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Ogarkov's mistake

The change in Marshal Ogarkov's standing has caught notice. He has fallen from grace, demoted from his job as chief of the Soviet General Staff and relegated to head the General Staff Academy. Reports that Mr. Ogarkov has not been undercut miss an important point: Traditionally, the only promotion possible for him would have been to minister of defense.

His mistake: For the past few years Ogarkov has challenged an organization that since its founding has dominated the Soviet military establishment. That organization is the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) of the USSR.

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The SRF was formed in 1960 to control the first deployments of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its creation was a source of enormous excitement, so much so in Nikita Khrushchev's case that he disbanded the Soviet Ground Forces, the army that had carried Russia to victory in World War II. He claimed that nuclear missiles were sufficient to deter enemies from attacking the USSR. Therefore, he asked, why should resources be expended on maintaining a large, expensive ground army? Khrushchev needed men elsewhere, to expand the civilian economy.

Khrushchev did not succeed in disbanding the Soviet Army over the long run. In fact, his effort to do so was one of several moves that cost him his job. The officer corps of the Soviet Ground Forces rose to defend their institution, and Khrushchev found himself in retirement.

Twenty years later, Marshal Ogarkov seems to be in similar trouble with the SRF, the very organization that inspired Khrushchev's costly decision. In the intervening years, the Rocket Forces grew into a powerful organization that was officially listed first among the Soviet armed services.

Ogarkov's writings suggest that, as chief of the General Staff, he decided to challenge the SRF's security. Two years ago he published a pamphlet that sparked the interest of Western specialists on the Soviet military. In it, Ogarkov declined to place the SRF in its usual position of prominence, or even mention it by name. Western readers took this to mean that at long last the Soviets were deemphasizing land-based ICBMs and beginning to acquire more submarine- and air-launched weapons. If they did so, their nuclear arsenal would become more flexible and survivable, and the Strategic Rocket Forces would become less important.

Ogarkov followed this first move on the SRF's position with an interview on May 9, 1984. He used the interview to advance a major idea. The time is here, he said, when acquiring more nuclear weapons has no purpose. More weapons fail to enhance deterrence, because neither side can acquire weapons enough to launch a disarming first strike. Ogarkov's conclusion from this? The USSR must build up its conventional forces.

By implication he was dealing another blow to the SRF. If his proposal were followed, the SRF would be denied resources in a bid to develop conventional weapons. Since the current five-year planning cycle ends in 1985, the SRF's problem was acute: If it lost the battle, the emphasis would swing to conventional weapons for the next five-year plan and beyond.

Other factors played a role in his demise. Soviet spokesmen have hinted that he was accused of unpartylike tendencies, which might be personality clashes with other top leaders or even attempts to impose decisions on the party hierarchy - punishable offenses.

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Rocket Force grievances do seem to make a compelling case for Ogarkov's demotion. In a rocky period of leadership succession, the SRF's case was doubtless strengthened by one important fact: Change is slow in Russia. The SRF represents long-established traditions, while Ogarkov was advancing innovative concepts of force employment and deterrence. Exploiting a period of change is always risky in the USSR, as Khrushchev found out 20 years ago. Khrushchev's failure did not prevent the healthy growth of the SRF, and after Ogarkov, conventional weapons will probably receive a greater share of Soviet military spending. The marshal may look back from his pensioner's status years hence and see that his efforts to reduce the importance of the SRF bore fruit. But today, such thoughts must bring cold comfort.