The Soviet Union’s Philosophy Of Weapons Design

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The Soviet Union is no more, as everyone knows.  Its political system proved to be unsuccessful; it was incapable of adapting to the challenges of history.

But this should not blind us to the fact that in some things the Soviet Union was very successful.  One of these things was in the design of weapons of war.  Soviet weapons were all designed around a very specific operative philosophy:  simplicity, reliability, and mass production are paramount in war.  This attitude took precedence over all other considerations.

This is the heart of the Soviet weapons design philosophy.  From its experience in the Second World War, Soviet planners and engineers realized–often in sharp contrast to their Western counterparts–that fancy, complicated designs may be fine for the parade ground, but they will be failures in real war.

Consider the Soviet small arms of the Second World War, such as the PPSh-41 and the PPS.  These weapons were not as sophisticated as the German small arms.  They had limited ranges and were relatively crude.  But they could be produced in almost any machine-shop.  They often had chromed barrels, which reduced wear and tear and cut down on the need for maintenance.  These were tough weapons that could endure mud, dirt, grit, ice, and water.  They were so simple that nearly any illiterate peasant could learn how to use them.  And they could be mass-produced on a huge scale.

Consider also the Soviet T-34 tank.  Many authorities consider this the very best tank produced during the war.  The Soviet Union produced this tank in huge numbers, while the Germans turned out surprisingly few Panzers and Tiger-Koenig tanks.  Only about 4800 Panzer tanks were built; as for the vaunted Tiger-Koenig, only about 485 were produced.  How many tanks did the Soviets build?  The answer is this:  about 102,000 tanks, and of these, about 70,000 were T-34s.  The fact is that the T-34 was not only the most powerful tank in the world, but also one of the simplest to produce.  There is a lesson to be learned here.

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When the German generals first encountered the T-34, they were shocked at its effectiveness and urged the high command to copy the design.  But the Germans had a different design philosophy.  They were too focused on complicated designs that may have been visionary on paper, but were unsuited to the realities of the war.  The famous Kalashnikov assault rifle, one could argue, is in reality a simplified, super-durable version of the German MP-44.

This design philosophy permeated all of Soviet military planning.  If weapons engineers were faced with a multitude of designs, all of which were effective, they would invariably choose the design that was the most simple.  This even held true in aircraft design.  When the West first had a chance to examine the Soviet MiG-25 aircraft, they did not think much of it.  But it was the fastest combat airplane in the world in its day, and had the highest rate of climb.  It was suited for mass production in wartime by being deliberately simple to roll off the production lines.  Steel was chosen for its construction, rather than titanium.

Soviet designers also would often produce two versions of a weapon.  One version would be exclusively for themselves; its capabilities and details would be secret.  A second version–called the “monkey-model” would be produced for export.  This would be a bare-bones, simplified version of the already simple design.  But it could be mass-produced on a huge scale.

Many people in the West did not understand this philosophy.  They laughed at what they considered the “crudity” and “simplicity” of Soviet weapons.  But they were mistaken.  For this was not a weakness, but a strength.  Soviet planners understood that war is not a game of sport shooting.  War is not a game of cricket.  The designs that win wars are the ones that are reliable and tough, and that can be produced quickly.

Victor Suvorov, in his Inside the Soviet Army, tells the following revealing anecdote:

I once saw a film comparing a Soviet and an American tank.  A driver was given both models to drive and was then asked, “Which one is better?”

“The American one, of course,” said the driver.  “It has automatic transmission, whereas in the Soviet tank you have to change gear, which is not easy in a heavy machine.”

He is quite right–if you see war as a pleasant outing.  But Soviet designers realize that any future war will be anything but this.  They consider, quite correctly, that if there are mass bombing attacks, if whole industrial areas are destroyed, if long-distance communications break down, mass production of tanks with automatic transmission would be out of the question…Accordingly, there can be only one choice–the ordinary, non-automatic transmission.

The convenience of the driver matters nothing at all.  Simplicity, reliability, and the ability to accomplish the task at hand under duress were the controlling principles.

 

9 thoughts on “The Soviet Union’s Philosophy Of Weapons Design

  1. US weapon decisions are also influenced by the military industrial complex. The more convoluted the weapon, the more money contracted companies make (i.e. Joint Strike Fighter). What do they care whether it actually works? They care whether it sells and is profitable.
    The Soviets also seemed to have a greater determination to actually win wars. The US elites, unchallenged at home, are happy to spend fortunes on endless and hopeless foreign adventures. The paranoid Soviet Union actually expected an attack and prepared accordingly.
    These days it’s hard to determine which weapons systems are the most effective in real combat conditions because the strongest countries are wisely reluctant to fight each other directly.

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  2. Great article.

    I’ve been considering buying an old 80s Jeep for the same reasons you listed above. Cheap to maintain, no computers, can drive practically everywhere. When shit hits the fan your 2016 RFID starting Toyota isnt going to do you any good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funny you should mention Jeep. That’s exactly the piece of equipment that the Russian author of “Inside the Soviet Army” loved. He specifically said the Jeep was a great example of Soviet design philosophy, even though it was not inspired by any foreign design.

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  3. I’ve always been fascinated by tanks and tank warfare – couple of thoughts. On the issue of Soviet engineering, it’s worth noting that the T-34 was largely based on the visionary work of American engineer Walter Christie, who could not get the American military to listen to him and so sold his prototypes to the Soviets. Credit the Soviets for recognizing Christie’s brilliance, but the T-34 is far from the result of Soviet engineering (unlike the Kalishnikov).

    A further factor that favored the Soviets, and hindered the Germans and later Americans, was viewing crews as largely expendable assets. German and later American designs placed much greater emphasis on crew survivability – though during WW2, American tanks available to Soviets by Lend Lease were despised – the American M3 Grant was unaffectionately referred to by Soviet crews as “a coffin for seven brothers”. In simplest terms, the Germans favored much heavier armor to increase crew survivability – at the cost of speed and at an even greater cost in fuel consumption. The T-34, Russia’s top medium tank, weighed in at about 26 tons; the German equivalent, the Panther, was about 44 tons. The Panther was a fuel guzzler and frequently had to be abandoned on the battle field, especially in the later war when Germany’s fuel shortage grew even tighter. The Soviets appear to have had a much greater tolerance for casualties among their own troops and were perfectly willing to sacrifice armor protection for speed and fuel efficiency.

    All of that said, a good argument can be made that the T-34 was the greatest tank of WW2 based on simplicity of design and ease of manufacture, though against that standard, the much maligned Sherman might take the prize. One on one, the allied tanks were now match for the German tanks. three on one they were likely overmatched – my father told a story of a King Tiger holding up his artillery column by itself and dispatching the three Shermans sent to dislodge it. No matter, the allied machines were designed to and did achieve victory by fighting five against one … or ten against one.

    Perhaps the greatest tribute to the T-34 is the fact that it was still a frontline tank in the Arab Israeli war in 1973 and I believe that WW2 T-34s are still in use in certain African and Asian states allied with the former Soviet Union.

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