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PERSPECTIVE ON DEFENSE : What Will the Troops Do Now? : A restructuring of Soviet military forces is certain. We should drop our own empty debate and join the parade

May 20, 1990|GARY HART | Former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) is writing a book on the second Russian revolution

How does a giant military power go about dismantling a vast military machine, constructed over a half century at great cost and sacrifice, at a time when that great power's economy is beset by a multitude of problems? This question is not directed to the United States, although in many respects it might well be, but rather at the Soviet Union. And, of his many migraines, this might turn out to be one of Mikhail Gorbachev's most long-lasting.

Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze recently told me that sweeping reorganization and reduction of the Soviet military--based on a new, peaceful relationship with the West--has been a central premise of the perestroika syllogism from the beginning. But the reformers knew from the outset that they could not undertake sweeping reforms of the political and economic structures of the Soviet Union while the Cold War, the arms race and a policy of military confrontation depleted so much of their restricted resources.

Senior Soviet military officials insist that their institutions have always been scrupulously non-political. And history bears them out. By and large, the Soviet military does what it is told. But it is not so simple.

The Communist Party, as defined by the Bolsheviks, has consistently sought to indoctrinate Soviet military forces. Although one wonders what the ordinary recruit from Uzbekistan knows (or cares) about Marxism-Leninism, there have to be ties of some strength between senior military commanders and the party apparatus.

This must be true, since the party is increasingly becoming the conservative bulwark against perestroika . In virtually all of the discussions I have had with Soviet officials and observers, the military is placed on the right, conservative, anti- perestroika end of the political spectrum.

Still, presuming the policies of perestroika prevail, the size of the Soviet military will diminish overall by as many as 1 million or 2 million men by the end of the century. Where do these people go? What are their jobs? Where will they be housed? How can large numbers of weapons plants be converted to domestic production? These are daunting questions. Soviet negotiators in Hungary and Czechoslovakia have admitted that they cannot speed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from these countries because they don't have answers for these questions--the Soviets don't know what to do with these troops when they bring them home.

Perestroika leaders are also military reformers. They want to use this new era to undertake categorical reorganization of their military forces, including their military systems, doctrines and strategies. The best thinkers envision a Soviet military that is much smaller, more elite, better trained, better educated, better disciplined and more professional--a military whose mission is to protect and defend Soviet frontiers against all threats. In short, a defensive military.

This is not the Soviet military we have come to know and fear since 1945. But the military always reflects the society that creates it. And today's Soviet Union is not the same one we have known for half a century. The real question is whether we also have something to learn from all this.

1990 is a historic moment. Now is the time to reform our own military. Even the secretary of defense has reluctantly accepted the fact that our world has changed. But instead of having a hollow, unproductive debate about how much to cut, let's discuss what kind of defense structures we now need, what the threat is and, maybe, what our new strategies should be, how we should structure our forces to achieve our goals, how to make those forces truly effective, what kinds of weapons are needed and--only then--how much this should cost.

In the meantime we'd better also begin to debate what to do with the excess. We need a policy of economic conversion. Otherwise unneeded weapons production plants simply will be shut down, skilled workers laid off, communities disrupted and economies decimated.

Most assuredly, these questions are being hotly discussed in Moscow. For on the resolution of these issues could rest the future of Gorbachev, perestroika, the Soviet Union and perhaps world peace.

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