"THE FUTURE belon s to Russia. She grows and grows, and weighs on us like a nightmare"--thus the German chancellor in July 1914. Many German generals wanted to attack before it was too late, and theirs was a powerful voice in the making of the First World War. At the end of his book on the Soviet armed forces, Andrew Cockburn evokes the situation of 1914, to show how tragedy emerged from generals' losing their nerve at the outcome of a hugely complex arms race. His book is designed to show how unnecessary such panic is.

The German generals were, in a sense, quite right in their fear of Russia's future strength; and, in many ways, the fighting on the Eastern Front showed this. In another sense, they were wrong, for they had greatly underrated the difficulties with which any Russian military effort has to contend. Huge areas of backwardness and a plethora of nationalities, give the Red Army considerable problems. If the authorities centralize everything, then matters become cumbersome and far too complex; but if there is less centralization, then anarchy comes close. Soviet armed forces are therefore far less fearsome than Cold Warriors in the West often suppose.

Such is the purport of Andrew Cockburn's book about today's arms race. The book draws on several interesting sources: technical material, samizdat, and interviews, notably with former Red Army men who have emigrated and now live in New York's "Little Odessa." Cockburn claims, plausibly, that far too little has been made of this last source by American intelligence; but of course he also shows that American intelligence is quite swamped by the mass of material that it already has to digest (of which 40 tons are burned every day). The picture which results from this is a long way removed from that which the official Soviet and NATO versions supply. It is also different from the account given by the pseudonymous Viktor Suvorov, an ,emigr,e who, like the Czech Jan Sejna before him, projects a vision of Soviet power.

"Suvorov" is in some ways better informed, in that he served as a Soviet officer (of which experience he has written elsewhere), and so benefits from concrete knowledge. On the other hand, he oftens relapses into mere organizational description, and his knowlege of technical detail compares badly with Cockburn's. To take one instance: in 1978, a Korean civil aircraft en route from Paris to Alaska overflew Russian airspace by mistake: it was allowed to fly on, over the naval base at Murmansk, before it was intercepted and shot at. "Suvorov" accepts the Soviet official version of this, that missiles would not be used against civil aircraft, and since there was deep snow, aircraft could not be easily brought up for the interception. Cockburn has dug deeper, and if he is right then the story is much less complimentary to the Soviets (and much less fearsome to the Americans). The missile- system simply failed; pilots who should have been intercepting were in fact drunk; and even after the aircraft had been shot down, and had crash-landed on a frozen lake, the Soviets took 12 hours to find it. Somewhat later, a Finnish light aircraft strayed into Russia, landed, and took off again without interception. So much, Cockburn implies, for the Soviet air defense system. Similar digging on his part reveals a not dissimilar story for the Soviet submarine force-- hence all those incidents in Scandinavia. In fact, Cockburn's book faults the Soviet armed forces on practically every issue. Red soldiers are forbidden drink, but they get drunk on anti- freeze; food is dreadful, and there are mutinies; the nationalities cannot be trusted, and Moslem troops, for instance, can only be used either for construction work or for "internal security"--their hatred of Russians being such that they can be relied upon only against them. There is corruption (a famous case is cited, of a mediocrity's considerable advancement through agile flattery and connections). Recent mobilizations--whether Czechoslovakia, (almost) Poland or Afghanistan--have been a mess, and the coup against Prague in 1968 would not have worked had a ruse not put the airfield at Soviet disposal in the early hours of the invasion.

Soviet weaponry is judged badly. Whenever it has been displayed in the field (helicopters in Afghanistan, tanks in Egyptian or Iraqi hands, MiG aircraft flown out by defectors etc.) it has been woefully wanting. Tank engines break down after 250 hours and have to be thrown away after 500, whereas Western ones are supposed to last for 10,000. Czech troops, given Russian tanks, sometimes simply rebuild them before using them. The T72 appears to be built like an X-cell, and, as well, has a self- destructive loading system. True, Cockburn thinks quite highly of the Kalshnikov rifle, but that is about that.

The missile systems (SAM, SS20 etc.) also come in for skeptical treatment. True, the Soviet Union has more land-based ICBMs than the United States: but only about a third of them could actually be used, and the rest exist in varying states of unreliability and disrepair. The MiG25 has a range well below its designers' intentions, since, at high speeds, its turbines would be melted. Yet--and this is of course the point of Cockburn's book-- Soviet weaponry is taken as a model for the American response, so that the two sides keep step with each other, and always claim that the other is responsible. In the words of a Pentagon analyst, "Welcome to the world of strategic analysis, where we program weapons that don't work against threats that don't exist."

I was not wholly happy with Cockburn's conclusions. Perhaps he forgets that, on the ground, all armies show a M*A*S*H element which may be more impressive to their own soldiers than to their enemies. Much of what Cockburn says of the Soviet forces could have been applied to the Red Army of 1944 (as he himself admits) or even to the czarist army in 1916. Still, there is no doubt of the conviction in Cockburn's tone, and the extent of his excellently presented, and lightly borne, learning is such that readers of every level, and most political persuasions, will greatly profit from it.