History / Warfare

The Reality-Based History of the Cold War, Part 2

The Age of Dmitri Ustinov

Perhaps the Soviet documents Wisconsin governor Scott Walker claims to have seen will surface…but I doubt it. Most Americans are probably unaware of this fact, but the missile gap Kennedy railed against during the 1960 election became a reality in the 1970s, and the geopolitical consequences of the missile buildup loomed larger and darker than the clouds over Cuba until Reagan’s second term in office.

Khrushchev was forced out two years after the Cuban 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.

Ah, VPK. 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.

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 the Kompleks:

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:”

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?”

If the Cold War had been about ideology instead of nuclear weaponry, it would have ended in 1976; after Ustinov ascended to Defense Minister. These documents demonstrate 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 CCCP 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 144 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. But the seeds of the CCCP breakup wouldn’t matter if the world was incinerated before 1991.

The Second IRBM Crisis

Ballistic missile development, especially of the new generation of IRBMs (Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles) from the 1970s was so profoundly misunderstood on both sides of the Atlantic to be almost comical if not for the potential for nuclear annihilation. The Soviet military (and the civilian leadership) was so terrified of the prospect of surprise attacks a la Operation BARBAROSSA even dense CIA analysts took note:

The Soviet Union and the United States both entered World War II in 1941 as victims of surprise attacks, but the impact of Operation BARBAROSSA–the German codename for Hitler’s June 1941 attack on the USSR–was even more of an enduring national trauma than Pearl Harbor was for the United States. The German invasion was the worst military disaster in Russian history.102 It should have been anticipated and could have been countered by the Soviets but was not, mainly because of a failure to interpret indications and warnings accurately.

The connection between ignored warnings and surprise attack has never been forgotten in Moscow. For decades after the war, Soviet leaders seemed obsessed with the lessons of 1941, which were as much visceral as intellectual in Soviet thinking about war and peace.103

Equating Pearl Harbor and BARBAROSSA is a crime against history. American civilian deaths numbered around 12,000 during the Second World War, the vast majority (9,500) dying while serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine (aka, U-boat casualties). Soviet civilian deaths numbered in the tens of millions. Russian fears of annihilation were grounded and rational, yet they triggered two ballistic missile crises.

The catalyst behind the Cuban Missile Crisis was, surprisingly, just the missiles themselves—IRBMs and MRBMs (Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles). USAF PGM-17 Thor IRBMs in Britain and U.S. Army PGM-19 Jupiter MRBMs sited in Italy and Turkey triggered a counter-move by the 1962 Politburo led by Khrushchev to set up three regiments of R-12 MRBMs and two regiments of R-14 IRBMs 90 miles from Key West.

Despite their fears, the CCCP’s nuclear development after Brezhnev took power centered not on preemptive strike but full belief in second-strike, mutually assured destruction, and deterrence. To this end, less than a decade after the IRBMs and MRBMs were removed from Cuba, VPK began working on a replacement for the Soviet Strategic Rocket Force’s (SRF) vulnerable liquid-fueled ballistic missiles.

Aleksandre Nadiradze, a brilliant Georgian engineer and solid fuel rocket expert, designed the RT-21 Temp 2S, a road-mobile solid-fuel ICBM which secretly entered SRF service on 21 February 1976. The following year, Nadiradze and the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT) he headed were tasked with building a next-generation road-mobile ICBM, the RT-2PM Topol. The Topol entered service on 27 May 1988 (the year following Nadiradze’s death) and remains in service with the Russian SRF to this day along with the third-generation RT-2PM2 Topol-M (which entered SRF service on 30 December 1998). Besides the Topol-M, MITT since the collapse of the CCCP has designed the RS-24 Yars, a MIRV-equipped road-mobile ICBM that since first deploying on 19 July 2010 has been gradually replacing the SRF’s silo-based R-36M and UR-100N ICBMs.  The reasons the Soviet and now Russian strategic forces are relying on mobile ICBMs are very rational:

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.

In short, mobile ballistic missiles ensure that a nuclear strike against Russia would be suicidal for both sides. Mobile missiles are an indication that side investing in strengthened deterrence, not looking for offensive advantage. NATO strategists, naturally, convinced western media of the opposite:

Of all the nuclear missiles Moscow can hurl, none sends a shudder through Europe like the SS-20. The missile is designed to devastate Western Europe’s cities, ports, airfields, and command centers. According to the Brookings Institution, the SS- 20 may be the second and third stages of the failed SS-16 intercontinental missile, ”and the Russians may be aiming it at Europe for lack of anything else to do with these components.”

For Europe, with its still vivid memories of World War II bombings, the prospect of suffering much greater damage from an SS-20 attack, against which virtually no defense exists, is alarming.

Essentially, it is the SS-20’s mobility that makes it nearly impossible to counter. Mounted on a multiwheeled transporter vehicle and fired from a vertical launch tube, the missile can be shuttled about on roads and wherever suitable surfaces exist.

The stupidity of relying on Western designations for Russian equipment shines through with this claptrap. The SS-16 was the RT-21 Temp-2S and the SS-20 was the RT-21M Pioneer—an obvious derivative. One key “coincidence” is the RT-21 and -21M first deployed in February and March 1976 respectively, shortly before VPK guru Dmitri Ustinov became the Minister of Defense. The other is geopolitical:

The first two rocket regiments became operational at Plesetsk on 21 February 1976. A total of seven regiments were formed, each with six mobile launchers, with 36-40 launchers available at any one time. This was all done in complete secrecy since SALT-2 Treaty discussions were focusing on prohibiting development or deployment of mobile ICBM’s. Officially the Temp-2S launchers ‘did not exist’. They were kept in garages in Plesetsk, and only left these shelters on manoeuvres when US reconnaissance satellites were not overhead. On 18 June 1979 the Soviet delegation signed a protocol to the SALT-2 Treaty that definitively prohibited development of mobile ICBM’s and listed only fixed ICBM launchers. Nevertheless the deception could be maintained since the first two stages of the missile were the basis for the Pioneer IRBM, which used a similar mobile launcher. However US intelligence sources were not fooled, and already claimed a year prior to the SALT-2 signing that between 50 and 100 Temp-2S launchers were operational at Plesetsk. This was ignored by the Carter team but became a major example of the deceptions of the ‘Evil Empire’ during the Reagan presidency. It was only in 1985 during START-1 negotiations that the Soviet delegation ‘came clean’ about the existence of the Temp-2S, dubbing it the ‘RS-14’ in negotiations with the Americans.

For those that weren’t expecting this posting to poke the corpse of the CCCP Politburo in its rotted out eyes, surprise! IRBMs and shorter-ranged nuclear weapons systems were not part of the 1970s SALT discussions (these weapons were not considered “strategic”), giving perfect cover for clandestine ICBM R&D. The RSD-10 (the cover designation for the RT-21M) IRBM was itself a cover for the design and deployment of the Temp-2S and plume in VPK’s cap regardless. But nuclear reality remained unchanged—the RT-21/-21M intrigue made nuclear war less likely. Whatever geopolitical and/or economic rationale was lurking behind the extraordinary 1970s Soviet missile buildup, the real-world consequence was nuclear war between the superpowers had crossed the threshold from catastrophe to extinction-level-event:

In 1962, the long-term effects of a global nuclear war would have been minimized because almost all of the nuclear explosions would have been air bursts in order to increase immediate damage and reduce fallout. For instance, the Soviets had no motivation for maximizing the fallout from their strikes on Western Europe, because the jet stream would have just brought that fallout to their own nation. The massive silo-building program of the mid-1960s had just begun and had not yet forced a change in tactics.

After the real crisis ended, the Soviets resolved to not be caught in a position of strategic weakness again, and so embarked on a massive buildup in strategic nuclear forces. Both sides also buried their missiles deep in silos, which meant that during a nuclear war ground bursts would be required to destroy those missiles. A general nuclear war, in which each side used its thousands of weapons, throwing massive amounts of fallout into the atmosphere, would kill human civilization. The proposed outcome that I presented in my book, where the United States would have survived, however weakened and shocked, would not have happened after the increased nuclear buildup.

Swedin’s research predates the 2012 study that shows 100 cities burning from Hiroshima-sized (15 kt) detonations potentially could “produce so much smoke that temperatures would fall below those of the Little Ice Age of the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries, shortening the growing season around the world and threatening the global food supply,” so I think the jury’s still out as to whether SAC executing SIOP-63’s 3,500 detonation/6.3 gigaton plan would or would not have triggered a world-ending calamity.


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