Michael KreponTeam B

Thankfully, I have never laid eyes on plans to fight a nuclear war. The biggest advantages to not knowing these plans are that my sleep habits and powers of analysis have not been further impaired. Knowledge is usually a good thing, but knowledge of nuclear targeting plans can be a hindrance — if this material is taken as gospel. On most topics, strategic analysts load up on caveats, but doctrine and targeting tend to be taken literally — mostly by Hawks, and sometimes by Doves, depending on whose doctrine is under scrutiny. Serious readers of doctrine gravitate toward worst cases, where they keep company with analysts who dwell on the results of computer-driven, nuclear war-fighting campaigns.

Granted, doctrine is important because very bad things can happen. In which case, it’s a good thing to have a sense of an adversary’s plans. On the other hand, reading doctrine and classified material about nuclear war can fog analytical skills — when analysts forget that national leaders have consent rights to implement these plans. Up until now, leaders of all different stripes and political persuasions have done their utmost to not implement nuclear war-fighting plans during harrowing crises.

The most prominent case of the uses and misuses of doctrinal literalism is probably the Team B exercise in 1976 – CIA Director George H.W. Bush’s parting gift to the incoming Carter administration.

It’s not easy for the intelligence community to assess what adversaries are doing. Goldilocks assessments that are “just right” are unheralded. There can, however, be hell to pay if the IC under-estimates an adversary’s nuclear capabilities. Then, typically, compensatory actions and assessments follow. In the 1970s, the CIA tended to underestimate the growth of Soviet programs. In the 1980s, it overestimated the Soviet threat – most embarrassingly, when the USSR was coming apart at the seams. Not surprisingly, Team B’s assessment was the pivot point between estimates that were too cold and then too hot. Over-estimating an adversary’s nuclear capabilities is usually safer as a career move than under-estimating them.

During the presidency of Gerald R. Ford, critics of the SALT I accords zeroed in on the National Intelligence Estimates of Soviet strategic forces. Leading figures in what famously became the Committee on the Present Danger called for a hard look at and a fresh scrub of these estimates. [Digression: In my recollection, this campaign was much harsher than the reaction to the 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program that judged, “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This NIE made an important corollary judgment, “with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”]

President Ford tacked to the right. He disavowed the word “détente” and backed away from a SALT II agreement. He consented to a competitive intelligence estimate of the CIA’s in-house “Team A” assessments. CIA Director Bush selected for this assignment outsiders not known for underestimating the Soviet threat. Team B was led by Soviet historian Richard Pipes. It included Gen. Danny Graham, William Van Cleave, Paul Nitze and Paul Wolfowitz.

The Team B assessment has been declassified. For a more flavorful summary of the proceedings, I recommend an essay by Richard Pipes, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks it Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” which appeared in the July 1977 issue of Commentary. Here’s a sampler:

“The predisposition of the American strategic community is to shrug off this fundamental doctrinal discrepancy. American doctrine has been and continues to be formulated and implemented by and large without reference to its Soviet counterpart. It is assumed here that there exists one and only one ‘rational’ strategy appropriate to the age of thermonuclear weapons, and that this strategy rests on the principle of ‘mutual deterrence’…

It is my contention that this attitude rests on a combination of arrogance and ignorance; that it is dangerous; and that it is high time to start paying heed to Soviet doctrine, lest we end up deterring no one but ourselves. There is ample evidence that the Soviet military say what they mean and usually mean what they say…

[The U.S.] middle class, commercial, essentially Protestant ethos is absent from Soviet culture… The Communist revolution of 1917… in effect installed in power the muzhik, the Russian peasant. And the muzhik had been taught by long historical experience that cunning and coercion alone ensured survival…

Expenditures on the military represent for the Soviet leadership an excellent and entirely ‘rational’ capital investment. For this reason alone… the Soviet leadership could not accept the theory of mutual deterrence…

Implicit in all this is the idea that nuclear war is feasible… thermonuclear war is not suicidal, it can be fought and won, and thus resort to war must not be ruled out.

To my way of thinking, the best rebuttal – pre-buttal, actually – of the Team B’s exercise in doctrinal literalism was written by McGeorge Bundy. No need for a GPS unit to find Bundy on the Protestant-muzhik divide. In an oft-quoted passage from his October 1969 Foreign Affairs article, “To Cap the Volcano,” he wrote:

There is an enormous gulf between what political leaders really think about nuclear weapons and what is assumed in the complex calculations of relative ‘advantage’ in simulated strategic warfare… In the real world of real political leaders… a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb of one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history.


  1. Silent Hunter UK (History)

    Have you got a link to the Team B assessment?

  2. krepon (History)
  3. Scott Monje (History)

    You mean 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program.

    • krepon (History)

      Thanks, Scott.

  4. David E. Hoffman (History)

    I have always thought the Team B exercise was interesting on two levels. The first is that it showed the great black hole of our understanding — intentions. We knew a lot about Soviet military developments, but not intentions. That’s why the debate over a quest for “superiority” or “fighting-winning a nuclear war,” as suggested by Team B, was indeed important. We didn’t know what Soviet leaders were really thinking. The exercise showed that gap, but didn’t actually resolve it.
    Secondly, the alarmist views of Team B on certain hardware issues was overstated. Had they known what we know now about missile accuracy, they might not have been so alarmist. The alleged “window of vulnerability” did not exist, and one reason is that Soviet guidance systems were not as good as those of the United States. So they could not wipe out as many Minutemen III as Pipes and others suggested.

  5. JohnLopresti (History)

    Tora Bora. Chernobyl. Chicxulub. Some of the lessons from those geographical locales occurred primarily after House minority leader G. Ford had served a term in the US Presidency.

    Gronlund published a short study in 2011
    describing the 1987 Chernobyl incident as causing 53,000 excess cancers and 27,000 accident related cancer deaths. That author compares the newly re-studied morbidity and mortality data to a WHO report claiming a low figure for Chernobyl at 4,000 attributable deaths.

    Chicxulub was the crater discovered in Mexico, in the 1980s proving the concept analogous to ‘nuclear winter’, the crater having been asteriod produced and the consequent dust pollution of the upper atmosphere subsequently causing extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years back, because sunlight could not reach the earth’s surface until the dust cleared.

    Tora Bora in 2001 became a study case in value judgements, and there are many others similar, with some of the calculus relating to the known impacts from the Chernobyl toxic plume’s impacts.

  6. Feh (History)

    The obvious rejoinder to Bundy is that neither the U.S. nor the Soviets believed in minimum deterrence in 1969 (nor were things any different in 1979 or 1989) since both countries had considerably more than 10 bombs in their arsenals.

    Personally, I look at Bundy’s article as a crass partisan effort to explain away the loss of American strategic superiority on his watch between 1964 and 1968. If the nuclear balance doesn’t matter in the “the real world of real political leaders” then who cares about the frantic Soviet buildup in heavy missiles, right?

    • anon (History)

      In what way did the United States loose its strategic superiority between 1964-1968? If my memory serves me, the Soviet Union was well behind the United States in the deployment of both long-range SLBMs and MIRVed ICBMs at that time. The only thing they had that we did not was a super-huge heavy ICBM, the SS-9. They didn’t have a significant force of MIRVed ICBMs until the late 1970s (and, if you look at the data, they were rapidly updating and modifying the SS-18s and SS-19s, which I take as a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength. If the early versions had been high quality, they would have stuck with them, instead, they had to keep fixing them.) They had trouble with solid-fuel technology, they had trouble with MIRVing, they had trouble with accuracy, all of which we were good at, and we were shifting the majority of our warheads to invulnerable SLBMs.

      So how do you calculate a loss of U.S. strategic superiority in the 1960s? I have trouble with that calculation even in the 1970s, and everyone got over it in the 1980s, after the Scowcroft Commission report.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    “Up until now, leaders of all different stripes and political persuasions have done their utmost to not implement nuclear war-fighting plans during harrowing crises.”

    President Kennedy was a fan of Barbara Tuchman’s “the Guns of August.” One of the things I remember reading was that the Great Powers of 1914 set up military call up plans dependent on getting troops to the right places at the right time for a major war. Which, in reterospect, became an automatic device for escalating international tensions, leading to the war.

    The politicians of 1914 became prisoners of their own “war fighting plans.”

    is that a connection anyone sees here?

  8. Stan Norris (History)


    Two things to add. Pavel Podvig’s article in International Security (Summer 2008)entitled “The Window of Vulnerability That Wasn’t” shows the actual characteristics of Soviet ICBMs. We borrowed from it liberally in our Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Nuclear Notebook column of January-February 2009.

    Also at GW at the National Security Archive are “Previously Classified Interviews with Former Soviet Officials Reveal U.S. Strategic Intelligence Failure Over Decades” done by BDM in 1995.

    • krepon (History)

      At the top of my list of frustrations with the IC during this period was the NIE prior to, and the Special NIE done after we learned about how paranoid key figures in the Soviet upper echelons were about the Reagan administration’s adoption of a “forward strategy” in the early ’80s (my own usage, borrowed from the literature of the ’50s), capped by Able Archer. Talk about two ships passing in the night…
      I remember visiting the CIA to interview a group of analysts who worked on these estimates. All I heard was that the situation wasn’t that bad, that only a few Soviet higher ups were off-kilter, and that they were in check, etc.
      Not the IC’s best chapter.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      I remember visiting the CIA to interview a group of analysts who worked on these estimates.

      Not to name actual names and embarrass anybody, but do you remember what Directorate of Intelligence offices they were from? I was in the DI at the time and kind of wondered about some of what was being produced.

  9. krepon (History)

    This group worked on the production of the estimates for Soviet strategic forces.
    David Hoffman’s book, The Dead Hand, is, of course, required reading. Another one that doesn’t get much attention is Peter Pry’s War Scare.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      This group worked on the production of the estimates for Soviet strategic forces.

      That would be the Office of Strategic Research, then, which makes sense. I asked because there was some intra-DI disagreement and OSR didn’t always see eye to eye with a couple of other offices that had somewhat overlapping responsibilities.

  10. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    If anything looking back on history at these severely flawed ‘intelligence assessments’, not to mention Iran, Iraq, the screwup in Afghanistan, the failure to see even the overbearing social movements such as the Arab Spring and the fall of of the Warsaw Pact by social forces, shows how limited intelligence agencies are at spotting historical forces let alone influencing them. I think we should look at intelligence agencies as mouthpieces for the office of the president and a paramilitary force for that same office. It’s time to dump the academic facade of informed analysis. It’s not true today, it was not true in the past. Let’s give these agencies the charter as policy tools with a paramilitary arm and treat them as such. The question is how to have an effective academic only intelligence source that is not influenced by any political meme. Hard as that goal is it’s impossible to have academics win the day when they are in an organization that views itself as a policy tool and strong arm. You know who comes out on top in that kind of contest.

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