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.

<i> 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. </i>

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.

For Team B, it wasn’t a question of whether the Russians were coming. They were here. (And probably working at the CIA!) Although the Team B reports were highly classified, as was the annual threat assessment, conservatives kept up a steady cry of alarm about the Soviet menace. The Committee on the Present Danger was formed in March, 1976, to alert the public about the “growing danger.” Its founding statement, “Common Sense and the Common Danger,” asserted that “the principal threat to our nation, to world peace and to the cause of human freedom is the Soviet drive for dominance based upon an unparalleled military buildup. . . . The Soviet Union has not altered its long-held goal of a world dominated from a single center--Moscow.” If this sounded similar to the conclusions of Team B, it was hardly surprising. Team B members Paul Nitze, Richard Pipes and William Van Cleave all had leading roles in the Committee on the Present Danger.

Asked to comment on the GAO study, Caspar W. Weinberger, secretary of defense from 1981 to 1987, said, “Yes, we used a worst-case analysis. You should always use a worst-case analysis in this business. You can’t afford to be wrong. In the end, we won the Cold War, and if we won by too much, if it was overkill, so be it.”

In our zeal to meet this oversold overkill, we undertook a trillion-dollar military buildup. As a result, we neglected our schools and cities, our health-care system, our roads and bridges and parks. From the world’s greatest creditor nation, we became the greatest debtor--all to defend against a nation that was even then collapsing.