Books Monographs

Intentions and Capabilities: Estimates on Soviet Strategic Forces, 1950-1983

Forty-one estimates published by CIA and the National Intelligence Council from 1950 to 1983 (Published in 1996)

Edited by: Donald P. Steury


The documents in this volume-a selection of 41 National Intelligence Estimates on Soviet strategic capabilities and intentions from the 1950s until 1983-pertain to the liS Intelligence Community’s performance of its most critical mission during the Cold War. Our purpose in producing the volume is simply to make more readily accessible to scholars, and to the public, records that shed light on the history of American intelligence and foreign policy as well as on the history of the USSR and Russia.

The prerequisite for publishing these documents was declassifying them, a process that began when Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates in February 1992 made a public commitment that CIA would undertake a declassification review of all National Intelligence Estimates on the Soviet Union 10 years old or older. By 1993 CIA had released and transferred to the National Archives several hundred Estimates on the Soviet Union, largely dealing with nonstrategic matters, from which a sample was published that year as Selected Estimates on the Soviet Union, 1950-1959.

 In November 1994, 80 additional Estimates. on Soviet strategic forces. were declassified (with some excisions). Ten of these Estimates were reproduced and distributed to those attending a conference on estimating Soviet military power that was held at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December 1994, with CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI) and Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History as cosponsors.

The current volume includes a much larger number of NIEs on Soviet strategic forces, but selecting which Estimates to include was nevertheless difficult. For the most part we have included those documents that exemplified intelligence thinking on the various elements of the topic rather than those that were for some reason unusual. To make the volume of manageable scope and size, only the shorter Estimates have been reproduced in their entirety; we have included the “Summaries” and “Key Judgments” of longer Estimates, along with extracts from their other sections. In every case, the Estimate in its declassified version has been transferred in its entirety to the National Archives. Readers interested in the full text of the documents may consult them there.

The Center for the Study of Intelligence, directed by Dr. Brian Latell, has managed the process of declassifying and publishing the documents. CSI’s Historical Review Group carried out the extensive consultation within the Agency and coordination with other elements of the Intelligence Community necessary to release the documents. Dr. Donald P. Steury of the History Staff, which is also part of CSI, compiled and edited this volume.

Intelligence Estimates on Soviet strategic forces drove the entire strategic analytical process within the American Intelligence Community and played a central role in the great strategic debates affecting US behavior throughout the Cold War. Controversy and analytical closure at the working level influenced debate and decisionmaking at the policy level regarding arms control, force structure, resource allocation, military procurement, and contingency planning for war. Some regarded the Estimates as a battleground, while others used the Estimates as a bible; few of those concerned with Soviet strategic matters ignored the Estimates. They provided a foundation for official US public statements on Soviet military power and indirectly had a significant impact on the American population’s understanding of the Soviet strategic threat as well.

Despite uncertainties regarding many specific issues, by the mid-1960s the intelligence community was rapidly improving its ability to provide in the Estimates a broad description of the Soviet forces at any given time, and a general explanation of how these forces operated and what they would look like a few years hence. Increased knowledge of what the Soviet forces consisted of afforded a markedly improved degree of “crisis stability.” Growing confidence that intelligence monitoring-largely through technical means-would detect any major development program that could significantly expand Moscow’s strategic capabilities made the arms competition more restrained and cheaper than it might have been. As a corollary, limiting and controlling the arms race became possible.

At the same time, the Estimates had a major impact on the development of US intelligence methodologies and capabilities in collection and analysis. By defining key data gaps and focusing attention on questions that needed to be answered, the Estimates gave impetus to many of the great intelligence breakthroughs of the era-in such areas as remote sensing, imagery, telemetry analysis, radar signature analysis, and sonar analysis.

A major reason for the impact and success of the strategic Estimates was their focus on current and near-term Soviet capabilities-where evidence was more solid-as well as on projections for the future-inherently a taller order. Because of space constraints, the portions of the Estimates excerpted for inclusion here tend to be more oriented toward the future, but the Estimates in full text aggregated a massive amount of data on current capabilities. These descriptive sections constituted a critical contribution of the Estimates.

Production of the strategic Estimates, usually on an annual basis, culminated an enormous collection, processing, and reporting enterprise that fed material and analysis to planners and policymakers day in and day out throughout the year. The regularity of the production schedule was a major strength of the strategic Estimates. The Estimate defined the problems that intelligence experts knew they would have to deal with over the coming year and influenced analytical and collection strategies.

Not all categories of Estimates enjoyed the reputation or served the function of the Soviet strategic Estimates. In most subject areas Estimates were produced only episodically. With their often long preparation times. Estimates were not always relevant to immediate policymaker concerns in the way that current intelligence publications were. Some consumers of intelligence, believing the community coordination of Estimates could result in “lowest common denominator” assessments, preferred to rely on what they saw as the sharper analysis contained in papers produced by individual intelligence agencies. Thus, the production of the Soviet strategic Estimate was a process without parallel in the work of the Intelligence Community-in terms of clarity and cohesion of mission, continuity of substantive focus, commitment of resources, consensus of priority requirements, and high-level support.

Dr. Steury’s introduction and commentary are intended less to evaluate how the judgments of the Estimates look in retrospect than to provide a general context that will assist readers themselves to follow and assess the evolution of intelligence thinking that went into this important body of Estimates over a period of several decades.


—Kay Oliver
CIA Chief Historian
Center for the Study of Intelligence
January 1996

Guide to the Estimates.

Readers may approach this collection of documents in two ways. Those wishing to open the entire book of 498 pages (42 MB) may do so by following the link below.

(Under construction) Those who wish to explore the the collection in its five sections (Front matter, estimates divided into three parts, and an afterword) may download them individually from links a bit further below this introduction.