INTERVIEW WITH SIDNEY GRAYBEAL - 29.1.98
INTERVIEWER: One zero nine five six, interview with Mr. Sidney Graybeal...
INTERVIEWER: I'm going to ask you this general question to start off with, Mr. Graybeal. It really applies I suppose as much as anything else... it could apply to your early days, you know, rather than sort of towards the end of your career, but I mean answer it as you see fit and it is to try and tell us what you thought the Cold War was all about or what your place in it was. How did you see the Cold War?
SIDNEY GRAYBEAL: I think the Cold War was a significant event in US history in the sense that the Soviet Union was the only nation in the world that could actually wipe out the United States with strategic offensive missile programs, in particular, and other programs that they were working on. So the importance of the Cold War was we had to assure that US strategic forces maintained sufficient equality and strength to be able to ride out a Soviet first strike and have sufficient forces to then survive and penetrate the Soviet defenses. So this generated strategic stability. The problem in the Cold War was that both sides tend to do worse case analysis and that means you over-estimate the other side's capabilities so that you try to build up your capabilities to match that and of course they're looking at you, so you have a step ladder approach. But the Cold War was extremely important for US survival and unless we maintained a secure deterrent force which would preclude the Soviets from launching any attack, 'cos they knew they would be wiped out in a retaliatory force. So that was essentially the strategic military part of the Cold War. There is a separate whole area of political and economic, other than the military, but I'm dealing strictly with the military side and mainly the ballistic missile programs.
INT: And did... as a matter of interest, did you people ever think that... I mean, did you often think that there was a reality to the possibility of nuclear war - and again, that's not to encourage you to talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but if you like more generally - did you know you was it something that did occur from time to time or...?
SG: There were people who really were worried that the US was gonna be wiped out and the Soviet Union be wiped out and essentially in the later phases of the Cold War, there is sufficient strategic forces on the two sides that had there been a nuclear exchange, the whole northern hemisphere is going to suffer from fallout. So a lot of people worried about that. I personally was not worried about the likelihood of a nuclear exchange between the Soviets and the US, because one, the Soviets had rational leaders. They are not going to make irrational decisions. You worry about an accidental missile launch - there were one or two - but you must have some means of assuring that those accidents do not generate an all out nuclear exchange. And this was part of the reason that we established the hot line in 1963, during the Cold War, to assure communications. Now there were areas where the geese were misunderstood to be a Soviet air force and few of these things, but those situations never really, in my view, brought us up to the point where either side was seriously considering launching a nuclear attack on the other side. So I was personally never really worried about a nuclear exchange.
INT: And tell us about your own job. What was your own job?
SG: Well, I went to work with CIA in early 1950 as an analyst in the guided missile branch and there were three of us in that branch and there are probably three thousand today working on missile programs. so my career in CIA involved missile analysis. I became chief of the Missile and Space Division during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and then I was asked to go down the State Department to work on arms control. So after fifteen years in CIA, I went down to State Department for twelve years, got involved in the negotiations for the SALT 1 talks, the ABM Treaty and after twelve years there, I was asked by George Bush, the Director of CIA, to return to CIA. I did. I ran the office of Strategic Research for four years, then I retired from the Agency, went to work for private industry and I'm still involved in national security areas, primarily involved with ballistic missiles, ABM Treaty, things of that nature.
INT: In the early days - and let's stick for the moment to the period before the Cuban Missile Crisis - I want you to tell me in slighter greater detail what your job actually consisted of, what did you do, what were you concerns, what were you looking at the enemy camp?
SG: Well, in the fifties, the early fifties, we had very little firm information on the Soviet missile program. We knew the Soviets had exploited the German missile program, so we spent considerable effort in understanding the German ballistic missile program. If we understood that, we would know the base line from which the Soviets were starting their ballistic missile program. There was one source that the British had which indicated where the Soviet test range was, in an area called Kapustinya. So we started focusing in on looking at the communications intelligence involved around Kapustinya and the communications intelligence would suggest that the Soviets were engaged in a countdown for the launching of a ballistic missile, but we couldn't prove this. So we established a radar in Turkey and this radar was able to look across the range and when a ballistic missile raised high enough to intersect with the radar beams we detected it. Once we detected a ballistic missile firing, we could equate that to the communications intelligence and then that told us how many missiles had been fired, so we were going to get an appreciation for the scope of their ballistic missile program. Now these were short-range missiles, these were missiles up to a thousand, fifteen hundred miles range. These were not ICBMs, 'cos that was a different test range. But it gave us a foundation to understand the Soviet ballistic missile experience factor, which became very important later on. So this was essentially the type of intelligence we had until the U-2 started flying and when the U-2 started flying in '56 and then it was focused on the missile program in the '57 to '59 time frame, we were targeting the U-2 flights, first on the test ranges so we could understand the characteristics of the missiles and the launchers which we could compare with our communications intelligence and our telemetry information and once you got the signature of a launcher, then that signature you could use to look for operation deployment. So the U-2 was being targeted in the '57/'59 period looking for ICBM deployment and we were focusing primarily on rail lines and rail spurs, because the road system was so poor in the Soviet Union and these ICBMs were so large, they would have to be transported by rail. And in fact the U-2, when it was shot down with Gary Powers, was in fact running the rail lines looking for ICBM deployments. This was of course the period when the estimates on what are the Soviet ICBM threat and the so-called gap that... as it was being generated in the late fifties.
INT: Let me... you said a whole lot of things, so I'd really quite like to break some of that down. firstly,... let me be quite clear about the U-2 program and as I understand what you're saying is in effect you're trying, amongst other things, to map, if you like, the Soviet Union from the point of view of missiles. You want to know where things are and you... is that right, in order to watch to see... and you had to use photographic as well as human intelligence and communication systems. Now can you just explain that for, remember, for a lay audience who doesn't necessarily understand these things.
SG: Well, there was limited human intelligence about the missile deployments in the Soviet Union. There were some communications intelligence which would suggest that this facility or this town may be involved in missile activities, because of communications with known missile sites. But what we were missing was any firm, hard evidence of actual deployment of missiles. So the U-2 had - from a ballistic missile standpoint - had two primary purposes in the early days. One, we wanted coverage of the missile test ranges, particularly Kapustinya, short-range missiles and Tyulpan which was a test range for their ICBMs. So if we got coverage, we could then see the test sites that were used, we could identify the characteristic of those and that would give us some feel for the missiles and the missile deployment. The second purpose was to actually determine how many ICBMs do the Soviets have deployed as a function of time. So we were using the U-2 to try to find and identify ICBM deployment sites. It did not identify any ICBM deployment sites. We were looking for them on the time that it was shot down. Now in hindsight it turns out the only deployed ICBMs were six launchers at another test range, known as Plesetsk, which we had identified in communication intelligence, but did not have a good coverage of it because it far further north.
INT: Now, I'd really like you to explain to me about the missile gap, because this is an interesting area, isn't it, for the CIA, an interesting area where, if you like, intelligence meets politics.
INT: Um, and I'd like you to explain to us really as simply and directly - and you're doing very well at the moment - as possible and tell us about the missile gap and what it meant and your part, as it were, in trying to close that gap, if you understand me.
SG: Well, you remember that Sputnik, the Soviet space shot, went up in October 1957. We were able to identify both space launches and ICBM launches which were taking place from Tyulpan and some of them from Plesetsk, so the question then was what was the capabilities of the Soviets for deploying ICBMs. So, before - and it's important - before we had satellite photography, we were basing our estimates of Soviet ICBM deployment capabilities based on capabilities rather than hard information and sometimes you tend to over-estimate capabilities and we knew the Soviets had a tremendous ballistic missile experience factor, both from exploiting the German program and from their testing of the shorter range missiles, so our estimates were based on what their capabilities were and, since you tend to do worse case analysis in order to protect US security, those early estimates over-estimated the Soviet ICBM capabilities as we learned later when we got photography from satellites which then covered the Soviet Union. But the estimates that created the missile gap were the best estimates the intelligence community could come up with, based on the capabilities of the Soviet Union to produce and deploy ICBMs. Now, a side light on this is that the intelligence community was not in complete agreement. The air force was over-estimating the higher estimates and this is for good reason. The air force would like to get more money for their ballistic missile program. So if... my view is if you're going to work in intelligence, you should work in CIA, Central Intelligence Agency, because CIA puts its intelligence as an end item and not as a means to an end, which other intelligence organizations do. So, when we were doing those estimates, the air force figures were high, the army figures were down here, lower, and the CIA and State and others were in the middle, but we came with an estimate which clearly indicated that there was a missile gap. Now you cannot blame President Kennedy for capitalizing on this, because these were hard facts, I mean hard estimates, but the estimates were based on capabilities rather than hard facts. Then, when Eisenhower came in, what we had... I mean when Kennedy came into office, after Eisenhower, we got the satellite photography. Once satellite photography over the Soviet Union, the deployment didn't exist. The only deployment were six launchers up at Plesetsk, therefore the missile gap disappeared, but too many people blamed Kennedy for using the missile gap to get elected, when he was actually basing the gap on the best intelligence available at the time.
INT: So let me get this absolutely straight. Up until the satellite photography, the U-2s did not pin it down.
SG: The U-2 was looking for that, but it was shot down on May and that particularly run was flying up the rail lines looking for deployment. But the U-2 did not give us any hard facts on ballistic missile deployment.
INT: Right. Now are you going... Sorry, I'm going to put you a question which allows you to tell us what did. in... can you explain the role of satellites in the debate of the missile gap?
SG: Well, the satellite photography did not come in to coverage of the Soviet Union until after the missile gap and Kennedy was in his office, when we really were getting sufficient coverage of the Soviet Union in order to come up with firm estimates that the deployment really did not exist to the extent we had estimated earlier. See, satellites cover the earth every ninety minutes and with the exception of cloud cover, we were able to get photography over most of the Soviet Union, particularly the rail lines and we were not worried about the northern part of the Soviet Union, where the permafrost, because you can't deploy ICBMs in permafrost, they will sink out of site. So, with the satellite photography essentially removed the missile gap.
INT: I think I'd like you to do that again, it was good, but I'd like you to explain the role of the satellites in closing the missile gap, of giving you the hard information you needed and in doing so, to explain - and you can do slightly fuller, I think - that the satellites saw more than the planes did and that they could see the railway lines and the spurs and that's where the bases were and in fact they were only doing that in one base with just six missiles on it. I mean, I think, just complete... you see what I mean?
SG: Yes. The U-2 is an airplane with limited capabilities. It's high altitude and long-range, but it cannot cover all of the Soviet Union, so each U-2 mission we would have to plot and part of my job was to give the targets where the U-2s should fly, looking for those areas where communications intelligence suggested there might be missile activity, plus following the rail lines looking if there's a special rail spur that goes off into the woods or someplace, this would be suspect. So we were using the U-2 to look for possible missile deployment, but the U-2's capabilities were very limited in terms of where it could fly, how far it could go, how much it could cover. Its photography was excellent for what it covered. Now we needed to look for all of the Soviet Union and to cover all the rail lines. In order to do this the satellite became much more effective in the sense that it would cover the Soviet Union periodically and, with the exception of cloud cover, but even with cloud cover, you would be able to wait the next turn when the cloud would move, so the satellite photography gave us the coverage we needed to come up with very solid estimates that the Soviet ICBM deployment was not near as extensive as people had expected it to be when were estimating on the basis of capabilities to deploy, rather than hard facts as to what was deployed and the satellite provided hard facts as to what was or was not deployed in the ICBM program.
INT: Right. I'm now going to go into the back end of that again, 'cos I'm a difficult customer and I'd like you to explain - you explained the U-2 then brilliantly - and I'd like you to go back over the satellite, 'cos again, it's important for the audience and you said something earlier on which I think is very interesting, which is they come round every ninety minutes.
SG: Well, the move fifteen degrees to...
INT: OK, but it's an interesting thing that. Instead of some poor guy having to fly an airplane for ten hours or something in order to pass once over the place, the...
INT: But what I'd like you to do is to explain how satellites revolutionized your understanding of what was on the ground in the Soviet Union and in doing so, I also like the fact - as well as you saying that it goes over every ninety minutes and it's got this broad band that it's looking at and it shifts across the Soviet Union - also to refer to - and I wouldn't worry about the cloud cover too much, I mean, I don't think that's too important - I think it's very telling that in the end what it discovers is that there are just six ICBMs sitting in one place, that actually there isn't anything else there. That's right, isn't it, have I understood that properly?
SG: The satellites...
INT: [Interrupts] OK, let's start you off then.
SG: Right. Well, a satellite flying at a hundred twenty, hundred fifty miles altitude goes around the earth approximately every ninety minutes. Its camera has a swath that it can cover on the ground on each revolution, but one revolution will be... then it will be moved and the next revolution will be over a few degrees, so by this continuous coverage of the satellite in orbit, you eventually cover most of the Soviet Union and in doing this, you're able to then look at the rail lines and the other activities and the suspect sites where you thought there might have been deployment and you get photographic coverage and there is nothing there. So the satellite essentially permitted the intelligence community to say, we have now reviewed sufficiently the Soviet Union, that there appears to be no really significant ICBM deployments other than a very limited small deployment of the first generation ICBM at a test range called Plesetsk.