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145. Memorandum from the Director of Central Intelligence (Colby) to President Nixon 1


  • Report on the Strategic Threat by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board

1. Admiral Anderson has made available to me a copy of his letter to you dated April 30, 1974,2 containing PFIAB’s annual assessment of the strategic threat. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the Board’s recommendations about U.S. strategic policy and the public presentation of it, or about the priority which should be accorded to certain U.S. R&D programs. I would, however, like to comment on three other aspects of the Board’s conclusions—the prospects for Soviet strategic superiority, intelligence requirements to support U.S. strategic policy, and the uncertainties in intelligence estimates.

2. In the estimate of “Soviet Forces for Intercontinental Attack” (NIE 11–8–73)3 which I submitted with the concurrence of the United States Intelligence Board in January of this year, a distinction was drawn between two different measures of strategic power. One involves equality or superiority in quantitative terms. The second considers deterrent and war-fighting capabilities. The message of NIE 11–8–73 is that:

—The U.S. faces very substantial improvements in the USSR’s strategic attack forces.

—By the early 1980’s these improvements are likely to convey an image of superiority to those who ascribe significance to quantitative measures.

—While through these improvements the Soviets will increase their counterforce capabilities—notably against the U.S. Minuteman force—they are not likely to be able to negate the U.S. deterrent under any circumstances we can foresee over the next ten years.

A corollary of this forecast is that the Soviet Union could be perceived as having a superiority of forces and a political advantage in the calculations of other nations, despite the continued ultimate effectiveness of the U.S. deterrent.

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3. The forecast in the NIE assumed the future development of U.S. forces along the lines now programmed and assumed no SALT constraints other than those of the existing agreements. These agreements placed a ceiling on certain largely quantitative aspects of the growth of the strategic forces of the two sides. The qualitative improvement of strategic forces, unconstrained by SALT I, has proceeded unabated. This is an area in which the U.S. retains a substantial lead. While some elements of the Intelligence Community differ in certain respects, I believe that Soviet actions since the signing of the SALT agreements reflect, not only an attempt to keep up with the competition—out of concern for such U.S. programs as B–1, Trident and Minuteman improvement—but also an opportunistic desire to press ahead and achieve a margin of superiority if they can. In my view, the Soviets perceive themselves as essentially equal in overall strategic power today. However, I do not believe (as does the PFIAB) that the Soviets perceive themselves as approaching the threshold of overall superiority in strategic power. How far they will press any attempt to achieve superiority will depend to a considerable degree on U.S. negotiating and defense policies, in particular on our ability to persuade the Soviets that:

—they cannot continue indefinitely to have both substantially improving strategic capabilities and the benefits of détente;

—non-restraint on their part will produce offsetting U.S. reactions;

—restraint on their part will be reciprocated.

4. I have re-examined the possible impact of Soviet strategic developments on the credibility of the U.S. deterrent. I continue to believe, as indicated in NIE 11–8–73, that under no foreseeable circumstances in the next tenyears are the Soviets likely to develop and deploy forces of the magnitude and quality necessary to reduce damage to themselves to acceptable levels by a first strike against U.S. strategic forces. I believe the Soviets would have to calculate that the U.S. would be able to make a devastating reply to any Soviet surprise attack. In reaching these conclusions in the NIE and in my re-examination of them, I have considered possible damage levels on the two sides as revealed by engagement analyses between U.S. and Soviet strategic forces, including all three elements of the U.S. strategic triad and their programmed improvements. There are obvious uncertainties in such analyses, but in reaching my judgment I have taken account of:

—the low levels to which Soviet ABM defenses are limited by Treaty;

—the great difficulties the Soviets face in the development of effective ASW capabilities against missile submarines in the open oceans;

—and to a lesser extent, the unlikelihood that Soviet air defenses, despite their massiveness, can overcome the limitations in their ability to prevent penetration by bombers.

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5. I agree fully with PFIAB’s concern over the need to improve the substantive intelligence required to support U.S. policy objectives, especially in areas of significant Soviet R&D effort or potential. In the three critical areas the Board mentioned—accuracies of Soviet missiles, prospects for detection of U.S. missile submarines and the strategic implications of Soviet laser developments—we currently have intensive interagency study efforts underway in order to provide policy officials with as definitive an understanding as possible of Soviet programs and capabilities. These three subjects are listed among the Key Intelligence Questions toward which I have directed the entire Intelligence Community to focus its attention.

6. I appreciate and will pursue the Board’s suggestion that CIA participate in the preparation of the “RISOP” (Red Integrated Strategic Operations Plan) used in war-gaming the SIOP. DIA participates now and uses Intelligence Community estimates, but as the gaming becomes more complex with more SIOP options, CIA may be able to contribute more than hitherto to development of the RISOP. I will undertake to explore with the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff how CIA can best contribute to this aspect of operational planning for our strategic forces.

7. Finally, I agree with the PFIAB findings that intelligence estimates require the keenest possible technical evaluations. To that end we are experimenting on ways to communicate more precisely the degree of confidence we have in our judgments, particularly on technical data. One of our interagency studies is addressing the prospects for determining the accuracies of Soviet ICBMs in the period about five years from now, in an effort to narrow the uncertainties as well as to alert users of intelligence to them. The strategic relationship over the next decade is likely to be increasingly sensitive to uncertainties in such qualitative factors as missile accuracies, which are unquestionably more difficult to measure than quantitative elements such as the numbers of launchers or weapons.4

W. E. Colby 5
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Council, Job 84R01033R: Speeches/Lectures/Briefings Files, Box 1, Briefing to PFIAB, 7 June 1974. Secret. Copies were sent to Anderson, Kissinger, and Schlesinger.
  2. Document 144.
  3. Document 141.
  4. Anderson replied to Colby's memorandum in a June 13 letter to Nixon. Despite Colby's assurances to the contrary, Anderson wrote, PFIAB “members remain unanimous in their judgment that ten-year projections of what the Soviets are likely to do cannot be made with the degree of confidence which these national security issues require.” Given the uncertainties involved, the board remained “concerned” that such projections “unduly encourage a sense of complacency detrimental to the continuing development of adequate US strategic forces.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–282, Intelligence Files, PFIAB (1) [1971–1975] [2 of 3])
  5. The memorandum is a copy that bears Colby's typed signature with an indication that he signed the original.