Is what he wrote true about soviet Tank engines?
TANKS AND OTHER ARMOR
Civilians who drive on the public roads which crisscross Fort Hood, the enormous U.S. Army base in the rolling countryside of central Texas, get used to passing tanks. Enormous steel vehicles, measuring about 25 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 10 feet high—all tanks project an impression of raw power. The tracks on which they move, like a bulldozer, seem able to crush anything that gets in their way, such as an ordinary automobile, without the slightest effort. The tanks at Fort Hood all share one common characteristic—a protruding turret on top carrying a long cannon and one or more machine guns. Most of them are American, either M-60s, the main American tank for twenty years, or newer and larger M-1s, which emit a high-pitched whine from their gas-turbine engines, quite unlike the throaty rumble of the diesel-powered M-60s.
Sometimes the passersby notice tanks that look different, un-American. These tanks are smaller and lower, with rounded egg-shaped turrets and a very long cannon that impart a streamlined appearance missing from the more boxlike M-60s. It is not surprising that they should look different. They were designed and built in the Soviet Union.
These Soviet tanks have reached Fort Hood by a long and roundabout route. Produced at the great plants in Kharkov or Nizhny Tagil, they were supplied by the Soviets to their Syrian and Egyptian allies in the Middle East. Thrown into battle against the Israeli army, they were captured undamaged and passed on to the U.S. Army as a small recompense for the vast shipments of American weaponry dispatched in the opposite direction.
Along with other examples of captured Soviet equipment—lighter armored personnel carriers for the infantry, antiaircraft guns, machine guns, rifles, and trucks—these tanks can give the U.S. forces hard data on the actual performance and characteristics of their enemy's equipment. How-ever, they are used for more than mere education of the intelligence specialists. The Army maintains Opfors (Opposing Forces) units at bases around the country, consisting of American soldiers who wear quasi-Soviet uniforms, operate and maintain the Soviet equipment, and "fight" in exercises against ordinary U.S. units according to the precepts of Soviet tactical manuals.
Standing in the rather scruffy parking lot of the Fort Hood Opfors unit, which, like military vehicle parks everywhere, is littered with bits of machinery at various stages of disassembly, one can easily imagine how frightening the Soviet tanks must have been to the peaceful citizenry of Prague when they first appeared there in August 1968. Seen up close, Soviet tanks project an air of sinister elegance. Like most Russian weapons, they look dangerous, unstoppable.
But once one climbs inside, the perspective changes. All tanks induce, in this writer at any rate, a feeling of acute claustrophobia. Even when engaged in an exercise no more warlike than a spin about the Fort Hood firing range, members of a tank crew go about their duties in conditions more cramped than those of even the smallest sports car. Their comfort must come as an afterthought, after the requisite gadgetry for operating the tank and its weapons has been crammed inside. Tanks are usually manned by four men: commander, driver, gunner, and loader. The latest Soviet models are manned by three men, in which case the loader is replaced by a system which loads the shells into the main cannon automatically. When enemy fire is not too intense, the commander and driver stand and sit, respectively, with their heads and torsos sticking out of the relevant hatches. Otherwise, when the hatches are closed against enemy fire, they view the world through narrow window slits, which means that they must direct the movements of a vehicle that may weigh more than 50 tons with about the same amount of vision that a driver of an automobile gets from the rearview mirror. When the world is a madhouse of exploding shells and bullets clattering against the armored hull, with infantry armed with antitank weapons or other tanks possibly lurking about ready to send a shell or missile exploding among the tightly packed crew, it is no wonder that tanks should appear less omnipotent from the inside. Even if the crewmen are not killed by an enemy shot, the tank may be put out of action by a damaged track or engine. If that happens, the crew must climb outside, possibly under fire, and try and repair the damage or else go off and find somewhere else to hide. The people of Prague may have been frightened by the tanks of 1968, but some of them soon learned that the machines could be put out of action by a bottle of kerosene with a flaming rag stuffed in the top.
These facts of life hold true for all tankers everywhere. A U.S. Army public affairs officer who once showed me around an M-1 commented briskly on the "unequalled space and comfort afforded the crew" by this, the army's most up-to-date tank. Even so, I could only think of how hellish it would be to be bolted up inside, hardly able to move, while unseen enemies outside were trying to kill me.
Yet that M-1 has interior space of ballroom proportions compared to the Soviet T-62 tank I explored at Fort Hood. I was unable to find out what it is like to sit inside with the hatch closed because I am over 6 feet tall, and Soviet tanks are so small that there is no headroom for anyone taller than 5 feet 6 inches. The amiable GIs of the local Opfors unit pointed out that the Soviet designers appeared to have gone out of their way to make even this cramped space as dangerously uncomfortable as possible. The inside was festooned with small fittings and brackets. Unless the crewmen held on very tight, they were bound to suffer gashes and bruises, or worse. Soviet crewmen often get severe spinal and kidney injuries in this way.
The driver sits up front. He steers the tank by braking one or the other of the tracks with the two levers on either side of his seat, an operation which requires considerable effort. American tanks have automatic trans-mission, while Soviet tanks do not. The whole process of operating the driving controls is so exhausting, that the tough-looking men of the Op-fors unit said they felt worn down after an hour or so. To avoid decapitation by the cannon as it swings about, T-62 drivers commonly drive with the hatch closed. Conditions for the former Arab drivers of the Fort Hood tanks must have been indescribable in the boiling heat of the Middle East, and there are reports that some Syrian and Egyptian tankmen in the 1973 war became asphyxiated or went into shock.
The rest of the crewmen sit in the turret: the gunner and commander to the left of the gun, one behind the other, and the gun loader to the right. A Soviet tank gun loader's job is not an enviable one. He must manhandle heavy, 50-pound, shells either from a rack near his feet or from the main storage area behind him into the breech of the main gun. To ram the shell home in the breech, he must get behind it and use both hands and then get out of the way very quickly before the gunner fires, since the gun recoils with lethal force. On a T-62, an automatic mechanism ejects the heavy casing of the spent shell through a small porthole in the rear of the turret each time the gun fires. But the casing often misses the porthole, in which case it ricochets back inside the tank. The commander has a metal guard to protect his head if this happens. The loader does not. The perils of his position are further increased if a device called a gyrostabilizer is switched on. This device is supposed to keep the gun trained on a target while the tank is moving, which means that the gun breech and turret can swing about unexpectedly, crushing the loader if he is not quick on his feet.
I asked a distinguished Israeli general what he admired about Soviet tanks. Moshe Peled, who had directed a crucial and successful counter-attack against the onslaught of Syrian T-62s in the early days of the 1973 war and had gone on to become commander of the army's armored corps, replied that the tanks' small size was the most advantageous feature. Tanks, it seems, spend most of their time trying to remain out of sight of the enemy except when firing a shot from the cannon. Since Soviet tanks are smaller and lower than their American and other Western counter-parts, they are harder to spot, and this attribute has been hailed as an example of Soviet deliberate "design philosophy."
If the Soviet tank designers have really been striving to make their tanks as small as possible, they have certainly accepted sacrifices in the cause, or at least required the hapless tank crews to accept them. Tanks use a lot of fuel, but there is so little room inside a T-62 that the extra fuel is stored directly next to the crew and underneath the plates next to the turret. This means, as the Israelis discovered, that a severe blow from a shell can make the tank explode even if the shell does not penetrate the armor. The tank has room for only so much ammunition—40 rounds, as opposed to 63 in the more commodious M-6o. Because there is so little room inside the turret, the gun can only be reloaded if it is pointed up so that the breech is down and clear of the back wall of the turret. This procedure has to be repeated after every shot, which means that the rate of fire is slowed down, while the gun loses accuracy as it is taken off the target.
The lack of space inside the turret even detracts from the Soviet tank's major asset—its small size. A favored way for tankers to conceal them-selves is to drive up the far side of a ridge to just below the crest and depress the main gun as far as it will go. The enemy will thus see little more than the gun itself and the part of the turret above the gun. But because there is so little room inside the Soviet turrets for the rear end of the gun to move up and down, the gun can be depressed only to a limited degree, which means that the tank has to drive onto the ridge crest and expose more of itself to the enemy.
Listening to the GIs at Fort Hood explain these unwelcome attributes, it seemed more and more curious that the Soviet designers should deliberately opt for all these drawbacks simply to keep down the overall size of their product. Could there be another reason?
The orthodox view of Soviet weapons is that although they are less sophisticated than their U.S. counterparts their very simplicity makes them more reliable and easier to maintain. This notion is as ingrained as the overall assumptions about Soviet conventional superiority. In the one brief passage of their book The Armed Forces of the USSR devoted to weapons design, the hawkish scholars William F. Scott and Harriet F. Scott characterize Soviet weapons as being "rugged, well constructed, and capable of doing the task assigned."
The men of the Fort Hood Opfors unit were unimpressed with this view. "It's very cramped inside," the captain in charge pointed out. "They use a manual transmission which is very hard to drive, very tedious for the driver. In fact, the drivers are issued with sledgehammers to get the gears into gear." One sergeant asked me, "If Soviet tanks are so well designed, how is it that to take out the engine you have to take the turret off first, and that takes half a day?"
It was, in fact, the engine and transmission that seemed to cause most of the problems. The day I arrived, the commanding captain was despondent because the enlisted man who knew how to repair the transmissions of their tanks had announced he was quitting the Army. Since that particular piece of equipment apparently broke down at least once a week, the entire unit was in danger of grinding to a halt. The engines themselves were just as fallible, considered by the Fort Hood soldiers to be simple, even crude, in design but very unreliable.
The Soviets themselves do not expect these engines to be long lasting. The official operating manual issued when the T-62s now sitting in Texas were factory-fresh stipulated that the engine must be given a total over-haul after 250 hours of operation. The tanks are discarded entirely after 500 hours. The American M-60s, by comparison, require no major maintenance to their engines, or even the more delicate transmission, until they have been driven for at least 500 hours. To put military technology overall into perspective, it should be pointed out that a long-distance Western commercial truck engine, which approaches the power output of a tank engine, is expected to last for i0,000 hours without an overhaul.
Even the Soviet engine's official life-span of 250 hours may be overoptimistic. The Czech army adopted the practice of totally rebuilding the engines of the tanks they received from Russia after it was discovered that they wore out, because of sloppy construction, after 100 hours. All tanks are unreliable but, despite public testimonials to the ruggedness and reliability of Soviet tanks, unpublicized Pentagon estimates indicate the Soviet tanks are expected to break down about once every 100 miles, as compared with once every 150 miles for the NATO vehicles.
This raises a crucial point. If the Soviets cannot equal the standards of Western tank reliability, perhaps they also cannot make their engines more powerful. In other words, Soviet tanks remain small, with consequent reductions in the effectiveness of the crew and weapons, because the Soviets cannot build an engine powerful enough to move anything bigger.
Both the reputation and the design of nearly all modern Soviet tanks are derived from a model called the T-34. It was commissioned in 1938 by Stalin himself over the objections of his senior military experts, who had hankered after something far more complex. Designed by two young engineers, Mikhail Koshkin and Aleksandr Morozov, the T-34 went into production at the end of 1940. Alone among the thousands of tanks the Soviets had on hand when the invasion came six months later, the small force of T-34s that had been built by that time proved able to take on and defeat the German panzers. The T-34 had thicker armor and a more powerful gun than the German tanks, and its engine, derived, curiously enough, from a diesel engine developed by the French in 1928 for use in dirigibles, provided important advantages. Up until then, no one had used a diesel engine in a tank, but this one, which gave a power output of 500 horsepower, was able to provide more miles to the gallon than anything the Germans had, and the diesel fuel was less flammable than the gasoline used in other tanks at the time.
The T-34 was simple to build and required no great technical skills to operate. The Russians could and did produce enormous numbers of them -40,000 during the course of the war—at very low cost. Later on in the war, the Germans developed the Tiger and Panther tanks, which, al-though technically superior to the T-34, proved to be complex, unreliable, and extremely difficult to maintain.
Lauded by experts as the most effective tank of the war, the T-34's success is often ascribed to its being "crudely built, but rugged and reliable." Such descriptions are a little misleading. The tanks were certainly crudely built, which is not surprising, since the wartime labor force consisted mostly of women working backbreaking hours on a minimal diet. The design paid little heed to the comfort or even safety of the crew. The commander and loader—the commander also served as gunner—had their seats fixed to the turret ring, which meant that they did not revolve with the turret. This, in turn, required them to shift in their seats, since the gun recoiled 14 inches with lethal force when fired. The driver could see very little out of his window slit, so that unless the tank was on a straight course, the commander constantly had to shout driving instructions. At the same time, the hard-pressed commander had to determine the range of the targets and aim and fire the gun, while making very sure that he was not in the path of the recoil. Only troop commanders' tanks —one in every four—had radios, so the others, in addition to their other exacting duties, had to keep an eye peeled for signal flags from the troop commander for any special instructions.
The Germans were certainly highly impressed with their enemy's tank, but apart from its diesel engine, powerful gun, and thick armor, they considered its most formidable attribute to be its ability to keep moving in peculiarly unpleasant and difficult Russian conditions—heavy snow and thick mud. The Soviet tank could do this because it had a wider track, which could better bear the weight of the tank on soft surfaces, and while the finely crafted running gear of the panzers was frozen stuck, the sloppy tolerances of the crudely built T-34s enabled these tanks to keep moving. It was this kind of ruggedness that gave rise to the legend of the T-34's reliability. The individual components may have been few—the Russians worked constantly at reducing the number of moving parts—but they frequently broke down. The transmissions were so delicate that tanks would be sent into battle with spare sets roped to the decks. When American analysts had the opportunity to make a close examination of T-34s captured in the Korean War, they found that some components had a working life of about 14 hours.
The T-34 bequeathed its reputation for rugged reliability to the models that the Soviets have produced since the war. It also passed on many of its salient design features (possibly because one of its creators, Morozov, remained the principal Soviet tank designer)—relatively small size, low profile, extreme discomfort for the crew, and the engine. The succeeding tanks—the T-54, T-55, T-62, T-64, and T-72—are indeed larger and heavier because the caliber of the gun and the thickness of the armor have grown. The power of the engine, however, has not increased to anything like the same degree.
While the T-34 had a 500-horsepower engine to propel its 26 metric tons, the succeeding T-54 and T-55 were more than a third heavier, while the power of the engine had increased only 16 percent, to 58o horse-power. The next in line, the T-62, weighed 36 metric tons, although the engine output remained unchanged. Thus, each succeeding model was progressively more underpowered and sluggish.
Then, in the mid-1960s, the Russians decided to break with tradition. They introduced a new tank, the T-64, which was radically different in many ways from its predecessors, including a new engine. The designers, were unable, however, to go so far as to produce a totally original design. For inspiration they turned to an engine developed at about the same time for a new British tank called the Chieftain. This was not a particularly happy choice, since the Chieftain engine turned out to be not powerful enough for the load it had to carry and prone to incessant breakdowns. The Iranian army found it so poor, in fact, that it cancelled its order. The CIA even singled it out for special opprobrium. Testifying before Congress, former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner remarked that, by comparison with Soviet tanks, "the heavier weights [of NATO tanks] have not hampered mobility because they have adequate power. The British Chieftain is an exception."
Adapted and fitted in the T-64, the British design lived down to its reputation. Viktor Suvorov, whose unit was issued with T-64s early in 1967, recalls that "the engine itself was not only bad, it was disgusting. Several teams of workers and engineers, and a gang of designers, were sent along simply to maintain our one tank regiment. But they could not hope to solve problems arising from the engine's design, try as they might."
Although the Soviets still have many tank units in Eastern Europe equipped with the T-64, there are indications that the authorities concur with Suvorov's unflattering verdict. It is either being produced in very limited numbers (it is very hard to kill a defense program in Russia, remember the MiG-25) and may even have been taken out of production altogether. More conclusively, the next model they developed, the T-72 (unlike aircraft, Soviet tanks are not given nicknames by NATO), was similar to the T-64 in most important respects save for the engine. For that, the Soviet designers reverted to the venerable design first used in the wartime T-34.
Soviet technical publications and the Pentagon concur in estimating the power of the T-72 at 78o horsepower, but there are grounds for scepticism. It is very hard to take a forty-year-old engine and suddenly discover a way of getting it to produce an additional 200 horsepower. One possible method would be to use a turbocharger—literally forcing the fuel-air mixture into the cylinder. But since the forty-year-old engine was not designed for such pressures, use of this device would have the effect of wearing out the engine at an accelerated pace. In this case, the T-72'S rate of engine breakdown would exceed even the impressive figures for the rest of the Soviet tank arsenal.
The surest indication that the Soviet tank designers have not succeeded in developing a more powerful tank is the unchanged situation of the unfortunate crewmen. The most radical innovation in the T-64, apart from the "disgusting" engine, was the elimination of the loader and his replacement by an automatic mechanism. In theory, this represented an advance of the kind Dr. Luns has in mind when he refers to NATO having "lost much of the technological advantage" it formerly enjoyed. Unfortunately, the automatic loader has proved to have its drawbacks, because like many of the "technological breakthroughs" in modern weaponry on both sides of the Iron Curtain, it is more elegant in conception than in reality.
The loader works in this way. Ammunition is divided into two parts—the propellant charges and the projectiles themselves—which are arranged vertically in a circular tray beside the gunner. To load the gun, a mechanical arm comes down, picks up both charge and shell, and inserts first the projectile and then the charge into the breech, which then slams shut automatically. Unhappily for the gunner, the mechanical arm some-times selects either his leg or arm and loads that into the breech instead. One U.S. Army officer has been quoted as suggesting "this is how the Red Army Chorus gets its soprano section." As late as 1979, long after the system had been introduced into service, Soviet tank gunners in East Germany were under orders to dispense with the automatic loader and do the whole business by hand, loading both shell and charge separately, as well as aiming and firing the gun. This effectively reduces the tank's rate of fire to one or two shots a minute, as opposed to seven or eight for a U.S. tank.
It is, in fact, the guns that make the main difference between one Soviet tank and the next. Tanks carry two kinds of weapons: machine guns, which are very important for use against enemy infantry and aircraft, and the more prominent main cannon, used for combat with other tanks. One of the basic imperatives in tank development is to build a gun powerful enough to penetrate the armor of your enemy's tank, while making your own armor strong enough to repel his projectiles. The larger the caliber of a gun (the diameter of its barrel), the larger the projectile it can fire. Soviet tank guns have traditionally been bigger than their Western con-temporaries. Nowadays, the guns on the T-72 and T-64 tanks are 125 millimeters in caliber, as opposed to the standard 1o5-millimeter guns found on all American tanks. Since the Soviet vehicles are otherwise smaller than their Western equivalents, the long protruding gun barrel gives them an impressively threatening aspect.
Size is important in tank guns, but so are a lot of other things. Much depends on the velocity of the gun—meaning how fast its projectiles travel. Even more hangs on the quality of the ammunition—whether it is stable in flight, so that it hits the target at the proper angle, and whether it is good at penetrating the enemy armor, which can be as much as 50 centimeters thick. None of these attributes can be of any use if the gun is inaccurate in the first place. Big guns can throw a projectile farther than smaller ones, but this does not count for much in tank warfare, since tanks tend to fight at close quarters. Even in the open sandy expanses of the Middle East, Arab and Israeli tanks have usually fought at distances of considerably less than half a mile, although their guns had ranges of more than three times that distance.
Russian tanks have bigger projectiles to hurl at their opponents—which means of course that they can carry fewer of them and have a lower rate of fire. Further, the better penetrating power of the bigger cannon is wiped out by poorer accuracy and ammunition that is less efficient in penetrating armor. The standard 105-millimeter gun, originally designed by the British, which is used in most NATO tanks, is "rifled" with grooves inside the barrel to make the projectile spin in flight, thus helping its accuracy and stability in flight. Soviet tank guns also used to be rifled until the development of the T-62 in the early 1960s. At that time the Soviets decided to make the gun bigger than any other in the world but also to make it "smoothbored." By eliminating the rifling, they achieved a longer, thinner projectile and a higher velocity but paid a penalty in accuracy and stability. The T-64 and T-72, with their enormous 125-mm gun, continue to embody the Soviet preference for size over precision, although, as Suvorov recounts, the troops were not impressed by its capabilities:
From the very first look we all liked the 125 mm. gun. It was the most powerful gun in the world and no tank had ever had anything like it before. Because of its amazing initial velocity, its shells could tear away the turrets of tank targets and hurl them a distance of about ten meters (tank turrets weigh eight or even twelve tons).
But now, upon closer acquaintance, our delight with the T-64s had begun gradually to fade. The gun was certainly all powerful but, in their endeavor to increase the initial velocity of the shell, the designers had made it not rifled, but smooth bored, as in the T-62, and this immediately adversely affected its accuracy. In fact, it was an all-powerful gun, which always missed its target.
On the occasions when the T-64 or T-72 does hit the target, the results may be less than satisfying. Antitank rounds come in two basic varieties: those that penetrate the target armor by means of a shaped-charge explosive, which literally melts a hole through the steel, and those that rely on kinetic energy to pierce the armor. U.S. Army tests of both the big Russian 115-mm T-62 ammunition and its smaller Western counterparts indicate that all that impressive bulk does not really make much difference. Assuming the projectile hits the target perfectly nose-on, which is vital for full effectiveness and which is by no means a foregone conclusion in the case of an unrifled gun, the T-62 gun should be able to send a kinetic-energy projectile—which is basically solid metal—through 228 millimeters of armor at 1,000 meters range. The l05-millimeter gun used in all American tanks can send the same type of projectile through 275 millimeters of
armor at the same range.
The same kind of detailed information is not available about the per‑
formance of the bigger and more modern Soviet tank guns, although there is a persistent rumor among interested circles that U.S. Army intelligence has had an undamaged T-72 in its possession since sometime in 1981. The unverified story is that the tank was obtained with the assistance of British intelligence as a by-product of the fighting in Afghanistan, driven across
that country's border with Pakistan by Afghan army defectors.
Precedent suggests that the T-7 2 gun should compare unfavorably with the 105-mm gun on American tanks, as does the evidence of former Captain Suvorov and the results of its use in combat by the Syrian army.
The Israeli army encountered the T-72 for the first time during its invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, and this model appears to have per-formed with no more success than the earlier models of Soviet tanks in Syrian hands—the Israelis succeeded in knocking out at least ten T-62s in the very first engagement. When I asked the Israeli tank general Peled how they had managed to defeat the most modern Soviet tank so easily, he replied that it was not a matter of any Israeli secret weapon (despite reports to the contrary emanating from the Pentagon) but simply a matter of the effectiveness of the trusty 1o5-millimeter gun on Israeli tanks old and new. He might also have mentioned that these effects were achieved without the latest American-designed ammunition, particularly one variety of kinetic round which is made of a particularly dense and highly incendiary material called DU, for depleted uranium, a nonradioactive by-product of the nuclear industry. Although the Russians have abundant supplies of DU, they appear not to have mastered the technique of milling it for this purpose and instead rely on a substitute of inferior density and grossly inferior incendiary qualities called tungsten carbide, or on steel, which is even less satisfactory.
Despite its inauspicious combat debut, the reputation of the T-72 will quite probably continue to shine brightly as far as the Pentagon is concerned. Even while Syrian T-72s were still smoldering in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, the U.S. Army was reported as assessing the T-72 to be superior to its latest tank, the M-1, in many respects, including its gun and
rate of fire.
It may be that this conclusion was based on an objective examination of the purloined T-72, but history indicates that even such hard evidence can be treated in a very subjective manner. Back in the 1960s, when the T-55 was the main Soviet battle tank, the U.S. Army insisted on the basis of engineering calculations derived from measuring covertly obtained sample tanks, that the T-55's 100-millimeter gun was quite powerful enough to knock holes in U.S. M-48s; similarly, the Army claimed the American tanks could destroy the T-55 with the U.S. 9o-millimeter weapon. When the two tanks finally confronted each other in the 1967 Middle East war, it transpired that neither of them had the wherewithal to punch holes in the other's frontal armor. The Army, it seemed, had not wished to test its theories about the effectiveness of either Soviet or American tanks by actually carrying out any practical firing tests.
These two modern Soviet tanks, the T-72 and T-64, have received more than a passing mention here because their treatment at the hands of the threat estimators is such a perfect example of the way in which Soviet military power as a whole is customarily portrayed by Western military officialdom. No matter that the enormous gun is no more effective than the far older Western weapon and that the automatic loader "eats" crew-men, the Pentagon will pay tribute to these "unique and innovative features." The T-72 engine may still have a block made of highly flammable aluminum because a French designer sometime in the late 1920s decided that would be suitable for a dirigible engine (the progenitor, remember, of the T-34 motor). The T-64, which, along with the T-62, is the tank used in all the Eastern European Soviet units, may have a "disgusting" engine, and a gun which "always misses the target," yet such imperfections are not allowed to diminish the threat of a Soviet armored onslaught on Europe. Nor, presumably, when the Pentagon planners concluded that a Soviet invasion of the Middle East oil states could only be halted with nuclear weapons did they pay heed to the considered judgment of the Indian army, which refused to buy more than a token number of T-72s on the grounds that the vehicle could not stand up to desert conditions (sand).
As so often in the matter of the East-West military balance, the explanation for this attitude must be found in the exigencies of internal U.S. military politics. After producing the M-6o, the U.S. Army tank developers fell on hard times. In the mid-1960s, they began developing, at great expense, a tank of baroque complexity called the MBT-70. They justified this on the basis of an entirely spurious set of assumptions about the threat of the T-62. After repeated test failures, including a disastrous automatic loader, and mushrooming overruns, the Congress cancelled the program and directed the Army to design a cheaper, less complex tank. Thus balked in their endeavors, they turned their efforts at the beginning of the 1970s to an allegedly simpler design called the XM-803; this too was cancelled when the Congress found that the cost matched that of the MBT-70. Returning to the drawing board the Army came up with the M-1. This they opted to power with a gas-turbine engine, a variation on the jet engines normally used in aircraft, which at least had the merit of novelty. Although the main cannon chosen for the early models of this new tank was the tried and true 105-millimeter gun, the army announced plans to change at a later date to a 12o-millimeter smoothbored gun of German design.
The mounting expense of the M-1 program generated heavy Congressional criticism, to which the Army responded by invoking the specter of the T-64 and T-72. Only the M-1, it was claimed, could hope to stem a steel tide of these sophisticated behemoths.
The result has been what might be construed as a friendly gesture by the U.S. Army generals to their counterparts in the Soviet ground forces, because the M-1 has deficiencies which go a long way toward offsetting those of its Soviet counterparts. Even as it went into full-scale production in 1980, Army tests showed that on average it broke down once every 43 miles. The extra fuel required by the gas-turbine engine means that its cruising range is two-thirds that of the venerable M-6o. When the new and bigger gun is introduced, with a consequent increase in the size of the individual shells, the tank will be able to hold no more ammunition than the 40 rounds carried by the T-72, a drop of 23 from the M-60's ammunition capability.
American tank soldiers may yet come to remember the M-6o with increasing nostalgia, just as Soviet tankers are inclined to favorably compare the twenty-five-year-old T-55 with its more complex successors.
As more evidence becomes public about the performance of the T-72 in battle, American pronouncements about its capabilities will probably become more objective. There appears to be a pattern to official assessments of Soviet weapons. Newly developed or developing U.S. systems are usually described as superior to their Soviet contemporaries but threatened by imminent Soviet developments. For example, the May 6, 1982, issue of the in-house Pentagon journal Pentagram News describes the M-1 as "a better tank" than the T-72, but the Soviets are working on a new tank, the T-8o, which is expected to be its equal." The M-6o fits neatly into this scheme of things, being considered "better than the T-54, 55, and 62, but slightly inferior to the T-64 and T-72." One should note the absence of any suggestion that weapons may develop retrogressively or that newer does not necessarily equal better.
Tanks are agreed by both friends and enemies to be the cutting edge of Soviet conventional military might, but they do not operate in isolation. They are an integral although preeminent part of what the U.S. military anticipate will be "a combined arms team that can move in a quick armored thrust across Europe" made up, according to former Defense Intelligence Agency director Harold Aaron, of "self-propelled personnel carriers which can fire on the move, tanks, and self-propelled artillery."
If the Soviets were to embark on such a "quick armored thrust," they would have to transport most of their infantry in a vehicle called a BTR-60 (from BroneTranspoRter, "armored personnel carrier"). Although first introduced in 1961, it is still the most widely used troop carrier in the Soviet army. Consisting of a long boat-shaped steel body riding on eight massive wheels, it presents a formidable appearance, but appearance is not the best way to judge weapons, particularly Soviet ones. This 12-ton vehicle, which can carry 14 soldiers as well as its two-man crew, is powered by a gasoline rather than diesel engine, reportedly because at the time it was developed the Soviets were short of diesel fuel. They were also, however, short of a sufficiently powerful gasoline engine, so they used two small engines that had been originally developed for a farm truck in the 19305. This complicated matters, since with two engines they also had to include two clutches, two transmissions, two distributors, and two starters. For this Rube Goldberg arrangement to perform properly, all the parts in each system must work reliably and in synchronization. If the synchronization breaks down, which, according to Viktor Suvorov, happens every day, one of the engines has to be urgently disconnected, leaving just one 9o-horsepower engine to propel the r 2-ton "coffin on wheels," as it is invariably called by the soldiers. The U.S. Army Soviet-equipment specialists, headquartered in Aberdeen, Maryland, have found the engine system so complex and unreliable that they have long since adopted the expedient of substituting American engines in their fleet of BTRs.
Troops only ride into battle in a BTR and its Western contemporaries; they cannot fight from it. In the early 1960s, however, American and then Soviet generals began dreaming of an armored vehicle from which troops could shoot, like a rolling fort. Accordingly, for their succeeding vehicle, which was introduced in 1967, the Soviets produced a troop carrier which would not only carry troops in armored safety through the thick of battle but would also allow them to shoot from portholes and from a small turret. The BMP, as this carrier is known (from Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty, "armored vehicle infantry"), has aroused considerable enthusiasm among U.S. Army generals. "This is probably the best infantry carrier in the world," Defense Intelligence Agency director General Harold Aaron told a Congressional committee in 1978. "Built around 1967, it can carry a Soviet squad [eight soldiers]. Sure they are rather constrained, but the average soldier is only about five feet six inches tall. The BMP has a 73-millimeter gun, which can knock out a tank at about 800 meters. It has a Sagger missile on top that can reach out 3,000 meters. It can travel across water. It is a good system."
Viewing a BMP from the outside, it is easy to understand the general's enthusiasm. Moving on tracks rather than wheels, it resembles a tank, except that the gun and turret are small in proportion to the rest of the vehicle. The men inside sit back to back, ready to blaze away with their automatic rifles through small rifle slits in the sides, while the gunner uses the cannon and missile to do in enemy tanks. Thus protected, they should be impervious to shot or shell, or even, because of a complex air-filtration system, to poison gas and radioactive fallout. When the occasion demands it, the men can dismount through the two rear doors.
It would require a Saul Steinberg to illustrate the difference in perspective between looking at this battlewagon from the outside and sitting crouched inside it in the middle of a battle. The men peer out through their rifle slits or small periscopes, but individually they can see very little. Should they choose to fire, they will choke on their own gun gases. They probably know that the 6 millimeters of armor over their heads is too thin to keep out artillery shrapnel and medium-machine-gun bullets and that because they are totally enclosed, any kind of shell or rocket that penetrates the armor, or an exploding mine underneath, will probably kill them all. BMP crews in Afghanistan have paid dearly for the designers' folly in incorporating extra fuel tanks in the rear doors. The guerrillas have discovered that a heavy machine-gun burst will light the fuel and trap the crew, unless they can get out the roof hatches in time. The gunner, like his ill-fated colleagues in the T-64 and T-72, must cope with an automatic loader, which has a tendency to "eat" arms. In any case, the turret "gun" is not a proper gun. Rather, it is a short-range rocket launcher that fires a much punier projectile than the ordinary shoulder-fired RPG-7 rocket carried in every Soviet infantry squad. The projectile fired from the BMP is so unstable in flight that it gets blown about by any strong crosswind, making it extremely difficult for the gunner to aim. It may be for this reason that on the BMP-2, which was exhibited for the first time in the Red Square parade in 1982, the Soviets have substituted a 3o-millimeter high-velocity cannon. Since the engine is half of the standard tank engine, there is no reason to believe that it will be any more reliable.
The avidity of both the Soviet and American high commands to send their men into battle encased in such vehicles is curious. Since a troop carrier must be large enough to carry a squad or so of men, it cannot have armor thick enough to keep out much more than small-arms fire, yet if it has a roof it will always be enough to trap the inmates and the results of any interior explosion together. The rank and file have a better appreciation of this than generals and weapons designers; it is very hard to find any combat pictures from the Vietnam War of the American version of the BTR—the M-113—in which the men are not riding on top of the vehicle. The troops decided that sitting exposed to the elements and snipers was preferable to crouching inside the coffin, and judging by news footage of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli troops using American-supplied M-113s have made the same choice. Passengers in the U.S. vehicle do indeed face a hazard that the Soviet designers have spared their men—the M-113 armor is made of aluminum. When hit by infantry antitank weapons, part of the aluminum vaporizes and explodes; the rest melts and spatters the troops inside with lethal fragments, which burns and melts in flaming droplets when hit. Despite this, the U.S. Army is pressing ahead with its own version of the BMP. Known as the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, it can only carry six troops in addition to the commander, gunner, and driver. Although supposedly able to emulate the BMP's ability to swim rivers, it has tended to sink in tests. The breakdown rate is high, and the dangerous aluminum armor has been retained, and indeed thickened, which makes it even more lethal. Nevertheless, according to Pentagram News, "it is believed to be superior to the Soviet BMP."
Even a relatively cursory examination of some of the weapons crucial for any kind of Soviet armored invasion shows their equipment in a very different light from the way in which it is normally presented. Their weapons are often commended for being "simple" and "reliable," and simultaneously are commended for incorporating advanced systems which diminish the West's technological advantage. The cursing GIs at Fort Hood attempting to repair their Soviet tanks regarded them as simply designed but not reliable. Using two weak engines to power a vehicle for lack of one powerful engine to do the job may be a simple conception, but it is hardly simple or reliable in execution. A device which loads shells automatically into a gun may seem technologically sophisticated until soldiers start losing legs and arms.
Each of these vehicles has its individual foibles, but there is a common theme: the lack of efficient and reliable power trains—the combination of engine and transmission and driveshafts. The importance of this cannot be overestimated, particularly for an army that is, by common agreement among friend and foe, organized for a rapid offensive thrust into enemy territory. Stalin said at the outset of World War II that "modern war depends on engines." His words, relevant in 1941, are even more to the point today. The "combined arms team" that so impresses Pentagon officials like General Aaron includes many different kinds of mobile weapons besides the tanks and troop carriers. However, these weapons also share many of the same disabilities and even in a large number of cases the very same engines as the weapons discussed above.
For example, graphic illustrations of a Soviet combined arms army on the march depict an impressive array of accompanying antiaircraft weapons, which protect the ground forces against attacks at high and low altitudes. Discussion of these weapons in Western technical literature tends to focus on the operation of the guns and missiles themselves, with only passing mention of their means of transport. Yet it appears that two of the most important mobile systems for defense against low-flying aircraft—the SAM-6 surface-to-air missile and the ZSU-23-4 multiple-rapidfiring cannon—travel on an overloaded version of a light tank chassis powered by a half-version of the ubiquitous and unreliable tank engine. A larger antiaircraft cannon called the ZSU-57, which drives on the full-sized engine, was purchased by the Iranians in the late 1960s. After some unhappy experiences, the Iranian high command ordered that these supposedly mobile guns never be required to travel more than 18 miles under their own power, as they invariably broke down.
Even if the delicate 1930s technology of the power train can be kept working without mishap, the delicate machinery of the missiles and their radars may not. The SAM-8, which plays a major role in the Soviet scheme of mobile air defense systems, is considered by Western analysts to be very similar in design and operation to the Franco-German Roland missile, a system considered too delicate by the U.S. Army to accompany a division on the march.
The formidable reputation of Soviet SAMs really dates from two wars, the Vietnam War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The systems deployed by the Vietnamese will be discussed in Chapter 13, devoted to the Soviet troops of national air defense, rather than here, since the SAM-2 and SAM-3 missiles are too bulky to be moved from place to place with advancing or retreating troops and therefore are not considered to be mobile defense systems.
The impact of the SAMs during the Yom Kippur War came mainly from the fact that this was the first time that the previously omnipotent Israeli air force had suffered any kind of setback. Yet on close examination, it turns out that out of the l00 or so aircraft lost by the Israelis, only one-third were downed by missiles; the rest were killed by guns or fighters. Of the missile kills, very few came from SAM-6s—the Egyptians were only able to move two batteries of four launchers each across the Suez Canal during the entire war. Even without being moved, these particular missiles did not prove very effective in downing the Israeli planes. Even according to official Pentagon estimates, it took 55 missiles for every kill, although internal Israeli military sources insist that the true number was over 100 firings per kill. More recently, the Israelis are said to have incapacitated, in one strike, 19 batteries of Syrian SAM-6s during their 1982 invasion of Lebanon without the loss of a single aircraft.
Another, much smaller, SAM that emerged with a towering reputation from the 1973 Yom Kippur War was the hand-held SAM-7, designed to give the ordinary infantryman the ability to shoot down a jet plane. In fact, this weapon proved even less successful than the larger SAM-6—out of about 5,000 fired, only two scored definite kills, with four possibles. The reason for these unimpressive results becomes clear to anyone who looks beyond the mystique at the way the system actually works. It is heat seeking, which means that it homes in on the heat from the target's engine exhaust; but there are other sources of heat on the battlefield, such as the sun or decoy flares dropped by the intended victim. Even if the SAM-7 nevertheless hits the target, it may not destroy it. Like all hand-held weapons, the size and range of the missile is limited by the amount a man can carry and fire from his shoulder: about 30 pounds. This limit means that the SAM-7, like similar U.S. weapons, such as the Redeye and Stinger, cannot pack enough rocket propellant to catch a jet fighter maneuvering at 500 miles an hour, nor can it carry more than 1 pound of explosive warhead. As a result, only about 28 Israeli planes were struck by SAM-7s, or Strellas to use the Soviet nickname, and, of these, most suffered no more than a damaged exhaust pipe.
Because of its small size, the Strella has acquired an especial mystique as a guerrilla weapon. Afghan guerrillas, in particular, have made repeated pleas in interviews with Western journalists for supplies of these, as a counter to the Mi-24 Hind helicopters used by the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. It is less clear how effective these weapons actually prove to be when they do reach guerrilla hands. Certainly, when first used by the Vietcong against U.S. helicopters in 1972, they scored a hit on American aircraft and helicopters for every three missiles fired. The effect soon wore off, however, as the Americans learned that the missile could be neutralized by dropping a hot flare to attract its heat-seeking guidance system, a solution that was followed by bolt-on shields which cloaked the heat from the aircraft's exhausts. Nevertheless, these weapons have remained popular with guerrillas—the Afghans claim to have used one to shoot down a helicopter carrying the Soviet General Pyotr Shkidchenko in January 1982. The Afghans admit that the Strellas do have limitations. If a guerrilla fires at a helicopter and misses, he is in trouble, because the flash and smoke of the launch will have betrayed his position. There are reports that some sharp-shooting Afghans actually prefer .455-caliber (which is a very large bullet) elephant guns as antihelicopter weapons to the sophisticated guided missiles; these guns can inflict lethal damage on the helicopter's rotor, and they do not give away the attacker's position.
Although nineteenth-century elephant rifles may be an extreme expedient, guns remain the most deadly enemy of attacking aircraft, even in the age of missiles. During the Vietnam War, no less than 85 percent of the 3,000 planes lost by the Americans were downed by guns. Missiles ac-counted for 8 percent, and the North Vietnamese air force MiG interceptors for another 7 percent. Guns are effective because they and their ammunition are cheap compared to missiles, so it is possible to have a great many of them. They can provide continuous and overlapping fields of fire, and they can be aimed by human beings rather than highly fallible mechanical guidance systems.
It is important to note that individual guns are not particularly effective —historically, antiaircraft guns have used about 8,000 rounds for every plane hit. It is when they are used en masse that they can be deadly to an attacking force; the Hanoi air defense system that wreaked such execution on the fighter-bombers of the U.S. Air Force and Navy included more than 5,000 guns at the height of the war.
Given the proven effectiveness of guns, it is not surprising that one of the components of the Soviet ground force's mobile air defense system most heavily publicized by the Air Force generals concerned with attacking invading tank columns is the ZSU-23-4 system, more mellifluously known by its Soviet nickname, Shilka. It is a rapid-firing cannon with four 23-millimeter barrels, which are aimed by radar. The whole system is mounted on a tracked vehicle powered, as noted, by half of the familiar tank engine. The American generals speak somberly of the Shilkas, which are designed to move with a division near the front line, being able to put up a wall of lead so potent that one out of every three planes coming within range will supposedly be hit, a capability which is expressed in the original jargon as a "PK (probability of kill) of .3," thus making it very hard for the U.S. planes to hit Soviet tanks. As a result, the U.S. Air Force has concentrated on developing complex and expensive antitank weapons that can be launched from beyond Shilka range.
The Shilka is, in fact, a more sophisticated and expensive version of an earlier Soviet antiaircraft gun, which consisted merely of two 23-millimeter barrels mounted on a two-wheel trailer. This older system cannot propel itself, and it is aimed by human eye. By comparison, the ZSU-23-4 appears far more "advanced." It has its own engine to move it about, which appears less impressive to anyone who has a practical knowledge of the engine's performance, such as the men of the Fort Hood Opfors detachment.
The Shilka's guns are trained on the target by the system's computer, which receives information on the target's speed, height, and direction from the radar. Since even rapid-fire cannon shells take a certain amount of time to reach the target—up to 6 seconds at maximum Shilka range—the computer must calculate where the target will have got to a few seconds after the gun has fired, in much the same way as a duck hunter "leads" his target duck with his shotgun.
Unfortunately, pilots being fired on do not behave like ducks. They jink and weave as violently as possible. A jet aircraft flying at 400 miles an hour can move a long way in even 3 seconds, and there is no way that even the very best computer and radar can anticipate the direction in which the pilot is going to decide to turn before he does so, by which time it is too late.
Such doubts about the dubious benefits of radar guidance, which apply to all antiaircraft weapons aimed in this way, are reinforced by the results of the Pentagon's own tests with the weapon. The United States possesses a large number of working models of the ZSU-23-4, which have been used for an intensive series of tests, in which U.S. Army gunners fired thousands of rounds at remotely controlled drone targets and tracked hundreds of passes by real fighters. The tests took place under what are called "benign" conditions. The gunners were always forewarned of the approach of the targets, which flew past without exhibiting the realistically violent maneuvers that might be expected from planes flown by pilots in fear of their lives. The conclusion officially drawn from these tests was that the Shilka was just as deadly as had been feared and that it would claim, on the average, one victim from every three passes by enemy aircraft within range. However, unofficial reports from reliable sources attest that the actual results of the tests indicated something rather different: the effectiveness of this weapon, even in the most favorable conditions, was about 100 times worse than the Pentagon had chosen to believe. Further-more, the weapon is almost entirely useless against a maneuvering target.
Such a conclusion was and is entirely unwelcome to the U.S. Air Force, since it questions the logic of a very expensive program to develop and buy "standoff" weapons that are to be launched from aircraft well out of range of the deadly Shilkas. Prominent among these is the Maverick, a "smart" missile which homes in on enemy tanks. Although the Air Force has announced plans to buy 61,000 of the latest version of the Maverick, at S70,000 each, its detractors claim that the missile has been subjected only to the most benign tests, bearing no resemblance to real battlefield conditions. U.S. Air Force General John Vogt, who tried to subject an earlier version to operational tests while he was commander of U.S. air forces in Europe, found that the missile "craps out entirely in bad weather." To fire a Maverick, a pilot must fly straight and level for 10 or 20 seconds, which puts him in grave danger from guns or SAMs.
As a result of this manifestation of the American military appetite for complex and impractical high-technology systems, the Soviets may be spared some of the consequences of their own initiative in developing a complex high-technology cannon. All radar-guided guns and missiles share a common inability to track maneuvering targets, but the Shilka has some uniquely Soviet rough edges: apart from the ancient engine laboring under the hood, the gun barrels have a tendency to wear out after a short space of time, while the gun itself has an unfortunate habit of loosing off bursts of its own accord, which must be most unpleasant for any friendly forces that happen to be in the way.
All in all, there could be no neater example of the way in which the military machines of the superpowers advance along parallel lines. The Soviets have invested in the Shilka, which is so expensive that no more than 16 are allotted to a division. Thus, they have discarded the traditional advantages of guns—overlapping fields of fire, numbers to spare, and simple equipment. Some independent-minded analysts with practical experience in air-to-ground fighting in Southeast Asia consider, as one put it, "this gun makes the life of the fighter pilot that much safer."
Meanwhile, to evade the Shilka, the U.S. Air Force has withdrawn most of its ground-attack antitank planes to a safe distance and equipped them with the expensive and ineffective Maverick, while even more complex and costly standoff weapons are under development—all to absolutely no purpose and at great increase in risk to the pilot.
Weapons like the T-72 or the ZSU-23-4 represent some basic facets of Soviet weapons design: simple but unreliable mechanisms grafted onto ambitiously complex features which ruin combat effectiveness. It is fair to say that this is not the orthodox view of Soviet weaponry, which is best summed up in the words of former CIA director Stansfield Turner: "Soviet equipment tends to be more simplistic in design than ours, but it is
generally reliable for the purpose for which it is intended." It is hard to see how such a conclusion could survive any disinterested acquaintance-ship with, for example, the armored personnel carrier turret, the T-72's automatic loader, or the clutch and transmission of the Shilka.
The general reputation of Soviet weapons for ruggedness and reliability is more likely derived from a small number of untypical examples. The most familiar of these must be the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, the basic weapon of the Soviet infantryman. It is the most famous of all Soviet weapons, the only one, with the possible exception of the MiG-21 fighter, that is widely known by name among nonspecialist Westerners. Its fame and reputation are principally derived from its popularity among guerrilla movements around the world. The AK-47 is indeed rugged and reliable. It can stand up to any amount of wear and tear, can be handled and maintained by poorly trained fighters, and does not jam in the thick of combat.
The Kalashnikov rifle is named for its designer, Mikhail T. Kalashnikov. Kalashnikov served at the front during the war, which enabled him to study the virtues of an automatic rifle introduced by the Germans in 1943 called the Sturmgewehr. That weapon marked a fundamental break-through in automatic rifle design, not because of the actual mechanism but because it used a light cartridge. Military rifle designers have traditionally equipped their troops with guns that are ideal for accurate shooting in the restful single-shot conditions of the firing range over ranges of 500 yards. These guns are less useful in combat, where very few men have the time or the inclination to carefully aim their weapons, where the rate of timing is crucial, and where most combat takes place at a range of 50 yards or less. This being so, the ordinary infantryman is better suited to an automatic weapon firing in bursts, like a submachine gun, so he can react instantly without having to take careful aim. But the traditional rifle cannot be made automatic, because the bullets are heavy and the cartridges in the bullets have a powerful powder charge for long-range accuracy. As a result, the heavy recoil in automatic fire with such cartridges makes a shoulder-fired weapon unmanageable. What the Germans did was to re-duce the amount of powder in the cartridge so that the recoil was correspondingly diminished, which meant that the weapon could fire in bursts. Kalashnikov had the insight to appreciate the significance of this and incorporate it into the design of his own rifle, which first appeared in 1947. With few modifications, it has remained the basic infantry weapon of the Soviet and allied forces until the early 1980s.
The U.S. Army meanwhile had failed to produce a Sergeant Kalashnikov, or at least no one with his ideas was able to overcome the deep-rooted prejudice of the Army Ordnance Command in favor of big marksman-type rifle cartridges, which, in turn, necessitated big, heavy rifles, which cannot be fired in bursts. Large weapons of this kind have an added and deleterious effect on the soldiers' effectiveness because they decrease the amount of ammunition that infantrymen can carry. By the time a combat soldier is loaded up with the basic necessities of existence —rations, first-aid kit, water, and so forth—he has an upper limit of about 18 pounds for his rifle and its ammunition. Within that limit, the bulk of the weight can be accounted for by the ammunition or by the rifle itself; but if one is increased, the other must go down. The M-14 rifle, which was standard issue for American troops until the mid-1960s, allowed its owner to carry only an additional l00 rounds of ammunition, while the AK-47, with its lighter ammunition, meant that the Soviet soldier or a guerrilla could carry 180 rounds.
During the Vietnam War, the Americans changed rifles, despite bitter resistance from the Army's in-house bureaucracy, which had traditionally controlled the development of small arms. The new M-16 was smaller and lighter than the gun it replaced, mainly because it used a much smaller (though more lethal) bullet, which made it possible to reduce the overall size and weight of the weapon. U.S. soldiers could now patrol the jungles carrying no less than 300 rounds of ammunition. The success of this development was marred by the unremitting struggle of the small-arms bureaucrats against the M-16 (which had been privately developed by a brilliant American named Gene Stoner). Their resentment at this infringement of their prerogatives was carried to the lengths of actual sabotage of the gun, for which American troops in the field paid a heavy price.
The Russians appreciated the significance of the M-16's breakthrough, but only up to a point. In the mid-1970s, Mikhail Kalashnikov's institutional descendants (Kalashnikov died in 1972) introduced a modified rifle, the AKS-74, to replace the original gun. It used a smaller caliber bullet, so the weight and size of the barrel and ammunition went down and the amount of ammunition that a Soviet soldier could carry went up somewhat. But to take the full weight advantage of the small caliber, the Soviets would have to have redesigned the original Kalashnikov firing mechanism, which they did not do. This may well be because the Soviets now lack a gun designer with the brilliance of a Kalashnikov or a Stoner, a salutary reminder of the fact that weapons technology does not necessarily proceed on an upward curve. Furthermore, U.S. Army tests have revealed that the manufacturing quality of the AKS-74 ammunition is of such a low standard, which means that the rifle's accuracy is much poorer than that of the M-16.
This new rifle is a good example of an important aspect of the way weapons are designed in the Soviet Union nowadays: loyalty to a basic design, whether it be good, like the original AK-47, or bad, like the tank engine, coupled with a profound respect for American innovations regard-less of their utility. While the Soviet soldier will doubtless find the new AKS-74 adequate, this imitative trait is leading the Soviet forces into more serious trouble elsewhere.
In 1962 the Soviets introduced the RPG-7 antitank rocket launcher. In
essence the conceptual descendant of a very successful World War II German development, the Panzerfaust, this hand-held rocket launcher is simple to use and maintain and is extremely effective against tanks. In the 1973 war, the Israelis lost more tanks on the Syrian front to RPG-7s than to any other weapon.
The Americans meanwhile have failed to produce a light antitank weapon as successful as the RPG-7. For many years after the war, they relied on the bazooka, despite the fact that GIs had found it next to useless against German tanks and abandoned it in favor of the German Panzerfaust whenever they could. The reason it was useless was because the designers had made the explosive warhead too small to deal with anything but the softest target. The bazooka's lineal descendant, introduced in the early sixties, was the LAW (Light Antitank Weapon), which was designed to be fired from a disposable cardboard launcher; but it was still too light to inflict any damage on enemy armor. U.S. Marines who tried to use it against the vintage T-34 tanks operated by the North Vietnamese, which had very thin armor by today's standards, found that the charge, as one veteran bitterly recalls, "would just scorch the paint."
Undeterred, the U.S. Army decided to replace the LAW with yet an-other light antitank rocket of the same basic design called the Viper. The main differences are that the Viper has a longer range and a more expensive plastic launcher-container, which is thrown away after use. Unfortunately, as one observer put it, "the Viper suffers from a peculiar disability ... the weapon stands virtually no chance of knocking out a Soviet tank under most battlefield conditions." Once again, in insisting on a throwaway launcher light enough to be carried easily, the designers have made the warhead too puny.
Critics of the Pentagon's appetite for expensive—the Viper is supposed to cost $1 billion—and fundamentally useless weapons might at this point compare the unhappy lot of the U.S. GI with his more fortunate Soviet counterpart equipped with the proven and successful RPG-7. Only one awkward fact disturbs this scenario—the Soviets have copied the LAW. They too are introducing a light antitank weapon, which has a much smaller and therefore less effective warhead than the RPG-7. It too is carried in a cardboard disposable launch tube although, true to form, the Soviets have incorporated a uniquely deleterious feature: once the end of the tube is opened for firing, it cannot, unlike the U.S. original, be closed again, even if the target goes away.
The Soviet infantryman will pay a heavy price in combat for his superiors' admiration for the products of the U.S. antitank industry. But it is in the Soviet air force that we find the clearest examples of how U.S. fashions influence the other side.