WASHINGTON -- Both the failed coup in Moscow and the stunning allied victory in the Persian Gulf war have accelerated fundamental changes in Soviet military planning that emphasize exotic, high-technology weapons over a traditional reliance on massive ground forces, the Pentagon reported yesterday.
But the Pentagon's latest assessment of Soviet military power, contained in a 60-page book that dramatically plays down what used to be called the Soviet menace, raises strong doubts about the ability of the Soviet economy to support a wholesale military overhaul.
The book, "Military Forces in Transition," replaced the annual volume, "Soviet Military Power," which had gone to the printers the week of the August coup. The publication was suspended to let U.S. defense officials evaluate changes in Soviet central authority, military leadership and the power of the republics.
"The abortive hard-line coup accelerated the processes already under way to reform the Soviet military," the new report says. "Many of the obstacles to military reform -- hard-line elements in the Communist Party, the military, the security services and the military-industrial complex -- are no longer in positions of influence.
"However, physical changes to the forces themselves may be gradual because they are hostage to the political-economic crisis taking place."
Although Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's 1987 policy to reorient the armed forces to a defensive posture remains intact, a debate has ensued over the nature of future wars and how to plan for them, the report said. Military leaders appear to favor the flexibility of keeping a defensive posture without ceding "strategic initiative" to an enemy.
The gulf war "is seen by some as essentially the prototype" of a future war, one that "would begin not on the ground but from air and space" with massive strikes of sophisticated conventional munitions, the report said. There would be greater use of laser, particle beam, high-powered microwave and "hypervelocity" weaponry and satellites.
The Pentagon said there were too many uncertainties to predict how far the Soviets can go toward devising and fielding high-tech weaponry.