I Bet Y’all Are Gonna Be Shocked

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:

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.


  1. nomaduk says

    My dad was USAF, and his job at one point involved estimating Soviet military capabilities and threats. He was always on about them rolling through the Fulda Gap any day now, and lobbing their mobile ICBMs at the US unless we put MX on railcars or some such. It wasn’t until I left home that I realised that it was all utter and complete bullshit. Yes, plan for the worst, hope for the best, but understand what it is you’re doing, and that your worst-case scenario is largely a fabrication. He just bought into it completely.

  2. flex says

    I also think that many of us assumed that any country starting an aggressive territorial war would have prepared for it.

    I certainly didn’t expect Russian readiness reporting to their leadership to be as inaccurate as it must have been.

  3. JM says

    I was an 80s kid and even then the idea of Russian military might was recognized as outdated. My memory says that during the 80s the difference was mostly attributed to the superiority of US military gear, that Russia really didn’t have anything to compare to a F-15 or a M1 tank. It wasn’t until the 90s that the inflation of Russian military by US intelligence and the military-industrial complex was acknowledged.
    There is an interesting history to this because Russia did come out of WWII with the most powerful military in the world. As soon as they came off a full war time setting the raw corruption of Stalin’s government caused Russia to begin to fall behind. A lot of people in the US didn’t want to accept that though. Too many politicians running on fear of communists and too much industry selling to the US military wanted to inflate Russian capacity.
    As for Ukraine, everybody knew that Russia’s military was corrupt. The raw scale of the corruption seems to have caught everybody off guard, both inside and outside Russia. People didn’t account for the fact that every layer of the government was skimming their 10% off so by the time it got down to the regular troops much of the money was gone. A lot of units listed as combat ready but that had not been in combat were not close to combat ready. Units struggled to move behind the front and get to Ukraine, let alone deploy and fight in the field.

  4. says

    I used to play those wargames that usually presented the Fulda Gap as this horrible funnel through which endless swarms of deadly Russian tanks would swarm through. I think SPI was pushing Soviet propaganda at us.

  5. jenorafeuer says

    Back in the late 1980s (before the fall of the Berlin Wall) a couple of my friends in University were in the Reserves in Canada. One of them commented at one point that the general assumption in a number of the wargames being set up at the time was basically ‘slow down the Soviet advance until their economy collapses behind them’. Because that, of course, is one of the flaws of Blitzkrieg-like tactics: they generally require being able to pick up food and fuel from the conquered territories along the way rather than rely on over-stretched supply lines. And the Soviet army was known to have logistical issues if they went all out.

    So what the army believed internally for its training and what they told the politicians controlling the budget were not necessarily related. Unsurprisingly.

    As many people have noted in various situations, one of the biggest flaws of an authoritarian power structure is that the next levels down from the Leader don’t want to be in the Leader’s bad graces, so they tend not to tell the Leader things he doesn’t want to hear. Which means problems often don’t get known about by anybody with the power to fix them until the problems become emergencies that can’t be hidden anymore. See the big Soviet famines, the post-Revolution Chinese famine, the leadup to the Covid crisis in which at least some of the problem got a lot worse because doctors seeing the rash of new cases locally got silenced by local bureaucrats because reporting problems would make them look bad to Beijing…

  6. flex says

    @jenorafeuer #5,

    Yes, I’m aware of that predilection within authoritarianism, I just didn’t expect it to be so obvious and devastating during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I mean, that’s the sort of thing you double-check, independently if you can, prior to an operation of that scale. The failure was on all levels too, not just the troop movements. It also clearly showed in the lack of accurate intelligence gathering prior to the invasion. We didn’t see the intelligence failures prior to the invasion, at least I didn’t, but it was pretty clear by the second day of the invasion that the Russian political powers, Putin, had been getting incredibly inaccurate intelligence about Ukraine.

  7. crivitz says

    I was stationed in Fulda in 1989, but the only hordes flooding in from the east that we ever saw were waves of Trabis and Wartburgs full of East Germans coming into town after “The Wall” came down to go shopping at the local Karstadt’s.

  8. jenorafeuer says

    Another thing I recall seeing in an article is that one of the flaws in the basic Russian attack strategy was its over-reliance on the heavily ‘macho’ Paratrooper units. There seemed to have been this assumption that they could just drop their agents in behind the enemy lines and these men (who were among the few parts of the Russian forces who were being financed properly because of the whole ‘macho’ culture bit) would just disrupt everything and the rest of the army could just sweep in without any resistance. And when that failed, there wasn’t really much of a backup plan because the rest of the army was underfunded aside from these ‘best and bravest’ few. (Who, of course, were their own form of corrupt anyway.)

    Honestly, that latter part is what really sticks out about the whole Russia-Ukraine war. The Russian forces just do not seem to have anything approaching a backup plan for if the initial push failed. They seemed to think they could just waltz in and take over, which might have worked in Crimea where a good chunk of the general population was on their side already, but which wasn’t going to work in the rest of Ukraine where people have long memories and a long history of being treated as a lesser vassal state, with all the resentment to go with it. (Maybe not as long as the Polish memories and dislike of the Russians, but certainly in a similar ballpark.)

    Of course, ‘macho’ and ‘authoritarian’ tend to go together a lot…

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Since the Ukraine horror started, I spent a fair bit of time looking up strength and capabilities of the various parties. One thing that kept popping up was the NCO culture in Western armies, which didn’t seem to exist in the Russian armed forces; trained professionals who acted as mentors to the grunts. Another was the professionalism of the officer class, which seems less political in Western forces.

    So, numbers of troops or reserves, while not irrelevant, take a back seat to competence.

  10. says

    As I have mentioned elsewhere, I expect Russia’s nuclear arsenal and navy are also paper tigers

    If the Russia-Ukraine war is anything to go by, the Russian navy is good at two things. First, terrorizing civilians with cruise missiles. Second, being very expensive targets.

    With regard to their nuclear arsenal, the thought has crossed my mind that it sounds like a prime target for curruption. Stuff made in relatively small quantities with high-performance materials equals very expensive. Combined with limited testing and in all likelyhood a service life spent doing nothing that seems like a golden opportunity.

  11. says

    It is part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear.

    Douglas MacArthur

  12. billseymour says

    If the Russian military is so corrupt and incompetent, why isn’t the war in Ukraine over already?  Is this a case where just overwhelming size is enough?

    I’m basically clueless about military history; so I really am asking, not telling in a snarky way.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    “Is this a case where just overwhelming size is enough?”

    Enough to keep it going? Evidently. Enough to “win”? It looks unlikely. Define “win”.

  14. lochaber says

    billseymour@11> I think one of the common takes back when this started, was that Russia was going to completely roll over Ukraine in a curb-stomp invasion, maybe lasting ~3 days.

    That Ukraine held up for not only 4 days, but nearly 2 years, while making some gains towards taking back some previously occupied territory, is a clear indicator that Russian military might isn’t exactly as powerful as many of us assumed it to be.

    If I remember correctly, ~15-20 years back, Ukraine was one of the nations where U.S. Peace Corps were operating, so not exactly considered a global powerhouse. Whereas Russia is/has(?) been seen as the inheritor of U.S.S.R. military might, and considered a rival to the U.S. military industrial war machine.

    But, yeah, Russia is big enough to keep throwing untrained troops and broken machinery Ukraine, and it’s kinda second-hand embarrassing at this point.

  15. lasius says

    charging across Europe again, bludgeoning their way through the Fulda Gap and on to Berlin

    Being from Berlin, and doing fieldwork in the “Fulda Gap” every year, I can tell you with certainty, that to breach the Fulda Gap as a Russian army, you would have to have passed Berlin long ago.

  16. JM says

    @11 sonofrojblake: Several things going on at once. The scale of Russia’s corruption and other problems is huge but their military is also massive. Pre-war the Russian military had something like 7 times the active personal on the books plus operated Wagner group and some other groups not on the books. So even if a large portion of Russian forces were not as ready as the books said they still out numbered Ukrainian forces.
    Russia did have some good units. Wagner group was brutal but trained and experienced. Elite VDV groups avoided a lot of the corruption problems and had actual combat experience. The war has torn up these units so how elite they are now is unclear but early in the war they pushed the Russian lines forward.
    Russia has been willing to use conscription and recruit from prisons to get low value infantry to use as cannon fodder. This is a brutal tactic but works. The cannon fodder is sent in as the first wave and the locations of defensive positions and lines of fire observed from the death toll. Then the experienced and trained units are sent in as the second wave where weaknesses are found.
    Russia has turned to China, North Korea, Iran and likely other sources to keep up their supply of gear. This has allowed the Russians to keep artillery bombardment going at rates above Russia’s capacity to make artillery and to focus their own limited production capacity on drones and other difficult to buy gear.
    For it’s part the Ukrainian military has been conservative on the offensive side. They are using a tactic of having strong defensive positions and grabbing territory in small chunks. This protects them from Russian air power but makes progress slow.

  17. Dunc says

    If the Russian military is so corrupt and incompetent, why isn’t the war in Ukraine over already?

    Because Russia hasn’t run out of men or materiel yet, nor has the political leadership decided to back down (or been removed). They can keep going as long as they still have resources to throw into the meat grinder and the will to do so.

    Ukraine, on the other hand, cannot force a victory. They’re never going to be able to march on Moscow and force Russia to accept terms. They just have to keep holding out and hoping for the Russians to give up.

  18. ockhamsshavingbrush says

    @ Bill Seymour
    Yeah and never underestimate morale of the troops. The Ukrainians have their own country to fight for, they are convinced that they are the god guys – rightfully so – and they obvs believe in their leadership. That’s basically like morale is defined. For the Russian conscripts none of this holds true.
    Right now however the Russians have dug in and this is a shitty position for the Ukrainians, as they have to dig the untrained Russian soldiers out of these fortifications and even if the Ukrainians have a 5 to 1 numbers advantage against the Russians holding their position this is not an easy task.

  19. says

    @PZ I still have those SPI games on my game shelves (The Next War, Fulda Gap, WWIII). Plus lots of GDW, 3W, GRD, etc. At one point I played 1/300 scale micro armor games in my basement. Russian tank regiments against US tank battalions…

  20. says

    If the Russian military is so corrupt and incompetent, why isn’t the war in Ukraine over already? Is this a case where just overwhelming size is enough?

    I am cautious about attributing nationalist characteristics to a military (e.g.: the Germans are aggressive, Americans have too much gear, etc) but one thing history has shown is that Russians, when they switch over to the defense, are incredibly tenacious. I think it may have to do with their training and command structure – there is a tendency to hunker down and withstand whatever is thrown at them, because they don’t know what else to do. In some cases, that equates to the Russians withstanding crazy sieges and assaults (e.g.: Kursk, Stalingrad) for tremendously long times. The Russians kind of stumbled into Ukraine, grabbed some ground and stole some stuff, then hunkered down. And, now, they are there doing what they do best: hanging on. The Ukrainians, being non-stupid, are cautious attacking dug in Russian positions, because it seems as if a Russian soldier with a bent spoon will often try to hold an entire trench-line because they don’t really know what else to do. They are incredibly dangerous.

    Again, nationalist stereotypes, but: in WWII France fell because the French leadership froze up and couldn’t take the blitzkrieg. In WWII parts of Russia never fell because the Russians in the battlezones simply didn’t see anything but fighting like hell as an option. In Ukraine, traditional military expectations would be that Putin grows horrified at what is happening to his troops and pulls out or negotiates – like the US or Germany or France or England eventually would. But that presupposes that Putin is operating at a national command level and is concerned by the shape of the overall situation. It seems quite plausible to me that Putin simply doesn’t care and he’s going to leave them there until everyone is sick of them. Will Ukraine be able to dislodge them? Maybe. But it’ll be expensive for everyone involved.

  21. says

    Being from Berlin, and doing fieldwork in the “Fulda Gap” every year, I can tell you with certainty, that to breach the Fulda Gap as a Russian army, you would have to have passed Berlin long ago.

    There’s a danger of playing wargames: you wind up staring at a map that represents a smallish but important piece of landscape, and it’s very easy to lose sight of the larger positional picture.

    You are, of course, right, and reading that you could have pushed me over with a feather. I realized in that moment that I had completely accepted cold war American strategic doctrine which was that the Soviets would not be satisfied with merely taking Berlin, they would try to conquer all of Europe – naturally.

    The old cold war scenario was like a blitzkrieg run by Germans, except Warsaw Pact. Which, as we look at Russian logistics and force structures, does not seem remotely plausible. The Russian army might reach Berlin but they’d be too bogged down by loot to go much farther.

  22. says

    John Fleisher@#20:
    I still have those SPI games on my game shelves (The Next War, Fulda Gap, WWIII). Plus lots of GDW, 3W, GRD, etc. At one point I played 1/300 scale micro armor games in my basement. Russian tank regiments against US tank battalions…

    My high school wargaming club did a divided player set-up of The Next War, and we were a couple of turns into it when a cat got into the gaming room and that was the end of WWIII. SPI made some interesting games but it got ridiculous, the number of counters you had to punch out and bag and manage. Absolutely insane. Most of us stuck with Squad Leader and Cross of Iron because it was moderately playable and didn’t feel like a job.

  23. nomaduk says

    SPI made some interesting games but it got ridiculous

    I had a few SPI science-fiction games, one of which was Outreach, a game of galactic conquest. I only ever played it once. I, my brother, and a friend of ours spent 3 hours setting up the game, with all the chits and the complex instructions. On the first roll of the die, the galactic core exploded and the game ended. We boxed it up and never looked at it again.

  24. says

    Enough to keep it going? Evidently. Enough to “win”? It looks unlikely. Define “win”.

    In this case, “win” means Ukrainian civil society gets eroded to nothing, and their allies — particularly the US — just give up or fall into the hands of fascists who always wanted to shaft Ukraine and suck up to Putin.

  25. says

    …charging across Europe again, bludgeoning their way through the Fulda Gap and on to Berlin

    I’m pretty sure you meant Bonn, which is actually in the Western part of Germany, and was the West German capital before reunification.

  26. lasius says

    @Marcus Ranum

    Which, as we look at Russian logistics and force structures, does not seem remotely plausible. The Russian army might reach Berlin but they’d be too bogged down by loot to go much farther.

    The thing is, if we are talking cold war times, the Soviet army wouldn’t have to reach Berlin. They were in (East) Berlin already and had army bases all around it. And they had tanks in what is now Thuringia right at the “entrance” of the “Fulda Gap”.

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