Estimating when the Soviets could produce a nuclear weapon

by on January 17, 2010 at 8:22 am in Books, History | Permalink

Following up on Alex's post on Soviet economic growth forecasts, I was intrigued to read the 1940s estimates, emanating from the United States, about when the Soviets would obtain a nuclear weapon.  Leslie Groves — who knew something about building a bomb — testified in front of Congress that it would take them twenty years.  In 1948 many Kremlinologists were saying "five to ten years," when in fact the Soviets had a usable bomb in 1949.  In 1948 an engineer in Look magazine predicted the Soviets would get the bomb in 1954.  Many scientists predicted 1952 and some thought 1970.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff were predicted the mid- to late 1950s.  The Air Force was the one institution which got it right and remarks from Senator Arthur Vandenberg were close to the truth as well.

Groves was skeptical of the Soviet engineers, who did not turn out to cause delays and who regularly did very well with what they had to work with.  Other commentators did not realize that 40 percent of the world's known uranium reserves were within the Soviet Union, or that the Soviets could use German uranium quite well.

All this is from the truly excellent new book Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly, by Michael D. Gordin.  Here is one very accurate review of the book.

One question is what kind of ideological biases, if any, colored these forecasts.  Another question is whether today's estimates of Iranian production are any better.

1 Barkley Rosser January 17, 2010 at 9:03 am

I have not read the book, but it is my understanding that the “atom spies” basically helped the Soviets get one of the two technologies that were developed at Alamogordo, speeding up their having an effective bomb by at most six months. I forget if it was the Hiroshima tech or the Nagasaki (“fat boy”) one the spies got them, the latter reportedly what is going around between North Korea, Pakistan, et al.

Regarding Iran it is more likely that the error is the other way around, although it probably has less to do with ability than with desire or will. Lots of political commentators are heavily bought in to the argument that the Iranians are in a dead heat to get a weapon and will have one soon, so we should bomb, bomb, bomb very soon, or at least stand back and support the Israelis do so.

However, Juan Cole reports that the top intel guy at DOD, is someone named Burgess, is standing by the most recent NIE that says the Iranians do not have an active nuclear weapons program, although there will be strong political pressure on the next NIE to weaken that somewhat to say they are doing experiments that might be useful for such a program (if it were to exist). He also reports that a retiring Israeli intel chief says they are 7 years off and publicly rebuked the Israeli politicians whooping up an attack on Iran.

Something should continue to be kept in mind is that the supreme leader and Commander-in-Chief, Ali Khamenei, has a longstanding fatwa against nuclear weapons that has never been repudiated, not even by Ahmadinejad, although many think the latter has been gaining in power relative to Khamenei recently, and Khamenei is an old guy. Cole has previously said he thinks Iran would like to have a “breakout capability” to get a bomb relatively quickly if they ever felt that they needed to. This is probably going to be very hard to prevent, and bombing them may only push them to actually engaging in such a program.

2 Vessel January 17, 2010 at 10:07 am

I remember watching an interview with John Atanasoff ( ) – who among other things, created theAtanasoff–Berry Computer – a electronic calculator created in 1937-38 , which played a key role in the history of computing, by helping resolve the case.

In the mid 1940s he and his colleagues were commenting on how quickly the Russians would get the bomb – most of his colleagues put it to 20-30 years. He however amazed them with his estimate 5 years. His reasoning was they they would be much more effective and focused in their research , since they knew it *can* be done. This is the key thing in research be it purely for science or military.

In two years the Soviets had the bomb and it’s all history after this.

What I really like in this example however is how estimates based on historic information can be so wrong. I always recall it when I read about China becoming the biggest economy is 10 years or oil running out in 20.

One thing anyone using any scientific approach should know is that extrapolation is a very dirty word.

3 Adam Hyland January 17, 2010 at 10:58 am

Richard Rhode’s history of the hydrogen bomb, Dark Sun (an astounding book in its own right), covers extensively the Soviet spy network regarding both the Atomic and Hydrogen weapons. His narrative suggests that the Soviets were probably not 20 years behind but that espionage hastened those efforts considerably. If that espionage had not occurred, an estimate in 1948 of “five to ten years” might not be too off the mark.

4 Tori in DC January 17, 2010 at 11:10 am

The Soviet Union could do big things well — it was all the little things we needed to live — like tampons — they had problems with. See “How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed” Slavenka Drakulic on how the failure to produce a decent sanitary napkin signaled the end of Communism.

5 Tomasz Mazurek January 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm

These estimates generally stink of wishful thinking.

Especially disregard for Soviet engineers looks as based in ideology rather than facts. Soviet engineers were very well educated, perhaps even better then their US counterparts. Central planning did hurt the research when it comes to “paths less traveled by”, but once a direction has been confirmed as viable (and USA did just that with bombing of Japan) the same central planning was capable of putting enormous effort to it.

6 Tom T. January 17, 2010 at 1:12 pm

The points about the role of espionage are well taken, but it seems that they just reframe the question: Are we similarly underestimating the role of espionage in the building of the Iranian bomb?

Or to put it in somewhat more contemporary terms, are we underestimating the role of informational and technological transfer of nuclear science arising from the fall of the Soviet Union?

7 Mitchell Freedman January 17, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Tyler, please check the Smyth Report, which was the official report issued by the US government not long after the bombs over Japan were exploded. It said the Soviets would have a bomb in the next five years. They were one year off, and according to Hans Bethe and others, once the Soviet scientists learned it could be done, it would not take long to learn to do it themselves. This to me means the espionage angle is highly overrated, and leads me to my general thought about the futility of the cloak and dagger aspects of intelligence agencies across the globe and across history.

8 Joe January 17, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Vannevar Bush, director of the Manhattan Project, asserted that the Soviet Union would not have a nuclear weapon for some period of time. The assertion was removed when the Soviets successfully tested a weapon before publication. Forecasting is a fool’s game.

9 Minh Ly January 17, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Remarkably, one of the few people who correctly predicted when the Soviets would acquire the atomic bomb was Winston Churchill. In a November 7, 1945 speech to the House of Commons, Churchill said, regarding the US atomic monopoly: “How long, we may ask, is it likely that this advantage will rest with the United States? In the Debate on the Address, I hazarded the estimate that it would be three or four years. According to the best information I have been able to obtain, I see no reason to alter that estimate.”

10 E. Barandiaran January 17, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Just watching the game, and this moment we’re well ahead: 27 – 3. One more game and to the Super Bowl again. Also, exit polls confirm that Sebastián Piñera (Ph.D. Economics, Harvard) would have been elected Chile’s President.

In the meantime, for those too afraid of McCarthysm, a reminder of a question posed last September by Ron Rosenbaum and Glenn Reynolds’ answer:

RR: “Will the congressional intelligence committees demand to know how such a deliberately misleading report was being leaked and fed to the public by half-baked pundits even after (we now learn) they knew that some part of the ‘intelligence community’ knew — before the the NIE was issued — about the secret nuclear fuel facility we’re now reading about?†

GR: Yeah, that’ll happen. The purpose of the N.I.E. was to paralyze us until after the election. It succeeded.

Remember the definitions of
Enemy: one that is antagonistic to another; especially : one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent,
Traitor: one who betrays another’s trust or is false to an obligation or duty.

11 Chari January 17, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Intelligence on nuclear programs has historically been off by at least +/- 5-10 years across a range of cases (USSR, China, France, South Africa, Israel, Taiwan, N. Korea, India, Pakistan, etc.) as documented in Jeffrey Richelson’s ‘Spying on the Bomb’ (can’t embed link here for some reason, but it’s available on Amazon).


12 E. Barandiaran January 17, 2010 at 8:08 pm

For those with bad memory, please read this
And then tell me how do you prevent another 28 May 1998? It’s very difficult to prevent it but at least, while we try it, we should recognize who the enemies and traitors are.

13 Marian Kechlibar January 18, 2010 at 3:29 am

For me, Pakistani test is more horrifying, given the notorious political instability of the country. I trust India more, when it comes to WMDs.

14 JSK January 18, 2010 at 5:15 am

@Marian: India is not only ICT en biotech labs in Bangalore. They’re having a serious Maoist rebellion going on at the countryside.

15 Barkley Rosser January 18, 2010 at 9:30 am


This will be my last comment on this as you simply continue to repeat your worthless drivel about “enemies and traitors” in the face of contrary evidence. Your big piece of evidence is that the Qom facility was not specifically discussed in the publicly distributed version of the NIE. But it was known by our intel people, and it is not being used for any nuclear weapons program and was not then. There is a very good reason why our people did not publicly disclose that they knew it was there then. Doing so would have allowed the Iranians to know more about our intel capabilities to monitor them. Anyone pubicizing this information without authorization by the president would have been a traitor.

The Iranians under Ahmadinejad may be doing some research related to nuclear weapons, which may call for a modification of the NIE in the next round, but this is still not an active nuclear weapons program, and top figures in DOD intel and Israeli intel say this. There was no coverup; there were no errors. The people you are channeling are bullshit scamsters trying to generate phoney political hysteria. All the charges of “enemies and traitors” are pure neo-McCarthyism, and as I gather you are not an American, I would suggest that you shut the fuck up about such accusations. You are out of line and out of place. Worry about the “enemies and traitors” in your own country (Armenia perhaps?).

16 Vehical Driver January 18, 2010 at 10:22 am

Eventually, all countries will be nuclear powers, or at least have the technology to be nuclear powers. It may take 5 years here, 10 years there. Simply, once a country develops a certain level of industrialization and science, they will be able to build a bomb… and the ones who do can always share the technology with those who don’t.

So really, debating when Iran will develop nuclear weapons is pointless. Iran, like most other nations, will eventually have nuclear weapons (or at least the capacity to have them, if it so chooses). We might be able to slow down proliferation, but it will happen.

So given that we will be living in a world very soon where any country that so chooses can develop nuclear weapons, what do we do.

17 E. Barandiaran January 18, 2010 at 11:39 am

Neither hysteric nor Armenian. Just interested in preventing the Stalins, Maos and other criminals and their foolish intelectuals to control my life and the life of my relatives and friends. Just an Argentine living in Chile, after spending many years in the US, China and Spain, from Basque and Italian ancestors. Just very sorry about the US becoming a Banana Republic thanks to politicians and intelectuals that have spent their life in universities.
Also, very happy both with the Vikings moving to the NFC championship game and with my friend and former colleague Sebastián Piñera becoming President of Chile.

18 E. Barandiaran January 18, 2010 at 12:56 pm

And if anyone has any doubts that the US is becoming a Banana Republic, read these two posts by Jonathan H. Adler in The Volokh Conspiracy blog

19 Gene Callahan January 19, 2010 at 9:38 am

“Tyler, rather than to be concerned about the Soviet nuclear plans…”

E. Barindiranan, are you aware that the Soviet Union no longer exists, so that the Soviets have no “plans” of any sort?

20 Barkley Rosser January 19, 2010 at 1:29 pm


I said I would not post on this again, but I do wish to correct a factual misperception
you repeat, which is also deeply tied to the hysteria surrounding Iran’s programs. The
issue of enriching uranium depends on the level of enrichment. They have been enriching
at the lower level that is consistent with civilian nuclear power, not at the higher level
that is needed for nuclear weapons, and the IAEA is inspecting to make sure that they
continue to enrich only at the lower level, which they can do perfectly legally under the
NNPT that they are a signatory to. The fundamental reason the NIE was (and is) correct is
this basic fact about their enriching.
So, no, you are simply wrong that the Iranians “are months from turning the key” (and
they have no plutonium program at all). Again, an Israeli intel chief has just said they
are at best seven years off. Please do not buy into the hysterical propaganda being spewed
by ignorant (or malicious) people.

21 Peter Schaeffer January 19, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Adam Hyland’s reference to “Dark Sun” is well considered. The book has a great wealth of information about Soviet espionage and how much it helped their bomb project (a lot). However, the Soviets also had a wealth of open literature to use, notably the Smyth report (mentioned above).

By the way, the Chinese Kurchatov was Deng Jiaxian, who did get a PhD from Purdue was not expelled from the U.S. He left of his own free will 9 days after he got his degree (see You are probably thinking of Qian Xuesen who was not expelled either. He was a rocket scientist held under house arrest in the U.S. until he was traded for captured American pilots.

22 Doug1 January 26, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Accordingly the over estimation of how long it would take them to develop their own atomic bomb was really an underestimation of their penetration of the American nuclear effort by far leftists, most or even almost all of whom acting in a spying capacity were Jewish.

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