160. Letter From the Director of Central Intelligence (Colby) to the Chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (Anderson)1

Dear George:

In your letter of August 8, 1975, to the President2 you made some criticisms of last year’s National Intelligence Estimate 11–3/8–74, “Soviet Forces for Intercontinental Conflict Through 1985.” The letter is, of course, a fine example of your independent assessment of our intelligence product and advice to the President with respect to it.

Stemming from that letter, Brent Scowcroft requested my comments on certain recommendations for change in the current National Intelligence Estimate process.3 I responded to this in my letter to the President of 21 November 1975,4 a copy of which I made available to you. In this letter, I took some issue with the conclusions in your August 8, 1975, letter with respect to last year’s National Intelligence Estimate. I pointed out that I had received the August letter only on 9 September, too far along in this year’s NIE 11–3/8 process to divert the talents from that priority Estimate to respond to your August comments in detail. I suggested also that an examination of the 1975 Estimate5 might lead you to a different conclusion than you reached with respect to the 1974 Estimate.

At the same time, I believe that the statements in your August letter were so sweeping that they deserved a very specific response from our experts. I consequently requested them to develop the attached comments reflecting the statements about specific Soviet technical developments made in your August letter. I am sure we will have a chance to discuss these at our forthcoming meeting, and I believe these comments might help us to fix on specific matters at issue.

I am sending a copy of this to Brent Scowcroft, as I am concerned that the President might otherwise suffer under a very erroneous im [Page 719] pression of the accuracy and seriousness of both the 1974 and the 1975 Estimates on this important subject.


W. E. Colby


Study Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency6


[Page 721]
This NIE assesses that for the next ten years it is extremely unlikely that the Soviets will conclude they could launch an attack which would prevent devastating US retaliation. This judgment is presented confidently, with the force of fact, although the cumulative evidence on which it is based is conflicting, often flimsy, and in certain cases does not exist. This finding in the NIE is labeled a key judgment and followed by five supporting judgments. The estimative words “extremely unlikely” are not intended to mean it is fact. It is our estimate supported by the evidence and discussion in the body of the NIE.
With respect to Soviet ICBM accuracy and the survivability of the US Minuteman force, the data is inconclusive and has been very differently interpreted by the experts. A number of uncertainties which have [Page 720] puzzled analysts for six years have been accommodated in the NIE by averaging the worst and best cases when the data could really support either interpretation. Virtually all but one expert have come to essentially the same conclusion. We readily admit there are uncertainties. The NIE refers the reader to an Interagency Report which delineates those uncertainties and their effect on Soviet hard-target capabilities. In no case has any “averaging of worst and best cases” taken place; the uncertainties were in fact used in constructing the alternative forces analyzed in the estimate.
—the NIE gives the appearance of a net assessment and thus the added weight of “operational” consideration, when in substance it is not. The presentation of the results of interaction or engagement analyses are intended to show the implications of Soviet force developments and are not intended to be “net assessments” of the effectiveness of US forces. Assessment of Soviet military capabilities, present and future, result from perceptions by intelligence of the interaction of opposing forces. Given the complexities of strategic nuclear forces, interaction analyses employing advanced analytical techniques are the only means we know of to assess Soviet capabilities. Interaction analyses are necessary if Soviet capabili-ties are to be described in terms that are relevant to the concerns of defense planners. Further-more, without considering such interactions, items of intelligence might not be recognized as having important implications, and the proper focus in answering key intelligence questions might be lost.
—the NIE . . . accepts optimistic and unproven data regarding US silo hardness. The data used were provided by the CINCSAC—the operational commander of the Minuteman force—a source we would expect to be best informed on this subject.
Soviet ICBM Accuracy
The hard data on both the presently deployed Soviet ICBM force and the new Soviet ICBMs does not allow any confident, precise determination of accuracy. [7½ lines not declassified] We readily admit there are uncertainties. The “non-community” view has been questioned by informed and reasonable analysts in the community as involving hypothetical suppositions. In particular, the non-community view implies [13 lines not declassified.]
Concerning the new Soviet ICBMs—the SS–18 and SS–19 [20 lines not declassified] We point out in NIE 11–3/8–75 that the SS–18 and SS–19 do have problems, but we believe they can be solved. Accuracy figures for these missiles take into account anticipated Soviet correction of the malfunctions mentioned.
[1 paragraph (12 lines) not declassified] [1 paragraph (7 lines) not declassified]
[1 paragraph (21½ lines) not declassified] [1 paragraph (17 lines) not declassified]
SLBM Survivability
The NIE asserts there should be little worry as to the survivability of the (US) SLBM force now or in the next 10 years. The basis for the conclusion is spelled out in some detail in the body of the Estimate, so it is something more than an assertion. Treating the issues of current and future capabilities separately the reasoning behind this conclusion can be summarized: there is strong positive evidence of a current lack of Soviet ASW capability against the US SSBN force. [8½ lines not declassified] The Estimate also addresses Soviet capability [Page 722] to impair the effectiveness of the SSBN force in the next ten years. Implicit in this formulation of the problem is destruction of a large fraction of the force and the accomplishment of this destruction in a time-critical fashion. [15½ lines not declassified]
This conclusion is based partially upon US superiority in “classical” ASW techniques, and partially on judgments that nonconventional techniques are unlikely to be highly successful. [3½ lines not declassified] True, the conclusion is a judgment and not demonstrated fact, but the reasons for the judgments are stated, and the full analytical backup is contained in the Interagency [23½ lines not declassified]
[1 paragraph (41 lines) not declassified] It is very possible that this technological area will yield capabilities not yet realized by the US R&D community . . . it may be a very long time before we are able to determine the nature of these new threats . . . it is imprudent to make judgmental conclusions that minimize the potential for a technological breakthrough . . . [4½ lines not declassified]. While US investigations have not conclusively ruled out in all cases their potential for ASW, the range of technical possibilities for Soviet breakthroughs nonetheless appears small. Technology may in the future yield capabilities beyond our present understanding; our judgments are based on what we understand today. [2 lines not declassified]. We will almost never have proof in a mathematical sense. Therefore, we must state our best judgment on the basis of available information, and discuss our reasoning and the limitations on information.
Bomber Penetration
The conclusion that Soviet air defenses today are relatively ineffective against the planned US low altitude bomber strikes is based on a large amount of intelligence information which [Page 723] suggests two deficiencies. . . . it is assumed that the most heavily deployed Soviet surface-to-air missile ( SAM), the SA–2, which carries the burden of defense against low altitude penetrators, primarily carries a high-explosive (non-nuclear) warhead; second that the ground-controlled intercept (GCI) system which must direct the aircraft interceptors to their targets is relatively inaccurate against low-flying aircraft. [5½ lines not declassified] In addition to these two factors the analyses included: the deploy-ment and capabilities of the SA–3; the lack of an AWACS; the inability of any system to destroy US SRAMS in flight; the lack of a lookdown/shootdown intercep-tor; [12 lines not declassified]
[5 paragraphs (56½ lines) not declassified] [4 paragraphs (27½ lines) not declassified]
For the longer term, many Soviet activities seen at their R&D facilities are not fully understood. A pole-mounted, mobile radar has been observed which could extend the low altitude coverage of existing SAMs or could form the basis for a new SAM system. [8 lines not declassified] All of these activities were discussed in the NIE, and they are, in fact, not fully understood. But the best analysis available did not indicate that any of the systems which appeared to be under active R&D would, alone or in combination, constitute a major breakthrough in low altitude defense.
Taken as a whole, the uncertainties inherent in a comprehensive assessment of Soviet air defense capabilities do not support the NIE view that “. . . it is unlikely that the Soviets will be able to cope with sophisticated low altitude attacks during the next 10 years. The quoted judgment appears in Volume I; the analyses supporting this judgment are not fully laid out in Volume II. Despite the lengthy discussion which would have been required, perhaps they should have been. In any case, Volume II supports this statement for about five years—but not for ten. (The ten year picture is analyzed more fully in the NIE 11–3/8–75, and its conclusion is indeed more pessimistic.)
  1. Source: National Security Council Files, Ford Administration Intelligence Files, Box I-013, NIE Evaluation by PFIAB. Confidential. A copy was sent to Scowcroft.
  2. Document 155.
  3. Kissinger’s memorandum, signed by Scowcroft, requesting commentary from Colby is Document 156.
  4. Document 159.
  5. NIE 11–3/8–75 is Document 158.
  6. Top Secret.