted prisoners count as reserves? Did the Russians lose “their entire army” or ‘merely’ 1/5 of it? Just asking those questions exposes what naive questions they are, because there are unspoken questions about their logistics and equipment. It doesn’t matter if Russia has 1.5 million more reserves if those reserves are going to be struggling to move effectively on the battlefield, or without training, or with obsolete weapons. There are plenty of reports that the Russians are pulling old tanks out of storage and are trying desperately to refit the guns with modern optics – but the Russian army has basically no night-fighting capability, minimal air support, and no armor that can stand up to state of the art tanks like the Leopard or M-1. What I keep coming back to is the question “does size matter?” Apparently, it does not if you’re on the offense and you are unable to deploy effectively.
Thinking back to the strategies we expected at the time, I suppose it’s not realistic to assume that the Russians would deploy stupidly, be led badly, be untrained, and lack effective night vision gear. I suppose it’s necessary to assume that your enemy will not suddenly become incompetent, you have to plan for the worst outcome and hope for the best – which means padding the hell out of all of your estimates.