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Intercept 1961: The Birth of Soviet Missile Defense

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Intercept 1961: The Birth of Soviet Missile Defense by Mike Gruntman. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2015, 309 pp.

In Intercept 1961: The Birth of Soviet Missile Defense, Dr. Mike Gruntman adds important historical context to the ongoing debate about nuclear weapons and countering ballistic missiles. These discourses in the United States focus largely on North Korea and Iran and the viability, cost, and necessity of mid-course interceptors. Yet conspicuously absent from the discussions are the Cold War relics ringing Moscow, the Russian Federation's nuclear-tipped missiles pointing toward the sky, poised to defeat incoming American warheads. Gruntman's work explicates the national effort that led to this posture in an informative look at the evolution of the Soviet Union's missile defense from its days as an offshoot of Stalin-era air defense to a robust, strategic defense system that remains operational to this day.

Gruntman pulls the curtain back to expose the inner workings of the Soviet polity as it pertains to strategic defense, reminding the reader of the paranoia, simultaneously altruistic and pessimistic ideology, and structural dysfunction of the system put in place by Stalin and the institutional momentum of that polity which continued after his death. The author details the embryonic beginnings, with the Soviets using their own experts and technology as well as those "borrowed" from the vanquished Germans and ends the story with the Soviets' completion of the first reliable operational system in 1961. The catalyst for the effort was surprising: Soviet generals recognized the coercive and destructive capacity of ballistic missiles even before the Americans were able to field them but felt compelled to wait until Stalin's death to propose that missile defense be placed among the top priorities of the growing military-industrial complex. The government of Khrushchev listened.

The scale of the resultant Soviet effort was staggering; the resources put into strategic defense speak volumes of the fear felt by the Soviets (or fear engineered to support domestic compliance). Gruntman illuminates the scale by exposing the colonizing of the Soviet southern frontiers with cities built for the test range personnel, as well as the massive expansion of the various, relevant bureaucratic arms in Moscow. The author also points out that the expenditures for strategic defense at times were roughly equal to those expenses for strategic attack! Just as staggering was the dysfunction of the Soviet leaders that helped and hindered the programs. Gruntman reminds the reader of the inevitable competition between Soviet bureaucratic functions that were assembled by the Soviet government for similar purposes; he binds the story together by describing the tenuous relationships between the capable yet egoistical program leaders and their Communist Party bosses in order to secure power, funding, and sometimes their own survival. Gruntman seamlessly switches between the Moscow bureaucracy and the distant test ranges to show how the efforts of the former influenced the latter and how quickly the overall program was put to use.

This book is a treasure for scholars of Soviet history and comparative politics as well as historians and practitioners of rocketry, radar, and space operations. The author provides a rich, descriptive historical narrative indicative of an intellectual passion and firsthand information (and it was a delight to see some of his citations were authors/contributors sharing the same last name as his own). He finds the right balance between technical details, state decision-making, and the lives and decisions of individual participants in this story. He does not overwhelm the reader with excessive recitation of physical facts, nor does he leave the descriptions as merely explorations of the human condition. Rather, he uses appropriate measures of each; the quantitative and qualitative are used to enrich each other. For readers interested, he provides adequate detail for easily accessible additional research; for example, coupling the descriptions in his book with a virtual tour of Moscow and Kazakhstan via Internet satellite imagery was an enjoyable exercise in Cold War history for this reviewer.

However, international relations specialists will be left wanting, and more attention to the motivations of Soviet leaders would have helped contextualize the narrative; informative references to actions of the fledgling NATO alliance that may have engendered a Soviet response, and vice versa, would have been valuable (although it must be mentioned that Gruntman warns his readers up front that the geopolitical wrangling of the superpowers are intentionally left out). He does include an informative appendix on preceding and contemporary American efforts, but its segregation is detrimental to the story. Certainly there is a balance to be found in a work of this type, but the question of why the Soviets acted in the way they did is not really answered. Because the author opens the door by addressing U-2 overflights and the employment of antiaircraft and anti-missile missiles, more time exploring what necessitated those actions was appropriate.

Similarly, Gruntman provided some very informative, enjoyable sidebars (such as his elucidation of Soviets addressing a person as citizen instead of comrade when the latter was subject to investigation or imprisonment) but left out some other, necessary explanations; this reviewer read Gruntman's work with access to search engines and online reference sources to better flesh out the narrative desired by the author, such as his invocation of the American Navajo missile as a tool for comparison, which he left poorly described. Interestingly, he does include a Russian pronunciation guide for terms relevant to his work, which may be useful to some readers (and he takes great effort at explaining the various Soviet agencies and their corresponding acronyms).

Intercept 1961 is an enjoyable, informative read, both by itself and as a part of a tour of either Cold War technology or Cold War politics. It cannot stand alone in either Cold War application, but its rich historical narrative will be immeasurably useful for students and scholars seeking to build their holistic understanding of that period. Further, it reminds the reader that the current American midcourse defense system is simply the latest exercise in a continual effort at reducing the threat of ballistic missiles. Gruntman's work changes the discourse by offering vastly more detail than arguments found in the popular press or scholarly articles of today.

Lt Col Jasin Cooley, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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