Monday, November 07, 2011

Lessons from USSR Intelligence Failure

Greetings from the Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, where Professor Paul Dibb is speaking on "Why did we get the collapse of the USSR so wrong?". It will be interesting to see what lessons there are for today. The ANU is expanding its defence teaching, providing strategic training for senior Australian Defence Force military staff.

Professor Dibb pointed out that the cold war was far higher risk that the current "War on Terrorism". He pointed out that as the USSR collapsed in the early 1990s, many students of strategic issues are too young to have lived through it.

Professor Dibb asked why the USSR's elite did not defend the state and how with a sudden collapse was a final conflagration avoided.

Professor Dibb recounted that when finishing his book "The Soviet Union: The Incomplete Superpower" in 1988, he was asked to meet the head of the public service, who said the DG of ONA would not accept him for a position because of his views on the USSR.

Professor Dibb then discussed the theory that military power depends on a strong economy. He argued that the USSR was a third world economy with a strong military. The USSR had a slowing economy, but not collapsing.

Professor Dibb then looked at the moral legitimacy of the USSR. He quoted Mikhail Gorbachev, for support of this view.

Professor Dibb argued that the arms race did not cause the collapse of the USSR. The USSR was able to build its own credible weapons systems, different to those of the West, from their own research resources.

Professor Dibb asserted that the Afghan war did not cause the collapse of the USSR, with their military doing well until the USA provided stinger missiles.

Professor Dibb pointed out that the USA had hundreds of people studying the USSR full time. The reasons he gave for them missing the collapse were:
  1. Not seeing the woods for the trees: Analysis was at a detailed level, particularly on specific weapons systems and not "seeing the woods for the trees".
  2. Just like us: Western analysts assumed their counterparts in the USSR would think the same as them. But the UK, USA and Australia have no hostile land borders and so have less worry of surprise attack.
  3. Electronic Surveillance: Powerful satellite surveillance gave western analysts a false sense of knowledge. This resulted in seeing USSR weapons systems which looked more powerful than they actually were. The systems looked good in the satellite photos, but did not work so well. The T-72 main battle tank was given as an example.
  4. Groupthink: There was a pressure for analysts to conform to the conventional view that the USSR was powerful.
Professor Dibb recommended The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman. He related several incidents where commercial airliners strayed into USSR airspace and the USA skirted the borders with military aircraft to collect intelligence.

Professor Dibb related that the NATO Able Archer 83 was close to proving a nuclear response from the USSR. UUSR aircraft were armed with nuclear weapons and were ready to retaliate to an expected attack.

Professor Dibb claimed that an agreement for nuclear reductions between President Regan and Gorbachev was vetoed at the last minute as the USA wanted to deploy its "star wars" strategic defense initiative (which was never deployed).

Professor Dibb said he did not know why the USSR military did not lash out in its final days. Had Gorbachev not precipitated the sudden collapse, Professor Dibb argued there could have been a gradual decline. What was not clear was if he saw this as less or more dangerous.

Professor Dibb argued the expansion of NATO to the Ukraine was an unnecessary provocation to Russia.

The collapse of the USSR brought about hubris in the USA. The USA made a mistake by not helping rebuild the USSR, with democratic institutions not taking hold.

Professor Dibb argued that the same intelligence mistakes are now being made over China, as were made with the USSR. China has some effective weapons (anti-ship missiles and a cyber-war capability) and significant "soft power", but has not fought a major war and it is not clear they are capable of doing so.

This was a very insightful presentation. At question time I asked Professor Dibb how Australian senior strategic thinkers should be trained differently (given ANU will be training some of them). He expressed concern in the decline in Asian language training generally in Australia and said that is one area to concentrate on. He also argued for encouraging broader thinking from analysts, without loss of rigor. He suggested that analysts should be asked what China's military weaknesses are, as well as their strengths: one might be that China can launch aircraft from its new aircraft carrier (Shi Lang), but not land them.

In answer to a question Professor Dibb pointed out that Russia has a sparsely populated region bordering China, which has potential for future conflict.

Professor Dibb pointed out that Australian policy developed under Kim Beasley was to welcome the USA to use Australian military bases but not have US based on Australian soil. There are differences in the USA and Australian world views which need to be kept in mind, despite much in common.

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