Arabian Nightmare for Soviet Brass

March 06, 1991

Whether deficient Soviet arms were a main cause of the Iraqi defeat or not, the reaction of the Kremlin's medal-bedecked generals has been swift.

Impressed by the coalition forces' air power and precision weapons, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov has ordered a snap review of the Soviet air force and air-defense system. "The echo of missile thunder in the desert must put us on our guard," explained Col. Gen. Rakhim S. Akchurin, commander of Soviet anti-aircraft forces.

Some voices in the Soviet high command argue that "the outcome of any war is determined not so much by equipment as by the people who use it." But the superior performance of new U.S. weapon systems has exposed Soviet vulnerability at a time when the country can ill afford a massive technological upgrading. What must be even more shocking to Moscow's generals is that these high-tech weapons are the mainstay of the arsenal.

None of this should have come as a surprise. Over the years, Soviet espionage efforts have collected ample evidence of breakthroughs in U.S. weapons development. Yet Soviet decision-makers apparently discounted the full significance of cruise missiles, fire-guidance drones, stealth technology and various types of smart bombs. They thought the traditional Soviet response of massive fire would defeat them. That belief was proven false in the skies over Baghdad.

In 1964, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov warned the Soviet military hierarchy of the impact of the West's new arms technology. He said new types of revolutionary non-nuclear weapons would "change established notions of the methods and forms of armed struggle and even the military power of the state." For his foresight, he was demoted to a post where he would have no influence.

To support his arguments, Marshal Ogarkov cited the 19th Century German socialist Friedrich Engels: "Successes of technology, the moment they have become usable and have been applied in practice in military matters, have immediately -- almost forcibly, and often against the will of military commanders -- caused changes and even revolutions in the method of waging wars."

Such a change was recorded in the Arabian sands. And while the Soviet Union is certain to try upgrade and modernize those of its weapons found wanting, its crumbling economy and chaotic industrial base will not make such a task easy.

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