2. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 1-61


[Here follow sections entitled “Introduction,” “The Communist World,” “The Emerging Areas,” and “Problems of the Western Alliances,” comprising approximately two-thirds of the estimate.]

V. The Military Problem

A. The Evolving Strategic Situation

60. Despite a widespread feeling that allout nuclear war is unlikely, the problem posed by the accumulation of offensive weapons of mass destruction by the great powers will remain the major problem of the 1960’s. Although we have been unable to agree upon an estimate of the size of the Soviet ICBM program (estimates range from 200—or perhaps even less—to 700 on launcher for mid-1963), the Soviet capability even at the lowest estimated figure will pose a grave threat to the US. To illustrate, if one assumes the number on launcher to be 200 and applies reasonable rates of reliability to the missile, the USSR could detonate in the US in the target area some 1,000 to 1,250 megatons. The even greater delivery capability provided by shorter range missiles and nuclear weapons deliverable by aircraft or submarines and ships poses an additional threat to the US, to US bases overseas, to US allies, and indeed to most of the northern hemisphere.

61. So far as we can see now, if the USSR undertook to deliver such an attack, the US could do little to prevent enormous damage. A US pre-emptive attack—that is, an attack delivered when a Soviet attack was believed to be imminent—would not prevent such damage unless the various types of Soviet missile launchers had been precisely located, and there is doubt that a high proportion could be so located. Antiballistic missile systems of presently unproven effectiveness will probably be available about the middle of the decade, but such early systems almost certainly will not be sufficiently developed or widely-enough deployed [Page 4] to give assurance of destroying or neutralizing more than a small proportion of the missiles which the USSR will be capable of launching.2

62. The US, however, will also almost certainly be able to do enormous damage to the USSR, even if attacked first by the USSR. It is true that during the next year or so the vulnerability of US retaliatory forces to a surprise missile attack and the uncertainties regarding the size of the Soviet ICBM force introduce some measure of doubt regarding the extent of the US retaliatory capability. It is very unlikely, however, that even during this period the USSR will acquire capabilities sufficient to give it confidence that it can prevent an unacceptable level of US retaliation.3 As the decade advances, the US program of maintaining a portion of the US bomber force on airborne alert and of dispersing missiles in hardened sites, aboard submarines at sea, and on railborne carriers should virtually assure the survival of a substantial retaliatory capability. The Soviets are pursuing a vigorous program for developing antimissile defenses, and we estimate that the USSR will probably begin to deploy an antimissile system of undetermined effectiveness by the period 1963-1966. The Soviet leaders probably believe that they will acquire a military advantage through protection of selected areas and through complicating the task of Western military planners. They almost certainly consider that the first nation to deploy such weapons will gain major psychological, political, and military advantages. Nevertheless, we believe it almost certain that these defenses throughout the period will remain inadequate to shield large areas of the USSR from widespread devastation.

63. Thus it appears likely that during most of the decade ahead the strategic situation will be one in which both the US and the USSR will possess relatively invulnerable nuclear weapons systems capable of inflicting enormous destruction upon the other. The world must face the possibility that a general nuclear war—brought to pass through accident, design, or miscalculation—would kill many millions of people, destroy the capital accumulation of many decades, render large sections [Page 5] of the earth virtually uninhabitable for a time, and destroy the power of most of the modern nations of the world.

64. This strategic situation does not make general nuclear war impossible, but it does make it a highly irrational response to international disputes. As long as this situation continues, each side will be deterred by fear of the consequences (if by nothing else) from deliberately initiating general war. It is almost certain, moreover, that each side will be deterred from action or policies which involve serious risk of general war. The crucial question is: how will the risks of a given action be judged in the context of circumstances which exists when the action is contemplated? To be more specific: how far will the Soviets—or the Chinese Communists—be emboldened by judging that Western reaction to some Communist aggression will be inhibited by Western aversion to incurring serious risk of general war? To what extent will the Western reaction actually be so inhibited? Such questions as these are likely to be decisive in any sharp international crisis.

65. But apart from the calculation of risks in times of crisis, this strategic situation poses other serious problems for policymakers. How long will it persist? Can either side achieve a clear military superiority? If the situation of mutual deterrence does persist, can nuclear war be prevented from occurring by accident? Can nuclear blackmail be countered? Can nuclear armaments be reduced or eliminated without creating unfair advantage or opportunities for evasion? We do not pretend to offer answers, but only to point out in the paragraphs below some of the military and political problems which we believe this strategic situation has created and will create in the decade ahead.

B. Military and Political Implications of the Evolving Strategic Situation 4

66. There is much ignorance and uncertainty among military and civilian leaders throughout the world—in both Communist and non-Communist countries—about the present and future world military situation. [Page 6] This is due in part to security restrictions between governments and even within governments, in part to the complex technical and operational factors involved in modern military actions, and in part to the fact that the destructive potential of modern weapons is unprecedented in human history. Even among the politically and militarily sophisticated, there is considerable puzzlement and disagreement about the deterrent effect of present and future nuclear capabilities, about the probable behavior of states in critical situations, and about the most suitable and effective strategic doctrines and weapons systems to develop.

67. These problems must trouble the Soviet leaders as much as they trouble those of the West. We do not believe that the Soviet leaders conceive the ICBM to be the final answer to their military problems, and we doubt that they have formed definite ideas about their force structure ten years hence or about the precise role they will assign to military power in their campaign to establish world communism. They now see themselves as emerging from a period of strategic inferiority, and they surely consider it a prime objective not to let the US draw ahead once more. As long as the weapons race persists, they will not be content with a strategic equilibrium, or with the progress they have hitherto made in weapons development. Beyond that, they will continue to carry on scientific and weapons research and development programs with a high sense of urgency in order to find new weapons systems and defenses against existing ones. They would do this even without dream of vast military conquests, simply in the interest of defense. But if they developed a weapons system which gave promise of decided advantage over the US, they would certainly seek to gain maximum profit from it.

68. In the decade ahead some such weapons—for example, one providing defense against missiles—may achieve operational status and tend to upset the nuclear missile terror balance we have described. From what we know of Soviet ideas, however, we conclude that during the next five years—and perhaps longer—the Soviet leaders will conceive of their long-range striking capability in terms of deterrence and of employment in a heavy blow should they finally conclude that deterrence had failed, rather than in terms of the deliberate initiation of general war. In their view, a condition of mutual deterrence will provide an umbrella under which they can wage a vigorous campaign, using a wide variety of methods, throughout the non-Communist world.5

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69. In such a circumstance the Soviet leaders will have substantial advantages. They can create crises and issue threats over comparatively minor matters with a reasonable degree of confidence that one or more of the Western powers will give way because of the risks of general war involved in resisting. In circumstances where they judge the risk is not too great they might engage in military action, possibly with Soviet forces but more probably with other bloc forces or with local revolutionary armed groups. In any case where it appeared that the choice for resisters was one between massive nuclear destruction and compromise of principle (including even surrender of territory), large numbers of people around the world would choose the latter.

70. It is now widely held that, in order to prevent such a paralyzing choice from being presented, it is necessary to have limited war capabilities, so that comparatively minor threats can be countered with appropriate means. But in recent years limited war capabilities in the West have been declining rather than rising. There has been a trend toward the reduction of budgetary allocations for the modernization and mobility of limited-war-capable forces. Two of the US allies, for reasons of national prestige, or because they fear that the US will not always support them, have carried on strategic nuclear weapons programs of their own and have reduced their conventional forces.

71. Even if substantial limited war forces should be available, many of the principles of their political and military use in a nuclear age remain to be developed and to be accepted. It is clear, for example, that only limited objectives can be won by limited means, and that pursuit of broad objectives or extension of the conflict beyond a well defined area of combat threatens expansion into a major war and poses for both sides the question of undertaking a large-scale pre-emptive attack on the enemy’s homeland. Even when both parties accept limitations upon their objectives and upon the area of combat, the rules of combat within that established area still pose problems. One of these is that of using nuclear weapons for tactical advantage. The use of nuclear weapons in almost any form would greatly complicate both the military and political problem. It would almost certainly confuse the enemy and the neutrals as to the user’s real intentions—as distinct from his announced ones—and alienate large and influential sectors of world opinion from the cause of the user, however just it may have been. The Soviets would presumably regard the use of nuclear weapons in the light of the proposition which they repeatedly assert and probably believe—that limited wars would carry particularly great risks of spreading into general war if nuclear weapons were introduced.

72. From a political point of view, there are also questions about the circumstances in which one can intervene with limited forces. As a general rule and as a result of the experience of Korea, the Communist powers [Page 8] will probably try to avoid clear-cut provocations which would permit the West to bring limited war capabilities to bear. They will instead attempt to use situations which are legally or politically anomalous, that is, situations in which they have a defensible color of right for the use of force or in which the political issue has become or can be made to appear so confused as to make Western intervention seem capricious or imperialistic. Much will depend upon the way in which the issue is presented to the world and is handled by both sides. In many circumstances fear of the spread of the conflict into a general nuclear war might be so great that the intervener would find himself severely condemned by large segments of world opinion.

73. A major problem during the next decade is also posed by the probability that additional nations will acquire a nuclear weapons capability. France already has a program underway, and Communist China and Israel almost certainly have started such weapons programs. Other nations might enter the field if only to counter the power and prestige which their rivals or their enemies might gain through the acquisition of a nuclear capability. Even a small increase in the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons will add to the dangers inherent in critical situations as they arise. An increase in the number of states capable of using nuclear weapons—even as a threat—will also increase the chances for irrational and desperate action. At a minimum, the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities will stir up additional political turmoil by encouraging intransigence in their possessors and by encouraging fear and counteraction among those who might consider themselves threatened.

74. Related to these problems of limited war and spread of nuclear capabilities is the problem of preventing miscalculations which might precipitate general war unintentionally. Whenever international disputes arise there is a natural tendency for the parties concerned to place their forces on an alert status and progressively to strengthen the alert by various forms of deployment. In some cases these might be normal precautions and in some cases they might be intended to frighten the adversary, or both. In any case, there is likely to be considerable concern among neutrals and US allies that the US and the USSR will act in too bellicose a fashion, that both the US and the USSR might become so committed that they would be unable to back down and thus would become involved in war, or that the state of alert on one side or both will become so advanced that, fearing a surprise attack, one would take pre-emptive action against the other. As the decade advances and surprise attack against retaliatory weapons systems loses much of its advantage, compelling reasons for launching a pre-emptive attack will no longer exist. Nevertheless, fear of surprise attack will probably persist and might weigh more heavily in the minds of policymakers than would in fact be justified.

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75. Another concern is that general war may come about by sheer accident. The worry here is that with an increasing number and variety of space capsules in orbit or being fired into orbit, with an increasing number of missiles nuclear-armed and on the ready, with strategic air forces airborne and armed with nuclear weapons, with a new and untested ballistic missile early warning system in operation, war could come about through communications failures or anomalies, irrational action by local crews or commanders, or errors in judgment, without either side wishing this to happen. As the decade advances and surprise attack loses some of its advantages, there will no longer be compelling reasons to respond immediately to supposed or actual infringements of air space by presumably hostile missiles or aircraft. Nevertheless, fear of attack might in some circumstances be so great that general war could come about in ways we have noted.

76. In this situation of widespread fear of a general nuclear war, it is natural that the people of the world should look to arms control as a means of reducing the danger. Whatever its motivation, the USSR has carried on a many-sided campaign for general and complete disarmament. The Soviet leaders probably are interested in achieving some degree of disarmament, to an extent which would at least slow down or stop developments which might harm their strategic position or increase the danger of accidental war. During the decade, it is possible that both sides will become sufficiently concerned with stabilizing the balance of terror that some limited agreements may be reached. In any case, it is possible that—in order both to achieve stabilization and to meet world pressures for reducing the danger of war—the two sides will undertake tacit agreements resulting in some degree of arms limitation.

77. Also, the UN is likely to continue to be regarded by its members as an instrument for the prevention of war. If two nations are involved in dispute that threatens to result in a general war which they wish to avoid, the UN might provide a useful forum for airing the dispute and UN action a useful excuse for emerging from the dispute with less than full satisfaction. Moreover, the underdeveloped nations, who are likely to become an increasingly powerful voice in the UN, will almost certainly feel it in their interest to prevent a general war and will therefore exert their influence for the preservation of peace.

78. While there is some reason to expect, therefore, that the UN may play a role in preserving peace, that the present balance of forces will persist or become stabilized, that the limited war concept may be sufficiently capable of development to provide an escape from nuclear blackmail and general nuclear war, and that chances of general war coming about by accident or fear of surprise attack may be reduced, the decade ahead will still be an extremely dangerous one. The Soviets see increasing opportunities for political gains in their new strategic position, in their [Page 10] economic growth, and in the changing situation in the underdeveloped areas. They are almost certain to test these opportunities, and such tests could give rise to serious crises. Berlin and the Offshore Islands exemplify situations in which retreat may become impossible, and civil wars in such areas on the periphery of the Sino-Soviet Bloc as Laos could pose grave questions concerning the objectives and rules for the conduct of limited operations. The world contest in the decade ahead will necessarily be conducted in the shadow of this strategic situation, and it will affect the decisions of statesmen everywhere.

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency Files, Job 79-R01012A, ODDI Registry. Secret. For full text of NIE 1-61, see the Supplement. A note on the cover sheet indicates the estimate was submitted by the Director of Central Intelligence, and the Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Joint Staff participated in drafting it. The U.S. Intelligence Board concurred on January 17, except the Atomic Energy Commission representative and the Assistant Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, who abstained because the subject was outside their jurisdiction.
  2. The Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of the Army, concurs in the net judgment contained in this paragraph and the succeeding paragraphs that, so far as can now be seen, a general nuclear war would cause enormous damage to all major protagonists and that resort to general nuclear war, under these circumstances, is not a rational course of action. He believes, however, that the intelligence community is unable to adjudge the capability of the US to develop an effective defense against ballistic missiles. [Footnote in the source text.]
  3. The Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF, does not concur. As previously stated in his footnote to NIE 11-4-60, “Main Trends in Soviet Capabilities and Policies, 1960-1965,” dated 1 December 1960, he feels that we are entering a very critical twenty-four month period in which the USSR may well sense that it has the advantage. The Soviet leaders may press that advantage and offer the US the choice of war or of backing down on an issue heretofore considered vital to our national interests. [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. The Director for Intelligence, Joint Staff, and the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, Special Operations, believe that the tone of Section V, especially part B of this Section, compares a dynamic Communist Bloc to a static Free World. While emphasizing the capabilities of the Bloc, it gives little or no credit to the capability or determination of the West to shape the course of events.

    For example:

    Paragraph 69 charges “large numbers of people around the world” with acceptance of the Bertrand Russell thesis of preferring Communist chains to nuclear war. The Director for Intelligence, Joint Staff, and the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, Special Operations, doubt the validity of this assertion.
    Paragraph 72 forecasts Communist political manipulation in crisis situations so as to try to make Western intervention seem “capricious or imperialistic.” Adroitness in the political arena by the West—believed by the Director for Intelligence, Joint Staff, and the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, Special Operations, to be equally possible—appears to be discounted as a factor for consideration. [Footnote in the source text.]

  5. The Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF, does not concur in this paragraph. It is his belief that the evidence of offensive missile and bomber production and deployment shows a definite intent by the Soviet rulers to achieve a clear military superiority at the earliest practicable date. [Footnote in the source text.]