Previously Classified Interviews with Former Soviet Officials Reveal U.S. Strategic Intelligence Failure Over Decades

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1995 Contractor Study Finds that U.S. Analysts Exaggerated Soviet Aggressiveness and Understated Moscow's Fears of a U.S. First Strike

During a 1972 command post exercise, leaders of the Kremlin listened to a briefing on the results of a hypothetical war with the United States. A U.S. attack would kill 80 million Soviet citizens and destroy 85 percent of the country's industrial capacity. According to the recollections of a Soviet general who was present, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev"trembled" when he was asked to push a button, asking Soviet defense minister Grechko"this is definitely an exercise?" This story appears in a recently released two-volume study on Soviet Intentions, 1965-1985, prepared in 1995 by the Pentagon contractor BDM Corporation, and published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. Based on an extraordinarily revealing series of interviews with former senior Soviet defense officials--"unhappy Cold Warriors"--during the final days of the Soviet Union, the BDM study puts Soviet nuclear policy in a fresh light by highlighting Soviet leaders' recognition of the catastrophe of nuclear conflict, even while they supported preparations for fighting an unsurvivable war.

BDM's unique interview evidence with former Soviet military officers, military analysts, and industrial specialists, reproduced in volume 2 of the study, covers a wide range of strategic issues, including force levels and postures, targeting and war planning, weapons effects, and the role of defense industries. Using this new evidence, the BDM staffers compared it with mainly official and semi-official U.S. interpretations designed to explain Soviet strategic policy and decision-making during the Cold War. While the BDM analysts found that some interpretations of Soviet policy were consistent with the interview evidence (e.g., the Soviet interest in avoiding nuclear war and Moscow's quest for superiority), they identified what they believed to be important failures of analysis, including:

  • "[Erring] on the side of overestimating Soviet aggressiveness" and underestimated"the extent to which the Soviet leadership was deterred from using nuclear weapons." [I: iv, 35]. Recent evidence from oral history sources supports this finding. The Soviet leadership of the 1960s and 19702 suffered from a strategic inferiority complex that supports its drive for parity with (or even superiority over) the United States. All of the strategic models developed by Soviet military experts had a defensive character and assumed a first strike by NATO (See Document 3 at pages 26-27, Oral History Roundtable, Stockholm, p. 61)

  • "Seriously misjudg[ing] Soviet military intentions, which had the potential [to] mislead…U.S. decision makers in the event of an extreme crisis." For example, the authors observed that the Soviet leadership did not rule out a preemptive strike option, even though U.S. officials came to downplay the"probability" of Soviet preemption. This misperception left open the possibility of U.S. action during a crisis that could invite a Soviet preemptive response and a nuclear catastrophe. [I: iv, 35, 68, 70-71]

  • "Serious[ly] misunderstanding … the Soviet decision-making process" by underestimating the"decisive influence exercised by the defense industry." That the defense industrial complex, not the Soviet high command, played a key role in driving the quantitative arms buildup"led U.S. analysts to … exaggerate the aggressive intentions of the Soviets." [I:7]

    Some of these criticisms may generate controversy among Cold War historians. The sponsor of the study, Andrew Marshall, former director of the Office of Net Evaluation at the Defense Department, was not entirely persuaded by the statements about the role of the defense industrialists in determining strategic force levels (see Document 1 below). In any event, the numerous fascinating disclosures in the interviews--the most significant of which the BDM analysts highlighted in Volume I--provide a rare glimpse behind the veil of Soviet secrecy. For example:

  • The Soviets strove for nuclear superiority, especially in terms of numbers of ICBMs, because they believed that the United States was seeking to maintain the lead and that a failure to overtake Washington would"result in a serious negative gap in capabilities." [I: 2-13, II: 33 (Danilevich)] The asymmetry between the U.S. and Soviet strategic triad was a special source of concern to the Soviets. They understood the U.S. insistence on crisis stability but they felt they had to keep developing the heavy land-based ICBMs that Washington considered destabilizing because they were cheaper to make and because the Soviet Union's geography did not allow for easy deployment of submarines. (See Document 3 at page 34)

  • Even when Moscow had more ICBMs than Washington, the Soviets did not feel secure because"they perceive[d] U.S. intentions to be aggressive and did not believe the superpower nuclear balance to be stable." For example,"virtually all interview subjects stressed that they perceived the U.S. to be preparing for a first strike." From satellite photography, the Soviets observed that U.S. missile silos were"relatively poorly protected by overhed cover and grouped rather close to each other and to the cluster's launch control center." The vulnerability of U.S. ICBM deployments convinced the high command that the ICBM"fields were first-strike weapons." [I: 1-2, 31; II: 100 (Kataev), 151 (Tsygichko)]...

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