140. Special National Intelligence Estimate1

SNIE 11–4–73

[Omitted here is the table of contents.]



On 9 July 1973, Soviet authorities signed to press an editorial in the CPSU journal KOMMUNIST—that may well rank as the most optimistic assessment of the prospects for US-Soviet relations printed in the USSR in the last decade. The editorial reiterates that peaceful coexistence does not mean “a weakening of the class struggle in the international arena” but actually promotes such Soviet interests as the “national liberation movement” and the fight against “bourgeois ideology.” It struck a new note, however, in asserting that US-Soviet relations have passed a historic and fundamental turning point for the [Page 641] better, that “considerable obstacles” already exist to prevent a reversion to Cold War relations, and that political détente involves military détente in “organic” combination.

On the same day, the Soviets conducted [less than 1 line not declassified] flight test of a true MIRV system on board the SS–X–17 ICBM.

The purpose of this paper is to attempt to understand the intentions and motivations behind Soviet policy evidenced by recent events: on the one hand, the foreign policy apparently aimed at a far-reaching détente with the US and its Allies; and, on the other hand, the vigorous pursuit of weapons development programs that portend substantial improvements in Soviet strategic capability.


In the months since the strategic arms accords were signed in May 1972,2 the Soviet government has increasingly stressed its commitment to a policy of détente with the US and the West. Certainly a number of Soviet political interests ride on this policy, Brezhnevr’s own prestige is heavily tied to it, and its collapse would be very unsettling to Soviet leaders. At the same time, the Soviets have been conducting a vigorous and wide-ranging program of strategic weapons development clearly aimed at a major modernization of their strategic forces.

This Estimate assesses the relationship between these two strains of Soviet policy. Its principal judgments are:

—Current Soviet development programs for ICBM force modernization were well underway in May 1972 and do not appear to have been altered by the Interim Agreement. The Soviets do not feel they are constrained from proceeding with extensive modernization of their deployed ICBM force.

—However, the Soviets have undertaken activities that raise serious questions for the US about the verifiability of the Interim Agreement and about Soviet willingness to respect US unilateral declarations. These activities include: possible development of the SS–X–16 as a mobile ICBM; continuation of concealment practices for this development; and construction of new large silos, beyond the numerical limit established by the Interim Agreement, which are probably intended as launch control facilities yet whose purpose cannot now be verified. The activities in question, although they certainly originated in normal Soviet planning, imply de facto tests of US resolve on the rules of SALT compliance. Whether these tests are intentional and how determined they prove to be must await evidence on Soviet responses to whatever protests the US makes.

—We doubt that the leadership has made a determination either to settle for strategic parity with the US or to strike out for superiority. The former would require abandonment of aspirations too firmly lodged in the Soviet system and pressed by Soviet military institutions to be entirely suppressed; the latter would require more optimism about a de[Page 642]clining US vitality and more faith in Soviet prowess than the leaders could confidently hold.

—We believe the Soviet leadership is currently pursuing a strategic policy it regards as simultaneously prudent and opportunistic, aimed at assuring no less than the continued maintenance of comprehensive equality with the US while at the same time seeking the attainment of some degree of strategic advantage if US behavior permits. The Soviets probably believe that unilateral restraints imposed on the US by its internal problems and skillful Soviet diplomacy offer some prospect that a military advantage can be acquired. To this end, they can be expected to exploit opportunities permitted them under the terms of SALT. At the same time, since they cannot be fully confident of such an outcome even as they probe its possibilities, they are probably also disposed to explore in SALT the terms on which stabilization of the strategic competition could be achieved.

—It is quite likely that the Soviet leaders see no basic contradiction between their détente and arms policies. Indeed they have publicly said as much on numerous occasions. Even if they do recognize a potential for conflict, they are probably uncertain about how far the US is prepared to insist on linking the two, and hence are probably inclined to test what the traffic will bear.

—This view of the Soviets’ stance implies that they cannot be persuaded to moderate their current weapons programs except on two conditions: (1) they are persuaded that the unrestrained progress of those programs will provoke US reactions that jeopardize both their opportunistic and their minimum or prudential objectives; and (2) at the same time, they can conclude that, if their programs are restrained, reciprocal restraints will be placed on US strategic programs sufficient to assure attainment of Soviet prudential objectives.

—The question is whether they will come to the view that they cannot have both substantially improving strategic capabilities and continuing benefits of détente—simultaneously and indefinitely. The US is unlikely to obtain answers without further direct exploration and negotiation. The US will not get the Soviets to respond to specific concerns on SALT compliance without frankly stating them. And we have estimated above that they are not likely to curb new programs unless they are persuaded both that US reactions to such programs would jeopardize their minimum objectives and that Soviet restraint would be reciprocated. But precisely what price, in terms of strategic limitations, the Soviets will prove willing to pay for détente remains to be tested.3

[Omitted here is the estimate, a postscript, and an annex.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Council, Job 79R01012A: Intelligence Publications Files, SNIE 11–4–73. Top Secret. [Handling restriction not declassified] The CIA and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, the AEC, and the Treasury participated in the preparation of this estimate. The DCI submitted this estimate with the concurrence of all members of the USIB except for the FBI’s representative, who abstained because the subject was outside his jurisdiction.
  2. See footnote 3, Document 2.
  3. The Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF, believed this Estimate stops short of answering the original question, “What are the Soviets up to?” The available evidence suggests a strong Soviet commitment to achieving both numerical and qualitative strategic superiority over the US. They probably view détente as a tactic to that end. Whatever its other advantages, the Soviets need détente to bring about a slowdown in US technology. They need to gain access to US guidance and computer technology, to buy time to redress their current technology imbalance and to exploit what they consider to be a favorable opportunity to attain a technological lead during the next 10 to 15 years. The Soviets are no doubt aware of the impact détente is already having on NATO and US defense outlays and in gaining easier access to US technology. Accordingly they must view détente as a principle means of forestalling access to US advances in defense technology while enhancing their own relative power position. [Footnote in the original.]