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As the Soviet Union edged toward economic reform in the latter 1980s, optimistic officials expected tremendous benefits to issue from reducing secrecy in the military R&D establishment and from re-channeling that establishment's expertise to benefit the civilian economy. A statistical analysis reveals that indeed the Soviet defense-industrial complex created several hundred thousand secret inventions; yet, the earlier hopes that unwinding the secrecy imposed on these inventions and their sponsoring institutions would unleash broader economic development went largely unfulfilled.
This study asserts that the large numbers of registered secret inventions stemmed from the perverse incentives of plan indicators and often represented largely trivial technological developments. Officials' hopes in the late 1980s mistook these large numbers for an indication of widespread technological prowess in the defense industries. While individual areas of technological excellence existed, they were evidently not as widespread as imagined.
No information has yet been published on the extent of secrecy in the Soviet military R&D sector, nor on the extent of the post-Soviet relaxation of secrecy. The present study fills this void and answers related questions by examining historically one aspect of secret Soviet military technologies, viz. secret inventions.
Inventions, registered as inventors' certificates, were an important and standardized part of the planned economy's management of new technologies, and they present an unusual vantage point for addressing quantitatively the above-mentioned secrecy issues and such additional questions as: Is the past level of Soviet secrecy accurately understood today, or does much of the information about it still remain secret? What might explain any continuing secrecy imposed on large numbers of older inventions? Does the Russian Federation reestablishment of legal protection for secret inventions in 2003 represent a break with the Soviet past or does it continue to be influenced by Soviet-era thinking?
In 1936 the Committee for Inventing, which was responsible for overseeing all inventions, non-secret and secret, was abolished. The Committee's management of secret inventions was transferred to the military. From this time on the central registration of secret Soviet inventions took place in two parallel systems: a military one that handled highly-classified military and national security-related inventions; a civilian one that handled lower classified inventions, including many dubbed "for official use" (dlya sluzhebnogo pol'zovaniya- DSP).
An analysis of the application number ranges reserved for highly-classified military and national security-related inventions estimates that by 1967 over 10,000 secret inventors' certificate applications were recorded annually at the Ministry of Defense (MO); by 1987 the annual totals reached almost 30,000. These applications are estimated to have resulted in about 17,000-22,000 secret inventors' certificate grants annually toward the end of the 1980s. In contrast, new U.S. secrecy orders numbered in the mid to low hundreds each year, and British secret patents were also estimated to total only in the hundreds. Official data on MO invention secrecy remain unpublished.
When viewed cumulatively, after adjusting for annual declassifications, the extent of remaining secrecy is striking. By the end of 2007, only 4,233 inventions registered by the MO since 1959 had been published and almost 330,000 remained secret. In comparison, only 5,002 U.S. secrecy orders remained in effect at the end of 2007 at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The Soviet Union not only instituted massive secrecy over its invention information, but this secrecy has remained in place for much longer periods than usually occurred in other countries.
The State Committee for Inventions and Discoveries also processed unpublished inventions (secret and DSP) and listed their certificate numbers in the official invention publication as "not publishable" (ne publikuyetsya) or "not subject to publication" (ne podlezhit publikatsii - NSTP).
A detailed examination of 1977 inventors' certificates originally designated by one of the two above categories reveals that some of them remained unpublished for only brief periods. Their publication was evidently delayed to permit a formal vetting by outside organizations that oversaw the production of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or the manufacture of secure communications equipment.
Most NSTP inventions however, still remain unpublished -- almost 82 percent of those granted in 1977. NSTP inventions rose almost constantly as a share of total state committee-granted inventors' certificates, from about 2 to 4 percent of all grants in the early 1960s to peak at about 35 percent of all grants in 1988. By 1993 the cumulative total reached more than 375,000 inventions, or about one-fifth of all state committee grants during that period. One Russian report states that about four-fifths of the unpublished state committee inventions are DSP, and the other one-fifth, secret.
The combined total number of secret inventions from the MO and State Committee for Inventions and Discoveries illustrates the Soviet Union's extreme secrecy policies. As noted above, most Soviet secret inventions remain unpublished, many of them well beyond the formal 30-year classification limit. What might this continuing secrecy mean?
At the onset of central planning Soviet officials sought indicators to promote the use of new technologies. Inventions became one such plan indicator. Central planning, however, had a way of corrupting its indicators, whereby the indicator targets became more important than what they aimed to promote. Registering more inventions became more important than implementing new technologies. Projects were vaunted for their number of inventions, not just their performance. Invention - finding a new thing - became inextricably confused with innovation - getting a new thing done. This Soviet confusion occasionally echoes in current Russian innovation discussions.
Prolonged secrecy may relate to national security issues; yet, it hardly seems likely that such concerns are the principal impediment to declassification. A more reasonable explanation for the continued secrecy of many older Soviet inventions probably relates to their technological triviality. Many inventions were created simply to satisfy plan targets. Clever patent attorneys working together with compliant patent examiners could register many inventions with insignificant inventive steps. Criticisms of current Russian patent examination practices raised this issue and perhaps reveal the persistence of older Soviet habits. Technological triviality would also mean that the benefits to the economy from declassification are likely less than the costs of declassification.
A preponderance of trivial secret inventions might put into perspective the dashed hopes for a technological reform of the civilian economy led by the Soviet military-industrial complex. The tens of thousands of secret inventions likely presented an exaggerated picture of Soviet technological accomplishments. Some Russians occasionally cite the greater numbers of Soviet inventions as a sign of a decline in current Russian technological prowess, accepting at face value these inflated Soviet numbers. Continued classification would seem to prove them wrong.
The 2003 reintroduction of legal protection for secret inventions seems a step backward, perhaps taken without a full knowledge of the Soviet past. Most foreign governments postpone the examination of invention applications they wish to keep secret. Once secrecy is no longer needed, the examination continues and a resulting patent will be published. This approach reflects the understanding that patents are just part of technological innovation. Russian legislators considered this approach, but they rejected it. They chose to award secret patents. This choice and the institutional arrangements to carry it out appear heavily influenced by earlier Soviet thinking that inventions were ends in themselves. Curiously, the goal of stimulating innovation, a major rationale for patent protection, was largely absent the Russian legislative discussions on secret patents.
It's too early to tell if Russia's new secret patent system will mushroom in size or if it will be abused for narrow administrative purposes. The legislative discussants showed no awareness of statistical information on the extent of invention secrecy within the Soviet MO. The new law continues past Soviet secrecy practices by forbidding the publication of any information, including summary statistics, on secret patents. In so doing, the new law prevents open checks on excessive secrecy.
As noted by several specialists, the estimated costs of the new Russian secret patent system, especially if it grows beyond a modest level, will be significant and largely borne by the state budget. These estimates omit any future costs of declassification. The present law declares that any patent application citing secret inventors' certificates as prior art should itself be secret, yet another possible source for expanded secrecy. The recent history of excessive Soviet invention secrecy, with all of its inefficiencies and costs, should make Russian officials cautious as they implement the new system.
Click here for brief biographies of military inventors and references to their declassified inventions listed in the author's database.