The First Zapad Exercise & Its Significance Today by Gilberto Villahermosa

As Russia conducts its “Vostok” (East) military exercise, the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a review of one of the USSR’s largest military exercises ever held, “Zapad” (West) in 1977 can help put today’s military threat from Russia in perspective.

At the end of the 1970s the East-West correlation of military forces was, according to Soviet analysts, starting to shift in favor of the latter due to the introduction of high-tech weapon systems in ever larger large numbers. Similarly today, advanced technologies would favor the West over Russia in the event of a war.

Russia, however, retains a large strategic and tactical nuclear force numbering around 2,000 warheads. More importantly, inside the Kremlin there remains a continued belief in the utility of those weapons in the event of a large-scale conflict erupting in Europe or Asia. The following analysis of the first Zapad exercise can therefore provide insight into how Russia might wage a large-scale war (along with a look into the bluster and bravado that, then and now, always accompanies these things).

The 1977 Zapad maneuvers, which took place in what was then communist “East Germany,” were intended to assess the Warsaw Pact’s ability to counteract the progress recently noted in NATO’s combat readiness. The Western alliance had recently completed their own “Wintex” maneuvers, which was their largest one ever and, according to an East German assessment of it, the results had showed the forces playing the role of the Warsaw Pact attackers had fallen short of their objective.

Adding to the significance of Zapad, then, the Soviets’ own scenario assumed NATO would initiate hostilities under the guise of maneuvers such as Wintex. That theme appeared frequently in the late 1970s. Pact intelligence was well aware of NATO’s actual defensive plans, but that wasn’t enough to quell their uneasiness over the presence of so many opposing forces nearby during large-scale maneuvers.

Beyond all that, Zapad had three characteristics that made it unique among all Soviet/Pact exercises held prior to that time.

First, the exercise was distinct from previous ones in its large spatial scope. The commanders and headquarters involved worked in locations with realistic spaces between them. They also worked through the field problems under study using the “real time” method. That is, their decision-making was allowed no more time than was estimated would be available if such a war actually occurred.

Second, it was carried out using realistic staffing and initial positioning for the opposing sides. The hope there was the simulated realism would encourage everyone involved to show creativity and initiative in their search for the best means to solve operational problems.

Third, for the first time they studied in detail the use of armed forces all deployed under a single command headquarters that was itself inside the theater. The exercise boundaries ran from Rostock to Leipzig to Pilsen, just 100 to 150 kilometers east of what would’ve been the actual location of the initial actions in the war being modeled.

Within the initial premise of the exercise, the “Western Forces” were allowed to finish a covert mobilization and, under the further pretense of an exercise, they then successfully implemented a full operational deployment across the Central European theater.

The plan of the exercise’s “Eastern Forces” called for repulsing that initial surprise attack by the Western Forces, then introducing into the ongoing battle reserve fronts and armies to seize the initiative, defeat the spearhead echelons of the Western Forces and then move into a strategic counterattack. They further planned to inflict defeat on any forming enemy reserves, and to then complete the defeat of the aggressor on his own territory.

Overall, by the eighth day of the exercise the situation for the Eastern Forces was judged (perhaps not too surprisingly) to have turned out favorably for them. They were rated as “proficient” in taking the initiative, cutting off groups of Western Forces, and thereby creating the most favorable conditions for totally defeating them.

Under those shifting circumstances, on the 10th day of the exercise the Western Forces made the decision to use nuclear weapons, and then began preparation for that massive nuclear attack. The next day the Eastern Forces general headquarters sent a directive to all its land forces and the Baltic Fleet, warning them it had been confirmed the enemy was indeed preparing for a nuclear strike.

With the threat of nuclear attack by the Western Forces imminent, the commanders and headquarters at the Eastern Forces then concentrated their attention on their own plan for a nuclear strike. Their plan for getting in the first such strike was then judged to have been carried out in time by all involved Eastern Force headquarters, but not by a wide margin. That is, the Eastern Forces began launching their first nuclear attack on the Western Forces at 11:29 a.m. One minute later, the first enemy nuclear strike occurred.

By general calculation, the Western Forces launched 680 nuclear strikes at the Eastern Force troops along the front and in the Baltic Sea, and another 400 strikes went into the western regions of the USSR.

The Eastern Force was estimated to have suffered significant losses: only 36 percent of its formations maintained any combat capability. In all, 31 percent of the Eastern divisions lost all combat capacity while the remaining ones were judged “severely limited” in regard to further operability. Along the front line, huge areas of contamination, destruction and fires were judged to have developed.

The first nuclear strike by the Eastern Forces were rate effective, in that 15 divisions of the Western Force totally lost their fighting capacity. In all, the Western Forces were estimated to have lost a quarter-million personnel. In general, then, the two sides were credited with having suffered equally devastating losses.

During the time the Western Force threat to use nuclear weapons was coming into play, the general headquarter staffs of the Polish, Czechoslovakian and East Germany Armies were credited with successfully putting into effect local civil defense measures aimed at setting in motion the earliest possible recovery from the enemy nuclear attacks.

In his closing remarks following the exercise, Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, chief of the Soviet general staff, was candid about the shortcomings revealed by Zapad, as was Marshal Dmitrii Ustinov, the minister of defense and the exercise commander. In particular, Ustinov noted the Pact needed to acquire new conventional weapon systems to counter the West’s growing superiority in advanced technology.

Even so, Zapad ended on an upbeat note. The final report credited the Eastern Force with having pushed an offensive deep into West Germany, and in that way winning the overall war. Strangely, that was allowed to remain the official final evaluation, despite Ogarkov’s acknowledgement not a single Eastern Force division had totally fulfilled its assigned task.

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