Lessons from the Cold War – and how to win

A currently trending topic is the idea of the re-emergence of the Cold War between China and the US; the Financial Times’ recent piece on ‘How the Chinese would rewire the Internet’ is a good indication of how two major and conflicting ideologies might manifest themselves in a non-violent manner. It is critical to remember that the Cold War was so-called because it was also directly non-violent – stand fast proxy conflicts – and it was ultimately non-violent actions that ended it. A major difference, however, between today’s Cold War and that of the second half of the 20th century is that the Soviet Union was always only ever an artificial construct held together by force; Chinese unity is far broader (but of course not ubiquitous).

There is so much to learn from history; this piece looks at how Reagan thought multi-dimensionally in his strategy to defeat the Soviet Union, and although he had an excellent ability to simplify things, this did not detract from his understanding of the complexity of the challenge.

‘My idea of American policy towards the Soviet Union is simple … We win and they lose.  What do you think of that?’[1]

Reagan’s team recognised the importance of aligning the levers of power; Reagan criticised ‘Jimmy Carter’s lack of coherent policy’[2]; Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger stated that they ‘adopted a comprehensive strategy’[3]; National Security Advisor John Poindexter sought ‘an integrated policy that incorporated actions in all areas’[4]; and National Security Study Directive 11-82 demanded an analysis of ‘political, economic, social and ideological features of the Soviet system’.[5] The importance of strategic coherency was acknowledged by the Reagan administration – but was it achieved? 

The ends (and the boundaries)

Reagan’s motivation for foreign policy decisions was different to previous Presidents.  His dislike of the Soviet Union was based as much on morality as on geopolitics; the Soviet Union was an ‘evil empire’[6]; communism was ‘a form of insanity… contrary to human nature.’[7]  A Christian, he disliked that atheism was ‘as much a part of Communism as… the Gulag’.[8]  Schweizer even states that Reagan believed God had spared him from assassination in 1981 ‘for a divine purpose: defeating communism.’[9]  These factors helped establish in Reagan’s mind ‘the ends’; ‘the main goal of the United States’ cold war policy should be to hasten the end of communism’.[10]

But Reagan also had very clear boundaries as to how to bring about the end of communism – and nuclear first-strike was not an option.  Although acknowledging the importance of deterrence and brinkmanship, he later stated ‘there was nothing I wanted more than to lessen the risk of nuclear war’.[11]  Reagan saw the principle role of a government as protecting its citizens, and was keen that the US retain its ‘margin of safety; general warfare and providing for the common defense… are one and the same’.[12]  In keeping with Realist views within the White House, ‘containment’ was to remain a driving principle.[13] 

The means

Reagan’s initial focus was on reviving a stagnating domestic economy; the Department of Defense was the only federal department that would see its funding increase due to the need to reverse the perceived delta with military spending in the USSR, and this was an early indication of Reagan’s strategy.[14]  The Friedman-inspired “Reaganomics” was an economically and morally driven policy that would reduce federal spending on areas not crucial to security in order to free up resources for defence spending.  Military capability was expressed in terms of money spent; factors such as better efficiency or cheaper technology were rarely considered, although they were key to maintaining US superiority.  However, having this simple metric enabled him to establish a key element of his strategy – bankrupting the Soviet Union – and, crucially, express it to domestic and international audiences (friendly and hostile) that might not have grasped more complex nuances.  Deputy Secretary of State William Clark is clear: ‘[O]ur intention was to divert priority Soviet resources to meeting future US capabilities beyond their grasp’[15], the SDI being an obvious example of how this strategy was executed.  Reagan, typically, was blunter: ‘They can’t keep up.’[16]

The ways

A clear expression of the ‘ways’ can be found in National Security Directive 75.  It outlined three elements of US policy towards the Soviet Union: resistance to Soviet imperialism; internal pressure on the Soviet Union to liberalise; and improved bilateral relations. It categorised activities functionally (military, economic, political), geopolitically (with other states and regions), and bilaterally (between the US and USSR).  It is clear, in line with classic Clauswitzian thought, that the ‘military strategy will be combined with a political strategy’, and was a policy couched in a strategic timeframe – ‘for the long haul’.[17]

These different threads were to be tied together via the concept of “linkage”, which had developed from its original usage by Nixon and Kissinger.  Secretary of State Haig declared that ‘linkage is a prevailing concept in the administration’[18]; NSDD 75 attempted to bring policy to the Soviets out of departmentally-entrenched stovepipes, confirming that ‘genuine restraint in behaviour… might bring about important benefits for the Soviet Union.’[19]  The importance assigned to coherent execution of the strategy is therefore clear.

Reagan also believed that victory required strength; he described détente as ‘what a farmer has with his turkey – until thanksgiving day’[20], and compared it to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.  Instead, he sought ‘peace through strength’[21], and created his strategy around ‘being so strong that a potential enemy is not tempted to go adventuring.’[22]  This would primarily be demonstrated militarily, but expected economic improvements coupled with the diplomatic high ground gained by exposing perceived Soviet wrong-doings would all give the US greater freedom of action to hasten the end of communism.

Strategy, Tactics, and the Reagan Doctrine

From 1984 onwards Reagan’s engagement with the Soviet Union took on a different, softer form.  The belligerence of his early-80s speeches reduced; the US would focus on defence of democracies around the world would, while Reagan sought ‘to establish a constructive and realistic working relationship with the Soviet Union.’[23]  A number of reasons are postulated for this change, including a genuine concern about nuclear weapons[24]; a reduced requirement for populist domestic rhetoric in the final term; an inefficient administration; the influence of European partners; and even the calming effect of the First Lady.[25]

This much-discussed change in tactics is not an indication of a failing or incoherent strategy, but evidence of a successful one.  NSD 75 planned for potential changes, and established a conditions-based approach for altering course, directing the US to ‘remain ready for improved US-Soviet relations’.[26]  Thus although seized upon by some commentators as a change in direction[27], the ‘Reagan Doctrine’ was entirely in keeping with the strategy postulated in Reagan’s first term.  It was merely a tactical interpretation of the strategy that reflected the changing situation.


Reagan’s Cold War strategy was coherent, aligning vertically across the levels of war, horizontally across the levers of power, geographically over the whole world, and temporally with a strategic long-term view.  Military spending was to grow to deter aggressive Soviet action and establish satisfactory conditions from which the US could negotiate a subsequent arms reduction.  Economic improvements would take full advantage of the Soviet economy’s weakness and inflexibility.  Diplomatic pressure would be applied to the USSR globally.  And the US filled the information space, making full use of globalising communications so that the USSR could no longer hide the benefits of liberal democracy – The Great Communicator would be in his element.  All these threads were to be woven together in a coherent fashion and applied across the world with a clearly defined end in mind – the fall of communism as a political system, an ideology, and a morality.



Clauswitz, Carl Von, (2012) On War, (Acheron Press), Kindle edition

Diggins, John Patrick (2007), Ronald Reagan: fate, freedom, and the making of history (New York: Norton)

Dobrynin, Anatoly (2001), In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents (London: University of Washington)

Fischer, Beth A. (2000), The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War

(Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri)

Mann, James (2009), The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War (Kindle: Viking Penguin)

Reagan, Ronald (1990), Ronald Reagan: An American Life (Reading: Arrow)

Rummelt, Richard (2011), Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters (Suffolk: Profile Books)

Schweizer, Peter (1994), Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: Atlantic)

Schweizer, Peter (2002), Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of his Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph over Communism (New York: Doubleday)

Skinner, Kiron K, Anderson, Annelise, and Anderson, Martin (2001), Reagan, In His Own Hand (New York: The Free Press)

Smith, Joseph (1998), The Cold War, 1945-1991 (Cornwall: Blackwell)

Book chapters

Fischer, Beth A. (2010), ‘US Foreign Policy under Reagan and Bush’, in Westad, Odd A. and Leffler, Melvyn P. ed., The Cambridge History of the Cold War  (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 267-288

Jablonsky, David (2008), ‘Why is Strategy Difficult?’, in Bartholomees, J Boone ed., US Army War College Guide to National Security Issues  pp. 3-12

Kemp-Welch, Anthony (2010), ‘Eastern Europe: Stalinism to Solidarity’, in Leffler, Melvyn P. and Westad, Odd Arne ed., The Cambridge History of the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 219-237

Platias, Athanassios G., and Koliopoulos, Constantinos (2010), ‘Grand Strategy: A Framework for Analysis’, in Platias, Athanassios G. and Koliopoulos, Constantinos ed., Thucydides on Strategy (London: Hurst), pp. 1-21

Government Documents

NSA (1982), National Security Decision Directive 56: Private Inf Exchange, (Washington DC: The White House)

NSA (1982), National Security Decision Directive Number 32: US National Security Strategy, (Washington DC: Washington)

NSA (1982), National Security Study Directive Number 11-82: US Policy Toward the Soviet Union, (Washington, DC: The White House)

NSA (1983), National Security Directive Number 75: US Relations with the USSR, (Washington DC: The White House)

Journal Articles

Greenberg, David (2000), ‘The Empire Strikes Out: Why Star Wars Did Not End the Cold War’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 2, Mar/Apr 2000, pp. 136-142

Hellman, Martin E. (2008), ‘Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence’, The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, Vol. No. Spring, pp. 14-18

Kennan, George (1947), ‘Sources of Soviet Conduct’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 25, No. 4, Jul, pp. 566-582

Pach, Chester (2006), ‘The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1, Mar 26, pp. 75-88

Newspaper and Magazine Articles

Halloran, Richard (1982), ‘Pentagon Draws up First Strategy for Fighting a Long Nuclear War’, New York Times, 30 May 1982

Halloran, Richard (1982), ‘Reagan Aide Tells of New Strategy on Soviet Threat’, New York Times, 22 May 1982

Krauthammer, Charles (1985), ‘The Reagan Doctrine’, Time, 1 Apr 1985

Lectures, Presentations, and Speeches

Farrell, Theo, Honig, Jan Willem, and Betz, David (2014), ‘The War Studies Masterclass in Strategy: Lecture 1 – Strategy and Power’, King’s College London, 5 Feb 2014

Reagan, Ronald (1964), ‘A Time for Choosing’, 27 October 1964, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/reference/timechoosing.html, 2 February 2014

Reagan, Ronald (1980), ‘Peace: Restoring the Margin of Safety’, Chicago, Illinois, 18 Aug 1980

Reagan, Ronald (1981), ‘Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery’, 18 Feb 1981, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=43425, 20 Jan 2014

Reagan, Ronald (1983a), ‘Address on Defense and National Security’, 23 Mar 1983, http:/www.reagain.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1983/32383d.htm, 6 Feb 2014

Reagan, Ronald (1983b), ‘Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals’, 8 Mar 1983

Reagan, Ronald (1984), ‘Address to the Nation and Other Countries on United States-Soviet Relations ‘, 16 Jan 1984, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=39806, 25 Jan 14

Reagan, Ronald (1985), ‘State of the Union Address’, 6 Feb, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=38069, 2 Feb 14

Other media

Haig, Alexander (1981), Interview for ABC Television, ABC, 17 Apr 1981

Thatcher, Margaret (1983), ‘Grenada: Thatcher letter to Reagan’, 25 Oct 1983, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/commentary/displaydocument.asp?docid=109427, 28 Jan 14

Weinberger, Caspar W. (1984), ‘The Uses of Military Power’, Washington DC, 28 Nov 1984, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/military/force/weinberger.html, 28 Jan 14

[1] In conversation with Richard Allen, quoted in Schweizer (2002), p. 106.

[2] Reagan (1980).

[3] Caspar Weinberger, interview with author (Schweizer (1994), p. xv).

[4] John Poindexter, interview with author (Schweizer (1994), p. 132).

[5] NSA (1982), p. 1.

[6] Reagan (1983b).

[7] Reagan, May 1975, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 12.

[8] Reagan, 29 Jun 1979, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 174.

[9] Schweizer (2002), p. 3.

[10] Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 23.

[11] Reagan (1990), p. 265.

[12] Reagan (1980).

[13] Kennan (1947).  See Diggins (2007), pp. 192-96 for analysis of the broad church of advisors working for Reagan.

[14] Reagan (1981).  The DoD’s budget doubled from 1981 to 1986 (figures in Smith (1998), p. 132).

[15] William Clark, interview with author, Schweizer (1994), p.132.

[16] Quoted in Schweizer (2002), p. 141.

[17] NSA (1983).

[18] Haig (1981).  Also see Fischer (2000) pp. 23-25.

[19] NSA (1983).

[20] Reagan, 7 Aug 78, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 15.

[21] Reagan (1990), p. 267.

[22] Reagan, 13 Mar 78, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 102.

[23] Reagan (1984).

[24] This was particularly heightened after the ‘near miss’ of Op ABLE ART in 1983.

[25] See Fischer (2010), pp. 273-75 and Fischer (2000).

[26] NSA (1983).

[27] Such as Krauthammer (1985).


I was recently speaking with a friend of mine who is still serving in the military. He mentioned some work he was doing on “securitisation” policies. A year ago I would have instinctively known that he was talking about the development of security-focused institutions, the primary role of NATO in Afghanistan at the moment, and an area to which the British Army believes it can bring significant global value at a low cost. However, when he said the word “securitisation” my first thought was to ask him what on earth the British Army was doing getting involved with the development of financial instruments…

That conversation inspired me to begin thinking about some of the other phrases and acronyms that have two very different meanings in the military and in the private sector. I came up with this list; there are no doubt some more (let me know). Concurrently and coincidentally, HBR IdeaCast published this podcast, which puts forward some good arguments as to why not all jargon is bad.

So if you’re in the Big Three then take care doing CA training, HFT, looking for a VC or some PE, working out the ROE, or using DF.

Acronym / Phrase Military Private sector
Alpha Typical callsign Gap between expected returns and actual returns
BB Back brief Bulge bracket
BD Bulldog Business Development
Beta Typical callsign Expected returns according to the CAPM
Big Three Paras, Marines, RAF Regt McKinsey, Bain, BCG
CA Combined Arms Chartered Accountant / Current Account
CDS Chief of the Defence Staff Credit Default Swap
CF Coalition Forces Cash Flow
COB Coalition Operating Base Close of Business
CP Close protection Consumer Products
CTC Commando Training Centre Cost-To-Company
DF Direct Fire Discount Factor
DSO Distinguished Service Order Day Sales Outstanding
EOD Explosives Ordnance Demolition End of day
FOB Forward Operating Base Freight on board
GS General Service Goldman Sachs
HF High-frequency (radio) Hedge Fund
HFT Hybrid Foundation Training High Frequency Trading
IOT In Order To Internet of Things
IR Infra Red Investor Relations
MC Military Cross Marginal Cost
OC Officer Commanding Opportunity Cost
OTC Officer Training Corps Over-The-Counter
PE Plastic Explosive Private Equity OR Price to Earnings OR Price Elasticity
PO Potential Officer Purchase Order
PPE Personal Protective Equipment Property, Plant & Equipment
RC Remote-Controlled (IED) Retail Company
RE Royal Engineers Retained Equity OR Real Estate
ROE Rules of Engagement Return on Equity
SF Special Forces Securitisation funding
VC Victoria Cross Venture Capital

If you’re new to the private sector and the interplay of the various elements – particularly in finance – and getting concerned with all these acronyms, this graphic helps (from Wall Streep Prep).

I feel the need… the need for sleep

Ideas trend; currently I am reading a lot about the need for sleep. Not only is it a topic that has been discussed for generations, but it is a topic which transcends sectors; it is the bleed-across between the military and private sectors that interests me, and subsequently how the failure to get enough sleep impacts on the decision-making process by leaders – the science is clear.

Getting enough sleep is a perennial problem for members of the military. The nature of conflict, with its Clauswitzian friction, means that maintaining a regular sleep rhythm is difficult.  In the current climate western nations have the advantages over their adversaries at night; as such the call to “Own the night” is often made by commanders, which demands that people operate outside their circadian rhythm. Not all theatres are the same; more mature operations with a focus on domestic capability development and which align to host nations’ normal daily activities (including sleep cycles), often have a more established pattern. However, one of my constant cries is the need to avoid the arrogance of presentism, and although such sleep-friendly campaigns are dominant in the current operational setting, they are an historical aberration. Sleep deprivation for service personnel is here to stay.

This is particularly challenging at certain levels of command, where tradition dictates that a commander should not go to sleep unless he is certain that his soldiers have been taken care of. The great Field Marshall Bill Slim, whose book Defeat Into Victory is one of my most gifted books (for military and civilian friends alike), was clear:

“I took one look at them and thought “My God, they’re worse than I supposed.” then I saw why. I walked round the corner of that clearing and I saw officers making themselves a bivouac. They were just as exhausted as their men, but that isn’t my point. Officers are there to lead. I tell you, therefore, as officers, that you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.”

There comes a level of command when this is simply not realistic; probably around company / battalion command (which broadly means commanding between 100 and 600 soldiers). Senior leaders are there to think, and this demands a clear, rested head; both Slim and his “colleague” Field Marshal Montgomery were known to castigate junior officers that woke them during the night without adequate cause. Military commanders now generally operate with specific “wake-up” criteria which provides guidance to subordinates on the kind of incident that would justify breaking critical sleeping time.  Modern day executives – including Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos – have a similar routine. The Harvard Business Review recognises this, noting that ‘senior executives get more sleep than everyone else’.

The reflection of this in the private sector was stark throughout 2018. Tesla CEO Elon Musk had a well-publicised spat with Arianna Huffington about his long working days, with some commentators believing that he needs to step back and get some rest; there have been claims that on a macro-scale the UK’s lack of sleep is contributing to its lack of productivity; McKinsey & Co devoted one of their Five-Fifty pieces to it; and books have been published about it.

I wouldn’t attempt to give advice on how to ensure that one is getting the right amount of good quality sleep; there is more than enough information in the links included here to get started, and I am certainly no expert. What is clear, however, is that the need for sleep transcends all the differences between life in the military and life as a civilian.

Case studies and Battlefield Studies

‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’ (George Santayana)

As I go on the journey from infantry officer to civilian via a full-time MBA I’m constantly seeking to identify areas of crossover between the military and the private sector.  Currently trending for me is the use of historical examples to learn from, and my interest in this has been piqued recently for several reasons.

Firstly, we are using more and more case studies in our classes. Pre-reading for a lot of modules inevitably includes some theory and one or two examples of where the theory has been applied in the real world; recent ones have included Apple’s accounting methodology, Toyota’s production systems, Southwest Airlines’ culture, and more. These are of course amongst the most well-known cases for business students, but we are in a fortunate position and able to leverage personal contacts of lecturers to enable access to more exclusive – and arguably exciting – cases; these have recently included, inter alia, having the team from BAML that worked on the Ferrari IPO talk to us, and the Morgan Stanley section that worked on the Fox / Disney/ Comcast deal – 3 days after the notorious auction actually happened. In the world of M&A this is as close to the coalface as most students will get while studying.

Secondly, there has been some criticism of Harvard Business School’s use of the case study recently in business education press, with some people believing that it is too male / US-centric, too lacking in current examples, and would benefit from more focus on learning and testing robust theory (although there are counterarguments to all of these). Like most things there is likely an Aristotlean Golden Mean, and the case study is one club in a golf bag that can be used to teach.

Finally – and this is where the military analogy emerges – I am a big proponent of making use of historical military examples to learn from.I am a particular fan of the use of Battlefield Studies (unfortunately officially abbreviated to BS), where a unit of any size will go to an actual battlefield, look at the ground, examine the history, and discuss the event –particularly with a view to drawing out lessons that can be applied in the modern context.  It can be a week-long activity or a day out; it can involve 50+ people or half-a-dozen. It normally involves an officer framing the discussion around current doctrine and theory,supported by a professional historian that knows the event inside-out.  One of my final tasks before leaving the Army was to run a week-long BS examining the Allied penetrations into Germany in late 1944, as well as take a glimpse at the famous German counter-attack that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. We framed the BS in the context of a western coalition fighting a peer / near-peer combined arms adversary in terrain that quickly varied from rolling countryside to thick woods to complex cities; the links with NATO’s current focus were obvious.

So what are the parallels?

  • The importance of Principles. Ralph Wado Emerson sums it up well: “As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” It is highly likely that whatever challenge one is facing, someone, somewhere, sometime, has seen something similar before.  We should take care not to compare apples with oranges, but principles are principles because they can be applied in some way in any environment. Their utility is particularly stark in the military; having a set of concepts that one can lean on when tired, hungry,scared, and cold is critical.
  • Beware the arrogance of presentism. Every generation believes that it is unique.It may have unique characteristics, but that does not mean that there is nothing to be gained from previous events. When people say that the “nature of conflict” has changed based on the past couple of decades of low-intensity counter-insurgency they are wrong; the current character is different, but the underlying principles of Clauswitzian fog, friction, fear et al. ring true throughout history. I detect that there might be similar principles within business; perhaps Porter’s 5 (or 6) Forces will turn out to be the answer…
  • Proximity bias. Like the aforementioned criticism of HBS, the British Army tends to look at BSs that involve elements of either of the world wars that were fought in Europe, because resource constraints – time, finance, logistical, corporate knowledge – make these far easier to organise. We must be mindful of not sticking to our lane, and look beyond the easy cases to broaden our knowledge and experience. I once did a course with an officer from the Nigerian Army who was taking a break from fighting Boko Harem; he had plenty of examples from which to draw lessons from.
  • More input leads to more output. Time spent preparing before the study inevitably pays dividend.  I have been on BSs as a passive passenger and an active organiser; the latter requires slightly more work but delivers far greater returns in terms of learning and enjoyment. I have quickly learnt that the same rings true in business case studies, and taking the time to fully read and absorb – and then conduct secondary/ tertiary analysis – is well worth the effort.
  • The voice of experience. I mentioned earlier the ability to attract speakers that have been involved in interesting, large-scale cases, and this is critical in genuinely bringing to life some of the activity that they have been involved in(subject to NDAs). Similarly, the experience of veterans of battles that we visit in BSs is invaluable – their primary source knowledge is invaluable, and they bring clarity, colour, and insight.

In sum, the case is a wonderful tool for study. The ability to take theory – whether it’s Blue Ocean theory or the Principles of Defence –and see it acted out in practice delivers far more learning than either method would individually. The power of combinations is a real thing, and the military / private parallels are clear.

NATO fear of Russian assault may be overblown; the West has a history of getting it wrong. But then again, so do the Russians. (Part 3)

This is the third and final part of piece looking at both sides of the Cold War’s failure to adequately assess the capability, willingness, and ultimately therefore the threat, of the other, and the role of bias in driving this failure. Part 1 looked at the US’ initial post-WW2 assessment of Russian force levels in Eastern Europe, whilst Part 2 studied the Cuban Missile Crisis. This part looks at the Soviet misinterpretation of NATO actions during Exercise AUTUMN FORGE (although the incident is more commonly referred to as Ex ABLE ARCHER).

Exercise AUTUMN FORGE – Assessing American Intent

1983 has been called the ‘year of maximum danger’, and ‘the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.[1]  Due to SALT I and II, the ‘Open Skies’ policy, and détente, capabilities and dispositions were now well-known.[2]  Both sides had so much nuclear capability that there was little need to chase exact intelligence on it.  Khrushchev summed it up; ‘I once read something McNamara had said about the US having sufficient stocks of nuclear weapons to destroy the world four times over…  There’s no need to destroy the world four times; once is enough’.[3]  The Cold War had moved beyond assessing exact capability.

However, intent remained opaque.  Triggered by Exercise AUTUMN FORGE, large US manoeuvres in Europe, the Soviet leadership became increasingly nervous about NATO intentions, ultimately believing ‘all actions pointed in the direction [of an imminent nuclear attack].’[4]

Bias hindered obtaining accurate intelligence.  The Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov and his inner circle – succumbing to Groupthink bias[5] – had ‘convinced themselves’ that the US was planning on launching a surprise nuclear attack.[6]  This assessment itself was probably at least partly driven by Vivid bias as horrific images of nuclear war were produced in everything from academic texts to popular film.[7]  It also demonstrates the dangers of the Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias, as non-professionals believe their own assessments to be better than experts’.[8]  Displaying Confirmation bias[9], Andropov directed that Soviet intelligence collectors launch Operation RYaN to ‘gather evidence for what he was nearly certain was coming’[10] – the flaw in this reasoning is self-evident.  Despite disagreeing with Andropov’s assessment – the KGB believed that it was ‘more of a storm warning than a hurricane alert’[11] – they ‘dutifully supplied the Kremlin with whatever suspicious evidence they could find, feeding official paranoia.’[12]  The organisational and cultural refusal to speak truth to power had a clear impact.

However, one should examine the broader situation in order to understand Soviet concerns.  Reagan had a clear vision for US foreign policy; ‘to hasten the end of communism.’  The USSR was an ‘evil empire’, communism ‘a form of insanity… contrary to human nature.’[13]  There was resource behind these statements; the only federal department not to reduce its budget under Reagan was the Department of Defense (DoD) – in fact its budget doubled between 1981 and 1986.[14]  Not only was this setting the conditions for a renewed capability race, but it indicated to the Soviets a belligerent intent.  It is unsurprising that Andropov was nervous.

But Andropov’s analysis was again wrong.  Reagan’s narrative served a political purpose; demonising the other is a tried and tested way of building domestic popularity.[15]  Andropov recognised that ‘every election campaign… must be accompanied by anti-Soviet statements’[16], but he did not recognise that the increased DoD budget was not for directly engaging the USSR militarily, but rather ‘to divert priority Soviet resources to meeting future US capabilities beyond their grasp.’[17]  Reagan wanted to outspend the USSR so that ‘they can’t keep up’[18] – he was forcing them into Imperial Overstretch.[19]

This was clear in National Security Decision Directive 75 (NSDD 75).  US strategy for defeating the Soviet Union did not include any aspirations for kinetic engagement – rather it was based around three strands: resistance to Soviet imperialism; internal pressure on the Soviet Union to liberalise; and improved bilateral relations.[20]   Soviet failures to direct appropriately, collect sufficiently, and analyse accurately led to a significantly incorrect conclusion about US intent.


This essay contained three themes: the importance of all elements of the intelligence cycle; the importance of assessing both constituent components of threat – capability and intent; and the role of biases, primarily cognitive, organisational, and cultural, in influencing the obtaining of accurate intelligence.  As a framework within which to examine these themes it assessed that the importance of identifying the opponent’s threat was the main intelligence driver throughout the Cold War, and examined three case studies: US assessments of Soviet conventional capability following WW2; US assessments of Soviet threat during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and Soviet assessments of US intent during Exercise AUTUMN FORGE.  There were mixed successes on both sides, influenced largely by the presence of a wide range of biases.  Over the course of the Cold War capability identification became less important – and once nuclear armament levels reached a certain tipping point it was almost irrelevant – but the requirement to obtain accurate intelligence on the opponent’s intent remained.

Thus despite increasing clarity over capabilities, driven by advances in collection capabilities and increased openness, the impact of biases remained.  Even towards the culmination of the Cold War assessments of the other crucial part of threat assessments – the adversary’s intent – was persistently misjudged.


Complete essay available on request.


[1] Cimbala (2000); Adamsky (2013), p. 6; Johnson (1999), p. 264.

[2] SALT I (1972, SALT II (1979); Marquardt (2007).

[3] Quoted in Heikal (1978), p. 129 (no original source given).

[4] Soviet Deputy Chief of Staff of Strategic Rocket Forces, General Colonel Korobushin, quoted in Hines, et al. (1995), pp. 106-107.

[5] See DCDC (2011), p. A-1 (also called  the Bandwagon Effect).

[6] Cimbala (2014), p. 234.  Also see Harriman (1983), pp. 2-3.

[7] For an example of the former see Kahn (2007); the latter Kubrick (1964).

[8] Dunning, et al. (2003)).  The Soviet Union has a history of this; Stalin believed in 1942 that Germany intended to head for Moscow, ‘whereas all indications were that they were planning something in the south’ (Tissier (1996), p. 8); Khrushchev largely ‘preferred to conduct his own analysis’ (Garthoff (1998), p. 11).

[9] DCDC (2011), p. A-1; Defence Intelligence (2013), p. 5.

[10] Birch (2013).  For an example of these orders see Titov (1983).

[11] Fischer (Undated (circa 1996)), p. 62.

[12] Birch (2013).

[13] Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 21; Reagan (1983); Reagan, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 12.

[14] Figures in Smith (1998), p. 132.

[15] See Wistrich (1999).

[16] Harriman (1983), p. 3.

[17] William Clark, interview with author, Schweizer (2002), p.132.

[18] Quoted in Schweizer (2002), p. 141.

[19] See Kennedy (1998).

[20] NSA (1983).

NATO fear of Russian assault may be overblown; the West has a history of getting it wrong. But then again, so do the Russians. (Part 2)

The first part of this essay focused on the US’ failure to establish a truly accurate picture of Soviet / Russian capability in the immediate period following the end of the Second World War; this second part looks at a time when the US failed to get an accurate picture of the Soviet threat (a function of capability and intent). The consequences were almost disastrous – but there were also positives that came from it.

The Cuban Missile Crisis – Assessing Soviet Threat

The Cuban Missile Crisis was ‘the epochal military confrontation of the cold war’[1]; identifying Soviet intent and capability was crucial.  Prior to the 13 days of the main crisis (16th-28th October 1962), The Office for National Estimates (ONE) issued a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) stating that the placement of medium / intermediate range ballistic missiles (M/IRBMs) in Cuba would be ‘incompatible with Soviet practice to date and with Soviet policy as we presently estimate it’[2] – a prediction that was, as it turned out, a ‘failure of the highest magnitude.’[3]   This estimate was exacerbated by Anchoring bias; following the crisis the Stennis Committee specifically criticised this ‘predisposition… to the philosophical conviction that it would be incompatible with Soviet policy.’[4]

However, the placing of missiles in Cuba was not something that the Soviets were likely to do.  The ONE’s conclusion was rational[5]; it is ‘difficult to say what would have been the correct estimate.’[6]  Predicting Black Swans such as Cuba – outliers with an extreme impact that in retrospect should have been predicted, but at the time were justifiably unexpected[7] – is difficult.

The period also demonstrates the HUMINT challenges faced by the CIA.  Cultural bias (arguably sheer racism) saw CIA agents ‘distrust[ing] émigrés, as well as their own agents of Cuban origin’ and dismissing Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticós’ public (i.e. Open Source (OSINT)) references to ‘weapons that we wish we did not need and that we do not want to use’ as ‘typical Cuban braggadocio.’[8]  This, again enhanced by Anchoring bias, saw swathes of evidence from Cuban intelligence sources that did not align with CIA expectations ignored.  This also provides an example of the counter-intelligence battle, as these biases were further exploited by classic Russian maskirovka activity.[9]

In the end fusion, coordination, and synthesis of all-source resources confirmed the presence of missiles; the importance of collaboration – a principle of US intelligence[10] – was made clear.  Two credible reports from refugees[11] ‘dovetailed’, triggering clear direction for Image Intelligence (IMINT) collection: ‘Search the area delineated for possible surface missile construction, with particular attention to SS-4 Shyster.’[12]  U-2 flights acquired photographs that were analysed and compared to documents provided by a Soviet HUMINT source, Col Oleg Penkovsky, before dissemination rapid dissemination to President Kennedy.[13]  No evidence of nuclear capability was ever identified, but it was recommended – influenced by Prudent Overestimation bias – that ‘one must assume that nuclear warheads could be available in Cuba.’[14]  In this case the bias was helpful; they were.

Conventional Soviet capabilities on the island were never accurately ascertained, hence it is fortunate that they were less crucial.  The US’ 1963 consolidated retrospective estimate was 22,000 Soviet troops in Cuba; the true figure was closer to 42,000.  CIA Task Force W in Cuba at the time had a more accurate ‘feel’ for 45,000-50,000, but without supporting evidence policy-makers ignored it.  In this instance instinct – ‘system one’ thinking, ‘thin-slicing’, fingerspitzengefühl – should have been given more weight.[15]  Regardless, the non-conventional capability assessment was complete.

However, the Soviet intent was still unknown.  A number of theories for the placement of missiles in Cuba were identified[16], but more importantly the CIA initially struggled to ascertain how Khrushchev would react to the US course of action.  Friction from organisational, cultural, and personal bias between President Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs (themselves biased by the Bay of Pigs and Munich respectively[17]), made accurate, objective intelligence vital.  To compound the challenge there was a paucity of information about the current Soviet intent – Kennedy confessed to being ‘mystified’ by Khrushchev and unable ‘understand to [his] viewpoint.’[18]  His brother was blunter; ‘we had been deceived by Khrushchev.’[19]

The subsequent SNIE was wrong; it considered it ‘unlikely’ that that the USSR was ‘installing these missiles primarily in order to use them in bargaining for US concessions elsewhere’[20], but it was the promise to remove US Jupiter missiles in Turkey that eventually persuaded the Soviets to remove their missiles.  Assessments of the Soviet reaction to a blockade were more accurate.  SNIE 11-19-62 predicted that the USSR would ‘concentrate on political exploitation, especially in the UN’, and would ‘not resort to major force in the area of Cuba or forceful retaliation elsewhere’; furthermore a blockade would not ‘bring down the Cuban regime.’[21]  These predictions all materialised.

There were significant intelligence failures during the Crisis – notably the failure to predict the presence of missiles – but also successes.  CIA Director John McCone demonstrated his ability as an analyst through the “honeymoon cables.”[22]  Fusion of all-source information, clear direction and collection eventually identified the missiles.  The US utilised shrewd intelligence dissemination in the UN.[23]  The analysts’ war game of the blockade was accurate.  And, arguably most importantly, the establishment of a hotline offered both sides the opportunity to clarify their intent in the future.


Part 3 will look at the events surrounding Ex ABLE ARCHER.



[1] Betts (1987), p. 109.

[2] ONE (1962), p. 93.

[3] Blight and Welch (1998), p. 4.

[4] Heuer (1999), pp. 116-119, 150-152; Tversky and Kahneman (1974), pp. 1128-1130; Schwenk (1986), pp. 300-302; Dobbs (2008), loc 2642; Preparadness Investigating Subcommittee (1963), p. 2.

[5] See Knorr (1964), pp. 460-462.

[6] Garthoff (1998), p. 21.

[7] Taleb (2010), loc 343.

[8] Quoted in Dobbs (2008), loc 1761.

[9] Amuchastegui (1998), pp. 101, 116; Fischer (1998), p. 161; Lehman (1962), p. 99; Bennett and Waltz (2007), pp. 103-105.

[10] US Army (2013), p. II-1.

[11] CIA (1962a) and CIA (1962b).

[12] Lehman (1962), p. 101.

[13] Weiner (2007), p. 197.

[14] Guided Missile and Astronautics Intelligence Committee, et al. (1962), p. 187.

[15] Garthoff (1998), pp. 28-29, fn 28; Gladwell (2005); Kahneman (2003).

[16] See CIA (1962c).

[17] See their discussions at DOD (1962).

[18] Quoted in Dobbs (2008), loc 200; and Weiner (2007), p. 199.  On ‘certainty effect’, a bias affecting the USSR, see Kahneman and Tversky (1979), p. 269.

[19] Kennedy and Schlesinger (2011), p. 27.

[20] CIA (1962d), p. 198. See Heuer (1999), pp. 152-156 on ‘expression of uncertainty’ bias.

[21] CIA (1962e), p. 216-217.

[22] Weiner (2007), p. 204.

[23] Witness the clash between Stevenson and Zorin, Educational Video Group (2009).

NATO fear of Russian assault may be overblown; the West has a history of getting it wrong.  But then again, so do the Russians. (Part 1)

There has been a lot written about Russian military threat over the past few years as they seek to re-establish themselves as a world power.  NATO has reconfigured itself (in parts – and much smaller) to look something slightly more aligned to the form it took when it established its original raison d’être.  But the West has a history of failing to see beyond the Russian maskirovka, and/or failing to deal with its own biases. This essay (in three parts) examines some of the ways that the West and the USSR got their threat assessments wrong during the Cold War. The “so what” is this: if we got it so wrong so many times before, why are we so arrogant to presume that we are getting it right now?


 ‘The Cold War was an intelligence war… Information was power.’[1]

 Introduction and Biases

There are three themes within this essay that will enable discussion of the US and USSR abilities to obtain accurate intelligence on each other during the Cold War.  Firstly, obtaining intelligence – ‘reasoned foresight for comparative advantage’[2] – is dependent on all elements of the intelligence cycle; Direction, Collection, Analysis, and Dissemination.[3]  Secondly, threat is a combination of intent and capability – being ‘willing and able’[4] – and both elements, in particular during the new bipolar nuclear world that followed World War Two, must be assessed.  Finally, obtaining intelligence is inherently subject to biases, broadly categorised as: cognitive – ‘mental errors caused by our simplified information processing strategies’; cultural – ‘widely held beliefs, practices, or cognitive styles that characterize one’s specific social environment’; or organisational – ‘constraints on cognitive flexibility… that have evolved within the specific organization in which the individual serves.’[5]

To examine these themes this essay will look at three periods of heightened tension during the Cold War: US attempts to ascertain Soviet conventional force capability in the period following WW2; US attempts to identify the Soviet threat during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962; and Soviet concerns over US intent during Exercise AUTUMN FORGE in 1983.  It will conclude that despite an improved awareness of capabilities through increased technology and transparency, uncertainty about intent persisted; therefore consolidated accurate assessments of the threat remained elusive.  For brevity, this essay will touch only lightly on the vast technological collection improvements that occurred during the Cold War[6], and assumes that the reader has sufficient understanding of biases to render full descriptions of each unnecessary; references are provided should clarity be sought.

Soviet forces in the early Cold War – Assessing Soviet Conventional Capability

In the period 1947-1953, prior to Soviet force reductions[7], US intelligence agencies were directed to ‘appraise and reappraise the… capabilities of the Soviet Union.’[8]  These assessments of Soviet force levels were, in part, accurate.  After small initial overestimations, by 1948 a total of 175 Soviet divisions were assessed to exist, a figure since confirmed.[9]  The CIA was clear of the implications: ‘The USSR has the military capability of overrunning Europe… in a short period of time.’[10]

However, US intelligence struggled to grasp the nuances underlining this figure; attention had been ‘principally on numbers of divisions… rather than on actual manning.’[11]  Manning levels of these divisions varied from over 70% down to 10% according to, inter alia, readiness levels, location, and role.  The CIA did not recognise this variance until 1955; its total manning figures were therefore some way off the truth.[12]

There are a number of bias-driven reasons for these failures to obtain accurate intelligence on conventional Soviet force levels.  Firstly, cultural bias led to flawed directionPolitical focus was on the number of divisions; quantity makes for a better sound bite than quality, and second-order analysis was considered too complicated to explain to the public.  Secondly, history and structure forced organisational bias; US intelligence, configured for identifying German force levels, had not cultivated a Soviet-facing Human Intelligence (HUMINT) network, and was overly bureaucratic.[13]  Thirdly, ‘Self-interested Overestimation bias’ was at play.  To justify an increased military budget, and to build Congressional support for NATO, analysts stated greater Soviet capability than was evidenced; arguably this overestimation was a driver for the major assessment of the period, National Security Council report 68.[14]  Finally, cognitive biases, particularly Availability and Vivid bias, had an influence.  The horror of WW2 was still fresh in analysts’ minds, leading to ‘a tendency to “round” military estimates with a slant toward depicting a greater threat.’[15]  This confluence of biases created a Biased Overestimation, when ‘estimates of the capabilities [of an] adversary are… systematically adjusted upwards’[16]; this was clear to Rear Admiral Stevens, Naval Attaché to the US Embassy in Moscow:

‘The sum total of our estimates is not consistent with what I have experienced in Russia, and I believe that it comes from piling incorrect assumptions and inferences one on another.’[17]

But overestimation of enemy capabilities is not just due to incompetence; in deciding force levels required to meet a potential aggressor ‘the only sound policy is to estimate our own requirements to meet the worst situation likely to occur… The price of underestimation may be… national extinction.’[18]  It was understandable that analysts would err on the side of caution – this is Prudent Overestimation bias[19] – even if secondary impacts of this inaccuracy (e.g. misallocation of national resources, escalation of the security ladder, a security dilemma) could be severe.[20]

It is clear in hindsight where and how US capability estimates were influenced by bias.  However, the mitigating circumstances are understandable.  This was the US’ first real attempt at obtaining intelligence on Soviet capability; it achieved mixed success.


Part 2 is coming shortly, and will examine the biases and miscalculations prevalent during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For a quick (gripping) review of the one of the most important events in the history of the world watch this.


[1] Dobbs (2008), loc. 3879.

[2] Dr James S Cox, in Tyrell and Quiggin (2014).

[3] US Army (2013), p. I-6.

[4] John Foster Dulles, quoted in Rosendorf (2005), p. 73 (no original source given).  See Garthoff (1978) for the common fallacy of focusing only on capability, not intent (pp. 24-25).

[5] Heuer (1999), p. 111; Thompson, et al. (1984), p. 2-9.

[6] Herman (1996), chapter 4 provides a good overview.

[7] See Evangelista (1997).

[8] Leffler (1984), pp. 348-349.

[9] See Evangelista (1982), p. 114.

[10] CIA (1948), p. 2

[11] Garthoff (1990), p. 96.  Also see Schwartz (1983), pp. 17-18; Evangelista (1982), pp. 111-112.

[12] See CIA (1955), p. 51, table 2; CIA (1957), p. 29; Gaddis and Nitze (1980), p. 179; Garthoff (1990), p. 99.

[13] See Valero (2000).

[14] Evangelista (1982), pp. 135-156; Renshon (2009), pp. 124-125; Nitze (1950); Donovan and Ferrell (1996), ch. 15.

[15] Heuer (1999), pp. 147-152; Garthoff (1990), p. 104.

[16] Renshon (2009), p. 126.

[17] Rear Admiral Stevens, quoted in Joyce (1951).

[18] Lincoln (1952), pp. 440, 450.  Also Stevens, quoted in Joyce (1951): ‘The seriousness of an under-estimate is obvious.’

[19] See Renshon (2009), pp. 122-123.

[20] Freedman (1986); Jervis (1978).  Also see Garthoff (1978), pp. 22-24.

A full bibliography will be published at the end of Part 3.

Lawrence Freedman gets it

Lawrence Freedman was a significant influence on me when I was doing my Masters degree – and we are clearly absolutely aligned on the limitations of assuming that there are easy lessons to be taken from the military to the corporate world.  What this blog is trying to do is to demonstrate that the lessons should go both ways, and that the military should strive to learn from the private sector.

“(T)he differences between business and war are profound, which is why business should treat military metaphors with care – especially if they are taken too seriously, turning every conflict into some pitiless, zero-sum fight to the finish.” (From ‘Dead Generals are not always the best business advisors‘).

How can leaders develop resilience in their followers or teams?

I recently had to do a short essay on developing resilience in followers or teams – it is not particularly in line with the core purpose of this blog, but might be some useful food for thought nonetheless…


How can leaders develop resilience in their followers or teams?

Leaders have responsibility for people under them, or the output of these people; a follower is one of these people; and a team is a collection of followers which may or may not have additional levels of leadership within it.  “Resilience” is a quality that enables something or someone to return to the shape that it previously had after enduring a stressor or failure. Leaders are faced with multiple challenges, one of which is often setting the conditions that enable followers to be resilient enough to recover from failure. Two symbiotic elements must be established to enable this recovery: the right culture, and the right processes. Responsibility for this lies with the leader.

“Culture” is difficult to define – it is intangible, and metrics that indicate progress are largely subjective – but it is nevertheless driven by the leader.  He or she[1] must establish a culture where people are comfortable trying and failing.  Indeed, in some industries he should encourage “failing fast”, and this demands openness, honesty, and trust amongst followers and leaders.

The right culture must underpin the right process of learning, where failures and subsequent root-cause analysis – asking questions such as “Why did the failure happen?” and “So what?” – can enable the implementation of procedures that prevent the failure happening again; Syed’s Blackbox Thinking provides a good model.  Importantly, this Lessons-Learned event should be broadcast widely, and the leader himself should be exposed to it.

Implemented well a leader can use this tool to take his team beyond resilience, ideally stretching them until they are closer to Taleb’s Antifragile.  Resilience is admirable, but only brings people back to where they were. Robustness merely prevents challenges having any effect.  Antifragility acknowledges that some failures are beyond the control of an organisation – Clausewitzian friction does not simply exist on the battlefield – and allows followers and teams to be better positioned after a failure.

However, whilst there must be some degree of tolerating (and even encouraging) failure, there must also be some degree of removing the relentlessly fragile; those people that are unable to recover.  Not only is the judgement of where this balance lies a key role of the leader, responsibility for implementation of it lies with the leader. This is a real challenge; encouraging the right culture and enabling the aforementioned root-cause analysis while avoiding negative blame is ferociously difficult and demands buy-in from across the followers.  If done right, and if sufficient attempts to learn lessons and improve the resilience (or, even better, the antifragility) of a follower, have not borne fruit, then that individual may be better suited elsewhere.

This requirement is underpinned by the dichotomous challenge that a leader faces and must recognise – there is not necessarily alignment between resilience in followers and resilience in teams.  Although the two are not mutually exclusive, a team may become collectively more resilient by losing some people.  Goldman Sachs and GE are both examples of organisations that trim their bottom 10%; it is not a concept without precedence. If it feels uncomfortable, it should do.  Good leaders understand that the right decisions are often the hardest. However, by retaining a firm understanding of what the end state for the organisation is – and it could be anything from shareholder revenue to a happy and comfortable workforce – a leader is able to understand where the balance lies. By developing the right culture and process, and retaining this strategic vision, a leader can take his team and followers to resilience… and beyond.

[1] Henceforth simply “he” for simplicity.