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Soviet Union

New Strategic Options, l968-89

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Soviet military leadership tried to add new, less destructive, strategic options, not only as a response to NATO's "flexible response" concept but also because the leaders began to doubt the possibility of a true victory in an all-out nuclear war. Although most military writings upheld the obligatory belief in socialism's victory, doubters hinted that not only imperialism but also socialism could perish in a nuclear holocaust.

The search for options intensified in the l970s, after the Soviet Union had achieved rough nuclear parity with the United States, thereby making a nuclear war with the West less likely. If escalation had been imminent, the Soviet Union had the capability-- accurate and reliable ICBMs with multiple warheads--to limit its strikes to the adversary's weapons, thus reducing the level of violence. Other options examined in the 1970s and 1980s included a nuclear war limited to Europe, a combined arms offensive with both nuclear and conventional weapons, and a completely conventional strategic operation in Europe, where Soviet nuclear weapons would deter Western use of nuclear weapons.

In l989 two possible future strategic options--space warfare and ballistic missile defense--had not been officially endorsed but were available to Soviet planners. Since the l957 launching of Sputnik (see Glossary), the Soviet Union had been interested in the military use of space and had conducted research in this field. Moreover, in late l987 Gorbachev admitted that for years the Soviet Union had been conducting basic research on a space-based defense against ballistic missiles, similar to the United States Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Yet even in l989, the addition of new strategic options did not alter the basic nuclear war scenario of the l960s. Two monographs published in 1985 and 1986 by Gareev and Lieutenant General Pavel A. Zhilin, respectively, reaffirmed the increased importance of surprise during the initial period of a nuclear war. According to these specialists, such a "surprise nuclear strike," if successful, could determine both the course and the outcome of a war. Soviet belief that the United States was acquiring nuclear missiles capable of delivering a surprise strike and was developing an antimissile shield to protect United States territory from Soviet retaliation contributed to the Soviet military's perception of the growing role of strategic surprise.

Data as of May 1989