How the Soviets Run Their Missile Program

Dec. 1, 1957
Amid all the headlines, one important aspect of the Soviet rocket, missile, and satellite achievements has so far remained unexplored—their research, development and production program, and organization. Unfortunately, not too much is known on this score, but for a better understanding of the Soviet posture and from the standpoint of the current reappraisal of our own missile program, it is worthwhile to examine what knowledge we do have of the Soviet organization and approach.

Toward that end, let’s look at the Russian past. As the Soviets rightly claim, as early as the turn of the century and continuing into the 1920s, and 1930s, Russian scientists Tsiolkovsky, Kondratiuk, and Tsander were engaged in serious theoretical research on rockets. Goddard in the United States and Oberth in Germany were similarly studying rocketry. During World War II the Soviets effectively used salvo rocket artillery. But in the Soviet Union—and the United States—the first serious military missile development program began only at the end of the war, and on the foundation of the German wartime effort. To their benefit, the Soviets obtained the major portion of the German missile and rocket facilities, completed ordnance, and scientific-engineering personnel, although the United States did get the services of about 160 of the leading German scientists and engineers and about 1,000 V-2 rockets.

The Soviets immediately began a restoration of the German facilities at Peenemunde and other centers, and a continuation of the German program. They also began secretly to organize entirely independent Soviet missile research institutes in the Soviet Union. In October 1946, several hundred German specialists were quite suddenly moved to locations in the Soviet Union. There they continued their work—but independently of the Soviet research institutes and design bureaus. During the period 1950 to 1952 most of them were relieved from work on missiles, and after a “cooling period” which varied from several months to several years almost all were returned to Germany. Many are now in West Germany.

This interesting and important aspect of the Soviet postwar approach not only benefited very greatly from what the Germans had done—and what they still continued to do—but also permitted the Russians to develop their own research staffs without becoming dependent upon the Germans, since the latter were not integrated into their program. Some specific problems faced by the Russians were cross-checked by being given to German groups, but on the whole the Germans were not permitted knowledge of the Soviet work.

Meanwhile, how was the Soviet program organized? The highest level decisions were and are taken by the Presidium (Politburo)—decisions on priority and allocation of tasks to the various working-level institutes and other agencies. Reporting to the Presidium are representatives of three ministries and one other “cabinet-level” organization: the Ministry of Defense, the ministry of Defense Production, the Ministry of Aviation Production, and the Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, it is not known whether there is a single coordinating chief at this level. Possibly a special “committee” of the Presidium guides this work; it is known that under Stalin there was such a Politburo committee, which included Malenkov.

The actual work on the research, development, and production of missiles and rockets is divided among institutes of the four ministerial-level bodies on a coordinated basis, without duplication. Within the Defense Ministry, Marshall of Artillery N.D. Yakovlev is believed to be responsible for over-all coordination of the various institutes. (at least in part directed by Chief Marshal of Artillery N.N. Voronov). Guided, cruise-type, air-breathing missiles, and air-to-rocket have been Air Force Administration responsibilities (in part under Col. Gen. of Aviation Engineering I.V. Markov).

In the Ministry of Defense Industry, under Col. Gen. D.F. Ustinov, and the Ministry of Aviation Industry, under Lt. Gen. P.V. Dement’ev, the developmental and production facilities are managed. Many of these are headed by professional military technical officers. The two ministers themselves are civilian managers who were given their high military ranks during the war.

The head of the Technical Sciences Section of the Academy of Sciences is Lt. Gen. of the Artillery Technical Services A.A. Blagonravov. Also under the Academy of Sciences is the Commission on Interplanetary Communications, which has responsibility for the space satellite and moon rocket programs. Such, then, as the “high command” of the Soviet missile and rocket program.

Reliable data on the lower working level organization is unfortunately incomplete. But there is no need for our present purpose to try outlining in detail the actual disposition of the Soviet research and testing facilities. German specialists now in the West who formerly worked for the Soviets have reported to the location of a number of R&D installations. Among those reported, some of the most important are the Scientific-Research Institutes (Nauchno-issledovatel’skii institut, or NII) of the ministries located at Ostashkov, Khimki, Kuibyshev, and Kaliningrad. Peenemunde also remains in operation. Of the actual test areas, aside from inconclusive but logical reports of Baltic and Arctic sites, it was recently revealed that a major test site is located at Kapustin-Yar near Stalingrad, and that this site had been under American long-range radar surveillance from Turkey since 1955. Doubtless there are other facilities.

It is clear that the organizational system of Soviet missile development is complex. But it also represents a coordinated effort geared to mobilize all the most competent military and civilian scientific talents for the over-all rocket, missile, and satellite program. The system avoids duplication. There are no competing service efforts to devise, for example, an antiaircraft missile or an IRBM, though of course different approaches are tried. Artillery, aviation, and industrial organizations all have important roles, but they are each assigned specific missions presumably according to their relative competence; these objectives complement one another rather than duplicate. And finally, the question of operational assignment for employment of the finished weapon systems (which we shall review presently) is decided entirely on other grounds. Thus, for example, aviation institutes develop rocket motors which are used in artillery-developed ballistic missiles.

With this organization, Soviet missiles progress has run like this: During the first three years—1946 to 1949—the main emphasis was apparently on perfecting and extending the range of the V-2. Other German missiles, especially surface-to-air, such as the Taifun, Rheintochter, and Wasserfall, were also further developed. Stalin personally is reported to have become very interested in a manned antipodal or “skip” bomber of super-long range with rocket or jet propulsion, and the German author of a plan for such an aircraft—Dr. Eugen Sänger—was unsuccessfully sought by the Soviets.

By 1949 the Soviets had developed an improved V-2 of 200- to 300-mile range, and they turned toward developing an IRBM. Experiments with guided cruise-type missiles and antipodal bombers continued but on a definitely lower priority than the short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. There was, of course, no extended interruption in their program such as there was in our own from 1947 to 1951.

By late 1953, the long-range ballistic rocket program had proved itself sufficiently for the Soviet leaders to be assured of ultimate success. Indeed, it would appear from published Soviet references that there was an exaggerated flush of expectation from December 1953 to March 1954. This was followed by a silence until the spring of 1955, which suggests that perhaps a more sober second look, or a hitch in the program during that year, had occurred. But again, in the spring of 1955, the air of confidence returned to the Soviet references.

The latter part of 1955 saw a second breakthrough. Large numbers of 800- to 900-mile “junior IRBMS” were successfully tested. By late 1956, the first 1,500- to 1,800-mile IRBMs have been tested. By mid-1957 the first ICBM test rockets were launched, and in August 1957 the Soviets startled much of the world with their announcement of a successful ICBM test, although it still is unclear if the range was as great as their anticipated requirement of 5,000 miles. More probably it was about 3,500 miles.

Meanwhile, the satellite program reached the stage of requiring the formation of the special Commission on Interplanetary Communications in about September 1954 (it was officially announced only in April 1955). The first and second Sputniks immediately followed the ICBM—and no one can be sure when the Soviets will launch the first rocket to the moon. Also importantly, if less spectacularly, the Soviets have been perfecting (and now have operational) both surface-to-air and air-to-air defensive missiles.

We have noted that the Soviet development program has integrated the work of various artillery, air force, scientific, and industrial institutes. What of the operational assignment of these various weapons

The Soviet military establishment, under the really unified Ministry of Defense, is divided into four forces headed by commanders in chief: (1) the ground forces, (2) the air forces, (3) the navy, and (4) the air defense command; and two other autonomous forces headed by commanders; (5) the long-range air force, and (6) the airborne forces. Thus, the air defense forces are not a “joint” air force and army command; they are a completely integrated and autonomous command composed of radar-warning personnel, antiaircraft artillerymen, and fighter-interceptor fliers of the air defense forces. The air defense artillerymen have conventional AAA and surface-to-air rockets and guided missiles; the interceptors have air-to-air missiles in their armament. The ground forces have in their field artillery rockets and missiles up to and including the junior IRBMs of 900 miles’ range. The navy has surface-to-air, air-to-surface, and submarine-mounted surface-to-surface missiles. The tactical air forces have air-to-air rockets.

One important question remains not fully answered: whether the long-range IRBM and the ICBM will be assigned to the ground forces’ rocket force. Most likely, the latter will be established. Probably a new “Strategic Striking Force” will be created, made up of two components: the present long-range air force (under a marshal of aviation) and the new long-range rocket force (under a marshal of artillery), with the whole command under a “marshal of the Soviet Union.” This would parallel the existing Air Defense Force, and continue the trend toward mission orientation of Soviet military organization.

The Soviet rocket and missile development program is largely managed by various military and industrial institutes closely coordinated in an integrated plan under the direction of the top political leadership. Operational subordination of the resulting missile systems is in terms of functional mission forces rather than traditional land, air, and sea “services.” While a closer inspection of the advantages and disadvantages of this system for our own forces might or might not lead us to judge it inferior to our own approach, it might on the other hand offer some valuable suggestions for improving our own programs.

About the Author Dr. Garthoff has written numerous articles on various aspects of Soviet military and political affairs, and is the author of the book Soviet Military Doctrine (Free Press, Ill., 1953). His views on Soviet approaches will be outlined in greater detail in his forthcoming book Soviet Strategy in the Nuclear Age, scheduled for publication next year. Long a student of the Soviet ideology in its military and political ramifications, he has lectured at the National, Air, and Army War Colleges. Dr. Garthoff spent seven years with the RAND Corporation, as a Soviet specialist.