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Mutually Assured Misperception on SDI
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David E. Hoffman

On January 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the first National Security Decision Directive for his fledgling Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), launched the previous year. This presidential directive, NSDD 119, has now been fully declassified. One part of the document, which had been redacted in versions released earlier, expressed “growing concern over a potential Soviet breakout from the [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty.”

The directive added, “Evidence of Soviet efforts to develop a ballistic missile defense capability makes it incumbent upon the U.S. to do its utmost to acquire its own strategic defense options as one possible response to a Soviet breakout. Unilateral Soviet acquisition of an effective defensive capability would confront the U.S. and its allies with the real threat of nuclear blackmail and political/military coercion.”[1]

It is now evident that this concern about Soviet breakout was exaggerated. The evidence was based in part on concerns about the purpose of the ill-fated Krasnoyarsk Radar, but the Soviets were nowhere near such a move, nor had they had all that much success in developing missile defense technology.[2]

The fear of a breakout was a classic example of Cold War mistrust, secrecy, and propaganda at work. In these years, the United States did not see clearly the troubled state of the Soviet military-industrial complex. The Soviets could not fully understand Reagan’s purpose and motivations in proposing a globe-spanning missile defense system. They suspected a hidden rationale and mission for it. As the Harvard Nuclear Study Group noted in 1983, “The United States cannot predict Soviet behavior because it has too little information on what goes on inside the Soviet Union; the Soviets cannot predict American behavior because they have too much information.”[3]

New information from archives and other sources reveals these misunderstandings more clearly and offers lessons for today. One of them is to make sure policymakers fully understand the intentions of an adversary. Do outsiders have a better understanding today of the mind-set of leaders in Iran and North Korea than was available about the Soviet leaders in the final days of the Cold War?

Looking back at the early years of the SDI and examining how the Soviet Union reacted to Reagan’s project, one can see clearly that both sides were guilty of misperceptions and error. Of particular value in understanding this are glimpses of long-secret Soviet deliberations. The documents and notes of Vitaly Katayev, a professional staff member in the Central Committee Defense Department from 1974 until the Soviet collapse in 1991 and a participant in many of the arms control discussions of the day, are especially revealing. Katayev, an aviation and rocket designer by training, kept detailed notes about Kremlin decisions and preserved sheaves of original documents, which now reside at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University.[4]

SDI and Pershing II Missiles

The early reaction in Moscow to Reagan’s announcement of the initial research for the SDI was to protest, but the evidence suggests the Soviet leadership was not all that focused on the SDI in 1983 and 1984, under Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. They were much more worried about the NATO deployment of the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Western Europe, which began in November 1983, to counter the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles aimed at the West.

In Katayev’s archive are agendas for more than 20 meetings of the military-industrial commission in the third quarter of 1983, a period of deepening tensions between Washington and Moscow. Not one of them mentions strategic missile defense. Rather, the Soviet leaders were preoccupied with the fast-flying Pershings. The builders of the Moscow anti-ballistic missile system were urged to alter it to detect and intercept possible incoming Pershing missiles.[5]

In his second inaugural address, in January 1985, Reagan offered a high-flying description of his program, calling it a global shield to “render nuclear weapons obsolete.” This grabbed the attention of officials in Moscow.

The KGB made its highest priority gathering military intelligence, including on “American policy on the militarization of space.” That was the title of a 10-page directive issued three and a half weeks after Reagan’s inaugural speech. Agents were tasked to gather intelligence on all U.S. programs that might deploy systems in space for nuclear and conventional war. Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB double agent who had earlier warned the British of Andropov’s paranoia about nuclear war, has published the KGB’s instruction to agents. The KGB was “very anxious” to know, the instruction said, precisely what the Reagan administration’s plans were, how they were evolving, and the “targets, dates and expected financial outlay.” The KGB wanted to know what technical results were achieved in tests and whether it was possible to shoot down a missile using “kinetic weapons,” such as hitting it with another missile or solid object. Furthermore, what were Reagan’s intentions for negotiating? Was the SDI really a “large-scale disinformation operation” designed to force the Soviet negotiators into making concessions?[6]

An avalanche of intelligence reporting began to flow to Moscow, and stacks of it crossed Katayev’s desk. He observed that the spies were lazy and passive; they often simply sent along press clippings as intelligence. What the agents and Soviet military analysts feared the most, Katayev realized, was to underestimate the seriousness of the threat, so they overestimated it. No one could definitively declare that the SDI would not work, so they reported that it might. The spies flooded the system with reports of the threat; before long, the Soviet military-industrial complex geared up to counter the threat. Starting in 1985 and continuing through the decade, Katayev recalled that about 10 cables a day on political-military and technical issues came through his offices in the Central Committee. Of them, 30 to 40 percent dealt with the SDI and missile defense. Katayev wondered if the Americans were deliberately trying to choke Moscow with fear by leaking a flood of information.[7]

Weeks after Reagan’s speech, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow. Gorbachev soon faced the question of how to respond to Reagan’s project. One of his advisers was the progressive physicist Evgeny Velikhov, who told Gorbachev that he did not think the U.S. missile defense plan would work—at least not before the end of the century. Velikhov knew of prior work by Soviet experts on missile defense stretching back to the 1970s. They had often come up short, unable to master the technologies, including computing and laser optics.

Nevertheless, in the summer of 1985, with a new boss in the Kremlin, the Soviet missile designers and outer space experts brought to Gorbachev a grandiose new plan for a Soviet SDI. According to Katayev’s notebooks and papers, there were two major umbrella programs, each of which included a sprawling array of separate projects, ranging from fundamental exploratory research to construction of equipment ready for flight tests. The estimates of the costs ran into the tens of billions of rubles, enough to keep the design bureaus working full tilt into the late 1980s. The programs had obscure code names such as Fundament-4, Integral-3, Onega E, Spiral, Saturn, Kontakt, Echelon, and Skif; the details on these programs went on for pages and pages in Katayev’s notebooks. Most of the proposals brought to the Kremlin that summer were intended to produce initial results in 1987-1988; Katayev kept track of goals and targets through 1990. For all the imposing scope and cost, the grand package concealed deep cracks in the system. Some of the programs, started years earlier, lacked purpose, did not produce results, or were starved for resources. Some of them were nearly abandoned or obsolete, hoping for a rebirth.[8]

Gorbachev’s Restraint

Gorbachev did not want to extend the arms race to space, and he did not build a Soviet SDI. Nonetheless, he needed something to respond to Reagan. Velikhov began to talk to Gorbachev about an asymmetrical response. Katayev’s papers show that one idea was simply to overwhelm Reagan’s missile defense system with an offensive one: rain more warheads on the umbrella than it could possibly deflect. One option, according to Katayev’s records, was to put 38 warheads on every SS-18 missile, which carried 10 warheads each at the time. Gorbachev did not approve this option either.

Ultimately, Gorbachev decided that his strategy would be simply to talk Reagan out of his vision. Words were Gorbachev’s stock-in-trade and his best weapon. Could he say “no” to the Reagan dream, persuade Reagan of his folly, and talk it into oblivion? Perhaps he could strike a deal to cancel a giant weapons machine that the United States did not yet possess and that the Soviet Union would have great trouble matching, exchanging it all for something they both wanted: deep reductions in existing nuclear weapons.

It is often said that the SDI bankrupted the Soviet Union. If Gorbachev had actually attempted to build his own SDI, this might have been true, but he did not build one. A leader’s courage is often defined by building something, by positive action; in this case, Gorbachev’s great contribution was in deciding not to do something. He averted another massive weapons competition. The Soviet Union imploded on its own, not because of missile defense.

Reagan eventually came around to doing business with Gorbachev, but in 1985, the United States did not clearly see the radical ambitions of the new Soviet leader. On June 27, CIA director William Casey sent Reagan a note accompanying the first full CIA assessment of Gorbachev. The note informed Reagan that Gorbachev and those around him are “not reformers and liberalizers either in Soviet domestic or foreign policy.”[9] Veteran U.S. arms negotiator Paul Nitze gave a speech June 28 on the Soviets and SDI, saying, “Clearly they see the potential applications for advanced defensive technologies; otherwise they would not be investing so much effort and so many resources in this area. It is not unreasonable to conclude that they would like to continue to be the only ones pressing forward in this field.”[10] Reagan, in an October radio address, said, “The Soviets have for a long time been doing advanced research on their version of SDI. They’re doing so well, our experts say they may be able to put an advanced system in space by the end of the century.”[11]

In fact, the Soviet Union was not ready to put a missile defense system in space. Reagan never really grasped the corrosive impact on the Soviet military of economic decay and stifling leadership. The Soviets were not going to break out; instead, they were close to breaking down. It was a tragedy that a country that had spawned some of the great minds in mathematics and physics, that had produced chess champions and launched Sputnik, was by the 1980s behind in the computer revolution, sinking in economic backwardness, and totally unprepared for the next century.

According to Katayev, Soviet officials were puzzled by one aspect of Reagan’s program. If it was not possible to create an effective missile shield with America’s best technology, as Velikhov said, then why was the United States devoting so much money to it, year after year? As Katayev recalled it, the Soviet analysts saw “a clear discrepancy between the goals and the means” of Reagan’s announced intentions. “What is it being done for?” the Soviet specialists asked themselves, according to Katayev. “In the name of what are the Americans, famous for their pragmatism, opening their wallet for the most grandiose project in the history of the United States when the technical and economic risks of a crash exceed all thinkable limits?

“Or is there still something different behind this curtain?” Katayev wrote. He recalled that Reagan’s zeal for his dream led them “from the very beginning to think about the possibility of political bluff and hoax.” They pondered whether it was a “Hollywood village of veneer and cardboard.” According to Katayev, a few Soviet experts—he does not say exactly who—held an even darker view of Reagan’s goals. They concluded that the Americans were always distinguished by their systematic approach to problems, that they “do nothing in vain.” Rather than a hoax or bluff, they concluded that the SDI was a cover story for a gigantic, hidden effort to subsidize U.S. defense contractors, save them from “bankruptcy,” and produce a fresh surge of superior military high technology. Perhaps, Katayev said, this “was the major underwater part of the SDI iceberg.”

This analysis was certainly misguided. Although Reagan did fatten the defense contractors with record military budgets in the early 1980s, defense spending was a relatively small slice of the overall U.S. economy. There was a fresh surge of high technology, but much of it was sprouting in the private sector, in the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley. In addition, defense contractors simply did not play the same role in the United States as the outsized military-industrial complex in the Soviet Union. The Soviet analysts were mistakenly applying their own experience, in which the military-industrial complex was at the center of decisions, to what they could not explain in the United States. It was just one more case of misperception piled on misperception.

Among the lessons for today is the critical importance of acquiring accurate intelligence about adversaries. In 1985 the United States lacked valuable human sources inside the Kremlin who might have signaled much earlier Gorbachev’s radical new direction. Although enormous resources were devoted to monitoring Soviet strategic forces, not enough was understood about the condition of the military-industrial complex. These are intelligence issues, but ideology was also at fault, sometimes blinding policymakers to the valuable data they did possess. Iran and North Korea pose similar challenges today and cry out for the absolute best effort to grasp leadership intentions and hardware capabilities.

David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor to The Washington Post and Foreign Policy. He was Moscow bureau chief of the Post from 1995 to 2001 and is author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (2009), which was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. This article draws heavily on research conducted for that book.


1. I am indebted to Jason Saltoun-Ebin, who obtained the full text of this NSDD from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and made it available to me.

2. The radar was first detected by the United States in the early 1980s, and the Reagan administration claimed it was a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This was true because it was not on the periphery of the country, as the treaty required. The Soviets had located the radar inland to save resources. The administration claimed the radar could be used for battle management in a missile defense system. This was not the case; it was an early-warning radar. The Soviets, who knew they had violated the treaty, claimed the radar was for civilian outer space programs, but that was not the case either.

3. Harvard Nuclear Study Group, Living with Nuclear Weapons (New York: Bantam, 1983), pp. 42-43.

4. For a fuller exploration of these documents and notes, see David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009).

5. Oleg Golubev et al., Rossiskaya Systema Protivoraketnoi Oboroniy [Russian system of anti-missile defense] (Moscow: Tekhnokonsalt, 1994), p. 67.

6. Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975–1985 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 107-115.

7. Vitaly Katayev, Kakoi byla reaktzia v SSSR na zayavlenia R. Reagana o razvertyvanii rabot v CShA po SOI, [What was the reaction of the Soviet Union to the announcement of R. Reagan on the deployment of works in the United States on the SDI], n.d., 12 pp.

8. I am indebted to Pavel Podvig for identifying and explaining this.

9. The Casey note is reported by Robert Gates in his memoir. See Robert Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), p. 332. I obtained the full text of the CIA assessment of Gorbachev under the Freedom of Information Act. See Hoffman, Dead Hand, p. 191.

10. Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Current Policy, No. 717 (July 1985) (address by Paul H. Nitze to the Chautauqua Conference on Soviet-American relations, New York, June 28, 1985).

11. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, “Radio Address to the Nation on Soviet Strategic Defense Programs,” The Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan, October 12, 1985, www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1985/101285a.htm.


Posted: October 6, 2010