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PERSPECTIVE ON ARMS CONTROL : How We Got Oversold on Overkill : A government report pins our trillion-dollar defense buildup on 'experts' who misstated the Soviet menace.

July 23, 1993|ANNE H. CAHN | Anne H. Cahn, an arms-control official in the Carter Administration, is a visiting scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International Security Studies.

Here's one for the "so, what's new?" department: A recently released three-year study by the General Accounting Office concludes that in the l980s, military officials exaggerated the threat posed by Soviet weapons and defenses, as well as U.S. vulnerabilities to that threat, and (oh, my!) misinformed Congress about both to obtain the largest defense buildup in the nation's history.

To some cynics, hyperbole is to be expected when it comes to weapons systems. In fact, the Pentagon was only reaping in the Reagan era what had been sown a decade earlier. Ever since 1974, when Albert Wohlstetter, a professor at the University of Chicago, accused the Department of Defense of systematically underestimating Soviet missile deployments, conservative critics of detente had been conducting a concerted attack on the single most important government document upon which U.S. national security policy (as well as the defense budget) was based: the CIA's annual National Intelligence Estimate assessment of the Soviet threat.

In the mid-1970s, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB, pronounced Piffy-ab), home to such conservatives as William Casey, John Connally, Clare Booth Luce and Edward Teller, spearheaded the drive within the Ford Administration to counter the CIA's not-scary-enough view of the "evil empire." PFIAB's idea was to push for "an experiment in competitive-threat assessment." The notion was that outside "experts" should be given access to all the highly classified data used by the intelligence community in making its annual assessment of the Soviet threat; maybe they could come up with other (more pessimistic) projections. To differentiate these outsiders from the regular intelligence analysts who were preparing the yearly assessments, the non-government group became known as "Team B."

Then-CIA director William Colby rebuffed this idea in 1975. But 1976 was an election year, and Ford faced a strong challenge from the right wing of his party. One of the most influential sops to placate the far right was to give this "experiment" a try. By then, George Bush was CIA director, and he acquiesced.

There were, in fact, three "B" teams. One studied Soviet low-altitude air-defense capabilities, one examined Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile accuracy and one investigated Soviet strategic policy and objectives. It was this third team, chaired by Harvard professor Richard Pipes, that ultimately received considerable publicity and is commonly referred to as "Team B."

Team B, like its creators, was hard-line, and its reports shaped the architecture of the "window of vulnerability," which we now know was always boarded up. Team B accused the CIA ofconsistently underestimating the "intensity, scope and implicit threat" posed by the Soviet Union. Everywhere, Team B saw the worst case. It estimated that the Soviets' Backfire bomber would be produced "in substantial numbers, with perhaps 500 aircraft off the line by early l984." In fact, the Soviets had 235 in l984.

Team B regarded Soviet defenses with alarm, seeing significant ABM (anti-ballistic-missile) capability. According to the GAO: "The Soviet air defense threat, like the B-52's obsolescence, had been overestimated. Evaluation of the data over the period 1972-1991 showed this clearly with regard to both the number and the effectiveness of Soviet air defenses against existing U.S. bombers and their weapons."

Team B found the Soviet Union immune from Murphy's law. They examined ABM and directed-energy research and found both progressing, with efforts "of a magnitude that is difficult to overestimate." But overestimate they did. For instance, a facility touted by Gen. George Keegan, chief of Air Force Intelligence (and a Team B briefer), as a site for tests of Soviet CPB (charged-particle-beam) defenses, was used to test nuclear-powered rocket engines.

Team B's failure to find a Soviet nondetectable anti-submarine system was taken as evidence that there could well be one. The recent GAO report countered that such technology is not even on anyone's horizon.

But imaginary weaponry wasn't enough. In asserting that "Russian, and especially Soviet political and military theories are distinctly offensive in character," Team B claimed that "their ideal is the 'science of conquest' (nauka pobezhdat) formulated by the 18th-Century Russian Field Marshal A.V. Suvorov, in a treatise of the same name, which has been a standard text of imperial as well as Soviet military science." However, the correct translation of nauka pobezhdat is "the science of winning" or the "science of victory." All military strategists, including our own, strive for victory, but this is not commonly viewed as a policy of conquest.

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