141. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 11–8–73



The Soviets are now well into a broad range of programs to augment, modernize, and improve their forces for intercontinental attack.2 This round of programs—which follows hard on a large-scale, sustained deployment effort that left the USSR considerably ahead of the US in numbers of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers and in process of taking the lead in submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers—was conceived long before the Interim Agreement was signed in May 1972, and most of the programs involved were already evident or foreseeable at that time. Nevertheless, they represent a breadth and concurrency of effort which is unprecedented, particularly in the field of ICBM development. Questions thus arise concerning Soviet willingness to accept additional limitations on their intercontinental attack forces and the potential effect on the strategic balance if such limitations are not imposed.

The Soviets are presently testing four new ICBMs—one as a follow-on to the SS–13 and probably also as a mobile missile, one as a follow-on to the SS–9, and two as replacements for the SS–11. All four incorporate new guidance and reentry systems, and two of them a new launch technique.3 Three have been tested with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), though two of these three [Page 644] have also been tested with single RVs. The other employs a post-boost vehicle (PBV) which could be used to dispense MIRVs, but all tests to date have been with a single reentry vehicle (RV). If testing proceeds smoothly, all could be ready to begin deployment as early as 1975 or soon thereafter.

Meanwhile the Soviets have begun introducing a new version of the widely deployed SS–11, with three non-independently targetable reentry vehicles (MRVs), at three complexes in eastern Siberia and two in the Ukraine. At the latter complexes, existing SS–11 silos are now being converted, either for the SS–11 variant or for one of the follow-on missiles. Conversion of existing SS–9 silos to accommodate the SS–9 follow-on has also begun at one complex.

Production of the 12-tube D-class submarine, with its 4,200 nm missile, is continuing apace, with construction of a stretched version large enough to carry 16–18 tubes now under way. In addition, the Soviets are well along with the development of a longer range (1,600 nm) missile with MRVs for the widely deployed Y-class submarine and are preparing to test a follow-on to the larger missile carried by the D-class.

The new swing-wing strategic bomber we call Backfire is being introduced into Long Range Aviation (LRA). All Agencies but Army and Air Force believe it best suited for peripheral missions, and CIA and Navy believe it is primarily intended for this role. Army and Air Force believe that Backfire is suitable for a variety of missions including intercontinental attack, but that it would be prudent to await additional evidence before making a judgment on its primary role.

The present Soviet activity doubtless reflects in part internal bureaucratic and technological drives and the concerns of a country which still sees itself in a dynamic strategic competition with the US and also has concerns about China and other potential foes. However, the present Soviet effort involves more than can readily be explained as merely trying to keep up with the competition.

On the one hand:

—The Soviets have long indicated a need to catch up in MIRVs and other aspects of technology if they are to continue to be accepted as strategic equals of the US. They appear genuinely concerned about such US programs as Trident, B–1, and SRAM.

—Increased concern for survivability is reflected in development of harder silos and launch control facilities for the new Soviet ICBMs and probably figured in the apparent Soviet interest in land mobile ICBMs, in the desire to expand the SLBM force, and in introduction of the long-range missile for the D-class submarine.

—The Soviet emphasis on MIRVs and the apparent interest in greater targeting flexibility for ICBMs probably reflect an expectation of a growing requirement to plan for various contingencies, increasingly involving China and perhaps other peripheral targets as well as the US.

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—In this connection, analysis completed within the last year indicates that though all Soviet ICBMs can be directed against the US, over 300 standard SS–11 silos—roughly the last third of the force to be deployed—were specifically oriented so as also to provide full coverage of China or more extensive coverage of other peripheral areas. The broad targeting flexibility of the SS–11 which makes this possible has been further extended with the new SS–11 variant now being deployed—and presumably also with the new ICBMs.

On the other hand, Soviet actions almost certainly reflect a hope that vigorous pursuit of their opportunities under the Interim Agreement4 and any subsequent accords that may be achieved will enable them to improve their relative position vis-à-vis the US. Though they have probably not decided whether they could get away with it, their objectives probably include an opportunistic desire to press ahead and achieve a margin of superiority if they can. Thus:

—The MIRVing of the large SS–9 follow-on, the SS–X–18, and evident Soviet interest in greater accuracy for ICBMs almost certainly reflects a desire for improved ability to strike at US strategic forces—a factor long stressed in Soviet strategic doctrine.

—The Soviets must recognize that extensive MIRVing of their ICBMs would threaten to leave the US behind in independently targetable weapons, as well as in delivery vehicles.

—Each of the new ICBMs has substantially more throw weight than the missile it is evidently designed to replace. Deployment of the new systems in large numbers would thus provide the USSR with an even greater advantage in missile throw weight than now exists.

In sum, the Soviets have been laying the groundwork for very substantial improvements in already large and formidable intercontinental attack forces. This process is not yet irreversible, and the Soviets may prove willing to accept some curbs on it within the broader context of their détente policy. Nevertheless, they have shown little disposition to exercise voluntary restraint.

How far the Soviets will go in carrying out current programs will depend in the first instance on the outcome of SALT II and, in particular, on how successful the US is in persuading them that they cannot have both substantially improving strategic capabilities and the benefits of détente, simultaneously and indefinitely; that unrestrained pursuit of present programs will provoke offsetting US reactions which could jeopardize their competitive position; and that restraint on their part would be reciprocated.5

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In absence of a new agreement constraining the Soviet strategic buildup, the Soviets will presumably continue most of the broad array of programs now under way. Moreover, they are continuing to expand their large research and development facilities. Early development is probably already under way for new or improved follow-ons for the new missile systems now in flight test.

Our examination of various ways in which such a buildup might proceed leads us to believe that under no foreseeable circumstances in the next 10 years are the Soviets likely to develop the ability to reduce damage to themselves to acceptable levels by a first strike against US strategic forces. The Soviets would have to calculate that the US would be able to make a devastating reply to any Soviet surprise attack.

Except with a minimal effort, however, the Soviets, if unconstrained, are likely by the early 1980s to surpass programmed US forces in numbers of missile RVs and increase their considerable superiority in missile throw weight, while retaining their advantage in numbers of delivery vehicles. These static measures of strategic power would convey an image of a margin of Soviet superiority to those who ascribe high significance to these measures.

In addition, the Soviet strategic forces now being developed—whatever their specific makeup—will probably have better counter-force capabilities than the present ones. How much better will probably remain a matter of considerable uncertainty.

—Unless Soviet ICBMs obtain better accuracies than [2 lines not declassified] they would have to assign more than one weapon to each target to disable a large portion of the US ICBM forces.

—However, we will probably be unable to determine the accuracies of the new Soviet ICBMs with confidence. And we will probably remain uncertain about both the feasibility of attacking targets with more than one weapon, which involves some technical problems, and about Soviet willingness to rely on this tactic.

—All in all, the strategic relationship over the next decade is likely to be much more sensitive to uncertainties like these than to more readily measurable factors such as launcher or weapon numbers. More than ever, the strategic, and especially the political impact of the Soviet buildup will probably depend a great deal on how it is perceived abroad, in the US and elsewhere.

[Omitted here is the estimate.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Council, Job 79R01012A: Intelligence Publications Files, Box 455, NIE 11–8–73. Top Secret. [Handling restriction 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 DCI submitted this estimate with the concurrence of all members of the USIB, except for the representatives of the FBI and the Department of the Treasury, who abstained on the grounds that the subject was outside of their jurisdiction.
  2. This Estimate is concerned with the major elements of Soviet strategic attack forces specifically intended for intercontinental attack—ICBMs, certain SLBMs, and heavy bombers. The present size and composition of these forces are summarized in paragraphs 3 (and accompanying table), 49 and 58 of the Estimate. Other Estimates, e.g., NIE 11–10–73, “Soviet Military Posture and Policies in the Third World,” and the NIE 11–13 and 11–14 series dealing with Warsaw Pact forces for operations in Eurasia, discuss other forces with some strategic and tactical intercontinental capabilities. [Footnote in the original.]
  3. The Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF, believes that the new missile systems now under test which use the cold launch technique will be likely to have a refire capability. See his footnote to paragraph 48 of the Estimate for further discussion. [Footnote in the original.]
  4. See footnote 3, Document 2.
  5. See SNIE 11–4–73: “Soviet Strategic Arms Programs and Détente: What Are They Up To?” dated 10 September 1973, Top Secret, All Source, for a further discussion of Soviet strategic policies and programs in the present context of SALT negotiations and détente. [Footnote in the original.]