The Buzz

How the Pentagon Exaggerated Russia’s Cold War Super Weapons

Many, many years ago, I was in junior high school and was deeply nerdy about military matters. Information was hard to come by in those days before the Internet, and people like me were limited to what books and magazines were available at the time.

One day I went to my local federal building to look for a particular book. It was propaganda released by the Department of Defense. Although I was in high school, I was savvy enough to know it was propaganda; it was going to be something to read just like anything else. It was Soviet Military Power.

Soviet Military Power was an annual book released by the Pentagon that explained the alleged growth and technical abilities of the Soviet armed forces. It was also an attempt to justify Pres. Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup by presenting the Pentagon’s version of the U.S.-Soviet military rivalry.

That narrative was, “We’re outnumbered, we’re outgunned, and they’re catching up on our technological lead.” It was a call to action.

Soviet Military Power was — for the most part — a carefully thought out piece of propaganda. It painted the knowable in the most aggressive manner, and the unknowable as unknowable, but unknowable in the worst possible way. Nearly 30 years later, we examine it as a cultural and historical artifact, to see if some of its more fantastical claims were true.

Nuclear Attack:

The title of Soviet Military Power’s chapter on nuclear weapons is not “Strategic Nuclear Warfare” or “Strategic Nuclear Defense,” but the aggressively loaded “Forces for Nuclear Attack.” The chapter introduction states that Soviet strategic policy had three overarching wartime missions:

- eliminate Western nuclear capabilities and related supporting facilities;

- seize and occupy vital areas on the Eurasian landmass; and

- defend the Soviet states against attack.

The first two missions sound downright scary if you accept the narrative that the purpose of Soviet nukes is to attack. The order of the third mission is obviously no accident — the Soviet Union’s “Forces for Nuclear Attack” sound a lot less menacing if the first reason they have them is to defend the Soviet Union. It’s Soviet Military Power’s most Strangelovian moment.

Another curious aspect of the book is something the Soviets themselves inadvertently contributed to: when comparing everything from submarines to main battle tanks, there are almost always far more of the Soviet type than the American. For example, there are 10 types of Soviet long-range nuclear missiles listed, from the older SS-11 to the brand-new (at the time) SS-25. Against that are only four American missiles, from Titan II to the new MX.

The illusion was that the Soviets were constantly coming up with new types on an aggressive schedule, but the reality was that many of the types had serious shortcomings and the Soviets were diversifying their portfolio. These shortcomings were serious enough, it would be foolish for the Soviets to base their long-range nuclear forces on a single design. Designs like the SS-16 long-range mobile nuke were considered technical failures, but the Soviets would keep them in service.

Soviet Military Power could have explained all of this, but chose not to.

Big Lasers: 

One of the most obvious examples of a pitch job is Chapter III: “Strategic and Space Defense Programs.”

The chapter is a rundown of Soviet advances in anti-missile defense and military space programs. At the time, the Pentagon was beginning to spend huge sums of money on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Derided by its critics as “Star Wars,” SDI envisioned using space and ground-based lasers to shoot down incoming Soviet nuclear missiles. Not surprisingly, Soviet Military Powerhad a few things to say about the state of similar Soviet programs in progress.

Soviet Military Power made ominous predictions about Soviet lasers, lasers powerful enough to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles, or disable satellites in orbit.

On page 44, it predicted that, “The strategic defense laser is probably in at least prototype stage of development and could be operational by the late 1980s.” On the same page, it said of anti-satellite lasers, “in the late 1980s, (the Soviet Union) could have prototype space-based laser weapons for use against satellites.” It went on to imply that there were working anti-satellite lasers at the Soviet research complex at Sary Shagan.

In 1989, as the Cold War was winding down, a team of Americans including physicists and a member of the House Armed Services Committee traveled to Sary Shagan. Of the three lasers at the facility, the most powerful was only able to generate a two-kilowatt beam — about as much as a sunbeam.

“It seems to me it pretty clearly is not a power laser and doesn’t represent any threat as a weapon,” said Rep. Jim Olin, a former electrical engineer for General Electric who toured the facility.