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Soviet Military Slow to Change, House Panel Concludes

Times Staff Writer

Mikhail S. Gorbachev has managed to change the Soviet military’s description of its goals, but he has not been able to bring about fundamental changes in its policies as he wages his campaign to restructure the military system, a Democratic House panel concluded in a report released Monday.

The defense policy subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which assessed Gorbachev’s effect on his nation’s military, said the Soviet leader is “at a critical point” in trying to force his directives on the armed forces.

Sounding an optimistic note, the panel, headed by committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), said Gorbachev’s initiatives still “could potentially bring real changes in the way the Soviet military does business.”

Vows to Reshape Military

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Gorbachev has vowed to reshape the Soviet military into a smaller and more defensive force. So far, he has succeeded in persuading most Soviet military leaders to adopt both the language and the objectives of this shift, the report said.

“Gorbachev . . . has changed the terms of the debate,” the report said. “He has introduced a doctrinal justification for a reduced Soviet military establishment. . . . The Soviet military, for its part, has been forced to justify its resource claims in the new language of ‘sufficiency’ and ‘defense.’ ”

But the House panel cautioned that the Soviet Union’s cumbersome defense budgeting process probably will delay any hard evidence of Gorbachev’s efforts until 1991.

The panel predicted that Gorbachev will intensify his public campaign to win support for arms control initiatives but said that he also must use these proposals to coax cooperation from Soviet military leaders, who are wary of the sort of unilateral Soviet weapons reductions that many Western leaders have demanded.

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Dissenting Report

House Republicans, in a dissenting minority report, presented a more skeptical view. “Soviet public pronouncements are not reliable indicators of change in Soviet military doctrine,” said the Republicans, led by Rep. William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.).

“Western leaders should continue to be exceedingly cautious in their approach to Gorbachev’s ‘reform’ initiatives, including promises of monumental arms control agreements. We should wait for Soviet actions, not words, to demonstrate the degree to which they are serious about change,” their assessment said.

May Miss Opportunity

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The panel majority said that if the West fails to respond adequately to Gorbachev’s flurry of arms control initiatives, it risks missing an opportunity to conclude an arms control agreement that serves U.S. interests.

Summarizing the consensus of witnesses who appeared before the committee, the lawmakers concluded that “the Soviet Union appear(s) far ahead of the United States in preparing for serious talks on conventional (non-nuclear) arms control.”

In releasing the report, Aspin stressed that the United States must prepare a viable position for forthcoming talks with the Soviets on non-nuclear arms, which he said will enter a “critical” phase this year.

At this time, he said, “I don’t see it as a high priority of this Administration.”

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Last July, Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, the Soviet chief of staff, promised in visiting the United States for the first time that changes in the structure of Soviet forces would make them less menacing to the West. He urged U.S. military leaders to watch future military maneuvers for signs of the change.

But, while the panel observed “some changes in deployment and training practices,” it added that they had not yet heralded significant changes. The committee noted that in the past two years, Soviet defense spending has increased by 3% annually, almost double the growth rate of the 1981-86 period.

“The conclusion is inescapable that so far, the military’s budget has not been nicked by Gorbachev,” the report concluded.


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