The Missile Gap
The Missile Gap was in essence a growing perception in the West, especially in the USA, that the Soviet Union was quickly developing an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) capability earlier, in greater numbers, and with far more capability than that of the United States. Even as that perception was disproved, it became evident that the Soviets were placing their major effort toward developing strategic missiles against which, once launched, there was no defense. The perceived missile gap that ensued was based on a comparison between US ICBM strength as then programmed, and reasonable, although erroneous estimates of prospective Soviet ICBM strength that were generally accepted.
In the mid-1950s the US faced the first real challenge since World War II to its strategic superiority over any nation on earth. First it seemed that the Soviet Union was challenging us by producing and deploying a large strategic bomber force. Then, even as that perception was disproved, it became evident that the Soviets were placing their major effort toward developing strategic missiles against which, once launched, there was no defense.
As the Eisenhower Administration strove to formulate policy to address the new circumstances, the Intelligence Community provided no clear picture of the scale, rate of production or breadth of deployment of Soviet missiles. The perceived missile gap that ensued was based on a comparison between US ICBM strength as then programmed, and reasonable, although erroneous estimates of prospective Soviet ICBM strength that were generally accepted by responsible officials.
The “missile gap” was in essence a growing perception in the West, especially in the USA, that the Soviet Union was quickly developing an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) capability earlier, in greater numbers, and with far more capability than that of the United States. Although there were several ingredients in the US perception (actually a misperception), the principal ones were: effective Soviet secrecy; limited intelligence collection; biased analysis; Soviet deceptive announcements, and the actual Soviet success in testing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. All of them were justified concerns.
Starting in January 1957, Soviet statements in general—and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR Khrushchev in particular—clearly distorted the facts of Soviet development, creating the false impression that Soviet ICBM development, production, and deployment were far more advanced than was true. Yet, the Soviet propaganda found a receptive US audience. The Wizards of Armageddon by Fred Kaplan relates that the US response was driven by self-interests that ranged from encouraging support for a greater military budget or share thereof, to urging support for a more aggressive foreign policy within the Eisenhower administration, to political support for opponents of the administration.
Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations struggled to formulate policy in response to what was then believed to be an ever-growing advantage in Soviet strategic missiles. Breakthroughs in technology and innovative use of aerial and satellite photography eventually provided the CIA with a more accurate assessment of Soviet missile capacity, allowing policy makers to shift gears.
The attempt to collect intelligence on the Soviets began with an initial period of poor collection capabilities and consequent limited analysis. With few well-placed human sources inside the Soviet Union, it was only with the CIA’s development of, what can only be called, timely technological wizardry — the U-2 aircraft and Corona Satellite reconnaissance program — that breakthroughs occurred in gaining valuable, game-changing intelligence. Coupled with the innovative use of aerial and satellite photography and other technical collection programs, the efforts began to produce solid, national intelligence.
In 1960, the CORONA satellites 3 began providing low resolution, broad area coverage of the USSR. By the summer of 1961, new intelligence estimates dramatically reduced the projections of Soviet ICBM deployment. Not only was the technical penetration of the Soviet missile program successful, but the clandestine service had developed an inside source. Colonel Oleg Penkovskiy, with access at the upper levels of the Ministry of Defense. In 1961, Penkovskiy reported senior Soviet generals believed that the initial Soviet version of an intercontinental range missile was unsuccessful and Khrushchev’s boastings about it were mere chest-thumping bluffs. By the end of 1962 the veil of total secrecy maintained by the Soviet Union had begun to wear thin.
Although a clandestine report from Soviet Colonel Oleg Penkovskiy indicated in the spring of 1961 that Khrushchev had been carrying out a massive deception and only a very small number of ICBMs were operational, it was not until later in the summer that the true reduced status of the Soviet ICBM program became clear. The change in the National Intelligence Estimates of Soviet ICBM operational force levels between the June 1961 estimate and the September edition12 reflected the now clearer picture of actual ICBM deployment in the USSR. As late as mid-1963, in the Kennedy Administration, the full picture of what happened about the missile gap was still being investigated.
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