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.
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.