Thursday, October 01, 2009

US Strategic Intelligence on the USSR

The National Security Archive recently published new documents on the The Nuclear Vault, its Nuclear Documentation Project. Many previously classified interviews with former Soviet officials reveal that US Strategic Intelligence exaggerated the aggressiveness of the Soviets during the Cold War. The interviews give a unique insight on the Soviet strategic weapons policy and decision-making during the Cold War.

Apparently, the Soviets, who always assumed a first strike by the US, tried to keep a nuclear superiority in terms of numbers only for defensive reasons. Although the Soviet military preferred a proportional response to an attack, they didn't believe that a nuclear war could be limited. The interviews confirm that the USSR never had the intend to launch a first strike, but did consider a preemptive attack in case of a real threat. With a US first strike scenario in mind, they believed their nuclear overweight would deter the US of executing a first strike. The Soviet military was convinced that a conventional superior Warsaw Pact could stop a NATO offensive without using nuclear weapons, but feared a response with tactical nuclear weapons that would escalate to the use of strategic weapons.

They knew a nuclear assault on NATO forces in Europe would cause an ecological disaster that would also affect Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This lead to a situation where the USSR was trying to avoid war at all costs, but if attacked, would use any weapons they had, leading to an all-out nuclear war. This means that a US policy of keeping up with the USSR might have been an unnecessary and dangerous path towards an involuntary and catastrophic response by the Soviets. The failing US assessment of the Soviet threat could have caused a situation of "you get what you asked for". Fortunately, it never came that far (I wouldn't be here any more to write this).

The many interviews with all those former Soviet officers, analysts and important decision makers, and their views on nuclear deterrence issues are a most fascinating read. All chapters of document 2 are a must. Especially chapter IV about strategic decision making and Brezhnev's incompetence are astonishing. Don't miss the General Danilevich interview! All documents are available for download at this Nuclear Vault page.

If you want to have an idea of what all those missiles look like, check out the Russian and Soviet Nuclear Forces Guide on FAS, with detailed tech specs and photos of all types of missiles.

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