The Soviet Military Potential for Surprise Attack: Surprise, Superiority and Time



Irreverent though it may seem, perhaps the most purposeful way to embark upon this investigation is through a conundrum all too reminiscent of juvenile party games: when is a surprise not a surprise?1 Such whimsy, however, speedily gives way to a reality which is surpassing grim, precisely because this is a matter of life and death for the Soviet Union (and ourselves, for that matter). Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the spectre of ‘surprise attack’ haunts the Soviet mind, having dominated Soviet thinking for more than three decades, and shows little sign of abating with the passage of time. Much, though not all, can be explained by the massive trauma brought on by the devastating German surprise attack loosed upon the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, an attack which brought the Soviet system to the brink of catastrophe and from which recovery was agonising almost beyond belief; delineating this brush with extinction, apportioning blame and lauding recovery, furnishing alibis — even to the point of insisting that this ‘surprise’ was no ‘surprise’ — has occupied many years and produced some involved commentaries, as we shall see shortly. Meanwhile, by way of recent elaboration on this theme, Army General (now Marshal) V. Kulikov, writing at the time in his capacity as Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, insisted that ‘the most important consideration’ in relation to any future conflict was to ‘oppose an attempted enemy surprise attack’ not merely by defensive mechanisms but by utilising the combat readiness of the Soviet forces to parry an attack under any conditions and to encompass the decisive defeat of the enemy.


National Security Warsaw Pact Surprise Attack Soviet Force Severe Time Constraint 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    The bemusement is reflected equally in the title of Erich Helmdach’s monograph on the German attack in 1941, Überfall? Der sowjetischdeutsche Aufmarsch 1941 (3rd edn.), (Neckargemünd, 1976). An even more interesting study in ambiguous interpretation is to be found in a recent major British publication, Hinsley, F. H., et al., British Intelligence in the Second World War, Vol. 1, (London, HMSO, 1979), Chapter 14, ‘Barbarossa’, pp. 429–83 (also app. 15, ‘M(il) I(nt) Summary of German Troop Movements to the East April–June 1941). See also under the rubric of ‘Surprise’ (vnezapnost), Sovetskaya Voennaya Entsiklopediya (Moscow, Voenizdat, 1976, Vol. 2, pp. 161–3 (signed M. M. Kiryan).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Anfilov, V. A., Nachalo Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny, Moscow, Voenizdat (1962) (June–mid-July 1941): Bessmertnyi podvig (Moscow, Nauka, 1971) (enlarging on the entire ‘first phase’): Proval ‘blitskriga’ (Moscow, Nauka, 1974) (to the repulse of the Wehrmacht before Moscow).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    The level of connecting strategy and tactics: see Savkin, V. Ye., The Basic Principles of Operational Art and Tactics (Moscow, 1972: USAF translation, Vol. 4 in series Soviet Military Thought).Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Ruth M. Anderson has compiled an important study ‘Maskirovka: A Weapon for Peace or War’ and I am much indebted to it here; the Soviet literature on maskirovka is very extensive (such as Major-General V. A. Matsulenko, Operativnaya maskirovka voisk (Moscow, 1975)Google Scholar
  5. or N. P. Gordeyev, Maskirovka v boevykh deistviyakh flota (Moscow, Voenizdat 1971), with a definition in SVE, Vol. 5 (Voenizdat, 1978) pp. 175–7 under maskirovka, also maskirovochnye sredstva.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    Ivanov, S. P., Nachal’nyi period voiny (Moscow, Voenizdat. 1974), 357 pp., treating the manner to mobilise and deploy to achieve ‘surprise’: (a) maintaining a specific number of divisions in peacetime close to wartime establishment, (b) a large number of divisions which can be quickly expanded to war strength, (c) concentration points near the enemy frontier, (d) paramilitary organisations included in the total mobilisation preparations, for ‘organisational readiness’.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Kulikov, (loc. cit), laid much emphasis on predvidenie, particularly in ‘forecasting’ the nature of the strategic environment; for a theoretical study of predvidenie, see Konoplev, V. K., Nauchnoe predvidenie v voennom dele (Moscow, Voenizdat, 1974), 199 pp.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    See Ch. V. in Gouré, Leon, et al., The Role of Nuclear Forces in Current Soviet Strategy, (Miami, University of Miami 1975), pp. 101–18.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    See Vigor, Peter, The Soviet View of War, Peace and Neutrality (London, RKP, 1975), especially Part 2, pp. 5–159.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    See Brown, Harold, Secretary of Defence, DoD Annual Report Fiscal Year 1979 (2 February 1978), p. 53.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    It is difficult to pin down the exact context of manoeuvre, which seems at times to mean ‘types/methods of deployment’: for a most cogent and some excellent Soviet quotations, see Douglass Jr., J. D. and Hoeber, A. M. Soviet Military Thought on Global Nuclear War (1978: typed text, pp. 30–8), now printed as a monograph by the Hoover Institution.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    See Friedman, Norman, ‘The Soviet Mobilization Base’, Air Force Magazine (Fifth Annual Soviet Aerospace Almanac), Vol. 62, No. 3 (March 1979), pp. 65–71, on present Soviet ‘semimobilisation’ and types of economic mobilisation for (and in) war.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    Brown, Harold, Secretary of Defence, DoD Annual Report Fiscal Year 1980 (25 January 1979), p. 81.Google Scholar
  14. 28.
    See Bradsher, Henry S., on Soviet missile totals, The Washington Star (12 April 1979).Google Scholar
  15. 30.
    Many calculations and models are advanced to support a variety of conclusions relating to Soviet ‘first strike’ and United States ICBM vulnerability, Counter for ce Issues for the US Strategic Nuclear Forces, US Congress (Congressional Budget Office) Washington (January 1978), assembles under Appendix A and B data from the SNAPPER Force Exchange Model. For a recent British discussion of this problem, see Bellamy, Ian, ‘More Arithmetic of Deterrence, Throw-Weight, Radioactivity and Limited Nuclear War’, RUSI Journal, Vol. 124, No. 2 (June 1979), pp. 35–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. It is obviously impossible to ignore Jon M. Lodal’s major article, ‘SALT II and American Security’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 57 (1978) (No. 2), especially pp. 254–7.Google Scholar
  17. 32.
    Close, Robert, ‘L’Europe sans defense? 48 heures qui pourraient changer la face du monde (Brussels Edns. Arts et Voyages 1977). (Readied for English edition).Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    Dr Steven L. Canby in his paper: A Comparative Assessment of the NATO Corps Battle (November 1978) puts this most elegantly: ‘If allocation of second echelon reserves depends on exploiting the opportunities created by those regimental columns that succeed in working through NATO’s defences, it obviously follows that enemy commanders themselves do not know a priori the location of their own major thrusts. Accordingly there is no way sensors and good intelligence can discern the location of the main thrust.’Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr and Uri Ra’anan 1981

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations