225. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 11–8–72


Scope Note

This NIE assesses the strengths and capabilities of Soviet forces for intercontinental attack, discusses questions of policy with respect to those forces, and estimates their size and composition over the next several years.

Summary and Conclusions

I. Present Status of Soviet Forces for Intercontinental Attack


An estimate on Soviet forces for intercontinental attack is subject to some special difficulties this year. For one thing, the strategic arms limitation (SAL) agreements concluded in May have profound [Page 1013] implications both political and military. They create a new milieu, and affect both the choices open to the Soviets and the way in which they will be exercised. In addition, the Soviet forces for intercontinental attack are in a kind of interim phase technically, and there is much uncertainty about the characteristics of new systems being developed. The issues involved are taken up in depth in the body of the paper, but only some can be resolved on present evidence. This summary sets forth (1) essential facts about present Soviet forces for intercontinental attack (2) considerations bearing on Soviet policy choices and (3) some likely changes in the characteristics of these forces. It concludes with a brief description of the illustrative future forces contained in the body of the paper and brief comments on the likely future shape of Soviet forces.
In the course of the past decade, the Soviets have engaged in a vigorous and costly buildup of the various elements of their forces for intercontinental attack. As a result of this effort, the Soviets had operational on 1 October 1972 an estimated 1,527 ICBM launchers, including 120 SS–11 launchers at Derazhnya and Pervomaysk which, though possibly intended for use against European targets, are nevertheless capable of reaching the US, 516 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers, and 195 heavy bombers and tankers.
The large-scale deployment programs for ICBMs which began in the 1960s have now run their course, but the construction of new types of silos and certain activity at the test ranges indicate that Soviet ICBM programs are entering a new phase characterized by emphasis on qualitative improvements. The new silos are found at the Tyuratam missile test center and at several missile complexes. Two basic sizes are involved—one large and one small. The new silos probably will be harder to disable than existing silos. There is evidence which suggests that silos at operational ICBM complexes will be converted to the new configurations.
It appears that two new liquid propellant missile systems are under development at Tyuratam which are to be used both in new silos and in reconstructed silos. Launch phase tests of these missiles have already taken place; down range flight testing of the smaller of the two probably has begun as well. The smaller missile is in the SS-11 class, and we think it will be deployed in reconstructed SS–11 silos. It may also be deployed in 60 new small silos at Derazhnya and Pervomaysk, but there is evidence that these silos will house the SS–11 Mod 3, at least initially. The larger missile is in the SS–9 class; the available evidence suggests that it could be either the size of the SS-9 or somewhat larger. We expect this missile to be deployed in the 25 new large silos located at SS–9 complexes and in reconstructed SS–9 silos. In addition, flight tests have begun at the Plesetsk missile test center on a solid-propellant missile which could be entirely new or a highly modified SS–13.
Twenty-seven Y-class submarines, each equipped with 16 launch tubes, are currently operational, and an additional 4 are fitting out or conducting sea trials prior to entering service. The Soviets have launched a modified Y-class submarine which differs from all previous units of that class. This submarine, which has been designated the D-class, is longer than the Y-class and has 12 launch tubes rather than 16. We believe that it will carry the SS–NX–8 missile, which has a much greater range than the SS–N–6 missile carried by Y-class submarines.
The Soviet force of intercontinental bombers and tankers consists of 110 Bears, 70 of which carry air-to-surface missiles, and 85 Bisons, including 50 tankers. The first units of a new strategic bomber—the Backfire—could become operational by late 1973. All but the Air Force continue to believe that it is best suited for use against Europe and Asia. The Air Force believes that it is suitable for a variety of missions including intercontinental attack.

The Principal Types of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

The SS–11 Mod 1, by far the most numerous of Soviet ICBMs, is estimated to have a circular error probable (CEP) at intercontinental range of [less than 1 line not declassified]. There is disagreement about its yield,2 but whichever view is correct, the missile is still suitable only for attacking soft targets. In 1969, testing began on two new versions of the SS-11, both apparently developed to help penetrate antiballistic missile defenses. Testing on one version ceased in December 1970 and the program has almost certainly been terminated. The other version, now called the Mod 3, has three re-entry vehicles (RVs) which are not independently targetable. There is disagreement about the yield of this weapon as well,3 but again it is clearly suitable only for attacking soft targets. Testing of the Mod 3 continues, and deployment is likely to begin later this year.
The SS–9 exists in four variants: Mod 1, which carries an RV weighing about 9,500 pounds; Mod 2, whose RV weighs about 13,500 pounds; Mod 3, which has been tested both as a depressed trajectory ICBM (DICBM) and as a fractional orbit bombardment system (FOBS); and Mod 4, which carries 3 RVs.
There is general agreement that the SS–9 was developed to provide better accuracy and a larger payload than the older SS–7, presumably for use against hard targets—e.g., the US Minuteman system. The Mod 1, carrying a warhead estimated to have a yield [less than 1 line not declassified] appears reasonably well adapted for this purpose. [Page 1015] In 1965, however, the Soviets began to test the Mod 2, which, with its heavier payload, is estimated to have a yield of [less than 1 line not declassified]. The Mod 2 actually reached operational status before the Mod 1, and we estimate that three quarters or more of all operationally deployed SS–9s are Mod 2s. But the Mod 2 has never actually demonstrated enough range to reach any Minuteman complex. We believe that its demonstrated range could be increased sufficiently to cover all of them by using up more of the available propellant, removing telemetry packages, etc. It remains curious, however, that the Mod 2, alone among the ICBMs except the SS–13, has never been tested to what we would presume to be its intended operational range.
The accuracy of the SS–9 must be deduced from evidence on certain aspects of the guidance system, and from estimates and assumptions about other factors. Depending upon the assumptions used and the statistical techniques employed, various results may be obtained. In the Intelligence Community, opinions as to the CEP of the SS–9 Mod 1 and Mod 2 under flight test conditions range from a low of 0.4 nm to a high of 0.7 nm; all are agreed that under operational conditions the CEP would be degraded somewhat. The significance of these differences is considerable, but the Soviets would in any event have to deploy several times the present number of SS–9 Mod 1s and Mod 2s, with their present capabilities, before achieving a force that would pose a serious threat to the Minuteman force as a whole.4
As to the SS–9 Mod 3, it would not have sufficient accuracy in either the DICBM or FOBS mode to attack hard targets effectively; its apparent function is to attack soft strategic targets, negating or delaying detection by the US Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. (New US warning systems give promise of reducing or eliminating this advantage.) The Mod 3 appears to have limited capability as a FOBS. It may be deployed in very small numbers; future deployment, if any, will probably also be limited.
The Soviets have also developed the SS–9 Mod 4, which carries three RVs. [1 line not declassified] For several years, there has been controversy within the Intelligence Community about whether the three RVs could be targeted independently and there is still some disagreement on this point. Some agencies believe that the Mod 4 is and will remain a multiple re-entry vehicle (MRV) for use against soft targets; others believe that the Mod 4 could have represented either an MRV or a multiple-independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) with limited targeting flexibility but that the development program has been [Page 1016] terminated; still others think it was intended to be a MIRV and also believe that the development program has been terminated.5 There is also disagreement about the probability that the Mod 4 has been deployed, but all agree that if now deployed, it is as an MRV and in small numbers.

II. Soviet Policy and Future Programs

The broader reasons for the USSR’s energetic buildup of its forces for intercontinental attack are neither complex nor obscure. In the early 1960s the Soviet leaders, politically and ideologically hostile to the US, and thinking and behaving as rulers of a great power, recognized that in this particular respect their military forces were conspicuously inferior to those of their most dangerous rival, the US. Consequently, they set themselves to rectify the imbalance—to achieve at a minimum a relation of rough parity. Parity in this sense cannot be objectively measured; it is essentially a state of mind. The evidence available, including Soviet statements at the SAL talks, indicates that the Soviet leaders think that they have now generally achieved this position.
Many aspects of the present force structure are also susceptible to simple and probably correct explanation. The Soviets built a large number of ICBMs in order to match—and then to surpass—the number of US ICBMs, and also to increase the probability that many would survive an initial US attack. They built missile-launching submarines which are highly survivable when deployed, and they retained a manned bomber force as yet another option. The intercontinental attack force is obviously capable of being used in war, but there is no reason to believe that the Soviet leaders intend deliberately to make nuclear war. The force is an attribute of power, an instrument to support policy, and a deterrent to the US.
Decisions about military policy and programs are probably centered on two key elements—the military and military-industrial authorities who formulate new programs, and the top political leaders. The latter have the final say, but they must operate in a context of other forces and take them into account. Decision-making appears to involve clusters of advisory and executive bodies which are likely, at times, to be in competition with one another. Bureaucratic pressures, conflicts, and constraints may be heavy on occasion. We think it unlikely that observed Soviet programs are the product of a carefully thought out strategic plan or rationale which is undeviatingly executed. It is probably [Page 1017] fair to say that the Soviet system gives considerable weight to military claims and interests, and that it is characterized by an inertia which favors large established bureaucratic interests in general and tends to work against sharp changes in direction.
Looking to the future, we have little basis in evidence for estimating the content of specific decisions on strategic policy or on particular weapon programs. Soviet strategic policy will of course be affected by the specific provisions of the SAL agreements, and by the manner in which these agreements alter or appear to alter the strategic, political, and economic conditions and opportunities confronting the USSR. Decisions about future forces will also be influenced by Soviet perceptions of the US strategic threat, and by what weapons they are able to develop and the feasibility of procuring and deploying them.
It seems clear that the Soviet leaders intend to maintain at a minimum such forces as will continue to give them a sense of equal security with the US. The general attitudes and policies of the USSR being what they are, it might seem obvious to infer that they will strive to exceed that minimum and to achieve marked superiority over the US in strategic weaponry. We do not doubt that they would like to attain such a position, but the question is whether they consider it a feasible objective, particularly in the light of the arms limitation agreements. They might think it feasible to seek a strategic posture that, while falling short of marked superiority, makes clear that the Soviets have advantages over the US in certain specific areas. Whether or not such advantages are significant militarily, they would help to dramatize the strategic power of the Soviet Union.
But even if the Soviet intention is to go no further than maintenance of “equal security”, their arms programs are bound to be vigorous and demanding. This is in part because Soviet leaders must have an eye not only to what forces the US has at present, but also to what it can have, or may have, in future years even within the framework of arms control agreements. In this respect, they are likely to be cautious—to overestimate rather than underestimate the US threat. Moreover, the weapons competition nowadays is largely a technological race; the USSR is impelled to press forward its research and development (R&D) lest it be left behind. Soviet weapon programs also tend to attain a momentum of their own; the immense apparatus of organizations, installations, personnel, vested interests, and so on, tends to proceed in its endeavors unless checked by some decisive political authority.
In some respects, these tendencies will be reinforced now that the SAL agreements have been concluded. For military and political reasons, the Soviet leaders will wish at least to keep pace with the US. Also the leadership has a personal and political stake in insuring that the USSR suffers no real or apparent erosion of its relative position. It [Page 1018] will want to maintain a strong bargaining position for the follow-on negotiations, and to develop new options in the event that future talks break down.
On the other hand, there are constraints upon Soviet arms programs beyond those imposed by the terms of the SAL agreements. The most obvious is economic: resources are not unbounded; the civilian economy demands its share; one weapon competes with another for allocations; and intercontinental attack forces compete with strategic defense and general purpose forces. The various bureaucracies with interests in one or another area compete partly with rational argument and partly in sheer political infighting. Soviet leaders must also consider how far they may wish to press their own programs lest they provoke countervailing programs in the US. And they must assess not only the present and future US threat, but also that from China, and elsewhere.
In the context of arms control, other pressures for moderation will be at work. The SAL agreements have been hailed in the USSR as a successful manifestation of the current Soviet policy of détente; consequently there will be incentives to avoid actions which, though not actually violating the agreements, might jeopardize them. Many of the top political leaders, and most notably Brezhnev, have identified themselves personally with the accords, and would have much to lose politically if they came unstuck. Similarly, various groups in the USSR now have a stake in the agreements, as a consequence of a long and difficult process of negotiation which undoubtedly required a delicate balancing of individual interests. Any step which might constitute a threat to the agreements would probably disturb this balance.
While the foregoing considerations probably govern the nature of Soviet decisions as to future weapon programs, they provide us with little or no basis on which to estimate what these programs will be and, in particular, their features in detail. We have never had solid evidence on these matters, and there is no reason to expect that we shall have such evidence in the future. Moreover, as the past 10 years have shown, technological advance can produce vigorous action and reaction between military programs of the USSR and the US.
Yet the possibilities are not unlimited, certainly in the next five years or so. For one thing, intercontinental weapon systems are of such complexity that their development, testing, and deployment take a long time. We can therefore estimate with much confidence that the kinds of weapon systems deployed by the Soviets during the next two years or so will be those already in operation or in the late stages of development. Even in the period from two to five years from now the force will be composed largely of existing kinds of delivery vehicles, but it could change substantially by the end of the period of this Estimate.
As a result of the SAL accords, the main questions about the future of Soviet forces for intercontinental attack center more than ever on the pace and scope of technological change. Also as a consequence of the accords, and of the opportunities and risks they present, future strategic programming decisions will probably be even more directly influenced than in the past by the Soviet leadership’s sense of stability or change in its strategic relationship with the US. To be sure, as China moves closer to establishing a credible nuclear force, the need to counter Chinese capabilities will also affect Soviet plans. For many years to come, however, Soviet planning of strategic offensive weapons is likely to be concerned primarily with the US arsenal, in terms both of the strategic threat it poses and the diplomatic and political leverage it affords.
The next few years should see significant qualitative improvements in Soviet forces for intercontinental attack, as the USSR pushes ahead with its R&D and exercises options open to it under the SAL accords. The most important of these improvements are likely to be in accuracy of missiles, in MIRVs for them, and in survivability.
Accuracy.6 We have for some time thought that the Soviets would incorporate greater accuracy in follow-on missile systems, and we now have some positive indications of this intent. The Soviets appear to be moving toward less blunt RVs for their missiles. Such RVs pass through the atmosphere more quickly, and are thus less subject to deflection while in the atmosphere. Improvements in the components of present Soviet guidance systems and a continuation of the recent trend to less blunt RVs could result in CEPs as low as about 0.25 nm for ICBMs. The Soviets could achieve significantly smaller CEPs but this would require, in addition, wholly new techniques of guidance. It is too early to tell what methods of guidance are being employed in the new ICBMs described earlier, [2 lines not declassified].
MIRVs. We continue to believe that the Soviets will develop MIRVs, including some with the yields and accuracies necessary to attack hard targets. We estimate that it would take at least two years of flight testing to develop a MIRV system, and at least an additional year if wholly new techniques of guidance, designed to achieve very high accuracies, were also involved.
Survivability. The USSR’s concern about the survivability of its forces will surely continue strong as the US deploys increasingly large numbers of independently targetable RVs. In addition to the employment of active defenses, survivability can be achieved through hardness and mobility. The new silos under construction promise to be considerably harder than present types, and so do reconstructed SS–9 and SS–11 silos. The Soviets could also deploy mobile ICBMs, an option not actually barred by the SAL accords; we continue to think this unlikely, the more so because of the unilateral US statement opposing this development.7 We do expect the Soviets to replace their older ICBMs with SLBMs as permitted by the agreements, in part to achieve greater survivability.
We have little evidence concerning the qualitative improvements to be incorporated in the three new ICBMs. We are fairly confident that the new large missile will carry a heavier payload than the SS–9, and the new small liquid-propellant missile a heavier payload than the SS–11. Although there is as yet no evidence on the point, we believe that one or more of these missiles will carry MIRVs, in due course if not at first, and that all will incorporate at least some improvements in accuracy. More definitive judgments on these missiles cannot be made until more data become available.
As to ballistic missile submarines, in two years or so the Soviets will have as many launchers on their Y- and D-class submarines as the US has in the Polaris force, and these launchers will constitute a substantial portion of Soviet forces for intercontinental attack. We expect the current SSBN production program to continue for some time, with most if not all future units consisting of the 12–tube D-class carrying the SS–NX–8. There is no direct evidence of another new class of ballistic missile submarines, but we believe that one will appear in the next five years or so. A new construction hall is being built at the Severodvinsk shipyard, which may be for a new class. A new submarine with more launch tubes than the D-class would permit the Soviets to come closer to the combination of 62 modern ballistic missile submarines and 950 launchers allowed by the SAL agreements.
We have judged for the past several years that as their ICBM and SLBM forces grew, the Soviets would come to rely less and less on [Page 1021] their intercontinental bombers. Those missile forces have now reached significant proportions, but there has been no phase-out or appreciable attrition of the heavy bombers and tankers in Long Range Aviation for several years, or any significant reduction in their training activity. Thus, it appears that current Soviet leaders believe that the advantages afforded by an intercontinental bomber force, for the present at least, are worth the cost of retaining one. If they persist in this view, they must decide whether to put their rapidly aging aircraft through more difficult and costly rehabilitation programs than in the past, or, alternatively, to go for a new heavy bomber which would give them greater capabilities for intercontinental attack than their present force does.
It is evident that there are many uncertainties regarding the future makeup of Soviet forces for intercontinental attack. In order to depict a range of possible developments, we present in Section V of this Estimate8 five illustrative forces representing different levels of effort by the Soviets and different degrees or rates of technological advance within the constraints of the interim agreement on strategic offensive weapons.9 Three of them postulate that the Soviets do not introduce new and highly accurate guidance systems for their missiles within the period of this Estimate. Force 3 represents about the most the Soviets could achieve under this postulate; it assumes that new missile systems reach initial operational capability in the minimum possible time. Force 2 illustrates what could happen if some difficulties and delays were encountered during development. Force 1 postulates, in addition, less ambitious technological goals than those of Forces 3 and 2. Two other forces postulate that the Soviets do introduce new and highly accurate guidance systems for their missiles, providing accuracies of the order of 0.15 nm CEP. Force 5 postulates the introduction of such accuracies and other improvements later in the decade. Force 5 constitutes a limiting case, and, in a sense, an artificial one, illustrating what the Soviets could theoretically achieve under the interim agreement if they have highly ambitious programs already well under way and encounter no significant setbacks or delays.10
On the whole, we think the Soviets will probably head into the next round of SAL talks with something like the goals of Force 3. They probably will be forced to settle for some slippages and delays of the sort illustrated on an across-the-board basis in Force 2. The outcome would then be something between Force 3 and Force 2. We wish to emphasize, however, that these and the other models are strictly illustrative, and not to be regarded as confident estimates. As one moves beyond the next two years or so, all projections become increasingly uncertain; beyond five years they are highly speculative.

[Omitted here is the 64–page Discussion portion of the estimate, which includes the following sections: I. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, II. Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles, III. Heavy Bombers and Tankers, IV. Soviet Decision-Making on Military Policy and Programs, and V. Illustrative Future Forces. Also omitted are an Appendix to Section V, a Glossary of Missile Terms, and Annex A: Estimated Characteristics and Performance of Soviet Intercontinental Weapon Systems.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79–R01012A. Top Secret; [codeword not declassified]. The CIA and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, the NSA, and the AEC participated in the preparation of this estimate. The Director of Central Intelligence submitted this estimate with the concurrence of all members of the USIB except for the representatives of the FBI and Department of the Treasury, who abstained on the grounds that the subject was outside their jurisdiction. The table of contents is not printed. The full text of this NIE, excluding the appendix, glossary, and annex, is in the CIA FOIA Electronic Reading Room (www.foia.cia.gov).
  2. See paragraph 24. [Footnote in the original. [3½ lines not declassified]]
  3. See paragraph 27. [Footnote in the original. [3½ lines not declassified]]
  4. See paragraph 13 for a discussion of the differing views on accuracy and paragraph 14 for a discussion of the effect of differences in accuracy and yield. [Footnote in the original. [5½ lines not declassified]]
  5. See paragraph 19. [Footnote in the original. According to paragraph 19, CIA and State held the first position, DIA and Air Force the second, and NSA, Army, and Navy the third.]
  6. Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, the Director, National Security Agency, and Maj. Gen. George J. Keegan, Jr., the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF, believe this Estimate overstates the improvements in ICBM accuracies the Soviets might achieve during the period of this Estimate. For their views, see footnotes to paragraphs 54, 57, and 58 in Section I. [Footnote in the original. Phillips and Keegan, in the referenced footnotes to Section I, which dealt with ICBMs, maintained that a flight test program of at least 5 years would be required for the Soviets to achieve a CEP significantly better than 0.25 nm.]
  7. Maj. Gen. George J. Keegan, Jr., the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF, does not agree with this judgment. For his views, see his footnote to paragraph 49 in Section I. [Footnote in the original. According to the referenced footnote, Keegan believed “that the Soviets would deploy mobile ICBMs if they considered it to their advantage. Noting the Soviets’ refusal to include mobile ICBMs in the SAL Agreement, he believes it unlikely that the unilateral US statement on mobile ICBMs will deter the Soviets from deploying them.”]
  8. Section V, not printed, dealt with Illustrative Future Forces, including ICBMs, SSBNs and SLBMs, and strategic bombers. The section includes five alternative force deployments.
  9. Vice Adm. Vincent P. de Poix, the Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Maj. Gen. William E. Potts, the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of the Army, are in fundamental disagreement with several aspects of Section V. For their views see their footnotes throughout that Section. [Footnote in the original.]
  10. Maj. Gen. George J. Keegan, Jr., the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF, believes that Forces 2–5 overstate the missile accuracies the Soviets could achieve in the time periods reflected in those models. For his reasons, see his footnote to paragraph 54 in Section I. [Footnote in the original. See footnote 6 above.]