Part III: Tripping the Gap
Unfortunately, like most rot the damage starts small and eventually the walls cave in. Those walls collapsed on October 22, 1962.
If the 1950s induced incredible hysteria surrounding phantom fleets of Soviet bombers, the 1960s introduced incredible missile idiocy. Benjamin Schwarz’s article in the January/February 2013 Atlantic Magazine sets up the Cuban Missile Crisis:
In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy had cynically attacked Richard Nixon from the right, claiming that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in the U.S.S.R.’s favor. But in fact, just as Eisenhower and Nixon had suggested—and just as the classified briefings that Kennedy received as a presidential candidate indicated—the missile gap, and the nuclear balance generally, was overwhelmingly to America’s advantage. At the time of the missile crisis, the Soviets had 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 138 long-range bombers with 392 nuclear warheads, and 72 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warheads (SLBMs). These forces were arrayed against a vastly more powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal of 203 ICBMs, 1,306 long-range bombers with 3,104 nuclear warheads, and 144 SLBMs—all told, about nine times as many nuclear weapons as the U.S.S.R. Nikita Khrushchev was acutely aware of America’s huge advantage not just in the number of weapons but in their quality and deployment as well.
The overbuilding of the 1950s is apparent immediately. The American nuclear triad favored SAC bombers over missiles by a ten-to-one ratio in October 1962. The last B-52 and B-58 entered Strategic Air Command’s fleet the same month as the crisis; of SAC’s 2,892 swept-wing jet fleet (2,032 B-47s, 744 B-52s and 116 B-58s), 1,306 remain (the B-45 straight-wing jets and all piston-powered bombers had been retired from the USAF’s strategic nuclear fleet by the end of 1959). Schwarz’s numbers indicate at least 1,000 B-47s had been put out to pasture before the most dangerous event during the Cold War. Was the Cuban Missile Crisis overhyped? Was sanity breaking out in Washington?
Moreover, despite America’s overwhelming nuclear preponderance, JFK, in keeping with his avowed aim to pursue a foreign policy characterized by “vigor,” had ordered the largest peacetime expansion of America’s military power, and specifically the colossal growth of its strategic nuclear forces. This included deploying, beginning in 1961, intermediate-range “Jupiter” nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey—adjacent to the Soviet Union. From there, the missiles could reach all of the western U.S.S.R., including Moscow and Leningrad (and that doesn’t count the nuclear-armed “Thor” missiles that the U.S. already had aimed at the Soviet Union from bases in Britain).
Oh, right: the 60 PGM-17 Thor missiles in Britain and the 45 PGM-19 Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey were not included amongst the 203 long range missiles Schwarz mentions (the Thor and Jupiter missiles are IRBMs; the ICBMs fielded in 1962 were the SM-65 Atlas and SM-68 Titan missiles). Not to mention Schwarz numbers likely are on the conservative side—the disparity between the superpowers was actually even more lopsided in favor of the United States. Data from Robert Norris at the Woodrow Wilson Center shows the incredible amount of firepower available to Kennedy:
The target list included 3729 individual installations, many of which were co-located so as to be included in a single Designated Ground Zero (DGZ). The plan had 14 to 16 attack options, all based on the amount of alert time available. With 15 minutes warning, 1004 delivery systems, carrying 1685 weapons yielding some 2100 megatons, were to be launched against more than 650 DGZs in the Sino-Soviet Bloc. With strategic warning of 14 hours or more, 2244 bombers and missiles, carrying 3267 weapons yielding more than 7800 megatons, would attack a total of 1060 DGZs, including those in more than 150 urban areas. Eight hundred of the DGZs were defined as “’military targets.’”
On the eve of the crisis, with 70 additional SAC bombers (mostly B-52s and additional ICBM and SLBMs) the number of fully generated weapons in SIOP-63 was probably over 3,500 weapons.
The U.S. stockpile at the time was growing rapidly. In October 1962 there were 26,400 warheads in the stockpile with some 200 warheads being added each month. The combined yield was 12,825 megatons down from the 1960 peak of over 20,000 megatons.
The same order of battle describes the Soviet armed forces having significantly less nuclear weaponry arrayed against the U.S. than Schwarz describes as available:
Secretary of Defense McNamara testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committees on September 5, 1962 that the Soviets had about 165 long-range bombers and tankers and about 950 medium-range bombers and tankers. “[T]hey could put about 200 bombers, we believe, over North America today.” This is close to a later estimate: “By the end of 1962 Long Range Aviation had about 100 Tu-95 [Bear] and 60 3M [Bison B] bombers, which could deliver about 270 nuclear weapons to U.S. territory.”
The Soviet Union had approximately 42 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, no SLBMs, and a long-range bomber force of 160 Bear and Bison bombers that would have had to face a formidable U.S. – Canadian air defense system of fighter interceptors with nuclear air-to-air missiles, BOMARC and Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles. General Gribkov stated that Khrushchev and his military advisers “knew . . . that U.S. strategic nuclear forces outnumbered ours by approximately 17 to 1 in 1962.”
The Soviet Air Force had more long-range bombers, but carried fewer weapons (270 versus 392) than Schwarz mentioned. When it came to missiles, the overestimation of Soviet capability was far greater:
In mid-1962 according to NIE 11-8-62 (July 6, 1962) there were 161 nuclear missiles on 52 submarines. Although the Soviets had many ballistic missile (and cruise missile) submarines none played a role in the Cuban crisis.
The original Soviet plan was to deploy seven Golf I (Project 629) diesel submarines to Cuba, each carrying three SS-N-4 Sark (R-13) ballistic missiles with a single 1.45 Mt warhead and nuclear torpedoes. The missile had a range of 640 km (400 miles). The plan was dropped for several reasons. There were no missile facilities in Cuba able to service the liquid fueled missiles. The fuel could only be left in the missiles for thirty days after which it became a safety concern. A diesel submarine on patrol had to change its batteries every one or two days and had to surface making it vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare systems. Furthermore the submarine had to surface for 15-20 minutes to launch all of its missiles. Finally the range and accuracy of the SLBMs was limited.
Considering American SSBNs could simultaneously salvo, underwater, all 16 of their highly-accurate solid-fuelled Polaris ballistic missiles and that the A-1 variant had a range of 1,200 nm and the A-2 had a range of 1,500 nm, equating Soviet SLBMs with American SLBMs in 1962 is clearly stupid. The intelligence failures from 50 years ago live on. At least Schwarz’s Soviet ICBM numbers are accurate:
The most authoritative figures on ICBM availability come from Strategic Rocket Forces historian Lt. Col. Sergei Karlov. He concluded that there were 42 ICBMs deployed during the crisis. These included six SS-6s (R-7) and 36 SS-7 (R-16).
The SS-6 was the first Soviet ICBM. It was a one and one-half stage cryogenic, liquid-propellant missile capable of delivering a 10,000lb reentry vehicle, (with a 2.8 megaton warhead) to a range of 9000 kilometers and had a CEP of five kilometers. They were too large to fit in silos and were fired from reinforced concrete launch pads. It took twenty hours to prepare for launch and could not be kept on alert for more than a day. The liquid fuel for the missiles was corrosive and toxic, could leak, and was potentially dangerous.
The majority of the Soviet ICBM force during the crisis was the 36 SS-7s (R-16), 26 in silos and 10 on open launch pads. The SS-7 Saddler was a two-stage storable, liquid-propellant ICBM capable of delivering 3500lb reentry vehicle to a range of 12,000 kilometers with a CEP of 1.0-1.25 nm. It was deployed in soft and hard sites. Reaction time under normal conditions was three hours for soft sites and five to fifteen minutes for hard sites.
Norris’s description of the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal in Cuba adds 36 operational MRBM warheads to the Russian tally:
Earlier on November 5, the Aleksandrovsk departed Cuba with the 24 warheads for the SS-5 IRBMs (that had never been unloaded), and the 36 SS-4 warheads.
The nine-to-one disparity on paper between the superpowers’ strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles Schwarz mentions might have been more in the range of 48-to-one in reality:
In conclusion, Soviet strategic forces totaled some 300-320 weapons (all but about 40 of them bomber weapons), with the potential of hitting the United States. If war had broken out and Soviet Bear and Bison bombers attempted to fly over the North Pole to attack North American targets they would have been met by formidable U.S. and Canadian air defenses. Air defense interceptor aircraft, many (or perhaps all) armed with nuclear Genie or Falcon air-to-air missiles would likely have prevented any Soviet bomber from reaching its target. (The same situation would have been the case for the any of the [IL-28] Beagles flying from Cuba.)
Left unmentioned by Benjamin Schwarz or Robert Norris is that U.S. military planners practically assured starting with the first SIOP plan the year prior that SAC bombers and missiles, the former having practiced almost continuously for all-out nuclear war since 1948, would obliterate the U.S.S.R.: 108 million lives, 54% of the Soviet population, were projected to perish in 7,800 megatons worth nuclear ordnance detonations if war came. Even more frightening, I’ve written previously about recent studies showing nuclear aftereffects are in reality far worse than previously believed—50 15-kiloton detonations (less than a full megaton) in a hypothetical India/Pakistan nuclear exchange would be enough to initiate a low-grade nuclear winter. Scale that up to 3,500 multi-megaton detonations…
Given the overwhelming firepower disparity in October 1962 between the U.S.S.R. and U.S. during the missile crisis, I can understand Schwarz’s mistaken conclusion Kennedy was fully responsible for a massive military buildup that in reality was in full swing during his predecessor’s two terms in office (after all, the firepower of the American nuclear arsenal peaked during Eisenhower’s last year in office). Nevertheless, I doubt Eisenhower would forget where the missiles were being emplaced…
On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: “Why does he put these in there, though? … It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous, I would think.” McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: “Well we did it, Mr. President.”
…and Kennedy’s foreign policy preferences were decidedly not a continuation of his predecessor’s reticence to committing American military forces…
Khrushchev’s [decision to place IRBMs and MRBMs in Cuba] was also motivated by his entirely justifiable belief that the Kennedy administration wanted to destroy the Castro regime. After all, the administration had launched an invasion of Cuba; had followed that with sabotage, paramilitary assaults, and assassination attempts—the largest clandestine operation in the history of the CIA—and had organized large-scale military exercises in the Caribbean clearly meant to rattle the Soviets and their Cuban client.
…nor could the Soviet General Secretary be certain Kennedy’s aggressiveness would remain limited to conventional warfare.
Given America’s powerful nuclear superiority, as well as the deployment of the Jupiter missiles, Moscow suspected that Washington viewed a nuclear first strike as an attractive option. They were right to be suspicious. The archives reveal that in fact the Kennedy administration had strongly considered this option during the Berlin crisis in 1961.
In light of the dangerous turn precipitated by American provocations, one might argue the Soviet Politburo’s actions were rational (yet foolhardy in retrospect) attempts designed to restore the “balance of terror:”
It’s little wonder, then, that, as Stern asserts—drawing on a plethora of scholarship including, most convincingly, the historian Philip Nash’s elegant 1997 study, The Other Missiles of October—Kennedy’s deployment of the Jupiter missiles “was a key reason for Khrushchev’s decision to send nuclear missiles to Cuba.” Khrushchev reportedly made that decision in May 1962, declaring to a confidant that the Americans “have surrounded us with bases on all sides” and that missiles in Cuba would help to counter an “intolerable provocation.” Keeping the deployment secret in order to present the U.S. with a fait accompli, Khrushchev may very well have assumed America’s response would be similar to his reaction to the Jupiter missiles—rhetorical denouncement but no threat or action to thwart the deployment with a military attack, nuclear or otherwise. (In retirement, Khrushchev explained his reasoning to the American journalist Strobe Talbott: Americans “would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.”)
Oddly enough, Khrushchev’s assumption was very close to reality:
Kennedy and his civilian advisers understood that the missiles in Cuba did not alter the strategic nuclear balance. Although Kennedy asserted in his October 22 televised address that the missiles were “an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” he in fact appreciated, as he told the ExComm on the first day of the crisis, that “it doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much.”
That the missiles were close to the United States was, as the president conceded, immaterial: the negligible difference in flight times between Soviet Union–based ICBMs and Cuba-based missiles wouldn’t change the consequences when the missiles hit their targets, and in any event, the flight times of Soviet SLBMs were already as short as or shorter than the flight times of the missiles in Cuba would be, because those weapons already lurked in submarines off the American coast (as of course did American SLBMs off the Soviet coast).
Wow—an intelligence failure may have saved the world during the missile crisis. If Kennedy considered IRBMs in Cuba to be the same or less of a threat than Soviet SLBMs off of the East Coast, how would he have reacted if he knew there were no Soviet SLBMs immediately threatening Washington during October 1962? But the Soviet fairly rational assumptions about their American adversaries did not recognize that the U.S. flatly refuses to accept anything less that nominal military superiority in comparison with its adversaries. That might be stretching it—American military and political policy assumes (might even require) that the United States of America retains overwhelming, crushing military dominance. This was personified in two four-star generals that should have been asked to retire after the conclusion of the Korean War.
Part IIIa: Nuclear Ambitions Worse Than MacArthur
Strategic Air Command General Curtis LeMay. Appointed by President Truman and taking command in October 1948, LeMay took on an upside-down worldview. He had led XXI Bomber Command in the Pacific theater, ordering the firebombing that burned out 63 Japanese cities at the cost of half a million killed and eight million more made homeless; before directing the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. His own words describe a man completely unable to fathom the horror of war:
Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.
Perhaps LeMay should have been tried before a court—he believed he was waging war against Japan alone instead of at the behest of the nation he served. His decades-long nonchalant views surrounding the employment of nuclear weapons were all the more frightening given LeMay was the candidate for Vice President of the U.S. on the George Wallace ticket when he answered questions at a press conference on October 3, 1968 with these remarks:
I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons. However, the public opinion in this country and throughout the world throw up their hands in horror when you mention nuclear weapons, just because of the propaganda that’s been fed to them.
If that wasn’t direct enough, the retired USAF four-star’s remarks included (before Wallace could silence his running mate) “I don’t think the world would end if a nuclear weapon exploded” and the famous “We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons.” LeMay’s inelegant, sometimes broken prose belies a much deeper flaw. For a man that directed the firebombing and atomic bombing of the Japanese home islands, LeMay was traumatized at the difficulty he and the U.S. Army Air Corps had in expanding from a 11,200 man force to 2.5 million during World War II but never worried much about the prospect of precipitating nuclear Armageddon. General LeMay, promoted to USAF vice Chief of Staff in 1957 and USAF Chief of Staff in 1961, provided unhinged advice to Kennedy concerning Cuba in October 1962:
More dangerous by far than all these incidents was Curtis LeMay’s overconfident and belligerent advice to President Kennedy, whom he believed to be a coward. Knowing that the US and USSR were approaching mutual deterrence and that SAC was therefore becoming a wasting asset, LeMay pushed Kennedy to up the ante, bomb Cuba and take out the missile sites. “The Kennedy administration thought that being as strong as we were was provocative to the Russians and likely to start a war,” the SAC general said with disgust in retirement. “We in the Air Force, and I personally, believed the exact opposite…We could have not only gotten the missiles out of Cuba, we could have gotten the Communists out of Cuba at that time…During that very critical time, in my mind there wasn’t a chance that we would have gone to war with Russia because we had overwhelming strategic capability and the Russians knew it.” Believing the crisis to be a poker game, LeMay imagined the US held the best cards. “The Russian bear has always been eager to stick his paw in Latin American waters,” he taunted during the crisis. “Now we’ve got him in a trap, let’s take his leg off all the way to his testicles. On second thought, let’s take off his testicles, too.”
How would the U.S. perform that castration? History doesn’t say, but considering what he was willing to say on the campaign trail as a candidate for Vice President, I would suspect LeMay favored a rusty knife:
We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons. I think to most military men a nuclear weapon is just another weapon in the arsenal. Nuclear war would be horrible. To me, any war is horrible. To me, if I had to go to Vietnam and get killed with a rusty knife or get killed with a nuclear weapon, I’d rather be killed with a nuclear weapon.
Oh, sorry—because knifes have killed more people throughout history, to LeMay thermonuclear munitions are both equivalent and preferable. It is striking that the commanding officer of the units that carried out both incendiary and nuclear strikes against Japan had no understanding whatsoever that nuclear explosions are not equivalent to any type of conventional weaponry:
It should be noted that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused fatality rates that were ONE TO TWO ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE higher than the rates in conventional fire raids on other Japanese cities. Eventually on the order of 200,000 fatalities, which is about one-quarter of all Japanese bombing deaths, occurred in these two cities with a combined population of less than 500,000. This is due to the fact that the bombs inflicted damage on people and buildings virtually instantaneously and without warning, and did so with the combined effects of flash, blast, and radiation. Widespread fatal injuries were thus inflicted instantly, and the many more people were incapacitated and thus unable to escape the rapidly developing fires in the suddenly ruined cities. Fire raids in comparison, inflicted few immediate or direct casualties; and a couple of hours elapsed from the raid’s beginning to the time when conflagrations became general, during which time the population could flee.
LeMay’s complete lack of concern for civilian casualties was legendary—“There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.” It occurs to me LeMay felt the same way toward the American people. Described as “Iron Ass” by SAC air and ground crew that nevertheless respected him highly, LeMay’s paternal concern for the men he commanded clearly weighed far more on him than the responsibility for protecting over 100 million American lives which is the reason flag officers wear general’s (or admiral’s) stars in the first place.
In Dark Sun, Richard Rhoades indicates LeMay might be trying to orchestrate full-scale “strategic preemption” during the missile crisis; use an assault against Cuba as an excuse to launch a nuclear first strike against the U.S.S.R. itself. Another passage indicates that LeMay’s assumption that air strikes against the Cuban missile sites would not invite retaliation was probably far off the mark:
What Curtis LeMay and [LeMay’s successor as SAC commander General] Thomas Power did not know—what no one in the US government knew until it was revealed at a conference between Soviet and US missile crisis participants in Moscow in 1989—was that, contrary to CIA estimates, the Soviet forces in Cuba during the missile crisis possessed twenty warheads of medium-range R-12 ballistic missiles that could be targeted on US cities as far north as Washington, DC, as well as nine tactical nuclear missiles which the Soviet field commanders in Cuba were delegated authority to use—the only time such authority was ever delegated by the Soviet leadership. The medium-range missiles would probably have been launched as well, [Kennedy and Johnson Secretary of Defense] McNamara believes. “If they’d been NATO missiles without PALs [(Permissive Action Links)], then the NATO officers, acting without Presidential authorization, would have been likely to use then rather than lose them. The fear that Soviet or Cuban officers might have reacted the way NATO officers might have was one reason I was extremely reluctant to risk the air strike.”
Though there is the distinct possibility LeMay’s true thoughts on the matter of nuclear war were far more horrific and fatalistic:
“At a Georgetown dinner party recently, the wife of a leading senator sat next to Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the Air Force. He told her a nuclear war was inevitable. It would begin in December and be all over by the first of the year. In that interval, every major American city—Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles—would be reduced to rubble. Similarly, the principal cities of the Soviet Union would be destroyed. The lady, as she tells it, asked if there were any place where she could take her children and grandchildren to safety; the general would, of course, at the first alert be inside the top-secret underground hideout near Washington from which the retaliatory strike would be directed. He told her that certain unpopulated areas in the far west would be safest.” Marquis Childs, nationally syndicated columnist, Washington Post, 19 July 1961
As frightening as LeMay’s borderline thoughts and behavior were during the missile crisis, his successor at SAC, General Thomas Power, was a real-life General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove. Gen. Power’s most well-known quotation, from a 1960 SAC briefing recommending a switch from targeting Soviet cities (countervalue) to targeting Soviet strategic forces directly (counterforce), shows a merciless man without a conscience:
Restraint! Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win!
Gen. Power was in his third year of seven commanding SAC (1957-1964) when he said that. The ever-honest (and crude) LeMay described Power as a sadist. This same general officer devised Operation Chrome Dome, a plan to keep B-52s armed with hydrogen bombs on hair-trigger alert and in flight continuously. General Horace Wade, Power’s deputy at the time of the missile crisis, questioned the mental stability of his superior:
General Power was demanding: he was mean; he was cruel, unforgiving, and he didn’t have the time of day to pass with anyone. A hard, cruel individual … I used to worry that General Power was not stable. I used to worry about the fact that he had control over so many weapons and weapon systems and could, under certain circumstances, launch the force. Back in the days before we had real positive control [i.e., PAL locks], SAC had the power to do a lot of things, and it was in his hands, and he knew it.
We are all lucky to be alive. For almost 16 years Strategic Air Command was commanded by two warmongering generals who appear to have openly hoped for, wished for, and welcomed the opportunity to trigger all-out thermonuclear hellfire; 16 years during which the USAF did not see it fit to devise and install devices to prevent insane military commanders of nuclear forces from taking matters into their own hands. But in October 1962, John F. Kennedy had a far better option than the all-out strike advocated by the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.
Part IIIb: Defusing the Missile Trap (Just Kidding!)
Oddly enough, the key to ending the Cuban Missile Crisis was undoing the two largest provocations.
The Jupiter missiles were an exceptionally vexing component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Because they sat aboveground, were immobile, and required a long time to prepare for launch, they were extremely vulnerable. Of no value as a deterrent, they appeared to be weapons meant for a disarming first strike—and thus greatly undermined deterrence, because they encouraged a preemptive Soviet strike against them. The Jupiters’ destabilizing effect was widely recognized among defense experts within and outside the U.S. government and even by congressional leaders. For instance, Senator Albert Gore Sr., an ally of the administration, told Secretary of State Dean Rusk that they were a “provocation” in a closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1961 (more than a year and a half before the missile crisis), adding, “I wonder what our attitude would be” if the Soviets deployed nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba. Senator Claiborne Pell raised an identical argument in a memo passed on to Kennedy in May 1961.
The Jupiter emplacements in Turkey were an easy chip to trade with the Soviets to remove their R-12 MRBMs and R-14 IRBMs from Cuba, especially since Kennedy had a ready, hidden replacement for the PGM-19—the UGM-27 Polaris SLBM. The U.S. Navy’s nine active SSBNs in October 1962 each employed 16 of the USN’s first SLBMs, and 32 more SSBNs (each with 16 missile tubes) were planned or being built during the crisis. Throwing in a pledge not to invade an overthrow the Castro regime, the Kennedy Administration demanded the Politburo never reveal that the agreement included the American missiles. For reasons that still baffle historians, the U.S.S.R. complied for 16 years:
Why, then, didn’t the Soviets leak it? It’s quite possible, even likely, that Khrushchev and his Politburo never considered leaking because they had no idea how the crisis would be portrayed—how weak they would look. On the day the crisis was reaching a crescendo, before he knew that Kennedy would offer up the Jupiters, Khrushchev was ready to back down. He told his colleagues that the Soviet Union was “face to face with the danger of war and of nuclear catastrophe, with the possible result of destroying the human race.” He wasn’t thinking about the Jupiters; he just wanted out and was determined to convince his colleagues that a U.S. pledge not to invade would be enough to protect Soviet power and pride.
Even fifty years on, American civil servants, historians, and mass media have a hard time grasping an essential truth during the 1950s and early 1960s—the Soviet Union’s leadership was far more rational than the Executive Branch and U.S. Congress. Going back to Benjamin Schwarz and his Atlantic article from this month:
Given that he had defined a tough stance toward Cuba as an important election issue, and given the humiliation he had suffered with the Bay of Pigs debacle, the missiles posed a great political hazard to Kennedy. As the State Department’s director of intelligence and research, Roger Hilsman, later put it, “The United States might not be in mortal danger, but … the administration most certainly was.” Kennedy’s friend John Kenneth Galbraith, the ambassador to India, later said: “Once [the missiles] were there, the political needs of the Kennedy administration urged it to take almost any risk to get them out.”
Wait…what? Really? Kennedy himself was clearly in mortal danger given what occurred 13 months later on November 22, 1963, but I doubt that is what Roger Hilsman was referring to. Looking to the future, the 1964 presidential election loomed, but to argue an actual existential (literally for once) crisis was controlled by a political event two years over the horizon stretches the imagination way past the point of lunacy.
On that very first day of the ExComm meetings, McNamara provided a wider perspective on the missiles’ significance: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here … This is a domestic, political problem.” In a 1987 interview, McNamara explained: “You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.” What largely made the missiles politically unacceptable was Kennedy’s conspicuous and fervent hostility toward the Castro regime.
Hold on—Kennedy’s vendetta to overthrow Fidel Castro was a political necessity? That cannot be true—Castro overthrew Batista in December 1958. So where was the political problem? What are we meant to believe—Kennedy would have been impeached by a House of Representatives that favored the Democrats 262-175 if the Soviet missiles had remained in Cuba? Both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats practically in lockstep with Kennedy’s desired policies. Democrats during the 1960s controlled more than 60% of the Senate’s seats until Nixon took office (after the 1968 elections the percentage Democrats controlled dropped to…57%). Unless the crisis had led to a nuclear war, I find it hard to believe the 1962 midterm elections could have resulted in the Democratic ranks dropping by 45 seats (the actual result was a loss of three) and a 27 to 30-seat Senate swing in a single election is so highly improbable statistically that it fairly can be described as impossible.
But I cannot fault Schwarz for the musings of Robert McNamara and the State Department’s director of intelligence and research. This, however, is Schwarz’s actual opinion:
Although Stern and other scholars have upended the panegyrical version of events advanced by Schlesinger and other Kennedy acolytes, the revised chronicle shows that JFK’s actions in resolving the crisis—again, a crisis he had largely created—were reasonable, responsible, and courageous. Plainly shaken by the apocalyptic potentialities of the situation, Kennedy advocated, in the face of the bellicose and near-unanimous opposition of his pseudo-tough-guy advisers, accepting the missile swap that Khrushchev had proposed.
This is asinine. Kennedy was exclusively responsible for the missile crisis. World events had turned decidedly nasty over the previous two years, but implying Khrushchev too had a decisive role in setting this crisis in motion is fatuous. Since JFK’s inauguration the Kennedy Administration was fond of using dubious and extralegal actions against Castro and, to be blunt, committed numerous acts of war during the missile crisis. The Soviet actions were provocative and over-the-top from an American perspective but were also, contrary to the assertion of President Kennedy, fully legal:
The president issued an ultimatum to a nuclear power—an astonishingly provocative move, which immediately created a crisis that could have led to catastrophe. He ordered a blockade on Cuba, an act of war that we now know brought the superpowers within a hair’s breadth of nuclear confrontation. The beleaguered Cubans willingly accepted their ally’s weapons, so the Soviet’s deployment of the missiles was fully in accord with international law. But the blockade, even if the administration euphemistically called it a “quarantine,” was, the ExComm members acknowledged, illegal. As the State Department’s legal adviser recalled, “Our legal problem was that their action wasn’t illegal.” Kennedy and his lieutenants intently contemplated an invasion of Cuba and an aerial assault on the Soviet missiles there—acts extremely likely to have provoked a nuclear war. In light of the extreme measures they executed or earnestly entertained to resolve a crisis they had largely created, the American reaction to the missiles requires, in retrospect, as much explanation as the Soviet decision to deploy them—or more.
Khrushchev ordering five IRBM/MRBM regiments to Cuba was a misguided attempt to restore some sense of nuclear parity after Kennedy ordered the emplacement of 45 openly-threatening PGM-19 Jupiter missiles (15 in Turkey and 30 in Italy); the Russian aim was to deter unwarranted American aggressiveness. History does not reflect this reality well—almost every American military action taken during the crisis before the secret accords was in direct violation of international law. Resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis in a reasonable, responsible and courageous way required more than not killing billions of human beings in October 1962. Reasonable reactions after coming to the brink over those thirteen horrifying days begin with acknowledging that the whole missile affair was precipitated by hysterical overreactions. Taking responsibility starts with recognizing “going eyeball to eyeball” was ignoble and shameful in its extreme reckless. Courage requires stopping the flow of irrational thinking and behavior that preceded the crisis and entails finding rational ways to prevent events from spiraling into the release of several thousand megatons (gigatons) worth of nuclear energy.
Some introspection was clearly in the offing. Never again would the Soviets challenge the United States by openly placing nuclear weapons in proxy states; understandably fearful of what America’s crushing military superiority coupled with its paranoid inferiority complex could precipitate. Kennedy’s reaction after the “resolution” of the missile crisis was to immediately set out to deploy thousands more missiles topped with thermonuclear warheads.
Part IV: Faster Gigatons
The era that was ushered in after the Cuban missile crisis began with a revolution in large missile and rocket technology. This did not result from a new innovation like swept wings and turbojets in the late 1940s; it was a return to basics.
Part IVa: From Peenemunde to Redstone Arsenal to Cape Canaveral…
The bomber gap of the 1950s yielded to the first missile gap in the early 1960s. As the earlier hysteria centered on overproducing a newly-perfected technology (swept-wing turbojet combat aircraft), the later hysteria surrounded another developing technology (rocketry). Rockets convey three prime advantages: much greater acceleration and velocities are attainable than any other engines, plus rockets are required for spaceflight. Rocket propellants, which are a combination of both fuel and oxidizers, negate the issues with atmospheric pressure that places both performance and absolute altitude limits all other airborne engines.
During the 1950s, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army missile development focused almost exclusively around liquid-fueled rocket motors. Liquid-fuelled rockets appeared at first to have significant advantages—liquid fuel/oxidizer combinations produce more gross thrust than any other options and can also be throttled (thrust is variable from 0% to 100% output). The fact that the first large American military rocket, the U.S. Army’s PGM-11 Redstone, was essentially an evolution of the V-2 liquid-fuelled rocket was unsurprising considering almost all of the expertise available to the U.S. Army and USAF were hundreds of Nazi Germany’s Peenemunde rocket scientists brought over through Operation Paperclip. The reliability of the PGM-11 turned it into a renowned space launch vehicle starting when the Redstone derivative Juno I put the first American satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit on January 31, 1958 and culminated with the Mercury-Redstone launch vehicle that powered the first two American astronauts, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, into suborbital trajectories. The remaining four Project Mercury astronauts blasted into orbit atop the Atlas D derivative of the first American ICBM, the liquid-fuelled SM-65 Atlas. The following ten Project Gemini flights naturally launched on a derivative from the other liquid-fuelled American ICBM, the Titan II GLV. Keeping with tradition, first USAF IRBM, the liquid-fuelled PGM-17 Thor, generated the Delta family of space launch vehicles and every USAF ICBM has seen extensive service (in the auspices of the Atlas, Titan, and Minotaur rocket families) launching spacecraft from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. In a sign of these missiles’ versatility, the Atlas, Delta, and Minotaur rockets still actively serve today.
But the clear advantages that liquid-fuelled rockets have when it comes to propelling spacecraft turn into severe deficiencies when carrying conventional or nuclear warheads. The preferred oxidizer in space launch vehicles is liquid oxygen (LOX), a highly reactive cryogenic fluid. The difficulty of storing cryogens at extremely low temperatures necessitates fuelling liquid-fuelled space launchers just prior to launch, a daunting task as the Saturn V (in the extreme case) stood over 360 feet tall. These reasons, amongst others, make liquid-fuelled rockets extremely complex to engineer:
Two metal tanks hold the fuel and oxidizer respectively. Due to properties of these two liquids, they are typically loaded into their tanks just prior to launch. The separate tanks are necessary, for many liquid fuels burn upon contact. Upon a set launching sequence two valves open, allowing the liquid to flow down the pipe-work. If these valves simply opened allowing the liquid propellants to flow into the combustion chamber, a weak and unstable thrust rate would occur, so either a pressurized gas feed or a turbopump feed is used.
The simpler of the two, the pressurized gas feed, adds a tank of high pressure gas to the propulsion system. The gas, an unreactive, inert, and light gas (such as helium), is held and regulated, under intense pressure, by a valve/regulator.
The second, and often preferred, solution to the fuel transfer problem is a turbopump. A turbopump is the same as regular pump in function and bypasses a gas-pressurized system by sucking out the propellants and accelerating them into the combustion chamber.
The oxidizer and fuel are mixed and ignited inside the combustion chamber and thrust is created.
Liquid Oxygen is the most common oxidizer used. Other oxidizers used in liquid propellant rockets include: hydrogen peroxide (95%, H2O2), nitric acid (HNO3), and liquid fluorine. Of these choices liquid fluorine, given a control fuel, produces the highest specific impulse (amount of thrust per unit propellant). But due to difficulties in handling this corrosive element, and due to the high temperatures it burns at, liquid fluorine is rarely used in modern liquid fueled rockets. The liquid fuels often used include: liquid hydrogen, liquid ammonia (NH3), hydrazine (N2H4), and kerosene (hydrocarbon).
Liquid propellant rockets are the most powerful (in terms gross thrust) propulsion systems available. They are also among the most variable, that is to say, adjustable given a large array of valves and regulators to control and augment rocket performance.
Unfortunately the last point makes liquid propellant rockets intricate and complex. A real modern liquid bipropellant engine has thousands of piping connections carrying various cooling, fueling, or lubricating fluids. Also the various sub-parts such as the turbopump or regulator consist of a separate vertigo of pipes, wires, control valves, temperature gauges and support struts. Given the many parts, the chance of one integral function failing is large.
The Atlas and Titan I ICBMs, fuelled with kerosene/LOX, could not be ready for launch 24 hours a day and required hours to fuel if an attack occurred at an inopportune time. The difficulty with cryogenic oxidizers led the U.S. Air Force to choose hypergolic fuels and oxidizers (substances that store at room temperature and spontaneously ignite on contact) in the LGM-25C Titan II ICBM. Hypergolic rocket designs are not nearly as powerful as their cryogenic counterparts, but they can be launched in minutes instead of hours. The designers of Soviet liquid-fuelled ICBMs and SLBMs soon followed suit.
Unfortunately, hypergolic substances must be extremely corrosive and toxic to spontaneously react, and hypergolics tend to be water-reactive. The corrosiveness further requires defueling and maintenance at certain intervals; otherwise the fuels and oxidizers will eventually leak and destroy the missile from the inside. Worse, leaking hypergolic substances can and did cause explosions, killing scores during the 20+ years the Titan II saw service as an ICBM. Working in the vicinity of hypergolic liquid-fuelled missiles is necessarily hazardous work, best (or worst depending on POV) shown during the April 1986 incident where seawater flooding an R-27 missile silo on the Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-219 caused the SLBM (but not the nuclear warhead) to explode, flooding the submarine’s compartments with nitric acid that killed four sailors before the Navaga-class SSBN sank 18,000 feet to the floor of the North Atlantic. But there was a ready solution for the USAF’s rocket difficulties. American SSBNs were never subjected to the horrors that red-fuming nitric acid visited upon their Russian counterparts.
Part IVb: China Lake
The perfection of liquid-fuelled rockets made artificial spaceflight possible for the first time during the 1950s. It’s fascinating that history still honors Robert Goddard, the first scientist to test working liquid-fuelled rockets in 1926 and Werner von Braun, head of the German rocket scientists at Peenemunde and after the war at U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal before being absorbed into NASA to develop the Saturn family of rockets as the men most responsible with the development of large rocket technology. With regards to 1950s and 1960s spaceflight, the description is true. Both men had every interest in building rockets to send astronauts to into orbit, the Moon, and finally to Mars, and appropriately are honored for making NASA possible. But Goddard and von Braun’s contributions and expertise centered exclusively with bipropellants—liquid-fuelled rockets. History for the most part ignores the modern contributions of monopropellants—solid-fuelled rockets. The simplicity and reliability of solid-fuelled rockets is apparent given the launch boosters on heavy launch vehicles since the retirement of the Saturn V are invariably monopropellants. Here, the unquestioned experts since the 1940s have and continue to work in China Lake, California.
Solid fuel predates liquid fuel in rocketry by centuries. Black powder, a mixture that uses saltpeter as the oxidizer to ignite charcoal fuel, is the oldest known rocket propellant. Solid-fuelled rockets since the Chinese and Mongols first used them in combat over 1,000 years ago store both the fuel and oxidizer mixed together inertly inside the missile, hence the term monopropellant. This ancient design is extreme simplicity compared to liquid-fuelled missiles, requiring little more than an aerodynamic casing and ignition system to surround and light the monopropellants. The military usefulness would seem apparent to the U.S. Air Force, but oddly enough the U.S. Navy has always taken the lead with the development of military rockets.
USN aircraft extensively employed airborne rockets during the Second World War. The Forward Firing Aircraft Rockets (FFAR) developed from Caltech rocket motor research saw huge numbers of 3.5 inch, 5 inch and High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVAR) “Holy Moses” FFARs enter service with naval combat aircraft. Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, the current designation for the joint Caltech/USN development facility that opened in 1943, developed first the “Holy Moses” and later the mammoth “Tiny Tim” anti-shipping/bunker busting rocket during World War II before designing the 6.5 inch “Ram” anti-tank rocket for use during Korea, the deadly AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile, and testing the first American surface-to-air missile, the RIM-2 Terrier, as part of Project Bumblebee. After the Korean armistice, China Lake developed the first anti-radiation (tracks radar signals) guided missile, the AGM-45 Shrike, and the replacement for the HVAR and Ram rockets that is still employed by the U.S. military today—the Zuni rocket. The one thing all these rockets had it common? All used solid fuel motors. Naturally, when the task of putting the first American satellite into orbit was given to the U.S. Navy, Project Vanguard was entrusted to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. instead of the U.S. Navy’s real rocket experts at China Lake.
The Vanguard rocket was a disaster of engineering. NRL wisely elected to use solid fuel in one of the missile’s three stages, but unwisely decided the third instead of the first should use monopropellants. 73% of the Vanguard launches failed, often in spectacular explosions. As Werner von Braun stepped in to take preeminence in American spaceflight, the U.S. Navy found its rocketry expertise was being supplanted. The Jupiter IRBM, essentially another derivative if the PGM-11, was foisted onto the U.S. Navy:
Two IRBM programs were initiated—the USAF THOR land-based system and the Army 1,500-mile-range Jupiter system for land-based and surface ship launch. Charles E. Wilson, then Secretary of Defense, gave these programs the highest national priority. The Army’s Redstone Arsenal was assigned as lead development agency for the Jupiter.
The resulting Jupiter missile weighed upwards of 110,000 pounds. It was 58 feet long and 8 feet in diameter and used a high-energy liquid propellant propulsion system. These characteristics posed significant problems for the Navy in shipboard compatibility and operations.
You don’t say. This missile is of course the PGM-19, the RP-1/LOX powered headache that was so big contemporary cargo aircraft couldn’t carry it. It was also only marginally better than the Vanguard as a space launch vehicle—the Juno II variant of the Jupiter merely failed 60% of the time. The U.S. Navy, sensing the impending boondoggle, asks proud MIC members Lockheed and Aerojet for a solid-fuelled alternative:
The Lockheed/Aerojet design, designated Jupiter-S, was 43 feet long, 10.5 feet in diameter, weighed 168,000 pounds and incorporated a two-stage cluster of seven solid-propellant motors. This massive size made design of a compatible submarine platform of a reasonable size within the scheduled time [(slated for entry into service 1963-65)] virtually impossible
What a surprise. MIC takes a design that was too big for shipboard operations and makes it bigger! So naturally this turns into an even bigger boondoggle, waiting for the private sector to lead the way forward…or not. USN Captain Levering Smith, a former department head at China Lake, led the solid-propellant study at the Special Project Office (SPO) responsible for procurement of the IRBM. Contacting the Weapon Planning Group, Code 12, at China Lake to improve Jupiter-S performance, the California team finds:
The results of the technical assessment and study led to a missile concept of about 50% of the size and less than 20% of the weight of the Jupiter-S system. The primary factor affecting the size and weight of the missile was the payload—warhead, guidance, and reentry heat shield. Code 12 achieved a critical advance in reducing the weight of the reentry payload by essentially eliminating the heavy heat shield and using a smaller warhead.
Smaller warhead…that means the missile mounts a less powerful nuclear bomb. So—China Lake failed? Not by a long shot:
China Lake conducted the most comprehensive analysis of nuclear attacks on Soviet cities that had been made to that date. The physical characteristics of over 300 Soviet cities were examined in great detail. The damage level based on the results of the previous study for maximum disruption and urban liability related to the recovery of the 50+ largest Soviet cities was to inflict one-third fatalities, one-third injured, and one-third unscathed. This damage could be accomplished with warhead yields of only 100 to 200 kilotons and 1-2 nautical mile accuracy. These results were used to determine warhead yield, target aim points and number of missiles to accomplish the intended level of damage. Next the characteristics of a feasible missile concept were established. The study indicated that a total yield perhaps as low as 20 megatons would provide a sufficient level of devastation, as compared to the multi-megaton yield of each Air Force ICBM.
Translated—from nuclear deterrence down to conventional surgical strike, it is far better to hit your target accurately with a medium-sized explosion than to hope an inaccurate massive explosion does the job. China Lake’s specifications for a 30,000lb ballistic missile were eventually accepted over the 168,000lb Lockheed/Aerojet Jupiter-S proposal at the prompting of Edward Teller, leading to the selection of different, more capable defense contractors…or, surprise-surprise, Lockheed won the contract for the 30,000lb two-stage solid-fuelled UGM-27 Polaris SLBM and Aerojet was the prime contractor for the rocket engines.
No wonder Kennedy planned to replace the PGM-19 (and PGM-17 as it turns out) with the UGM-27 as dozens of American SSBNs were launched in the five years after the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis. To place SLBMs in all 656 missile tubes on 41 fleet ballistic missile submarines, Lockheed produces three variants of the Polaris before the fourth variant becomes the Poseidon C-3.
The Polaris quickly outclassed every American IRBM. The A-2 variant which entered service in 1961 a year after the original A-1 had the same range as the PGM-17 Thor and PGM-19 Jupiter. The A-3 increased that range by two-thirds and was the first American MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle) missile. Most importantly, an American SSBN could fire all 16 of its monopropellant UGM-27s underwater (i.e: no warning) in one huge salvo and the SLBMs were always ready to launch in a moment’s notice. While a historian might come to the conclusion that the USN rationally considered the much greater reliability and safety of monopropellants compared to the extreme risks from hypergolic bipropellants (the other liquid option, cryogenic fuels and oxidizers, are clearly not an option aboard a submerged vessel), the embarrassment of the high-profile Project Vanguard debacle likely had soured the Navy on liquid propellants permanently. The USAF, forced to take note how versatile the UGM-27 was, implemented its first monopropellant ICBM project (the Minuteman) shortly thereafter.
On October 27, 1962, the first two Minuteman IA LGM-30 ICBMs went on alert at Malmstrom AFB amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis. Manufactured by MIC founder Boeing, the almost-terminal overreaction of the Kennedy Administration in the Caribbean leads JFK to authorize SAC’s favorite manufacturer to put 1,800 Minutemen into the USAF ICBM arsenal (controlled by SAC, naturally) over the course of 15 years. Neither the first deployed American ICBM nor the first solid-fueled American strategic missile, nevertheless the first deployment of American monopropellant ICBMs (neither Polaris nor Poseidon had intercontinental range) marks the beginning of the missile gap President Kennedy had railed against during the 1960 election. Oddly enough, the missile gap would favor the Soviets in reality this time.
Part V: Russia Rises
Never count Russian mathematicians out. Faced with significant obstacles in building intercontinental bombers like SAC’s, in the 1940s and early ‘50s the Kuznetzov design bureau devised the stunningly powerful NK-12 for Tupolev’s “Bear” bomber:
A long slender fuselage was attached to wings that swept back some 35 degrees. At first glance, it appeared the designers at Tupolev meant for turbojets to power the Bear. Instead, the TU95 is powered by 4 Kuznetsov NK12 turboprop engines each driving a pair of 4-bladed counter-rotating propellers.
Producing some 15,000 shp, the current version of the Kuznetsov turboprop, the NK12MA remains the most powerful turboprop engine ever developed. Even in 1953, when the Bear first flew, early versions of the NK12 were producing around 12,000 shp-some 2.5 times the output of the most powerful Allison turboprop engine in production today.
While propeller-driven aircraft are typically regarded as slow by comparison to turbojet aircraft, the combination of ultra-large turboprop engines, counter-rotating propellers and a jetlike design means the TU95 is no slouch. With its maximum speed of 575 mph, or Mach 0.87, the Bear is faster than most of today’s commercial jetliners.
Reported to have initially outaccelerated even afterburning western-built jet fighters, Tupolev’s TU95 is easily the fastest propeller-driven aircraft in the world. And, as defense analysts have it, the Bear should remain in active service until at least 2040.
While the development of the NK-12’s forerunner, the TV-12, is often credited to imprisoned German scientists (not without reason), the fact that the turboprop’s blade tips have to exceed the speed of sound to propel the bomber at such high subsonic speeds unfairly serves to ignore the Russians’ remarkable contributions. Standard fluid dynamic theory indicates that the worst limiting factor on aircraft propellers is Mach 1; that supersonic shockwaves from blade tips breaking the sound barrier will severely disrupt airflow over the wing. Russian mathematicians and engineers did not agree with standard theory, and the NK-12 and TU-95 proved them right.
Sputnik further demonstrated incredible Russian ingenuity. The Americans having imported most of Peenemunde through Operation Paperclip, Soviet rocketry still managed to orbit the first artificial satellite in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 in 1961 before Redstone Arsenal accomplished the satellite feat in 1958 and NASA orbited John Glenn in 1962 (Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, the first two Mercury astronauts, were launched on sub-orbital trajectories in 1961).
Then the Russians plowed into a wall with the rise of the Soviet Voenno-promyshlennaia Kommissia (VPK) after Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964. VPK, entertainingly, translates into English as MIC.
Part Va: International MIC
That’s right—MIC had crossed the Atlantic. The Soviet Politburo in 1957 had created a directorate on the Central Committee that was entitled the военно-промышленная комиссия (VPK) which translates to Military-Industrial Commission. The irony that the Soviet civilian government created an entity that literally is abbreviated as MIC in English was not lost on Soviet flag officers:
VPK—Voenno-promyshlennyi Kompleks—Military-Industrial Complex. The expression was used in Soviet propaganda to criticize the Western military industry’s relationship with the political leadership and operational military. The operational Soviet military also used the expression as a pejorative way of describing the powerful alliance between the military industrialists (considered to be civilians) and the leadership of the Party and state of the Soviet Union.
Like its American counterpart, the VPK (the Kommissia and Kompleks or both, there is no real distinction) seized control of its nation’s defense budget:
Soviet sources emphasized the power of the defense industry in determining weapons acquisitions. They affirmed the view that the MoD [(Ministry of Defense)], and in particular the General Staff, exerted relatively little control over the R&D and production processes. The Military-Industrial Commission (VPK), in contrast, dominated the Defense Council and virtually dictated the types and numbers of weapons the MoD and the armed services would receive.
Promotion of the VPK’s interests, in a series of cases, became an end to itself, Gareev remarked. Other former Soviet officials complained that as a result of VPK influence, obsolete weapons systems, including many obsolete missile systems, were kept in production and the development of advanced systems was retarded. Soviet force building emphasized production stability instead of innovation or fulfillment of the General Staff’s operational requirements.
Wait, someone reading this might think. Didn’t this writer mention earlier that the Soviets became introspective after the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis? Yes, they did, until October 1964. Khrushchev was forced out two years after the missile crisis, replaced as General Secretary by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev and Khrushchev couldn’t have been further apart in management style:
In contrast to his predecessor, Brezhnev was indecisive and given to appeasement. Khrushchev would often cancel systems in early development stages and would sometimes eliminate or reduce entire classes of weapons, as he did with artillery and surface ships in 1959 and 1960. Brezhnev, on the other hand, led by consensus and tended to avoid decisions and policy changes that would alienate one group and advance the interests of another. This led to situations where the USSR was developing 12 ICBM programs simultaneously or continuing to produce obsolete of low quality versions of a tank at the same time as more modern, effective variants were coming on line. Production lines were kept open to satisfy the producers without consideration either of the economic consequences or the true needs of the military customer.
Nor was the new Soviet premier ever likely to buck the domestic weapons-manufacturing sector:
Brezhnev himself came from the ranks of the defense industrialists and therefore tended to promote his industrial cronies to important state positions. Among his high-ranking protégés were: Minister of Defense (MoD) Dmitri Ustinov; Minister of General Machine Building S.A. Afanas’ev; and L.V. Smirnov, the director of the Iuzhnoe missile plant in Dnepropretrovsk, whom Brezhnev promoted to head the VPK and to serve as deputy head of the Council of Ministers.
VPK’s first chairman, Dmitri Ustinov, ran the Kommissia from 1957 to 1963 before being tapped by Khrushchev to run the entire civilian economy. Ustinov returned to his military industrial roots the following year, exerting enormous influence as the powerful Secretary of the Central Committee for Defense Industry after the rise to power of Brezhnev in October 1964. Understandably, after becoming Minister of Defense after the death of his predecessor Marshal Andrei Grechko in 1976, Ustinov intensified the grip of MIC:
Soviet arms production became even more supply-driven after Ustinov was promoted to Defense Minister. Prior to 1976, the General Staff Directorate for Armaments Orders (Upravlenie zakazov) played a central role in shaping of weapons programs. It made recommendations on the basis of which the General Staff allocated funding to the services and placed orders for weapons. In 1976, with Ustinov’s approval, the directorate was taken out of the General Staff and reconstituted as an independent directorate of the Ministry of Defense. The VPK was allocated funds directly, and the services thereafter appealed to the MoD or directly to the VPK for funding. Disagreements between the VPK and General Staff were constant, but the VPK almost always won the decision.
Senior General Staff officers complained bitterly of Ustinov’s tendency as Defense Minister to side with the military-industrial complex against the Armed Forces. Danilevich recounted that Grechko resisted pressure from the defense-industrial sector to procure certain weapon systems before they were fully developed, or if they failed to meet specifications. Ustinov, in contrast, would scold industrialists but in the end would give in to them. During Ustinov’s tenure as Defense Minister, Danilevich asserted, strategic objectives were often subordinated to, and built around, weapons systems.
Gen. Makhmut Gareev described in the wake of Ustinov’s elevation to Defense Minister the MoD “had been taken over by the enemy.” What came next should surprise no one:
The defense-industrial sector used its political clout to deliver more weapons than the armed services asked for and even build new weapon systems the operational military did not want. Efim Liuboshits, an analyst with more than 30 years’ experience with the Strategic Rocket Forces’ main institute [NII-4], wrote in Krasnaia zvezda that studies conducted in 1979 showed that the large number of missiles in storage exceeded by tenfold the number required for alert duty. Stocks of missiles reached surplus levels, he continued, because additional missiles were delivered at the initiative of the industry even through the Ministry of Defense had not placed orders for them.
In some instances, Kataev recounted, the directors of production facilities approached Defense Minister Ustinov directly in an effort to sell their weapons. The Director of IuzhnoMash, Aleksandr Maksimovich Makarov, once visited Ustinov to ask him to take a few dozen more missiles. Ustinov replied “What will we do with them, Aleksandr Maksimovich?” to whick Makarov answered “But if you don’t, how will we feed the workers?”
A quick note from 2013—here’s strong evidence that the Soviet Union was not economically communist during the missile build-up. Why should it matter to IuzhnoMash’s employees that the design firm continues to pump out missiles? Shouldn’t they be fed by the state anyway? The behavior of defense sector industrialists indicates that the USSR transitioned from state socialism long before the collapse of 1991:
In the end, Ustinov took the [IuzhnoMash] missiles, even though the army did not really need them. Kataev asserted that the ongoing efforts of defense plants to expand production generated large stockpiles of [excess] military equipment. There were at different times, for instance, up to 4, 5, and, in the case of particular systems, 8 nuclear basic loads (boekomplekty) of naval strategic missiles.
The military tried unsuccessfully to reduce the number of different types of missiles. The Soviet Union had a much greater variety of missiles than it needed. Kravets complained that the internal competition among various chief designers and industrialists, each designer and industrialist ultimately had his own way. After development and testing, all competing missile systems, usually two but sometimes more, were put into production and then deployed. As a consequence, the USSR fielded up to 12 types of ICBMs simultaneously.
The SRF at one time had 10 different missiles serving the same mission. Kataev characterized this process as a kind of internal arms race carried out inside the defense sector. Kalashnikov repeatedly proposed a reduction of different types of missiles to two or three, but his proposal was rejected by Ustinov, who was concerned about the unemployment such a measure would generate.
Unemployment concerns? In a command economy? I could chalk it up to more evidence of Soviet crony capitalism, but the truth is probably more unnerving. The massive territory that the USSR and the Russian Empire that preceded it had conquered involved huge numbers of subjugated peoples (the Soviet population had broken the 290 million mark in 1991, compared to the estimated 143 million living in the Russian Federation currently). I’m willing to wager concerns about unrest stemming from idle hands concerned Ustinov and Makarov, not hunger and unemployment directly. The document I have been quoting from liberally is not a declassified intelligence report—it was commissioned in 1995 by private contractor (naturally) at the behest of the U.S. government. BDM Federal, Inc. interviews scores of former Soviet military commanders multiple times, and still falls into a common trap—projecting American paradigms on the thought process of a foreign government.
Part Vb: Pot Calling the Kettle Black
BDM’s Cold War “victory” bias shows through very strangely when it concerns innovation:
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviets invested heavily in the research and development of new technologies, including ballistic missile submarines and SLCMs [(submarine-launched cruise missiles)]. However, many of these programs were curtailed in the early 1960s when heavy emphasis was placed on the production of land-based ICBMs.
I need to cut BDM off right here. This simply isn’t true, and the corporation should have known it. BDM mentions earlier in the same piece that Soviet naval strategic missiles (i.e: SLBMs) came in up to 8 different basic loads. As for submarines themselves, the first Soviet SSBNs to mount more than 10 SLBM silos like their American counterparts were the Yankee-class (NATO designation for NAVAGA), 34 subs that were put into service between 1967 and 1974 (including the doomed K-219). These were followed with the Soviet Navy commissioning 43 boats of the Delta I, II, III and IV classes of SSBNs starting in 1972. The final Soviet SSBN class, the Typhoons, only numbered six vessels by 1991 but made up for that by being by far the largest submarines ever constructed. Simply put, the Soviet SSBN fleet rapidly became more numerous than the remaining number of the world’s ballistic missile submarines combined. What, exactly, was curtailed?
Beginning in the early 1960s, emphasis began to shift away from design and development of systems to production. There is evidence that the VPK and Central Committee’s Defense Department began to stress copying of foreign technologies and systems, rather than supporting domestic R&D.
What, exactly, were the Russians copying? BDM starts with mentioning MIRVs, missile accuracy, intelligence systems, early warning systems and command and control, neutron weapons, and enhanced EMP. BDM’s characterization of the technological changes is merely misleading because it omits that Russian technological progress in ABM systems was the catalyst for the other technologies, but this is just bizarre:
SDI was often cited by sources as a prime example of the Soviets being forced to play technological catch-up.
Come again? Yes, the Russians never developed and deployed a version of the Strategic Defense Initiative, but neither did the U.S. BDM’s seems to believe Soviet investment in domestic R&D must have begun to lag after Brezhnev took power. Too bad history doesn’t comport with this assumption. From a technological standpoint, Russian R&D had a habit of overshadowing American progress. The Russians conducted the first anti-ballistic missile (ABM) intercept in 1961, and designed and fielded the first operational ABM system, the A-35, in 1971.
Finding ABM effectiveness lacking against an all-out ICBM assault (while attempting to develop the wide-ranging Sentinel ABM system anyway), China Lake, Redstone Arsenal and MIC nevertheless plowed ahead with full development of an extremely effective ABM counter—MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle) nuclear warheads and inert penetration aids to overwhelm ABM systems for the UGM-27 A-3 variant SLBM, the LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBM, and a USAF project to develop a LGM-30 replacement in the form of an insanely large ICBM known as ICBM-X. Intended to throw more than 20 MIRVs, the ICBM-X project was eventually ‘scaled down’ to 10-20 MIRVs for the BGM-75 before being canceled in 1967.
The Russian response to American MIRV ICBMs and SLBMs was to field the Iangel R-36M, a massive missile with the greatest military throw-weight in history—able to fling 10 MIRVs and 40 penetration aids from a single ICBM. Convinced that a second ‘missile gap’ had occurred (this time it was real), MIC got to work for the USN and USAF producing two 10+ MIRV-carrying missiles: the UGM-73 Poseidon SLBM with 10 to 14 city-crushing MIRVs and the USAF’s Soviet Silo Smasher project (originally called the MX ICBM and eventually renamed hilariously as the LGM-118 Peacekeeper):
The objective was to produce a missile with Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle MIRV warheads that would be powerful and accurate enough to knock out Soviet missile silos. With its counter-strike capabilities and an advanced guidance system, each 10-MIRV warhead Peacekeeper has a range of 5,965 miles and therefore is highly effective against multiple-hardened targets, knocking out 50 Soviet silos.
The Russian response to the MIRV war naturally was to field 12 different ICBM types while putting to sea over 1,000 SLBMs on 70+ SSBNs during the 1970s. Oddly enough, the American response was rather muted. Upset that the Poseidon was not accurate enough to smash Soviet ICBM fields, the U.S. Navy directed Lockheed, the prime MIC contractor for the UGM-27 and 73, to produce the incredibly accurate, intercontinental-ranged Trident series of SLBMs. To support the eight-MIRV-carrying UGM-96 C-4 Trident I SLBM which first put to sea in 1979, the new Ohio-class of 18 USN specifically-designed Trident SSBNs had begun construction. 14 Ohios eventually were equipped with the USN’s silo smasher—the 12 MIRV-carrying UGM-133 D-5 Trident II.
Oh, and Star Wars was announced in 1983. President Reagan coming up with a cockamamie scheme to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles with orbital defenses (that may or may not have been due the future Alzheimer’s patient mistaking his starring role in 1940’s Murder in the Air for reality) nevertheless does not indicate Russian R&D was falling behind. In fact, the opposite had happened:
An important exception to this pattern was the development during the late 1970s of the SS-20 IRBM, a mobile, solid-fuel, multiple warhead missile that was a strategic and technological breakthrough for the Soviets which gave them a significant advantage in Europe. Another exception was the eventual development and deployment of the SS-25 mobile ICBM, which gave the Soviets a survivable land-based nuclear force.
Why build mobile ICBMs? Could it have anything to do with a Russian worry that two Ohio-class SSBNs might wipe out the entire Soviet silo-based ICBM fleet?
The current RVSN ICBM force presents for an interesting preemptive strike scenario. The most vulnerable assets are the fixed, silo-based weapons. A single US Navy Ohio-class SSBN is capable of launching 24 Trident II SLBMs. Given that each weapon typically carries 6 MIRV warheads, each submarine can strike 144 targets with a standard payload. Two Ohio SSBNs could therefore theoretically decimate the RVSN with a preemptive strike, eliminating the entire silo-based missile force, which currently stands at 222 ICBMs.
Mobile ICBMs are far more difficult targets. Mobile ICBMs are capable of being erected and fired while in garrison thanks to sliding roof assemblies on the single bay garages housing the TELs. During a time of increased international tensions, however, they are likely to be widely dispersed to deployment launch sites. In this environment they would be much harder to locate, and they are available in sufficient numbers to represent a crippling retaliatory strike capability for the RVSN, even if the silo-based weapons are eliminated or incapacitated.
Launching enough ICBMs to blanket likely mobile ICBM deployment areas would not be a likely option. Firstly, this would remove a significant number of available warheads from targeting plans, potentially resulting in a large number of possible military targets surviving the initial nuclear exchange. Secondly, the area which would need to be covered would be extensive. This would result in an extensive quantity of radioactive fallout being released into the atmosphere, likely resulting in as much devastation to the United States and the rest of the populated world as the nuclear exchange would cause to Russia. Given these issues, a decapitation strike would have to be planned as an extremely covert operation during peacetime, and initiated almost at random. This would help to ensure that the maximum number of mobile ICBMs could be caught in their garrisons and thus denied the opportunity to deploy to dispersed launch sites.
In practice, such a decapitation strike would be problematic. The RVSN would receive warning of inbound ICBMs and likely employ a Launch-On-Warning (LOW) strategy to ensure that a retaliatory strike would succeed, effectively negating the ability of the American SSBN force to render the silo-based ICBM force unusable. Mobile ICBMs may be able to be targeted in such a scenario provided that they are in garrison, but it is likely that a portion of them are always deployed to field launch positions to prevent such an occurrence.
In the event of a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia, given that the initiating nation would only succeed in guaranteeing a retaliatory strike, what is likely to occur is as follows. American nuclear missiles would likely target critical military facilities, to include ICBM production and storage locations, national-level nuclear stockpile sites, ICBM support facilities, and ICBM silos. This would virtually guarantee that the RVSN would not be able to be reconstituted for a potential second round of missile firings. The unfortunate side effect, of course, is that the aftermath of the initial full-scale nuclear exchange would likely be crippling to both nations, and utterly devastating to the rest of the populated world. Such is the crux of the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD); neither nation would be likely to guarantee its destruction by initiating a nuclear exchange, but equivalent nuclear arsenals are maintained on both sides to prevent either side from encountering a scenario where a preemptive strike would be an attractive option.
The Russian civilian and military leadership to this very day still fear a United States first strike. Can we really blame them? But what really boggles the mind is how in 1995, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the idiotic fear of how “destabilizing” mobile nuclear launchers are remained. The BDM conclusion that SS-20 IRBMs formed a “nuclear umbrella” is especially suspect considering the real, palpable fear the Soviets had toward nuclear explosions:
[Gen.-Col. Adrian] Danilevich witnessed a military exercise in 1972 at which Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev, Prime Minister Kosygin, and Defense Minister Grechko were presented with the results of a simulated U.S. first strike that killed 80 million Soviet citizens, destroyed 85 percent of the USSR’s industrial capacity, and decimated Soviet ground forces and non-strategic aviation. Brezhnev was given an actual button and asked to push it to authorize a retaliatory strike. Gen. Danilevich reported that the General Secretary was pale and perspiring and his hand was trembling visibly. He asked Grechko several times for assurances would not set off real missile launches. “Andrei Antonovich,” he repeatedly asked Grechko, “this is definitely an exercise?” After 1972, the political leadership did not participate in even a single military exercise involving nuclear weapons. The General Staff was left entirely on its own to develop scenarios for nuclear war.
Placing the planning for nuclear war exclusively into the hands of the senior military leadership understandably might seem foolhardy, especially considering that the designs of warmongering generals such as Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power could have led to the extinction of life on Earth had Kennedy been conciliatory like Brezhnev instead of more iron-willed than Khrushchev. But the Soviet General Staff commanders were far more circumspect than their SAC counterparts:
From the interviews with Soviet General Staff officers, a picture emerges of a military command that understood the devastating consequences of nuclear war and was genuinely intent on preventing war. Inside the General Staff, beginning in the early 1970s, the idea matured that while nuclear weapons might serve as a political tool, they had very limited military utility. By 1981, the General Staff had reached the conclusion that nuclear war would be catastrophic as well as counterproductive to operations in the European theater.
The National Security Archive from George Washington University is far more blunt in their assessment:
In 1968, a Defense Ministry study showed that Moscow could not win a nuclear war, even if it launched a first strike. Although Soviet ideology had insisted that survival was possible, no one in the leadership believed it. In 1981, the General Staff concluded that “nuclear use would be catastrophic.” [I: 23-24, 26; II: 24 (Danilevich), 124 (Mozzhorin)] This does not support arguments made by Richard Pipes in the late 1970s that the Soviets did not believe that a nuclear war would result in “mutual suicide” and that the “country better prepared for it and in possession of a superior strategy could win and emerge a viable society.”
Given BDM knows what the Soviet General Staff thought about the utility of nuclear munitions, how could they still conclude that emplacing new, mobile IRBMs in Eastern Europe was intended to press a Soviet advantage? Was the Politburo and military leadership willing to turn a blind eye to potential nuclear devastation outside of Soviet territory?
Another example, described by Danilevich, of Soviet aversion to nuclear war occurred in the early 1980s. Cuban leader Fidel Castro pressed the USSR to take a tougher line against the United States, including possible nuclear strikes. The Soviet Union, in response, sent experts to spell out for Castro the ecological consequences for Cuba of nuclear strikes on the United States. Castro, according to the General, recovered from his nuclear fever rather quickly.
So, the answer is no on all counts. I’m confused. Under what circumstances would IRBMs in Europe tilt a potential NATO/Warsaw Pact conflict?
Another essential element consisted of using the Soviet threat of launching the SS-20s based in the European Soviet Union as a nuclear shield behind which the Warsaw Pact forces could hope to achieve a quick victory using only conventional forces. By giving the Soviets, in effect, escalation dominance in Europe, this nuclear umbrella was expected to serve as a highly effective deterrent against NATO’s initiation of nuclear use.*
*As explained by various Soviet sources but especially by Gen.-Lt. Gelii V. Batenin, August 6, 1993, Vo. II, p.8, the SS-20 was seen by the General Staff as the factor that could neutralize the NATO TVD nuclear threat in Europe thereby allowing the Soviets to exercise their advantages in conventional forces, should there be a war [emphasis BDM’s]. The existence of the SS-20, he implied, did increase the appetite of some officers for warfare.
I take back my sane characterization of the Soviet General Staff. Apparently, with the right weapons anyone can become as demented and dopey as an insane SAC commanding general. But that doesn’t change the fact that surprise, preemptive nuclear attacks was pretty much unthinkable to Soviet generals. Nor does the metaphor work—a shield is not an implement to threaten an enemy with. The SS-20 would more appropriately be described as a huge spear or fire arrow. The RSD-10 IRBM (the Soviet missile NATO designated the SS-20) had a maximum range of 4,700 km—not far enough to hit the continental United States from East Germany (but it was capable of striking from the Far East as far inland as Salt Lake City). Given that the missile was deployed in European Russia, what exactly was that projectile aimed at?
It’s important to remember that the SS-20 was a Soviet weapon, thus was aimed through the Soviet mentality. American nuclear planning, past and present seems obsessed with the first strike—angrily using nuclear weapons to secure an advantage either politically or militarily. The USSR was quite understandably terrified of American anger and nuclear aggressiveness, and placed its hopes in the deterrent of a massive second strike if the U.S. or its allies struck first.
Four Western militaries were nuclear-armed during the 1980s—acknowledged nuclear powers Britain, France, the U.S. and West German Air Force control of American-supplied MGM-31 Pershing IRBMs. Advocates of the “nuclear umbrella” theories conveniently forget that three of these nations were quite close to Soviet territory (only the U.S. was at intercontinental range):
At the beginning of the [INF] talks, the Soviet Union opposed the deployment of any U.S. INF missiles in Europe and proposed a ceiling of 300 “medium-range” missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft for both sides, with British and French nuclear forces counting toward the ceiling for the West.
They also forget how integral the MGM-31 was to the mid-range arms race. The original MGM-31 design dated from the late 1950s—the first American land-based solid-fuelled nuclear missile, the Pershing replaced the PGM-11 Redstone starting in 1960. With the U.S. Army’s and West German Air Force’s MGM-31s facing off against the same R-12 and R-14 missiles that Khrushchev had sent to Cuba, little was mentioned about a “nuclear umbrella” even through the liquid-fuelled IRBMs could hit Britain and France. The U.S. Army’s disdain for Soviet theater nukes was personified with the Pershing IA, designed to ripple-fire all three missiles in quick succession. But should the Soviets develop a mobile MIRV IRBM, all hell breaks loose and the Army increases the range and MIRVs the payload of the MGM-31. The result, known as Pershing II, coincidently can conceivably strike Moscow. How much worse can the paranoia get?
Part Vc: MICed to Death
Both the MGM-31 and RSD-10 are long gone—dead. Given that those IRBMs were developed over 35 years ago, one might expect that they were replaced by “better” missiles in the interim. Remarkably, they weren’t. All American and Russian ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km were banned and destroyed under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987. All the worries that theater IRBMs would permit the Red Army to roll over Europe evaporated with the signatures of two world leaders. The tenor of BDM’s report practically screams the question: why? Why would the Russians give up such an advantage?
Simple—the RSD-10 was immediately superfluous. It was replacing the ancient R-12s and R-14s, the latter’s 4,500 km range only 200 km less than the RSD-10. Besides being another winner for MIC, the RSD-10’s main contribution was to permit the Strategic Rocket Forces to free up more ICBMs arrayed against Europe for second-strike alert duty against the massive SAC ICBM squadrons stationed throughout the America West; a pointless exercise considering the SRF ICBM arsenal was already ten times larger than necessary by 1979 (according to Efim Liuboshits).
VPK died in 1984. Not figuratively—literally. Yuri Andropov and Dmitri Ustinov drew their final breaths that year. With the former head of the KGB as General Secretary and VPK’s most powerful voice as Defense Minister during the two years following Brezhnev’s death in 1982, missile production continued apace. Arguments about the proposed INF treaty went nowhere that year. But following Ustinov’s passing on December 20, 1984, the road was clear for Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika.
By 1987, the toxic effects of VPK were in full reverse. Moral sentiment was returning to Russian leaders, and the lunacy of the previous 25 years was no longer hidden from view. Gorbachev went further than expected, throwing what the U.S. Department of State considered to be a huge wrinkle:
On March 4, 1987, the United States tabled a draft INF Treaty text, which reflected the agreement reached at Reykjavik, and submitted a comprehensive verification regime. In April the Soviet Union presented its own draft Treaty, and by July, it had agreed in principle to some of the provisions in the U.S. comprehensive verification regime, including data exchange, on-site observation of elimination, and on-site inspection of INF missile inventories and facilities. In a major shift, however, the Soviet side proposed the inclusion of U.S.-owned warheads on the West German Pershing IA missile systems. The United States responded by restating that the INF negotiations were bilateral, covering only U.S. and Soviet missiles, and could not involve third-country systems or affect existing patterns of cooperation.
This was not a shift at all. The German possession of nuclear missiles frightened Moscow for very rational reasons.
The entire Cold War was organized around two events—June 22, 1941 and December 7, 1941. Operation Barbarossa and Mitsuo Fuchida ordering to-ra! to-ra! to-ra! over Pearl Harbor speak volumes about the Soviet and American mindset in the decades following the Second World War—the Russians fear a massive sneak attack, and the United States cannot act with overwhelming force unless an outside overt act galvanizes the public. The effect of the German surprise was evident in the Soviet Ministry of Defense:
Military commanders who were World War II veterans tended to view retaliation as a passive anticipation of attack, analogous to the Soviet Union’s exposure to surprise attack in 1941. They were determined to never cede the initiative to the enemy and thereby to risk a disaster similar to Hitler’s invasion. Gretchko reportedly said that he wanted to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1941 by waiting to be struck on the head, as the proponents of retaliation suggested.
While this might at first seem to indicate that the Russians had resolved to strike preemptively in all cases, BDM’s analysis misses a key point: Soviet preemption required outside provocation. In the worst (i.e.: bloodiest) Soviet abuses such as Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979, everything was about maintaining the status quo—to avoid another disaster. If the U.S. or another NATO power responded with strong military intervention in any of those cases, general war almost certainly would have broken out. But war never came.
Strangely enough, neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. was ever willing to create the major flashpoint. From World War II on, the U.S. has always required an adversary to pull the trigger. Pearl Harbor, Hitler unwisely declaring war had begun with the U.S. in 1941, Kim Il-Sung’s invasion of South Korea, Manuel Noriega unwisely declaring war had begun with the U.S. in 1989, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, Slobodan Milosevic’s massacre of the Kosovars, the destruction of the World Trade Center, Somali pirates seizing the Maersk Alabama—the U.S. cannot rally its population if it appears to be the aggressor. This even applies to the Gulf of Tonkin and Iraq in 2003—if enough Americans believe we were attacked and those people did it—we’re going to war.
But the U.S. never went to war with Russia. Berlin, 1948—Soviet forces don’t open fire on the airlift. Hungary, 1956—U.S. gets mad before the microphones but commits to doing nothing. Berlin, 1961—East Germans and Soviets build a wall, still no gunfire. Cuba, 1962—Khrushchev capitulates when he realizes getting between Kennedy and the president’s psychotic hatred for Fidel Castro is extremely unwise. Prague, 1968—U.S. again gets mad before the microphones but still commits to doing nothing.
Even when one superpower blunders into the other’s proxy wars, the conflict did not escalate beyond Korea, Indochina, and Afghanistan. Wars occur throughout history due to trigger-happy soldiers and outright lunatics, but during the Cold War clear-thinking officers like Captain Vasili Arkipov, XO of the submarine B-59 off Cuba on October 27, 1962 and Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov in a Moscow early warning facility on September 26, 1983 eventually are recognized for preventing nuclear hellfire.
Thankfully, that clear thinking extended to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl:
On August 26, 1987, Chancellor Kohl announced the Federal Republic of Germany would dismantle its 72 Pershing IA missiles and not replace them with more modern weapons if the United States and the Soviet Union scrapped all of their INF missiles as foreseen in the emerging Treaty. This was a unilateral declaration by the FRG and is not part of the INF Treaty, which is a bilateral U.S.-Soviet agreement.
On December 8, 1987, Gorbachev traveled to Washington to sign the INF Treaty along with President Reagan. The result was a resounding kick in the teeth for MIC:
In late April and early May 1991, the United States eliminated its last ground-launched cruise missile and ground-launched ballistic missile covered under the INF Treaty. The last declared Soviet SS-20 was eliminated on May 11, 1991. A total of 2,692 missiles were eliminated after the Treaty’s entry-into-force.
Just kidding—both American and Russian arms manufacturers have had plenty of business for conventional weapons for the past 22 years. But another, far more important question is left unanswered. Why has innovation stalled since the end of the Cold War?