"Team B" Assessments of Soviets in Cold War

So I just recently read The Fifty-year Wound by Derek Leebaert, which I find myself looking a little askance at. I had thought that through the late 1970s and 1980s the U.S. grossly overestimated Soviet strength, not just economically, but also militarily in capabilities and numbers of missiles, bombers, etc.
Leebaert’s take on this is that:

So, is Leebaert right, wrong, too close to the matter to be objective, or what?


Er… so, no Cold War historians on the boards?

IAACWH, but I’m not familiar with the sources cited in that book. What I can say is that regardless of what some Soviet analyses of US intelligence may have been, by the time Reagan took office, the Soviet leadership was convinced that the US was going to launch World War III at any moment. (See the Mitrokin Archives). If this analysis was known by Soviet leadership, it would almost certainly be viewed as evidence that the US thought it could win the war.

So I can’t support the author’s exact allegation (that some CIA analysts were right, but ignored), I hope my insight may place any Soviet knowledge of those analyses into a bigger context.

I haven’t read Leebaert (though it sounds interested) but in fact what we know now of Soviet capabilities in the 'late Seventies and early 'Eighties is that estimates of Soviet strength and capability were, if anything, somewhat understated. Certainly their conventional Red Army forces in Europe, even during the height of the occupation of Afghanistan, were substantially more than those of NATO; this (along with the basing of SS-20 ‘Scalpel’ and SS-23 ‘Spider’ in Warsaw Pact nations) was the justification for basing the MGM-31C ‘Persing II’ and the GCM-109G ‘Gryphon’ (a.k.a. the Ground Launched Cruise Missile or 'Glick ‘Em’) in West Germany. It is probably true that per system the Soviet equipment was at least less capable on paper–the Soviet-built T-72 main battle tank certainly didn’t fair well in either Syrian-Israeli conflicts or in the first Gulf War against the US Abrams M1A1 or British Challenger II main battle tanks–but the numerical superiority of Soviet systems plus their field robustness and somewhat less logistical demands would probably do a lot to level the playing field, especially in the case of the Soviets fighting a holding action against a NATO advance into Eastern Europe. (One ‘problem’ with the Abrams is that is is capable of moving so fast along clear ground that it is difficult for ground support and supply lines to keep up with it; it does no good to have your multi-million dollar supertank penetrate dozens of miles beyond enemy lines only to have it run out of fuel or ammo.)

In the late 'Seventies, the Soviet Union, which continued regular development of ICBM and SLBM delivery systems apace while US and UK efforts languished, had a very definite numerical superiority in strategic launchers–giving truth to the then fallacious claim that John Kennedy had made in his election campaign of a “missile gap”–as well as at least a greater nominal throw weight and range capability in their most advanced systems like the R-36M family (NATO reporting name SS-18 ‘Satan’) of storable liquid fuel missiles capable of massive MIRV deployment (one had a proposed capacity of 10-15 RVs), very large warhead (15-25 MT, enough to crack Cheyenne Mountain open like a rotten egg), or the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System that could potentially penetrate the DEWS line by coming from an unexpected direction on an unanticipated trajectory and providing the alleged potential for a disarming first strike. Whether Soviet missile accuracy was actually capable of striking hard and close enough to take out hardened silo-based Minuteman II and III systems was and is in question, but this was enough during the Reagan era to reinvigorate interest in the LGM-118A ‘Peacekeeper’ MIRV-capable system (including a politically-necessary but technically and logistically infeasible mobile rail basing system called PK Rail Garrison), as well as the next generation of sub-based Trident D-5 SLBMs and the Type 726 Ohio-class subs that carried them to respond to a hypothetical disarming first strike. Later, a road-mobile system that was essentially a Peacekeeper scaled down to single RV size, the MGM-134 ‘Midgetman’ was proposed and in development (to counter road- and rail-mobile Soviet solid booster ICBMs) but was cancelled due to lack of strategic necessity with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soviet launch systems from the Cold War era are being used today for space launch systems with an impressive degree of effectiveness and at least good reliability, which gives like to any claim that if it came to button pushing time they would have melted on the launch stand.

Personally, I think all the Tom Clancy verbage you read about Soviet weapons being massively inferior is some large degree of of bombast; it’s true that systems were often overbuilt, and traded raw capability for ease off maintenance and field survivability, and also that quality control was sometimes questionable (a problem not unknown to Western powers, too, albeit not quite so pervasive) but it is also very clear to anyone who has actually seen this equipment in action or handled it that the Soviets took accuracy and ultimate effectiveness very similar. The Soviet nuclear arsenal was no Potemkin village, and it is very clear that their conventional forces and air power were, if not a match one-for-one against American systems, quite capable of taking to the field en masse and making a substantial showing, at least well enough to blunt any thrust by an enemy into invading Mother Russia. In a shooting war, the Soviets would have given as well as they gave, and the drawbacks that they had (like their missile subs only going on patrol for a few weeks rather than months, or the lack of a true aircraft carrier in the Red Banner Northern Fleet) reflects more a difference in strategy and goals rather than a lack of technical capability.

Soviet economic capability in the 'Seventies and 'Eightes, however, was utterly for shit. Their economy was being increasingly propped up by sales of natural resources to the West, and by raiding the larders of the East Bloc “client states” just in order to provide basic sustenance-level material goods and provisions while their military industrial complex kept chugging away trying to be competitive. (One of the influxes off hard cash was selling weapons to clients in the Middle East and Africa, but even then Soviet industry wasn’t anything like profitable by ‘capitalist’ free market standards.) Khrushchev knew this to be the case back in the 'Sixites; hence his attempts at (then radical) reform. Brezhnev took a more obtuse view that everything would somehow turn around, and Andropov and Chernenko were pretty much completely out to lunch during the majority of their short tenures as de facto leaders (although both were head of state as well as Chairmen of the CPSU, neither were technically head of government (Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR or Premier of the Soviet Union), and it was only upon Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to both the de facto and titular head of government that the admission was made to the world that all was not right with the Soviet economy (or politics, or social situation, et cetera). Of course, we all know how well that turned out; in the end, the Soviet Union imploded because it was just fiscally inviable, not because their forces were paper tigers or because they were outgunned by the West.


It seems, to me anyway, that “all the key issues” he mentions are not really all the key issues when assessing the strength of the Soviet Union. I’m sure they got a few things right, but it is fairly widely believed that Team B was wrong across the board.

Thanks for the detailed post, Stranger, and the wiki link Fubaya - I remain confused unfortunately (not an unusual state of affairs :wink: .)
So, maybe if we break it down:

Accuracy of Soviet MIRV-equipped missiles - it sounds like Stranger has covered this. The Soviets had missiles at least as accurate as the American land-based ICBMs, designed for counterforce strike. I guess Team B was right on that one.

Scope of Soviet civil defense, including underground cities - it sounds like the Soviets took civil defense much more seriously than Americans did. Did they have a system of civil defense that would actually have worked in a nuclear war? And does anyone know about this “underground city?”

ABM treaty violations - Stranger mentioned in the other thread about Soviet ABM capabilities that Soviet SAMs were probably not that effective in the ABM role. So Team B got it wrong on that one.

Soviet capability to wipe out US forces in a first strike - it sounds like this applies only to ground-based ICBMs and perhaps bombers, so US strategy from as far back as the 1960s took this into account with the large SLBM force designed to survive any Soviet first strike. Also, from the wikipedia article it sounds like the Team B report concluded that the Soviets viewed a first strike as a reasonable option - which history appears not to have borne out.

On some of those things, I’d be interested to know if Team B agreed with Team A or not. The author says ‘check it out, they got 5 things right, so they are vindicated’ but doesn’t say whether those were things everyone else already knew or not. I mean, did the CIA not know anything about ABM treaty violations until the outside experts uncovered them? For the record, I have no reason to believe he is being that misleading, but I’ve seen it before and am cynical.

To be fair, we don’t know how accurate Soviet weapons were, though indications from a few tests we were able to observe that they are sufficient for large strategic targets and to obtain at least a near-miss against smaller hardened targets. I find it unlikely that they could have effected a truly disarming first strike against the well-prepared American arsenal of Minuteman II and III ICBMs (capable of going from executive launch order to launch in the span of 2-3 minutes) and the submarine-based C3 Poseidon and C4 Trident missiles would give return fire capability regardless. (However, that doesn’t mean that this was the Soviet perception at the time; there is no limit to self-delusion.)

While the USSR engaged in civil defense projects like massive shelters, the United States focused on dispersing populations to suburbs remote areas (the original justification for the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System). In a full up nuclear exchange no amount of civil defense preparedness would really prevent massive deaths and the destruction of industrial and agrarian capability which would render the recipient little better than a Third World nation.

To be clear, I suspect that Soviet ABM systems were comparable in effectiveness to the American Safeguard system (or perhaps somewhat better), but capable only of point defense of single installations and readily overwhelmed by numerical increase of incoming. I suspect that the Soviets concluded–as did the United States–that defense against attack was fiscally prohibitive and too readily defeated by the fairly cheap effort of building more weapons.

I think the West completely missed the ball on Soviet thinking (and the complement is largely true as well); it is very clear that in the post-WWII era, and especially post-Stalin, the USSR was not expansionist, and the first and foremost reason for maintaining the Soviet Empire (i.e. the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Warsaw Pact ‘client states’) was to provide a buffer against attack and invasion, something feared (with good historical reason) by the Russian government and people. I suspect Soviet military leadership–like that of the United States–had various factions that vied between, “Let’s demonstrate a show of strength as a deterrent,” to “We should pave the enemy over until the whole country is nothing more than a radioactive parking lot before they get any stronger.” Some Soviet systems, such as FOBS, were clearly designed as a preemptive and penetrative attack system (which is not necessarily first strike; it may be deployed with the intent to use it to limit the capability for escalation, or to defeat active protective systems), but the Soviets gave up on FOBS pretty easily (SALT II) and were also open to talking about limiting ABM and intermediate range missiles in Europe, even when there was some not-insignificant imbalance in quantitative capability that was not in their favor.

Ultimately, I think the Soviets probably understood somewhat better than the United States that nuclear weapons are political bargaining chits, not militarily-useful weapons proper. However, that sort of thinking can be misleading when your opponent is thinking of actually using said weapons. If all parties are not negotiating from a common base of rationale, it is easy for small misunderstandings to expand in to vast and potentially catastrophic conflagrations.


Fascinating - I had no idea the growth of suburbs was encouraged from a civil defense reasoning. It’s learning things like that which makes me love this place.

Leebaert’s book is interesting, but he gives you the impression that the Soviets totally suckered the US in arms negotiation - that they had a Star Wars-type (in capability, although not form - not space-based) ABM system in place with their antiaircraft missiles (not just the publicly-known system around Moscow) and were afraid of Star Wars because the US might catch up to their lead.
At the risk of turning this into a Cafe Society thread - I’ve recently become more interested in Cold War history - can anyone recommend a good book or two?

Permit me to recommend former Secretary Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam and Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century, not so much for their insight–which can be found more extensively elsewhere–but for their accessibility and McNamara’s bald self-effacement about who wrong he and his fellow decision-makers were about the judgments they made.


In college, I met and took in a speech by Richard Pipes, a Commie-hating Sovietologist and member of Team B. To hear him tell it, he and his colleagues were just about the only foreign-policy pros not lulled into woolly-headed delusions about Soviet intentions by detente. As I recall, Reagan listened to Team B a lot more than Ford and Carter did, and their bleak view of the Soviet threat carried a lot of weight in the Eighties.

As to books, David McCullough’s bio Truman is a wonderful, highly readable account of Truman’s policymaking in the earliest days of the Cold War. Graham Allison’s The Essence of Decision is a very good examination of the crisis that brought us closer to World War III than any other Cold War confrontation. I just finished and was deeply impressed by Lawrence Freedman’s Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam. It’s a fascinating look at JFK’s scary but highly effective on-the-job education in crisis management. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest is an excellent look at Ike’s, JFK’s and LBJ’s decision-making about Vietnam.

I would estimate that >50% of the Soviet missiles were defective in one way or another. That is why the Red Air Force kept large bomber fleets into the 1980’s-they knew most of the SBMs would blow up on the launch pads. and the submarine-launched missiles were dangerous to the sub crews-they used propellants which leaked and reacted with seawater to form nitic acid-which probably caused the loss of a few subs.
That said, the russians had enough weapons to be a concern-but Kennedy and Johnson blew the whole thing up, and played into the commissar’s hands. The fact is, the old USSR was like a creaky old car, hard to start and constantly breaking down. the russians were terrified that we would learn the truth-which is why the U2 incident scared them so much.
The sad thing is-we wasted so much money on our own weapons-to protect against a threat that was never there!:smack:

If you’re looking for the big picture, as in covering from 1945 to 1990 or so, I’d recommend “We Now Know” and “The Cold War: A New History” by John Lewis Gaddis. They are a bit more analytical than historical, but I think they are both excellent books that put the Cold War in a new and more comprehensible light.

Okay, seriously? Did you just pull this directly out of your arse, or do you have a single bit of substantiation for these claims other than second-rate military techno-porn airport novels?

First of all, it’s the Soviet Air Force (and specifically the 46th Air Army Long Range Aviation Foirces), not the “Red Air Force”. The 46th, at the time of dissolution of the Soviet Union, had somewhere in the range of ~65 Tu-16 ‘Badgers’, ~100 Tu-22K ‘Blinder-B’ or -22R ‘Blinder-C’, ~500 turboprop Tu-95 ‘Bear’, ~150 Tu-22M ‘Backfire’, and 35 Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ strategic bombers. In comparison, the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command had ~250 B-52G/H ‘Stratofortress’, 100 B-1B ‘Lancer’, 20 B2 ‘Spirit’, and over hundred FB-111/F-111G bombers. (All of these numbers are available from multiple sources, including Janes Intelligence Group publications, fas.org, et cetera. Some of these are reconnaissance versions, but even most of those remained weapon-capable.) While there is a numerical disparity, one also has to look at the capabilities; the Tu-22Ks were roughly the same capabilities as the F-111 (that is, medium range strategic bombers), and while the Tu-22M and Tu-160s were more comparable to the B1-B, the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ was a turboprop plane that, while long range, lacked evasive or concealment abilities of even the elderly B-52s (nor did it have the speed). The Tu-16s were also old planes better suited to second rate air forces (to whom they were eventually sold) and the Soviet Union at the time of its breakup had nothing comparable to the B-2 in stealth penetration capability. One also has to realize that the Soviets had many targets almost at their front door in Central and Western Europe, while the distance to targets from the continental United States is measured in many thousands of miles making bombers a far more questionable prospect in terms of deterrence. (Indeed, the arguments for maintaining the “strategic bomber” leg of the American nuclear triad had more to do with politics and internal empires than practical utility.)

Soviet liquid-fuel SLBMs were highly capable, far more solid propellant American boosters of the same era. It is true that the fuels are caustic, but only the first couple of designs required fueling at sea; later systems were designed to be fueled at port using storable liquids and sealed from the sub. Given the often questionable quality control in Soviet industry they actually had very few known problems with liquid fueled SLBMs. They actually had more problems with the submarines themselves, and in particular the nuclear power plants, which was probably less an artifact of poor design than of the lack of a dogmatic, practically fascist adherence to maintenance and safety imposed by the overbearing Admiral Hyman Rickover, whose policies (including the dreaded ORSE) and willingness to destroy an officer’s career over a single mistake instituted a pseudo-religious fevor for safety in the US ‘Nuclear Navy’. The Soviets did eventually go to high performance solid boosters for SLBMs for the same reason we did, i.e ease of maintenance. Because they did not focus on solid propellant rockets earlier (which are very different from liquids in design and manufacture) they were slower to adopt the technology, but that doesn’t make liquids less effective; indeed, the Soviets enjoyed greater range and higher payload ‘throw-weight’ than American designs of the same era.

I have absolutely no idea where you get your “>50%” estimate from, but the fact is that surplus Soviet/Russian ICBM and SLBM boosters are being used today for targets and space launch with a remarkable degree of effectiveness and reliability, including the cantankerous but capable R-36M (NATO reporting name SS-18 ‘Satan’) storable two stage booster. It is true that weapons inspectors during the early to mid ‘Nineties found weapons in silos that had not been properly maintained and were not serviceable, but this is because Russia stopped paying their techs who then proceeded to stop working. (One inspector told me that he actually found a silo with the door open to the sky and all manner of creatures living in the silo, which also had 6-8’ of water in it.) It is safe to say that said weapons were not maintained in their condition when the Soviet Union was on high alert. It is worth noting that the USAF had no small amount of difficulty maintaining the storable liquid fueled Titan II boosters which were only kept because they were the only vehicle with sufficient throw weight to deliver the 9MT W-53 warhead.

There is the implicit assumption in your claims that American systems enjoyed very high reliability throughout their deployment. Perhaps you should do a bit of reading and see if that claim is justified. Or you can just continue to pull claims from unmentionable locations without any fact-checking or citation at all.


I’ve seen many discussions/explainations of suburban sprawl, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard this mentioned. Do you have a cite…not that I doubt you in the least, I’d just like to research this notion a bit deeper.


Not to hijack the thread, but a query about the capacity of the USA missiles to be launched within a few minutes of executive command. Some years back I read a comprehensive book about the Cuban missile crisis ( I wish I could remember the name- I’d love to read it again (I think it was written by one of the guys who studied the photographs from the U2’s))- and it was stated in that, that at the time it would take 6 to 8 hours to prepare one of the Soviet missiles for launch.

I know we are talking different eras, but would that have been the case at that time?

Thanks for the book suggestions - I’ve read McCullough’s Truman (it was very good, easier to read than I expected too.) I’ll check my local libraries for In Retrospect, Wilson’s Ghost, Kennedy’s Wars, The Essence of Decision, and We Now Know - sounds great.

Thanks for the recommends!


The Soviet Missle systems in Cuba were short or mid-range portable missle systems, that were still being implaced. This could have caused the delay, especially combined with the (again, WAG, but I would be willing to bet large money on it) command issue of Castro having to convince Moscow that it was a necessity.

Whereas, the US systems that would have launched the strike were either bombers on station and kept at a constant state of readiness, or nuclear silo’s with highly trained crews ready to do their thing at a moments notice, all the time.

Wasn’t it also part of the nature of the missiles involved? From what I understand, the incomplete missile bases in Cuba couldn’t have launched anything for days/weeks. The complete missile bases may have had liquid-fueled missiles, which use highly volatile rocket fuels, so you don’t just leave them sitting around fueled - you have to fuel them before you can launch them, which can take hours.

More modern missiles are solid-fueled, and you don’t have to delay in launching them for fueling.

Here is the globalsecurity.org page on teh National Defense Highway System (now known as the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System). From the article:From the outset of construction of the Interstate System, the DOD has monitored its progress closely, ensuring direct military input to all phases of construction. The National Defense Highway System was responsible for building many of the first freeways. Its purpose was supposedly to allow for mass evacuation of cities in the event of a nuclear attack.

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) the United States had only SM-65 ‘Atlas’ and HGM-25A ‘Titan I’ ICBMs, both of which used cryogenic oxidizers which required fueling before launch. The Atlas was stored horizontally in an above-ground semi-hardened container from which it had to be erected and then fueled; the Titan I was stored vertically in an underground silo from which it was fueled and then raised. The Minuteman (I) solid propellant motor missile and the Titan II (which used storable fuels) were still in development. 6-8 hours was probably a reasonable estimate for prep time to launch. The Soviet ICBM, the R-7, took even longer; the intermediate-range liquid fuel missiles used by both sides (PGM-19 ‘Jupiter’, PGM-17 ‘Thor’, R-12 ‘Dvina’ (SS-4 ‘Sandal’), and the R-14 ‘Chusovaya’ (SS-5 ‘Skean’)) were much faster to fire (the SS-5 used storable propellants) but had much less range; while the Turkey-based Jupiters could conceivably threaten Moscow, for the SS-4 or SS-5 to hit Washington D.C. would be blind pig luck. The UGM-27 ‘Polaris’ Fleet Ballistic Missile could be launched almost immediately, but at the time the FBM was considered a reserve-flight deterrent, not a first strike weapon, both because of the difficulty of coordinating an attack by subs and because of the very limited accuracy of the A-1 and A-2.

In the 'Eighties, however, the solid fueled LGM-30F/G Minuteman II and III (and later, LGM-118 ‘Peacekeeper’) and the more accurate C4 and D5 ‘Trident’ FBMs could literally be launched with the turn of a switch (or rather, two), and were accurate enough to reliably strike within a few hundred meters (or less…the CEP of the Peacekeeper is absurdly low, vastly smaller than the radius of complete destruction) of their intended targets. The Minuteman III and Peacekeeper could actually be retasked to new targets in the time it took to load a new guidance tape and feed the trajectory into the guidance computer. The bulk of the response time is actually confirming the threat and getting executive authority; the communication system is so extensive and robust that communicating the order is nearly instantaneous…which is really quite scary if you think about, but utterly necessary (along with the ‘launch on warning’ policy) if you are going to maintain the semblance of a credible deterrent against a disarming first strike.