I am an admirer of the author Victor Suvorov. I wish I could meet and speak with him. He served for thirty years as an officer in the Soviet Army before defecting to the West in the 1980s. In his book Inside The Soviet Army, he tells the following anecdote:
On day in Paris, I bought a book published in 1927 on the problems of a future war. The author was sober-minded and reasonable. His logic was sound, his analysis was shrewd and his arguments unassailable. After analyzing the way military equipment had developed in his lifetime, the author concluded by declaring that the proper place for the tank was the museum, next to the dinosaur skeletons.
His argument was simple and logical: anti-tank guns had been developed to the point at which they would bring massive formations of tanks to a complete halt in any future war, just as machine guns had completely stopped the cavalry of the First World War.
I do not know whether the author lived until 1940, to see the German tanks sweeping along the Paris boulevards, past the spot at which, many decades later, I was to buy my dusty copy of his book, its leaves yellowing with age.
We can see Suvorov’s point. But it is a point that needs to be made. I have read many articles in military literature making the same argument: that the tank in 2016 has little role to play on the battlefield, and that air power and sophisticated anti-tank weapons make the tank a steel coffin. The tank, they claim, is obsolete.
It is amusing to see such writings. I smile when I read them. Usually the writers of such things have never experienced the full power of a tank. And there is a difference between writing about something in an office, and experiencing it up close in a personal way.
When I was in the The Basic School for Marine Corps officers in 1990, one routine exercise for us was to crawl with our equipment under a tank while its engine was idling. The tank was stationary. We crawled under it from the back to the front, through the muck. It sounds easy, and physically it was not especially challenging, even with all our gear.
But the experience itself was very, very sobering. Its engine roared like an enraged dragon. One sensed the awesome power of the metal behemoth. One twitch of its treads in one direction or another, and you would be ground to pulp. No one made any jokes about that exercise.
And this is the essence of the difference between theory and practice. The tank is an engine of war. It is an engine of conquest. It is designed to attack. Make no mistake about this.
The tank is not going anywhere. It is a predator, and it is designed to destroy obstacles and occupy ground. We have become too addicted to our drones, our computers, our airplanes, and our other fancy gadgets. We have forgotten what truly brings victory in a contest between two opposing forces.
Defensive weapons are always representatives of a passive mindset. Offensive weapons promote an active mindset. If we were to deploy a lot of anti-tank weapons to cover an area, we would have to disperse them to some extent. And the tank attack would of course hit us in the weakest area. Would aircraft be able to contend against an attack by hundreds, maybe even thousands, of tanks? I don’t think so. And remember that tanks have defensive features of their own. They are not just inert containers running on treads.
Since tanks are offensive weapons, they decide the time and place of the attack. They can survey the enemy’s posture, and divine his weaknesses. They call the shots. They can bring to bear the moral factors of conflict. I am not saying anti-tank weapons are useless. I am saying that the day of the tank is not over.
Soviet generals understood this. They comprehended that the only thing that produces victory in war is the taking of the offensive. You have to seize the initiative and hammer your enemy with multiple blows. You have to force him to respond to your moves.
Three days ago, I conducted a trial in federal court where I was representing the plaintiff. I set the terms of the engagement. It was I who decided what issues to talk about, what exhibits to introduce and talk about, and how to move from one issue to the next. So the principle is the same. By taking the initiative, I increased my chances of success.
Soviet military planners understood the need for taking the offensive. The Soviet Union did not spend much time or effort focusing on “anti-ballistic missile defense systems.” They were not interested in protecting their ICBM silos from attack. Why? The answer is simple. The best protection for a nuclear missile in the event of war was to use it immediately, they believed.
They did not comprehend the American logic that a nuclear war might start gradually and escalate slowly. Under Soviet doctrine, the best way to win a war was to destroy your opponent immediately. And the best way to do that was to hit him with a nuclear strike immediately. If this sounds terrifying, I am sorry. But this is the truth.
Victor Suvorov claimed that a Soviet strategic offensive would unfold in five stages.
First Stage. A 30-minute nuclear strike by the Strategic Rocket Forces would be directed at the enemy’s command posts, strategic lines of communication, storage depots, submarine bases, aircraft, and anything else of strategic value.
Second Stage. This would last between 90 and 120 minutes. It would be a massive air attack by the Air Armies of all fronts and by the Long-Range Air Force. The attack would take place in multiple waves. These nuclear-armed aircraft would finish off anything the first stage did not destroy.
Third Stage. This would last only about 30 minutes. It would be further attacks by local rocket brigades and air forces; it would finish off anything left over from the first two stages.
Fourth Stage. This stage lasts 10 to 20 days. It would consist of massive tank attacks by concentrated tank armies, coordinated to inflict the maximum damage. The goal in this stage is to find and exploit an opening in the enemy’s fronts. Once the opening has been found, the tanks rush in and keep moving.
Fifth Stage. This final stage lasts about a week. The breach in the enemy’s defenses has been achieved, and the tank armies are blasting through to the enemy’s rear.
Even though these “stages” may not take place quite as the planners expect, they give an idea of the Soviet understanding of the importance of offense. This is not a defensive strategy. It is designed to overwhelm an enemy in the shortest possible time with the maximum amount of force.
If we wish to be successful in conflict, we must think about what matters, and what does not matter. Having an offensive mentality is what produces results. When our minds are crippled with defensive thinking, we are unable to see the hidden moral factors that truly drive the flow of history.
You can find out more about the moral forces that underpin human affairs in my books Thirty-Seven and Pantheon.