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.

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