Bringing the Soviet military-industrial complex to life

By David E. Hoffman | September 17, 2009

In Moscow on July 27, 1989, at the offices of the Central Committee, a group of high-level officials gathered in the office of Lev Zaikov, the Soviet Politburo member who oversaw the country’s military-industrial complex. Sixteen people in addition to Zaikov came to the session, a Politburo “commission” that included Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and Chief of the General Staff Mikhail Moiseev.

The first item on the agenda: “About measures for modernizing the organization of work on special problems.” The term special problems was a euphemism for biological weapons. Yuri Kalinin, the head of Biopreparat, the massive and secret Soviet biological weapons organization, reported to the group.

The Soviet Union had signed on to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), but the treaty had no formal enforcement mechanism, and in defiance of it, the Soviet Union had secretly developed new pathogens and built germ weapon production facilities while at the same time claiming it was in compliance with the BWC.

The officials in Zaikov’s office were worried. A new treaty was being drafted in Geneva that would eliminate chemical weapons, and, unlike the BWC, it had real enforcement mechanisms: mandatory on-site challenge inspections. What’s more, Shevardnadze previously had announced Soviet support for such inspections in the spirit of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost. With serious verification measures on the horizon, the officials realized the illicit Biopreparat facilities could be at risk of discovery. They grappled with what to do. “There will be a convention in a year’s time–any enterprise will be under verification,” warned Shevardnadze. Although notes from the meeting are fragmentary, some kind of discussion took place about cleaning up certain facilities to show inspectors, while destroying documents and covering up the illegal work. Zaikov appeared impatient, wondering if it could be done sooner than Kalinin initially had suggested.

The meeting notes offer a rare glimpse at the thinking and tactics of Soviet officials behind closed doors. The discussion suggests the threat of intrusive verification was taken seriously by the same group of men who had violated the weak BWC. The officials feared the prospect of foreign inspectors roaming around and picking out places for mandatory challenge inspections. The notes tend to support the account offered by Ken Alibek, the former Biopreparat official who described the cover-up of the germ warfare program in his 1999 memoir, Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World. The officials didn’t rush to close down their program after the July 27 meeting, but they were attentive to the prospect of being exposed by a tough verification regime.

The notes from this meeting are just one small sample of documents in a large cache of materials now coming to light about the Soviet military-industrial complex, arms control, and weapons decisions. The materials were assembled, and in some cases written by, Vitaly Katayev, one of Zaikov’s two deputies. Katayev attended the meeting that day, made the notes, and preserved the agenda, a brief post-meeting memo, and the attendance sheet.

An aviation and rocket designer by training, Katayev had been transferred in 1974 from the missile complex in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, to the Central Committee staff in Moscow. In this position, he had a front-row seat on many of the most important debates of the late 1970s and the 1980s.

His archive may be as significant as the ones revealed in earlier years by Vasili Mitrokhin (in KGB, Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions, and Next Stop Execution and Oleg Gordievsky (in The Mitrokhin Archive and The World Was Going Our Way). The Katayev documents aren’t comprehensive or systematic–and in some cases they’re fragmentary or in draft form–but they offer new insights into the private deliberations in Moscow that have long been obscured by secrecy and propaganda. For nearly two decades, Katayev kept handwritten journals, entering meticulous, highly technical data in them about warheads, missiles, arms control negotiations, the military-industrial complex, and other matters. He also collected thousands of pages of documents and later wrote several papers that summed up what he had seen.

Katayev was a staff man who had a good feel for the way the Soviet military-industrial complex worked–including the influential role of the design bureaus and factory chiefs. He also realized the superpower arms race had become a competition of enormous overkill. As he toured the archipelago of factories, bases, and institutes under his supervision, Katayev found excess everywhere; missiles were built because the design bureaus and factories needed to keep production lines open, not because the military wanted them.

He recalled meeting with the directors of two factories building submarine-launched missiles. When he suggested they were wasting money manufacturing weapons no one would use, the factory bosses objected. “The order for missiles is given, it is included in the plan, funds are given, and so we make them,” Katayev recalled of their response to his protest. “And the way these missiles are used by the military–this is not our problem.”

Precise and careful, Katayev loved lists, charts, and drawings; they fill his notebooks and files. He saw in his own records proof that missile production was excessive. He implored Zaikov: The Soviets had far more missiles than the country needed and missile overproduction wasn’t increasing the security of the country. Rather, in the case of the SS-20 “Pioneer” intermediate-range missiles in Europe, it had led to a “dangerous, strategic dead end.” But Katayev knew that his conclusion wasn’t shared by either the generals or the missile designers.

His records also shed light on how the Soviet leadership responded to President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)–one of the most interesting chapters of the end of the Cold War.

Just after Gorbachev took office in the spring and early summer of 1985, the notebooks show, the directors, designers, and constructors of satellites, space boosters, radars, and lasers produced a colossal new plan for Gorbachev’s approval to build their own version of SDI. According to Katayev’s notebooks and papers, there were two major umbrella programs, each of which included a sprawling array of separate projects ranging from fundamental exploratory research to building equipment ready for flight tests. Katayev calculated that altogether the programs would have involved 137 projects in the design and testing phase, 34 projects in the scientific research phase, and 115 in fundamental science. Cost estimates ran into the tens of billions of rubles, enough to keep the design bureaus working full tilt into the late 1980s.

Given obscure code names such as Fundament-4, Integral-3, Onega E, Spiral, Saturn, Kontakt, Echelon, and Skif, Katayev’s descriptions of the programs went on for pages. For all the imposing scope and cost, the grand package concealed deep cracks in the system. Some of the programs, started years earlier, lacked results or purpose, or were starved for resources. Some of them were nearly abandoned or obsolete, hoping for a rebirth. In the end, the Soviet “Star Wars” never reached fruition.

As Soviet officials debated how to deal with Reagan, some of them argued for an asymmetric response–for example, by boosting the number of missiles and warheads significantly and overwhelming the missile defense shield. The Soviet Union was good at missiles, and it would be easier and cheaper to double or triple the missile warheads than to build an entirely new defense against them. This approach was largely hypothetical, but not entirely. Katayev recalled that the latest version of the SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile carried 10 warheads. This was the biggest, most feared multiple-warhead weapon in the Soviet arsenal. But if the missile’s range was shortened somewhat, and the warheads made smaller, he wrote, the SS-18 could actually be modified to carry “up to 40 nuclear warheads. . . . One missile alone!”

In a separate, more precise chart in his files, Katayev noted the modified SS-18 could carry 38 warheads. At the time, the Soviet Union deployed 308 of these missiles. If they were modified, the fleet would go from 2,464 warheads to a total of 12,084. But this, too, was overkill, and Gorbachev didn’t attempt to do carry this plan out.

Thanks to Katayev’s notebooks, we have a new and fascinating window into an area that has rarely been seen before: the inside workings of the Soviet leadership on defense, arms control, and the military-industrial complex, much of it during the tumultuous years of Gorbachev’s revolution.

Editor’s note: Katayev died in 2001, and his papers are now deposited at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University.

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