121. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Political and Negotiating Implications of the Soviet ICBM Slowdown

The “official” revelation by the Pentagon of a slowdown or stoppage in Soviet ICBM deployments2 may spell major public trouble in the coming months, because it could greatly complicate the next round of Congressional debate over Safeguard. More than that, the new intelligence will become a major issue in the preparation for the next SALT round, with a great debate over the interpretation of “signals.” Finally, it has a considerable bearing on the survivability study and the [Page 379]assumption we make about alternative Soviet force levels without an agreement. (The recent NIE 11–8,3 which I understand you have, offers some different Soviet force models, without committing the intelligence community to any single view.)

The SS–11

Though most of our attention and preoccupations are understandably concerned with the SS–9, the clearest, or least ambiguous, evidence relates to the SS–11. Though the coverage is not complete, it would appear that no new groups (of 10 silos per group) have been started in the USSR since [2 lines not declassified]. Moreover, construction has evidently ceased on a group started in [less than 1 line not declassified]. The fact that no new groups have been discovered is significant in that 80 percent of new starts have occurred during the first three quarters of every year.

It could be that the Soviet SS–11 force will level off at 850, almost all now operational, plus about 120 deployed in IRBM sites in Western Russia.

The main interest in the SS–11 will now shift to the new warhead. Since July of 1969 there have been 24 test firings of a new RV for the SS–11; it is a multiple of some kind, but no one can quite decide whether it is purely penetration aids or MRVs. As an indication of Soviet worst case assumption this is significant. Given the size of the force, if the SS–11, a soft target weapon, needs pen aids or MRVs, the Soviet leaders must have been persuaded to spend money to hedge against a thick US ABM system, or a US first strike capability. No evidence is available so far of efforts to improve accuracy, and the SS–11 thus remains a probable soft target weapon. Because of the intensive testing of the new RV, however, whatever it is, it could be operational late this year or early next (NIE 11–8 p. 50 covers this in detail but in none of the force projections through 1975 does the estimate allow for SS–11 MRVs/MIRVs).

The SS–9

The developments in this program are, frankly, quite puzzling and do not fit into any clear-cut analysis of motives. Whereas one could understand that a force of 850–970 SS–11s would make sense as a soft target capability for assured destruction, the present level of the SS–9 seems strange.

  • —In 1969, the Soviets started 10 SS–9 groups, with 6 silos group, more than the combined total of new starts in both 1967 and 1968; this [Page 380]gave them a potential force of 288—far short of the magic 420 MIRVed SS–9s that worry us, but still a potential counterforce if armed with six rather than three MIRVs, or if intensive deployment continued.
  • —The triplet MRV testing finally showed signs of being independently targeted this fall, suggesting at least that it, rather than a followon MIRV would be deployed.
  • —If this were so, the force levels would seem destined to continue growing unless the Soviets decided to maintain a relatively truncated hard target force.
  • —But we noted only three new groups (18 missiles) thus far in 1970, and each of these groups shows some irregularity suggesting either abandonment or abnormally slow progress (construction probably suspended at two and little progress at the third group).
  • —The slowdown stoppage, however, has not been uniform. There were nine groups under some stage of construction earlier this year, but only the ones begun this year have been affected.
  • —Thus, sometime between May–June of this year and September–October there was a change of orders for the new sites.
  • —As yet unreported, because of uncertainties in interpretation, is a possibly related activity at the warhead handling facilities at some, but not all of the SS–9 complexes. We have noted excavations, in which large cylinders are placed, that could be replicas of the top of the silos. The troop training at the excavation could be training for replacing the warheads—thus suggesting the beginning of a conversion to MRV or MIRVs. (I hesitate to suggest that maybe crews are being trained for rapid changing of warheads following on-site inspections.)

In short, we have the weird phenomenon that the SS–9 may not be retrofitted with the MRV (the triplet), but the force has stopped growing at a level well below that which would give a real anti-Minuteman capability.

A note of extreme caution is in order. In the past we have been greatly misled by the erratic pace in some Soviet deployments. There was a confident estimate some years back that about 500 was the probable SS–11 level, based on the fact the new starts had peaked and the curve was turning down. Similarly about 240 seemed a probable SS–9 ceiling. (Bear in mind that in the last six months of 1969 there were no new starts of SS–9s, but in the following year there were 10.) What is significant now, however, is not only the absence of starts, which could eventually resume, but the actual abandonment of construction on the only sites deployed this year.

Is this a Soviet SALT signal?

The conversations, highlighted by Ambassador Smith in his recent cables, is the strongest evidence that the Soviets want us to believe that [Page 381]they are in fact exercising some restraint. But some of the facts seem inconsistent. Thus, after the resumption in Vienna in April we noted the three new SS–9 starts, the first since the fall of 1969, which seemed to demolish the thesis, at that time, that there was some Soviet signal. (Arbatov claimed some weeks ago they had been signaling with the SS–9 slowdown but we then went ahead with Safeguard and lost a chance for progress.)4 As noted above, however, these new starts did not progress very far, and some went dormant by September or October. Assuming several months lead time in beginning excavation and silocoring, the decision to start three new groups would have been at least around January–February, while SALT was in recess. Assuming likewise that there is some lead-time in a decision to stop or abandon construction, the decision must have come in August–September. Yet at one group work was in progress as late as [less than 1 line not declassified] and three weeks later had stopped altogether.

In short, the “signal” is a rather ragged, uncoordinated one. Yet, since weather, supply delays, etc., can all be ruled out a “signal” cannot be discounted.

Another thesis might be that the three new groups this year were carried by the momentum of much earlier decisions, and that the Soviet bureaucracy took some time to catch up with the field. The military planners might have been awaiting a decision to stop the program or shift to a new one.

In this latter connection, we have noted completion of a new test group (six missiles) begun in 1969, which is probably the troop training site for the SS–9 MRV or MIRV. In addition, however, we have noted in recent photography, the very early indications (surveying) of still another probable SS–9 test group at Tyuratam. Since every model of the four warheads associated with the SS–9 has had a separate test-training group at Tyuratam, this new construction might point to still another version of the SS–9 not yet seen at all. Some confirmation of this could be found in the fact that one of the test firing pads used for SS–9s has been ripped up and is being reconstructed.

In sum, while the “signal aspect” has some merit, it is also possible that the SS–9 program is about to enter into a new phase while the MRV becomes operational.

[Page 382]

All of this leads back to the basic defects of Option E.5 Whether negotiated formally, or reached through tacit arrangements, it is basically an ABM agreement. As this memorandum suggests, the Soviets could exploit a leveling off in sheer numbers as a strong incentive for an initial ABM agreement, but the fact remains that qualitative change in accuracy and especially the development of a 6-RV warhead will remain untouched. The evidence is simply too ambiguous to have a clear view at this point, but long before the intelligence can clarify what is happening, we will probably be faced with public and internal debates over the meaning of Soviet actions and our response. The problem can be easily misunderstood or manipulated and is difficult to explain to critics.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 405, Subject Files, USSR SS–9 Deployment. Top Secret; [codeword not declassified]. Sent for information. Drafted by Hyland. There is no indication that Kissinger saw this memorandum before March 2, 1971, when Sonnenfeldt sent it to Kissinger under a note that stated, “In connection with the new data on silos and SS–9 warhead developments, I would like to call your attention to my memorandum to you of last December 17.” On March 12 Kissinger requested that Helms continue a special study of the SS–9: “Now that the work on the NIE [11–8–70] has been completed, I believe the special study of the SS–9 should be restarted. It is still my desire that the study undertake an in-depth analysis of Soviet decision-making processes and illuminate the major factors that appear to have influenced decisions on the SS–9 program.” (Ibid.)
  2. On December 16 a Department of Defense spokesman disclosed that the Soviets were slowing the deployment of SS–9 missiles. (The New York Times, December 17, 1970, pp. 1–2)
  3. NIE 11–8–70, “Soviet Forces for Intercontinental Attack,” was released November 24. (Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 74–R01012A, Box 377, NIE 11–8–70) The NIE is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXIV, National Security Policy, 1969–1972, Document 160.
  4. According to a September 29 memorandum of conversation prepared by Smith, he and Arbatov had the following exchange: “I told him as far as on-going programs were concerned, our position was that we should not cut them back in anticipation of any SALT agreement. […] I had heard it said that some quarters in the Soviet Union felt that they had signaled restraint in connection with SS–9 deployments. Anybody who had access to Soviet deployment rates of the past must have realized that no signal was being given. Arbatov denied this, saying that people in the Soviet Union felt they had been giving a signal.” (Washington National Records Center, RG 383, ACDA Files: FRC 383–98–159, Director’s Files, Miscellaneous File, 1963–1980, Memoranda of Conversation)
  5. See Document 100.