Comment on the 1964 Warsaw Pact War Plan, by Gen. William E. Odom
“The Plan of Actions of the Czechoslovak People’s Army for War Period, “ dated 1964, is of special interest to me. During 1955-58, I served as company grade officer in a mechanized infantry battalion in the 6th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Germany, and also in the tank battalion of the 11th Airborne Division. The armored cavalry screened the Czech border from Hof in the north to Passau in the South. The 11th Airborne Division operated behind the reconnaissance screen of the armored cavalry and planned to fight delaying actions, slowing down and frustrating advancing Warsaw Pact forces. Having spent months on the border, seeking any sign of an impending invasion by Soviet and Czech forces, and having practiced delaying operations beginning on a line slightly northeast of Amberg-Regensburg-Landshut-Deggendorf, falling back over days and weeks to successive north-south lines of Augsburg-Weissenburg, Ulm-Crailsheim, Heilbronn-Stuttgart, and finally to the Rhine River, this recently published Czech war plan has a very personal impact.
I and my fellow officers naturally wondered if we had a serious chance to achieve our mission in the late 1950s. Judgments were mixed. Most of us realized that we needed many more armored units to deal with the swift offensive the Warsaw Pact forces were obviously preparing. Instead of tanks, we received a reorganization and tactical nuclear weapons. The 11th Airborne was converted to a “pentatomic” division with a flatter command structure and five “battle groups” instead of three regiments with three battalions each. It was to canalize enemy attacking columns and strike them with low-yield nuclear weapons, such as the “Honest John” (a short range rocket system) could deliver.
Whether these tactical nuclear weapons would have been effective is debatable, but had the 11th Airborne Division been a tank division, the odds would have been greatly improved. Back at the Armored School in 1959-60, I learned that a great deal of a nuclear weapon’s effects, such as blast, heat, and radiation, could be mitigated by armor-protected vehicles–considerably more than the popular image at the time and especially today would have it. Not only could armored forces greatly reduce potential casualties from tactical nuclear strikes; they could also move through contaminated areas rather safely, keeping their troops from suffering radiation exposure at dangerous levels. While these realities made use of tactical nuclear weapons far more conceivable, even advantageous, other realities, such as tree blow-down, residual radiation, fires, and other collateral damage, promised that they would complicate military operations for the side that used them. In other words, they were a mixed blessing, but even the undesirable effects – creation of unintended obstructions – might contribute to slowing a Soviet-Warsaw Pact offensive.
In the late 1950s, we supposed that Warsaw Pact forces did not have tactical nuclear weapons. That began to change in the 1960s. In 1963, while I was a student at the US Army Russian Institute in Germany, I recall the excitement caused by the publication of Voennaya strategiya [Military Strategy] under the editorship of Marshal V. D. Sokolovsky. Upon reading it, I realized for the first time the essence of Soviet military thinking about nuclear weapons use. Western “deterrence theory” was very new, and it was not taught at army schools. Thus I had no preconceptions other than US Army tactical nuclear doctrine when I confronted the Sokolovsky volume, a compendium of chapters summing up a decade of internal study of nuclear weapons by the Soviet military.
From the moment I read this book, I recognized what must have been the breathtaking scope and speed of Soviet war plans for invading Western Europe. The authors were quite clear on how the speed of warfare could be increased by nuclear weapons use, how concentration of nuclear fires could achieve objectives swiftly that required weeks and months during World War II. Big gaps could be created in minutes in NATO defense lines, and large armored formations could rush through, moving to great depths before halting to consolidate their positions. These Soviet concepts pressed the limits of the conceivable, but I could not dismiss them. In fact, my experience in Germany made them seem quite sensible, even if and breathtakingly daring.
In 1964-66, I served with the US Military Liaison Mission to the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. This allowed me to travel weekly throughout most of East Germany, periodically observing Soviet forces in field exercises, albeit uninvited. Their patterns of operations were highly consistent with the concepts found in the Sokolovsky volume. Moreover, during this period, virtually all Soviet divisions were re-equipped as either “tank” or “motor rifle.” The new T-62 tank with a 125mm main gun was appearing in large numbers to replace the older T-54/55 with a 100mm gun, and armored fighting vehicles for infantry – BTR 40s and BTR 60s – were also coming into more units, providing armor protection and motor transport for infantry units. Self-propelled artillery pieces with armor protection were not as numerous, but they were appearing. These things, as well as many others, reflected the requirements elaborated in general terms in the Sokolovsky book. I realized that I was witnessing a huge modernization process, one designed to exploit battlefield use of nuclear weapons.
Reading the Czechoslovak war plan, I am not the least bit surprised at its bold outlines, certainly not its heavy dependence on nuclear weapons. And whether or not it could have succeeded, I am fairly confident that the Soviet forces involved would have acted according to it. By the mid-1960s Soviet units in Germany had the new armor and motorized capabilities essential for such operations. The East German forces were not as modern but probably able to keep up with Soviet forces if they were winning. Whether the Czech forces could have played their part according to the plan is far more questionable in my view.
A decade later I would learn that the Soviet forces probably did not have adequate motor transport – i.e., trucks – to supply the scale of deep operations envisioned in this Czech war plan. By the late 1970s, however, that assessment was revised to suggest that they had acquired enough trucks to give such war plans a serious chance of success.
For anyone who really wants a sense of what the US military was facing in Central Europe, this Czechoslovak plan is important. Corroborating documents exist in the East Germany military’s files that were taken over by West German officials upon reunification in October 1990. Thus the plan cannot be dismissed as an exception or an aberration. It may have been a fantasy, far beyond what the Czechoslovak military could execute, but it certainly strikes me as valid evidence of how Warsaw Pact planners viewed their missions and what Soviet military theorists thought was possible with nuclear weapons.
This kind of evidence, of course, does not confirm the widely held view in Western circles that the Warsaw Pact and its Soviet leadership understood or adhered to Western “deterrence theory” as constructed for the use of nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it shows how wildly misplaced such assumptions about Soviet thinking on nuclear weapons really was. This is not to argue that Soviet leaders took a reckless view of their use. On the contrary, abundant evidence exists showing how awed they were by nuclear weapons. But they had to decide what they would do with such weapons if war actually broke out. And this Czech war plan shows that they decided to use them like big artillery, to support and speed up a traditional ground invasion of NATO territory. They did not cultivate self-vulnerability, as the United States and NATO did after the 1950s, assuming that battlefield use was irrational and therefore would not occur. Too many students of military affairs have forgotten that the US military initially took a similar view of nuclear weapons as useful battlefield artillery well into the 1960s.
By that time, the US Army was so deeply engaged in Vietnam that it lost interest in tactical nuclear weapons. And Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara introduced his “assured destruction” concept that left no place for tactical nuclear use. Meanwhile, the ideas of “deterrence theory” were capturing the university and think tank worlds in the United States, creating a blind spot for what the Soviet military was thinking and doing.
Only after the end of the Vietnam War did the US Army turn full attention once again to NATO and the Central Front. It was astounded at the size and speed of Soviet operational concepts and forces, now modernized within the context of the thinking in the Sokolovsky volume. Air-Land Battle was the US Army’s response to Soviet war plans which were more breathtaking than the 1964 Czech plan. Air-Land Battle, however, was not based on tactical nuclear weapons but rather the so-called “emerging technologies” and “smart weapons” made possible by microcircuitry technology and lasers. They permitted the production of highly accurate, longer range, artillery and rocketry for NATO’s FOFA, i.e., “follow-on forces attacks .” They also made possible the huge increase in tactical speed and agility provided by M-1 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and a number of other new systems allowing fairly deep ground counterattacks and spoiling attacks. Thus the Soviet general staff faced the prospect of a series of NATO deep attacks that might unhinge Soviet offensive operations.
This qualitative military competition between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was too little understood during the 1970s and 80s. It was beginning to make tactical nuclear weapons appear much less attractive to Soviet planners, but as Marshal N. V. Ogarkov and others acknowledged in early 1980s, Soviet industry could not provide this new generation of higher technology weaponry being fielded by NATO. Actually, Soviet planners believed they were woefully short of tactical nuclear weapons until the late 1970s and early 1980s when artillery-delivered nuclear weapons and nuclear warheads for improved tactical ballistic missiles began to arrive in the Soviet forces in East Germany. East German war plans recovered by West German authorities dictated surprisingly large numbers of nuclear weapons for use in the first few days of a war, e.g., as many as 40 warheads to be dropped in the Hamburg vicinity.
This longer term perspective, viewing force developments over three decades, raises interesting questions about the 1964 Czech war plan. The Soviet military simply did not have an adequate menu and inventory of small-yield nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. How, then, was the 1964 war plan to be implemented? Presumably with very large yield weapons – 20 kilotons and larger, not 10 kilotons and smaller, down to less than one kiloton yields, the range for US tactical nuclear weapons in the late 1950s.
An equally important question is whether non-Soviet Warsaw Pact forces, such as those in Czechoslovakia, had adequate armored and motorized forces at the time to execute the massive and rapid ground offensive envisioned by the 1964 war plan.
Both of these questions – about tactical nuclear weapons and about ground forces – need to be answered if we are make clear sense of the 1964 Czech war plan. Was it practical for Warsaw Pact forces to implement at the time? Or did it express an aspiration considerably beyond both Soviet and Czechoslovak military capabilities at the time?
Lieutenant General WILLIAM E. ODOM, US Army, retired in 1988 as the director of the National Security Agency. Today he is director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute (Washington, DC) and a professor (adjunct) of political science at Yale University. His book, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, was published byYale University Press in 1998.