British Joint Intelligence Committee’s Warning System

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), to put it simply, directs the various British intelligence agencies and aggregates the information collected in order to streamline intelligence gathering. Agencies included are MI5, MI6, and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), as well as Defence Intelligence. During the Cold War, JIC was responsible for developing strategy and contingency papers on what actions the Soviet Union might take in preparations for a surprise assault on NATO powers. This warning system, named “The Red List” (updated every few years during the Cold War), was an important element in the British government’s early warning syImagestem against Soviet aggression. Specifically, the points on the Red List were preparations the Soviet Union would most likely deem necessary to make before launching a preemptive strike on the West.

Words are lacking to describe the fear and anxiety at the time. One intelligence figure sheds some light on the sentiments at the time:

“It’s frightfully difficult now to put yourself in the context of 1962-1963. There was a very real feeling of threat. I remember just a few years earlier saying to my wife if it happens, where should we take our children–Chile or New Zealand? It was a well-justified worry. We’d had Berlin and Hungary, and Cuba was to come.” (Peter Hennessy, “The Secret State”, p.6, 2002)

Considering the sentiments at the time, the declassified Red List from 1962, reproduced below, gives some indication of what government officials were considering when reports of Soviet activity arrived on their desks. The indicators were in no particular order of priority:


1) Unusual flight activity or the lack of flight activity in the Long-Range Air Force which indicates a departure from normal peacetime operations.

2) The brining to an increased state of readiness of Soviet strategic missile units wherever they may be, including the movement of the missiles themselves into forward areas; the identification, outside fleet areas, of numbers of missile firing submarines, or, in time of tension, the absence of such submarines from local communication networks.

3) Unusually high state of readiness of all components of the Soviet air defence system, wherever located.

4) Sudden or unexplained redeployment and dispersal of Soviet ground forces, particularly in peripheral areas.

5) Sudden dispersal of naval ships from fleet bases.

6) Increased deployment of Soviet submarines in sea areas of interest to the Western Powers.

7) Dispersal of vital components of Soviet Government headquarters.

8) Redeployment of Soviet air force servicing units to, and build-up of aviation fuel stocks at or near, airfields in East Germany and the Satellites.

9) Issue of nuclear weapons to airfields where they are not normally stored, and issue of nuclear warheads to missile launching sites.

10) Provision of operational servicing facilities at suitable airfields in China to act as forward bases for Soviet medium and heavy bombers and the deployment of Soviet all-weather fighter units to protect these bases.

11) Arrival of Soviet army specialist units in forward areas (especially missile, medical and interrogation units) and military personnel wearing rocket insignia.

12) Redeployment or reinforcement of Soviet army units with a nuclear capability in forward areas.

13) Unusual deployment of missile guidance radar in the Soviet field armies.

14) Unusual signals activity, particularly is this suggests:

A) Increased central control of various components of Soviet strategic offensive.

B) Increased state of readiness throughout the armed forces. This could take the form of either an abnormally high, or an abnormally low, level of activity.

C) Disguise of preparatory measures.

D) A widespread and radical change of signal data.

15) Priority for Soviet military traffic, reduction of civil traffic on East German and Satellite railways, unusual concentrations of rolling stock, and the appearance of movement control staff.

16) Sharp increase in air transport flights between guided missile production factories, storage centres and known missile launch complexes.

17) Intensified security measures in the Soviet Union and Satellites. (source: PRO, CAB 158/45 Part I, JIC (62) 21.)

In effect, any sort of major change in the Soviet actions would be deemed a cause for increased attention. As I mentioned in my previous blog post about the intentions of Soviet leaders’ being incredibly opaque to British and American intelligence gatherers, the main source for determining their intentions was based on what was occurring on the front lines. Soviet_empire_1960However, I think it is important to point out that in these 17 points, the one that reoccurs the most is in regards to deployment of troops, weapons, or equipment. On the one hand, these are obviously reasons for concern if one’s adversary is suddenly deploying massive amounts of ships to areas one considers vital; on the other hand, however, an even more alarming situation is when one’s adversary is evacuating one’s government headquarters, which is only mentioned once.

The Red List, however, was not the only list of Soviet preparations that the UK government compiled. What became known as “The Amber List” was the list concerning important actions which UK officials thought the USSR would make if strategic surprise were not possible. (source: PRO, CAB 158/45 Part I, JIC (62) 21, “Indications of Sino-Soviet Bloc Preparations for Early War”, 26 Feb. 1962.)

These preparations included:


Common to All:

1) Bringing units up to wartime strength and readiness through:

A) Recall of reserve personnel.

B) Postponement of demobilisation of trained soldiers.

C) Cancellation of leave, confinement of troops at barracks, increase of security patrols in vital areas.

D) Reassignment to full military duty of those units employed on civil projects.

2) Redesignation of military districts or formations as fronts and/or their reinforcement by high-ranking officers.

3) Readying of combat headquarters of ground and air units and the setting up of Joint-Services or Operations Headquarters.

4) Increases in the number of high-ranking officers in Soviet and Chinese missions in bloc countries. [N.B. The UK at this time was still treating the USSR and China as one entity for global threat purposes despite the Sino-Soviet split).

5) Extension of military hospital accommodation at the expense of civil establishments and the formation of emergency stockpiles of medical equipment and drugs.

6) Abnormal censorship of forces mail.

7) Accelerated build0up of missile units.

8) Change in pattern of activities at missile test ranges.

Ground Forces:

9) Unusual reinforcing of the striking forces or the movement and concentration of troops to form a striking force.

10) Sudden or unexplained redeployment and dispersal of ground forces.

11) Assembly of airborne units in the vicinity of airfields on which transport planes are, or could be, concentrated.

12) The positioning of bridging equipment ready for use.

13) Building of bridges serving secondary routes.

14) Preparations for unusually large scale exercises involving Soviet Ground Forces being deployed into Satellite countries.

Air Forces:

15) Unusually high state of readiness of bloc air defences.

16) Bringing into use inactive landing strips and airfields. NMD-map-Joan-Johnson-Freese

17) Dispersal and concealment of military aircraft.

18) Increase in the strength of air units on active airfields and reinforcement of air armies on the periphery of the bloc.

19) Unusual activity suggesting an assembly of military and/or civil air transport aircraft and airborne forces.

20) Interference with civil and military flight in the Berlin air corridor and with civil flight over bloc-controlled territory.

21) Extension of military control of civil air movement and disruption of bloc civil air schedules. The withdrawal of civil transport aircraft for military use. 

22) Occupation by Chinese ground staff of North Vietnamese airfields.

23) Movement of bomber and fighter aircraft to airfields within striking distance of pro-Western countries.

24) Increase in aircraft delivery from Soviet Union to China.

25) Increase in POL [petrol, oil, and lubricant] supplies to China, North Korea, and North Vietnam.


26) Increased movement of small ships and submarines through the Soviet canal systems.

27) Reinforcement of naval air units; redeployment of Soviet naval units from their normal operating areas, particularly movements of submarines through the Sound or the Belts (Baltic) and from the Straights (Bosphorus).

28) Redeployment of submarine depot ships and support groups from the normal bases.

29) Significant changes in normal commercial maritime traffic. Recall of merchant ships or abnormal decrease of the number of those ships on the high seas.

30) Abnormal concentration in harbours of merchant ships or fishing vessels, adaptable for amphibious and supply operations.

31) Damaging of fixed Western anti-submarine detection systems, e.g. by cutting associated cables.

32) Deployment of Chinese North and Eastern fleet units to southern ports.

33) Abnormal concentration of junks and landing craft in southern Chinese ports.

34) The movement of Chinese naval staff officers into North Vietnamese ports.


35) Establishment of dumps in forward areas and increase of stocks, or sudden increases in military stockpiling near frontiers, communication centres, ports, and airfields.

36) Change in supplies and distribution to East Germany. Change from long-haul replenishment by rail to local issues from depots and supply points and to increased use of road transport, including the requisitioning of road transport, for military supply in the USSR and the Satellites.

37) Priority for Satellite military traffic, with consequent loss of traffic for civil purposes, and the appearance of movement control staff.

38) Assembly of rolling stock of all types for Satellite forces and particularly of specialised rolling stock in main supply areas and in distribution centres.

39) Increase in the number of hospital trains in service and preparation for service.

40) Unusual movement of special trains for transporting ballistic missiles and/or fuel.


41) Bringing to a state of readiness civil defence measures on a large scale such as initiation of black-out measures and announcement of evacuation.

42) Dispersal of government and administrative headquarters.


43) Transmission of jamming signals directed against radio communications, radar, and missile guidance systems.

44) Setting up of new communication links applicable to specific military operations.

45) The interruption of Western communications by the deliberate cutting of submarine cables.


46) Increased activity of security organisations.

47) Bans on visits to and scheduled flights over sensitive areas, and the forced evacuation of local inhabitants from those areas, when the latter are likely to include ballistic missile launching sites. (source: ibid).

One notable thing is how significant signals intelligence was towards gathering this information. Certainly, human intelligence was necessary for things like determining what types of military personnel are one bases, etc. But things like the movement of equipment and military traffic would be collected via electronic communications. At the same time, these lists directed the British government to notice any changes within Soviet operations as well as to assess the significance of those changes.

None of this was happening in a vacuum, however. That is to say, if Western powers noticed that their communications were systematically being cut and disrupted, their reaction would most likely have been to disrupt the Soviet communications as well. On the other hand, if something as significant as one’s communications being disrupted, one can see how a response to disrupt the adversary’s communications could quickly escalate. Overall, though, most government officials viewed any change in Soviet operations was bad news because for all they knew, it could be a precursor for total war.



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