The Soviet Union, which already enjoys an advantage over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in sheer numbers of troops and weapons in Europe, is rapidly closing the gap in the quality of military hardware by applying technology bought or stolen from the West, a new Pentagon study warns.
In the latest edition of "Soviet Military Power," scheduled to be released Friday, the Pentagon says the Soviets have acquired advanced Western computer, electronics and submarine technology "through surreptitious and illegal means," as well as legal purchases.
As a result, the study concludes, "the technological advantages in military capabilities now enjoyed by the West have been threatened, if not eroded."
Despite the alarmist tone of the annual report's conclusions, however, the study also found that the United States remains equal or superior to the Soviet Union in the quality of 25 of 31 major weapons systems, including all types of ships, aircraft and communications gear.
But the report warned that "the West's current technological lead is threatened by an extensive Soviet commitment to surpass the United States and its allies. . . . The United States and its allies must rethink how best to marshal the potential of superior national resources to exploit their technological advantages while the West still has a commanding lead."
The study noted that spending for military hardware and research is declining in the United States and Western Europe and urged a renewed commitment to funding for defense improvements.
The Pentagon report, which appears annually during congressional deliberations over the Defense Department budget, attempts for the first time to provide a "net assessment" of NATO versus Warsaw Pact forces in Europe.
While the study does not predict the outcome of a war in Europe, it points to NATO's "severe disadvantage" in ground forces and a "serious threat" posed by improvements in Warsaw Pact aircraft, including advanced fighters, aerial tankers and airborne warning and command systems.
The report also said the West trails in readiness for war and its ability to sustain combat. As a result, the report contended, NATO would probably have to resort to the use of nuclear weapons in a matter of "days or weeks" in the face of a Soviet assault.
"The most important thing is that it reconfirms my impression that we have a conventional imbalance in Europe, and it's serious and must be addressed," Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in response to the report.
The West's Choice
"The bottom line is either we need a conventional arms control agreement that is radically asymmetrical or we're going to have to do some major building up to reach rough equality," Quayle said.
Both of Quayle's alternatives may be impossible in the near term, however. American and Soviet negotiators have been talking about substantial reductions in arms and men in Europe for 16 years without result. And there is little prospect that the Administration will find money or congressional support for a major increase in military spending, particularly to build troop strength in Europe.
The Pentagon study noted that the Defense Department has adopted a "competitive strategies" approach to overcoming Soviet numerical advantages in weaponry by pitting U.S. strengths against enduring Soviet weaknesses.
For example, the United States enjoys a sizable advantage in high-speed data processing, microelectronics, aerodynamics and Stealth technology for making airplanes invisible to radar, the Pentagon said.
The United States intends to employ these technologies in building weapons--such as highly accurate cruise missiles, unmanned surveillance craft and "smart" self-guided bombs--capable of striking deep behind enemy lines to disrupt an attack.
The Soviets, however, already match or lead the West in the quality of tanks and artillery, as well as defense against air and missile attack, the report said. In the high-technology fields, the Soviets are making strides in battlefield lasers, biotechnology, radio jammers, sensors and exotic future technologies such as particle beams and other "directed energy" weapons.
"The Soviets are able to translate technology into weapons systems much faster than we are," said Harold Brown, who served as defense secretary in the Jimmy Carter Administration. "Their (procurement) system operates more smoothly. There are not as many layers of management, not as much instability in weapons programs."
Brown said each year's edition of "Soviet Military Power" finds a different Soviet challenge to highlight, whether it is submarines, ballistic missiles or territorial ambitions. "It's such an old story," he said.
He said the current version concentrates on technology because overall Soviet defense spending may be slowing because of weaknesses in the Soviet economy and U.S. military planners "are asking what else there is to worry about."