Fred Hall

The Arms Race

The numbers game

(July 1978)

From Socialist Review, No.4, July/August 1978, pp.8-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The ‘massive Soviet military build-up’ in Europe has become a favourite theme of ‘defence’ experts in this country, and indeed in NATO countries generally.

The Warsaw Pact countries have, it is argued, an immense and fast-growing superiority in conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) forces over their NATO opponents. Sooner or later, the argument goes, this superiority will be used to force Washington to choose between accepting Soviet dominance in central and western Europe or resorting to an all-out nuclear exchange (i.e., mutual annihilation).

Hence the ‘necessity’ to expand NATO conventional forces, to deploy more tactical nuclear weapons and, in the more extreme versions, to develop the neutron missile as a first-strike weapon to offset the overwhelming Russian tank superiority.

So effective has this propaganda been that the USSR negotiators at the long-running Mutual Balanced Force Reduction talks have accepted, in principle, the aim of a common numerical ceiling (900,000 men apiece) for NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in central Europe.

Balance of Forces in Central Europe

At present there is indeed a huge Warsaw Pact concentration of force in central and northern Europe. According to the Military Balance 1977-78 (International Institute for Strategic Studies) 45 Russian divisions plus 25 Eastern European divisions are deployed against 27 NATO divisions.

The tank strengths are given as 13,500 USSR plus 7,000 other Warsaw Pact against 7,000 NATO.

Of course, the IISS is a tainted source (indeed, all the sources are tainted) and the British Defence White Paper (1977) gives the substantially lower figure of 9,500 for ‘Soviet tanks allotted to the Warsaw Pact’. The figures for all the weapon categories can be greatly expanded or contracted according to what is included in the definitions and what is not. All the same there can be no reasonable doubt that the Russian tank superiority in numbers is very great.

Similarly, with other conventional weapon categories there is, in terms of numbers alone, a varying but substantial Warsaw Pact superiority. Significantly, it is least with respect to first-class military aircraft (2,300 USSR, 1,700 other Warsaw Pact, 2,350 NATO according to the IISS).

The figures, however, are profoundly misleading. The picture of a mass of Russian armour poised ready to sweep across Germany is a phantasy and the ‘experts’ who conjure it up are well aware that it is a phantasy.

The fact is that NATO has now a huge superiority in tactical nuclear weapons – 7,000 deployed in advanced stores, enough to vapourise the entire Warsaw Pact concentration and a large part of Europe along with it!

Moreover, even if these are disregarded – and current NATO military doctrine, which places great emphasis on the use of tactical nuclear weapons, makes this an unrealistic assumption – the NATO forces have decisive qualitative superiority in most major weapons categories. There is no better illustration of this than in th very example most often cited by the NATO propagandists – armour.

Of the 16,000 to 20,000 Warsaw Pact tanks deployed, between 1,500 to 2,000 are T64/72s. These tanks are broadly equivalent to the present generation of NATO battle tans (M60, Leopard I, AMX30, Chieftain).

They are certainly inferior to the new NATO generation now appearing, particularly the German Leopard II, the world leader, of which 1,800 have just been ordered for the Bundeswehr. The Russian new generation T80 is not yet reaching the units.

Then what are the other 14,000 to 18,000 or so Warsaw Pact tanks? Apart from the PT76 light amphibious tank (in service since 1955), there are still considerable numbers of T54/55s in service, particularly in the east European armies. This tank is a development of the famous T34 (which first saw action in 1941!) and is, by any reckoning, obsolete and useless against any first-class opponent.

But the core of the Warsaw Pact strength is provided by the T62. Several hundred of these were captured by the Israeli army from Egyptian and Syrian units in 1973 and specimens in more or less working order were handed over to various NATO powers for evaluation tests.

A detailed survey of the results (Arms and Weapons 41) shows that in every respect but one (frontal armour protection) it is markedly inferior to the NATO battle tank currently in service. In terms of first-class battle tanks, then, it is clear NATO has numerical superiority too.

Two obvious questions arise. Why have the rulers of the USSR maintained a vast mass of obsolescent (in some cases, obsolete) armour in service? And why at the very time when NATO-developed integrated fire control systems including laser rangefmders and advanced ballistic Computers are making yesterday’s tanks into tin coffins, do our ‘defence’ experts promote the myth of overall Russian superiority?

The answer to the first question may have something to do with the vested interests of the Soviet military establishment – more tanks and men mean more Marshals, more promotions, in the USSR as elsewhere irrespective of military effectiveness. Consider how the British Admirals clung to the battleship long after it was clearly obsolete.

But there is another and more importance factor. The T54/55s and T62s that rolled into Prague ten years ago are still more than adequate for that kind of work.

As to the Western ‘experts’, the explanation is that conventional arms are very big business indeed. The extremely lucrative British contracts to supply Iran with 1,800 Chieftains and Saudi Arabia with a complete air defence system are only the best known of a large class.

Third World sales are gigantic but, as the British and French arms industries battle for third place in the world league (after the USA and the USSR), the re-equipment of NATO is the most glittering prize of all. Technological developments, most notably the ‘artillery revolution’ of the last few years which has made most existing weapons obsolescent, and rapid developments in guided missiles, have provided the opportunity.

To exploit it fully the merchants of death need the right political climate. ‘Russian superiority’ is an essential myth. For if there is one group of people who have an even bigger vested interest than the Soviet Marshals in promoting this new arms race it is the bosses of the Western war industries and their media ‘experts’.

Last updated on 7 March 2010