It is common knowledge that together the United States and its allies won World War II. But the war may never have been won without the profound sacrifices of the Soviet Union, then standing shoulder to shoulder with America and Britain. Described by historian Max Hastings as “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction”, the Red Army suffered approximately 80 times more casualties than the United States.
Under different circumstances, perhaps, the wartime partnership between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. might have been the foundation for a successful peacetime collaboration. But by 1946, relations between the two powers had soured. Without a common enemy to unite them, the capitalist, liberal democracies of the West and the Communist, totalitarian regimes of the East were politically and diplomatically irreconcilable.
The ensuing Cold War did not involve the kind of intensive global conflict that had characterized the two preceding world wars. But neither was it entirely “cold”. Regionally focused proxy wars – as violent and destructive as any hot war – erupted right across the planet, in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America, and particularly in recently liberated colonies where both sides sought to establish political and economic interests.
Inevitably, as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R vied for global supremacy, an arms race began. Shadowed by expansions in espionage, psychological warfare and propaganda, their military forces – and their nuclear stockpiles – swelled. In fact, military spending in the U.S.S.R. ultimately topped 27 percent of its GDP. Eventually, in 1991, after more than four decades of geopolitical ascendancy, its economy broken, its politics unsustainable, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Of course, everyone knows that the U.S. won the Cold War – and that the U.S.S.R. lost it. But how did their militaries stack up through those decades of conflict? Was the United States really the greater power? Were its fighting forces technologically and tactically superior? And if the Cold War had suddenly turned “hot”, which side would have prevailed? The truth is both surprising and terrifying…
To understand the U.S.S.R. military machine, it is necessary to trace the historical roots of the Cold War. Many historians locate its beginnings in the aftermath of the Cold War. However, others identify the 1917 October Revolution as its inception. Led by the Bolsheviks, the revolution overthrew the Russian Tsarist regime and replaced it with Soviets – grassroots local councils. And so began the Soviet Union.
From the outset, the rest of the world regarded the new Communist order in Russia and later its satellite states with some hostility. In fact, the United States refused to recognize it until 1933. Nonetheless, the country industrialized rapidly under the centralized control of Josef Stalin. At the same time, poorly managed agricultural collectivization led to a vast famine in which millions died. And hundreds of thousands of citizens were imprisoned or executed as “political enemies”.
At the start of World War II, the Soviet Union entered into a non-aggression pact with Germany and proceeded to annex several territories – including Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and others – and incorporate them into its sphere of influence. Later, after coming under German attack, it switched sides and liberated much of Eastern and Central Europe from German occupation. And those states – including Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and others – also fell under Soviet control.
Meanwhile, the wartime alliance between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R collapsed in 1946 when George F. Kennan, an American diplomat in Moscow, sent a famous “Long Telegram” recommending taking a hard line against Soviet expansionist ambitions. Days later, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill proclaimed that an “iron curtain” had fallen across Europe. Then, the following year, the Truman Doctrine was announced, pitting “free” nations against totalitarian ones.
The first major conflict of the Cold War was the Berlin Blockade. On June 24, 1948 the Soviet Union blocked transport routes into the city, then under the joint control of both Western and Soviet forces. In response, the Western allies airlifted supplies to Berliners until the blockade was lifted the following year. The city would become a flashpoint for future Cold War tensions and the U.S.S.R. subsequently constructed a wall to isolate the Western-allied enclave.
The next major Cold War conflict took a large human toll. On June 25, 1950, North Korea – which was backed by China and the Soviet Union – invaded U.S.-backed South Korea. The ensuing civil war claimed three million lives and caused the devastation of nearly every city on the Korean peninsula. Although an armistice agreement brought an end to the fighting in 1953, relations between the two Koreas remain tense to this day.
April 17, 1961 marked the start of another infamous – if mercifully short-lived – Cold War conflict. On that day, the U.S. attempted to invade Cuba by landing a C.I.A.-trained brigade of counterrevolutionary Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. Under the auspices of the “Democratic Revolutionary Front” (DRF), the invasion was launched from mainland Central America. However, it was roundly crushed by Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces after just three days.
However, the Bay of Pigs debacle then led to the far more serious Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. In order to deter any future invasion attempts, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev offered to install a nuclear launch facility on the island. However, the United States could never accept such a facility on its doorstep. For 13 anxious days the world teetered on the brink of a full-scale nuclear war. But careful diplomacy eventually resolved the crisis.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union launched the Soviet-Afghan War – the last major proxy war of the Cold War period. Echoing U.S. failures in Vietnam, the war proved disastrous for the U.S.S.R.. With the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan fighting a bitter guerilla war against U.S. backed rebels known as mujahideen, it dragged on for more than nine years. And then the Soviet Union collapsed.
Paradoxically, the 1970s and ‘80s had marked the Soviet Union’s emergence as a global superpower – and the Afghan war had signalled the apex of its military prowess. In December 1988, the current affairs magazine Foreign Affairs remarked on its might. It wrote, “No state in the world rivals the U.S.S.R. in its combination of size, sophistication and command and control of military forces.” Such remarks flew in the face of assumed U.S. superiority. But were they true?
As a matter of fact, the Soviet army was indeed markedly larger than the U.S. army – with a reserve pool of 55 million regulars, it boasted more than five million active service personnel. By contrast, the U.S. had no fewer than 2 million active service members, with a high of 3.5 million combatants during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
In fact, the Soviet army was the largest on the planet until the regime’s dissolution in 1991. Conscription was the secret of its success. In the Soviet Union, all healthy men were required by law to serve in the military for at least two years. By contrast, the United States tended to rely on professional soldiers. Of course, one exception was the Vietnam War, which made controversial use of the draft.
While the Soviet Union clearly outstripped the United States for military manpower, could the same be said of its military technology? In 1981, the U.S. Department of Defence investigated the matter and concluded that America had a technological advantage in 18 areas of defence. However, the Soviets had a lead in 23 areas. Contrary to popular belief in the West, in matters of war, the U.S.S.R. was slightly more technologically advanced than the U.S..
For example, Soviet naval technology included highly effective long-range anti-ship missiles such as the aircraft carrier-busting P-270 Moskit, which could travel three times faster than the speed of sound. By contrast, the U.S. anti-ship equivalent, which was known as a Harpoon, was subsonic and not quite as destructive. The U.S.S.R. possessed some 500 ships capable of launching cruise missiles. At the close of the Cold War, the U.S. possessed just 30.
The Soviet and U.S. air forces were more closely matched, however. American planes such as the F-15 and the F-14 were decent combat craft and could outperform Russian MiG-23s in dogfights. However, with a maximum velocity of more than three times the speed of sound, the Soviet-built MiG-25 was the world’s fastest fighter plane. Furthermore, the Soviet Union boasted some 800 supersonic bombers, while the U.S. manufactured just 103 of their equivalent.
Soviet missiles were also highly advanced, particularly during the latter stages of the Cold War. For example, the R-73 infrared missile, which was created in 1984, had no NATO equivalent until the Germans manufactured the IRIS-T missile in 2005. Soviet missile technology was literally decades more advanced than anything else on the planet.
In the area of air defence, the U.S. was reportedly better equipped than the U.S.S.R.. That said, the Soviets eventually caught up. Indeed, their air defence forces were developed enough by 1960 to down a U-2 spy plane flying reconnaissance in Soviet airspace. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was subsequently captured. He spent two years in prison before being released as part of a prisoner exchange.
U.S. and Soviet infantry weapons were generally well matched. But one exception was anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). During the latter stages of the Cold War, Soviet tanks were immune to the US-built M72 LAW RPG. By contrast, the Soviet RPG-7 could annihilate any N.A.T.O. tank except the M1A1 Abrams. And a subsequent iteration, the RPG-29, resolved this deficiency.
Soviet mobile artillery, too, was far more advanced than its American counterparts. All Soviet divisions were equipped with missile batteries and their mobile systems included SCUD missile and OTR-21 launchers. By contrast, the U.S. was never very successful at either inventing or producing tactical missiles on a large scale. Equally, the U.S.S.R. possessed many Multiple Launch Rocket Systems while the U.S. had comparatively few.
For a brief time, the U.S. had a technological monopoly on nuclear weapons. Soon after the end of World War II, it began testing a new generation of bombs at the Pacific islands of Bikini Atoll. There was a naïve belief among some strategists that the threat of such weapons might bring the Soviet Union to heel. However, the Soviets were already working on their own weapons of mass destruction.
Furthermore, the Americans gravely overestimated the time it would take for them to do so. U.S. experts believed that the Russians would have nuclear weapons in the mid-1950s. However, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, a device similar to one of the American nuclear charges dropped on Japan four years earlier. In the ensuing decades, both sides would manufacture thousands of deadly warheads.
Ultimately, in terms of sheer numbers, the U.S.S.R. had more nuclear weapons than the U.S. and her N.A.T.O.allies. However, it has been said that the Russians needed a larger number of nuclear bombs because the weapons’ reliability was questionable. There were also persistent rumors of a “missile gap” that disadvantaged N.A.T.O., but this was a myth.
Although U.S. technology was frequently less advanced than its Soviet counterparts, in some cases it was not only more sophisticated, but far more complex. However, complexity was not necessarily advantageous. Complex American weaponry required special training, whereas simpler weapons issued to conscripted Soviet soldiers could be used even by novices, such as guerrilla fighters in homespun revolutionary armies.
Of course, there was another major advantage to simple weaponry – fast manufacturing times. Naturally, the simpler a weapon, the quicker and easier it is to mass-produce and distribute to troops. To some degree, the Soviets learned the lessons of bulk production during World War II when it was not uncommon for manufacturing plants to be suddenly destroyed or relocated.
Finally, contrary to Western myths that Soviet technology was poorly built and frequently defective, simple weapons tended to be reliable. Indeed, the Soviet-designed AK-47 – which is part of the Kalashnikov family of assault rifles – was so reliable that approximately 75 million were produced. In fact, it is thought that approximately 15 percent of all firearms on the planet are AK-47s!
One significant difference between American and Soviet armies was the degree of troop specialization. American soldiers were highly trained in the use of specific vehicles and equipment, which they were expected to master fully. By contrast, Soviet soldiers used a wide range of apparatus for which they had only general training. They were therefore more adaptable than American soldiers, but less expert.
Equally, American tactics in the battlefield were said to have been more complex than Soviet ones, partly because American troops were better trained, and partly because Soviet troop units tended to be larger and harder to coordinate. Of course, Soviet tactics were largely influenced by their experiences in World War II: ultimately, it was their sheer numbers which overcame the otherwise superior German forces.
However, the American military did seem to care more about the well-being of its troops than the Soviets. In the Soviet Union, conscripts were obliged to accept their conditions, however miserable. In the United States, young men were accustomed to the comforts of a consumerist society. At times though, this could go to farcical extremes, as in the reheating air force coffee cup which cost taxpayers $1,220 per unit.
One profound difference between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Cold War armies concerned the essence of military doctrine itself. Where the U.S. was largely concerned with “military-technical” aspect of warfare, Soviet military doctrine was deeply entangled with political theory. And according to some theorists, the Soviet penchant for politics drove much of its decision-making on the international stage.
By the same token, both sides envisioned a hypothetical World War III in quite different ways. The U.S. expected a quick and conclusive conflict and so they developed their military machine along those lines. By contrast, the Soviets believed World War III would be long and entrenched. To some extent, both sets of expectations were forged in their very different experiences of World War II.
On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was officially disbanded. The reasons for its failure were complex, but Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost – which permitted press freedom and dissent for the first time in the history of the U.S.S.R. – played a significant role. And the end of the war was perhaps the most significant geopolitical event of the late 20th century.
However, the elation felt by many soon gave way to profound trepidation. In the early 1990s, for example, the restructuring of the Russian economy led to economic depression worse than that experienced by the United States in the 1930s. Liberal reform did not deliver on its promises, at least not consistently. Economically and politically, many former communist states continue to struggle even today.
In Central and Eastern Europe, for example, marketisation has heralded a new chapter of prosperity. But in places such as Afghanistan, there has been a breakdown in social order. Likewise, in Yugoslavia, the end of the Cold War led to the eruption of ethnic tensions. War eventually caused the state to fracture.
That said, many of the proxy wars waged throughout the Cold War came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Arguably, the world is today a more peaceful place. And the high-water mark of military spending – approximately $8 trillion during the entire period – represents a commitment to militarism that has yet to be matched. Those times are now over.
Reacting to the end of the Cold War, U.S. President George H.W. Bush said, “The biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this: By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” Of course, given the formidable strength of the Soviet war machine, history could easily have turned out very differently. In that respect, our freedom should never be taken for granted.