President Kennedy in the White House during a televised press conference

The Cuban missile crisis and the superpower tech race

Fifty years ago the US and USSR averted a nuclear clash during the Cuban missile crisis; but the emergency had profound repercussions for each nation's computing and communications industries.

The Cuban missile crisis of 16-28 October 1962 was a pivotal point in the Cold War. The close brush with nuclear conflict changed both the nature of the stand-off, the economic and technological strategies behind it, and even the way they used technology to communicate. The Cold War was originally a military stand-off, but it became an economic and technical race.

Behind the historic headlines, though, there is another aspect to the confrontation. A number of technological achievements and aspirations had a bearing on the outcome of the crisis; and the crisis itself influenced the technological development of the superpowers in subsequent decades, particularly in the areas of computing and communications. Understanding these aspects is to understand how the Cuban missile crisis links directly with the collapse of the Soviet empire from 1989.

In 1953 the Soviet Union emerged from its nightmarish period under the murderous premier Josef Stalin. Its new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sought an accommodation with the West; but his personality and the limitations of the Soviet system derailed his hopes and within a few years he took the protagonists to the brink of nuclear war.

When he was appointed Communist Party first secretary in September 1953, Khrushchev appreciated that the USSR lagged behind the West economically and technically, as well as militarily. But he believed that the socialist system, relieved of Stalin's destructive urges, would catch up and overtake the capitalist societies.

He wanted to work with the West, but Khrushchev also believed that the USSR had succeeded in bullying them with nuclear threats, first in 1956 over Suez, and then again in 1961 over Berlin. The younger, inexperienced, US President-elect, John F Kennedy, was seen as something of a pushover. Also, Khrushchev was sympathetic to the cause of third-world 'liberation', especially in Cuba. Unlike his predecessor, he had a revolutionary romantic streak.

These factors led Khrushchev to action a foolhardy strategic plan - to base medium- and long-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads on the Communist island of Cuba. Blindspots in US intelligence analysis meant that deployment was well under way before the Americans realised what might be happening. The belated US reaction was to threaten armed military confrontation if consignments of additional missiles weren't halted and the existing missiles not removed.

Khrushchev and Kennedy were determined to avoid a nuclear war, and strived to find a way back without appearing to the world to lose face. However, it still took several days before the prospect of conflict was off the critical agenda - when dysfunctional communications, political misjudgment, military gung-ho or sheer accident could easily have triggered nuclear Armageddon. Post-Cuba, the two sides made much greater effort to manage the Cold War and minimise the possibility of a similarly hazardous confrontation arising.

The story of what could be termed the ICT technology race between the two opposing superpowers starts before the missile crisis, with the efforts of the USSR to catch up the West after the Second World War. In 1945, USSR production of electronics was insignificant. By 1955 it was the second largest producer in the world after the US. In America there'was also'concern about a 'missile gap', with the US thought to be lagging well behind the USSR - and Khrushchev worsened the fear by talking about producing missiles like 'sausages'.

From this point of view the Soviet threat to US economic and technological pre- eminence looked real enough, even if the truth was that the Russians lagged well behind the Americans at this point.

In May 1961, Khrushchev gave approval for'a newly-founded city some 37km from Moscow. Called Zelenograd, it would be furnished with housing, schools, cinemas, and sports centres - all aimed at providing an attractive life for the tens of thousands of workers who would be needed to accelerate production of electronics and computers in the USSR. According to historian Steven Usdin, it would be modelled on America's Bell Labs, but some hundred times larger. Zelenograd would surpass anything existing or contemplated in the West up to that date.

The task for the new organisation, Micron, was to design and develop the Soviet Union's own integrated circuits. Until then, all Soviet computers were built using vacuum tubes - the US was already using transistorised computers. The USSR's first large computer for processing economic data, the ERA, launched in 1961, and used 3,500 valves.

This had important consequences for the arms race as small computing devices were becoming critical to key areas such as missile aiming and control, on-board radar and missile defence systems. The Soviet leaders hoped that small computers could be developed for controlling cruise missiles.

Transistorised computers

The USSR's first transistorised computer, the UM-1, appeared in early 1962. Khrushchev visited Micron, where his interest focused more on the tiny transistorised radio he was presented with. While he appreciated the strategic significance of microelectronics, his imagination got ahead of itself in thinking that the technology gap was about to be closed.

Around this time Khrushchev made the fateful decision to base missiles at multiple sites in Cuba. Khrushchev 'blinked' at the start of the crisis when Kennedy imposed a naval blockade. He ordered Russian ships carrying warheads to turn around. The Soviet Union presented the volte-face as a victory, but it had suffered public humiliation, even though in return the US had had to agree to concessions about the siting of missiles in Turkish bases, it later emerged. Nonetheless, within two years Khrushchev was ousted.

However, with the changeover of Politbureau membership there would be even more focus put on the technology race. Mutually-assured destruction kept the world's great powers away from direct conflict, but the emphasis stayed on boosting Soviet performance in microelectronics and computing. Their importance to Cold War military operations grew as weaponry became increasingly dependent on electronics and computing technology.

In 1963 the CIA tracked a significant increase in Soviet imports of electronics. This was designed to supply the needs of civilian uses in the USSR and allow the concentration of most internal resources to remain dedicated to military needs. On- board systems for weapons and aircraft would remain based on Soviet designed systems - an old take on the practice of concentrating on core activities and outsourcing the less important ones.

Despite support from the central planning system, the USSR never came close to the US and instead the gap between the two widened. By 1966 the CIA reckoned that the overall gap in computing technology was five years. Even by then there were no 'disclosed' Soviet computers based on integrated circuits. In the 'free world', however, advanced computers were becoming a commonplace of commercial life, and burgeoning computer and communications industries were patenting regular breakthrough innovations.

Six years later the CIA reported"The USSR is running hard, but so far futilely, to catch up with the United States in the field of integrated circuits". It managed only 4 per cent of US output, estimates suggested, and was reckoned to be five-to-ten years behind in production technology; which is to say, even if its most advanced technology could have achieved parity with that of the Americans, it would have been unable to bring it to market in sufficient quantities.

Despite central direction, organisations stuck rigidly to output targets at the cost of quality, and did not integrate components into efficient systems. Political influence and infighting mattered more than technological innovation, it seems.

By 1989 the CIA calculated the gap equated to five to seven years for microcomputers, eight to 12 years for array processors, and a highly significant 12 to 17 years for disk storage.

The disk problems were critical to real-time military and civil applications and meant that even when the computers were equivalent to western versions, they could still not be used for similar applications. Quality was a major issue. The 'mean time to failure' for computers was around 300 hours - compared to 20,000 hours in the West.

The CIA concluded that "the Soviet bureaucracy will find it difficult, despite Mikhail Gorbachev's modernisation program, to take the necessary steps to correct many of the computer industry's well-recognized problems". According to some historians Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union simply could not catch up with the West which led him to conclude that the socialist economy had outlived its time.

Additional reporting by James Hayes.

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