228. Information Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Cline) to the Under Secretary of State (Irwin)1


  • Factors in Making a Net Assessment of US and Soviet Strategic Forces

This memorandum is in response to your request to INR Deputy Director Len Weiss for a discussion of the factors involved in making a net assessment of US and Soviet forces.

In the intelligence and research community the term “net assessment” is used to refer to a study which arrives at a judgment comparing American forces with hostile or potentially hostile foreign forces. It might describe the relationship between existing Soviet and US forces and also the likely development of future Soviet forces as a consequence of the Soviet perception of US force programs and policies.

Net assessments need not be limited to the military sphere. They are also applicable to political and economic problems. Thus, for example, a net assessment of the Middle East situation would take into account the interaction of the policies and courses of action pursued by the principal powers involved, including the United States. The key distinction involved is between an intelligence “estimate,” which traditionally deals only with foreign forces and developments, and a study which relates these matters specifically to American strengths, weaknesses and courses of action.

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In our view, such net assessments of Soviet and American strategic offensive and defensive forces (as well as of other situations) are a valuable analytical tool to assist in making policy and program decisions. Yet there is no systematic preparation of such evaluations, nor is there an existing institutional framework within which the several interested agencies and Departments, with their differing interests and points of view, can regularly work to prepare such assessments.

Format and Substance

In the military sphere the net assessment should be an annual, companion document to the major National Intelligence Estimates (NIE’s) on Soviet military forces. It would, therefore, require a discussion of US forces similar to those of Soviet forces in the NIE’s. Strategic offensive and defensive forces, intercontinental and certain peripheral strategic forces would have to be considered together. For example, the SS–9 ICBM and US ABM’s ought to be considered together, while US ICBM’s and the Soviet ABM would also have to be considered, thus making this aspect of the net assessment four dimensional.

The net assessment, if done in this manner, would avoid reaching specific policy conclusions, leaving that to another and higher stage of decision-making. It would, however, highlight critical elements in the balance of forces.

In addition, the net assessment, as noted above, should consider the likely inter-action of planned or estimated future force levels. Such a study might point out opportunities and dangers implicit in projected courses of action, and also suggest alternatives. Such assessments of future inter-actions would be speculative, especially if projected over any length of time. Yet they are at the heart of any effort to analyze realistically such matters as a spiralling arms race. The policy decisions on correct courses of United States action, as I have said, would not be made in the net assessment itself, but left for consideration and action elsewhere.

Past and Current Practices

Net assessments of military forces have been attempted over the years. In the 1950’s a JCSCIA joint team set up for this purpose. During the early part of the Kennedy Administration there was a Net Evaluation Subcommittee in the NSC. Later Secretary McNamara tended to gather this function into the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Components of the Department of Defense, such as JCS or an individual command such as SAC also prepare net assessments for their own use. Lately, some net assessments have been made under general NSC auspices either in the DPRC, the Verification Panel or in various NSSM’s.

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As of now, there is no one locus in the DOD responsible for making authoritative net assessments. There is likewise no established procedure in the Department of State for cranking in political and economic factors in net assessments of broad military developments or complex international conflicts. In some respects the NSSM process and the work of the DPRC and the Verification Panel perform this function, but in these cases net assessments are made irregularly and in response to specific problems at hand, rather than systematically.

NIE’s and Net Assessments

In NIE 11–8–70, on Soviet Intercontinental Attack Forces,2 the Intelligence Community came close to making a net assessment, or, more accurately, a series of net assessments on specific questions. For example, in describing Soviet capabilities against Minuteman silos, account had to be taken of the hardness of those silos. On a more general plane, it was noted that future Soviet force levels probably would depend in large measure on US force levels. Three illustrative US forces were described, and the possible Soviet reaction to each was considered.

Nevertheless, the NIE is not a true net assessment. In fact, this was noted by USIB when it considered the estimate, and Mr. Helms indicated some sympathy with the view that a net assessment, that is, a detailed comparison and evaluation of US and Soviet strategic attack and defense forces, would be more useful to top policy makers than just a detailed discussion of Soviet forces. He noted, however, that he, as the Director of Central Intelligence and Chairman of USIB, does not have the authority to prepare such a study.

The Proper Forum

The need, therefore, is to select a proper forum, adequately reflecting inter-agency interests, for preparing on a regular, systematic basis objective net assessments on which policy and program decisions can be made. For its own part, the Department of State should establish machinery (involving S/PC and INR mainly, but drawing in expertise from all Bureaus) to make net assessments on all foreign policy problems.

In my view, the best inter-agency forum would be a new NSC Committee, something like the old Net Evaluation Subcommittee of the NSC. The group would be separate from and independent of other NSC Committees, and would be responsible solely for preparing net assessments. It would be similar to the Office of National Estimates in the intelligence field and would work closely with it. It would be [Page 490] shielded as much as possible from pressure from policy and/or operational offices, and it would be staffed by career professionals from the several agencies which would take part in the net assessment process.


The expanded Soviet military NIE’s have taken on some of the characteristics of net assessments of Soviet and US forces, but they are not true, comprehensive net assessments. The current strategic balance, the cost of modern strategic weapons systems and the ramifications—military, political and economic—of modern strategic weapons deployments, such as the Safeguard ABM, require that annual, objective over-all net assessments of US and Soviet strategic forces be prepared to assist top policy makers in making decisions in this area. This is necessary because of the inter-action and relationship of US and Soviet strategic weapons developments. These studies should be carried out by an appropriate inter-agency group, should describe and evaluate the existing balance of US and Soviet strategic offensive and defensive forces and should consider likely future developments on both sides. Finally, the annual net assessment of strategic forces should point out for the President and his chief advisors the major issues surfaced by the net assessment and alternative likely courses of action. The Department of State should tool up to support this process by establishing systematic net assessment machinery and procedures inside the Department, and should for its own purposes develop a net assessment program to study complex foreign policy issues involving interaction among a number of nations all reacting to American policies and courses of action. All of this is intended to give us a more systematic way of analyzing where we are and what is likely to happen in foreign affairs before we try to decide what to do about it.


After you have had a chance to think about this matter, I believe it would be useful to discuss it with you. (We have not discussed our ideas much outside INR.) If you agree that it would be desirable to have such net assessments, we can consider further how best to go about setting up a system to make them.3

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Agency Files, Box 283, Dept of State, Vol. X, 1 Dec 70–15 Apr 71. Secret.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 226.
  3. Cline sent a copy of his memorandum to Kissinger under cover of a March 24 letter. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Agency Files, Box 283, Dept of State, Vol. X, 1 Dec 70–15 Apr 71) Latimer forwarded it to Kissinger under cover of a March 26 memorandum in which he commented that “the proposal for establishing a formal NSC subcommittee to systematically prepare net assessments has some merit but the same goal could be achieved either by continuing the present ad hoc procedure via the WSAG or, where pertinent, by instructing Director Helms to include such assessments in key NIE’s such as the one on Soviet Intercontinental Attack Forces.” Kissinger responded noncommittally to Cline in a March 31 letter. (Both ibid.)