Strategic Intelligence Failure Over Decades

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

Published on NSA, by William Burr and Svetlana Savranskaya, Sept. 11, 2009.

Washington, DC, September 11, 2009 – 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 … (full text, Documents and Notes).

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