In 1983 we came closer to nuclear war than we knew: A cautionary tale
When communications break down between nuclear powers
13 minute read
This is the second part of a series. Part one is here.
Psyops to stir Soviet paranoia
From the time Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, the U.S. conducted psychological warfare operations against the Soviets. A later declassified National Security Administration history said, “these actions were calculated to induce paranoia, and they did.”
In August 1981, under the cover of a hurricane, the U.S. Navy snuck a fleet into the Arctic north of the Kola Peninsula, the U-shaped bulge that juts out opposite of Scandinavia. Previously, the Navy had not gone farther than the northern tip of Norway. Then the fleet revealed itself by launching carrier aircraft to buzz Soviet reconnaissance planes, “sending the Soviet military into a panic,” writes Mark Ambinder in The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983, one of several recent histories of what might be the Cold War’s closest brush with nuclear holocaust. At a time when tensions between the U.S. and Russia are at a peak not even seen in the Cold War, the 1983 war scare is a cautionary tale of the risks incurred when communications between nuclear powers breaks down.
The Navy again caught the Soviets off guard when in April 1983 it sent a fleet of 40 ships including 3 aircraft carriers close to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the North Pacific. Even more alarming to them was an overflight of a Soviet naval training base by a plane from one of the carriers. It was apparently the first U.S. overflight over Soviet territory with a warplane rather than reconnaissance aircraft. The U.S. was also conducting many other flights close to Soviet borders to test their air defenses.
“These aggressions and vulnerabilities alarmed Soviet leadership to an extreme never seen during the Cold War,” writes Nate Jones in Able Archer 83: The Secret NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War, another of the recent accounts of the 1983 war scare. He quotes the NSA history, “Soviet concern for border security had escalated into a paranoid intensity.” Soviet leader Yuri Andropov reacted by ordering Soviet aircraft to “shoot-to-kill” any plane that invaded national airspace.
When Korean Air Lines flight 007 inadvertently wandered over the Soviet far east Sept. 1, 1983, it was mistaken for a spy plane that had crossed its flight path earlier. Following Andropov’s order, a Soviet fighter plane sent KAL 007 plummeting into the ocean, killing all 229 on board. The act was instantly denounced across the west. Reagan called it a “barbaric . . . crime against humanity.”
“In exaggerating the Soviet perfidiousness, the president had unwittingly contributed to the sense of siege that Yuri Andropov felt during the final few months of his life,” Ambinder recounts.
Andropov is quoted in the third recent history of the 1983 crisis, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, by Taylor Downing. “If anyone had any illusions about the possibility of an evolution for the better in the policy of the present American administration recent events have dispelled them completely.”
“It was absolutely clear that in the eyes of the Kremlin, relations with America were at an all-time low, and that they believed the hostile administration of Ronald Reagan capable of almost anything,” Downing writes.
Moving toward a dangerous ‘red line’
KAL 007 came at the worst possible moment, days before NATO was to begin a series of military exercises that were in many ways unprecedented and contributed to Andropov’s fears that the U.S. was preparing a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union. Andropov, among Soviet leaders, was the one who most firmly believed this. The Soviets had concluded from their own exercises that overwhelming advantage in a nuclear war would go to the side that struck first, eliminating most of the other side’s capability to retaliate.
Before he succeeded former leader Leonid Brezhnev, Andropov as KGB chief had in 1981 ordered RYaN, the Russian acronym for nuclear missile strike. Soviet intelligence across the world was instructed to track hundreds of first strike preparation indicators, from movements of military forces and political leaders to blood drives. Operatives responsive to their superiors tended to produce information that confirmed the fears of the latter. (The story is told in more detail in the first part of this series.)
Andropov’s war fears quickly came to the surface when Reagan sent Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during World War II, to meet with the Soviet leader in June 1983. Reagan was playing a paradoxical game, both pushing on the Soviets, yet also seeking negotiations to limit nuclear armaments. “Andropov opened by saying that ‘there are indeed grounds for alarm.’ He bemoaned the harsh anti-Soviet tone of the president . . ,” Jones writes. Mentioning nuclear war 4 times in the opening statement, he added words that sound ominously similar to the current conflict. “ . . . the current administration . . . may be moving toward a dangerous ‘red line.’”
Soviet fears were amplified by the deployment of Pershing 2 and cruise missiles to Europe. The missiles were intended to counter the Soviet’s own intermediate range rocket, the SS-20. Resonant with the background of today’s crisis, they worried that a decapitation strike on leadership by missiles only a few minutes flight time from Moscow would cripple the ability to retaliate. By the time the fall exercises began, cruise missile deployments had already started. In mid-October, anticipating the arrival of the far faster Pershings and wondering if they had already secretly arrived, the Soviets upgraded their global alert status.
Simulating nuclear war: Able Archer 83
The NATO exercise that was to most trigger Soviet fears was Able Archer. Repeated every year since 1975, it was meant to test how well nuclear launch command and control systems were working. The November 1983 exercise simulated escalation to nuclear conflict following the outbreak of a conventional war in Europe. The Soviets feared Able Archer was a pretext for the real thing. They had conducted their own exercise earlier in the year envisioning a first strike to preempt an expected U.S. strike. Coming up on Able Archer 83, they had plenty of signs to confirm their fears.
Able Archer was the capstone of a series of exercises involving 40,000 NATO troops that began in September, beginning with Reforger. That was an airlift which transported around 19,000 troops with their equipment to Germany in 170 radio-silent flights during the early days of September. The goal was to move them in 7-9 days, an effort at a scale which had never been fully attempted before. For the first time since World War II, troops were also deployed to The Netherlands. The unprecedented nature of the troop movements certainly attracted Soviet attention.
In the midst of the NATO exercises two events took place which caused responses which were misinterpreted by the Soviets as war preparations. On Oct. 23, a bombing at the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon killed 241. That resulted in a global alert at U.S. military bases. Then on Oct. 25, the U.S. invaded Grenada to overthrow a leftist government. The country was a member of the British Commonwealth, but British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had not been alerted. She would chew Reagan out about it. The invasion also generated an increased level of encrypted traffic between the U.S. and U.K. which to the Soviets also seemed a prelude to war.
In another move that set off alarm bells in the Kremlin, a flight of nuclear-capable B-52s arrived in Europe. Through intelligence sources, “They learned the B-52s would participate (in the Able Archer) exercise for the first time, guided by an echelon of observers from the Strategic Air Command,” Ambinder writes. The Soviets believed that previous Able Archers had only modeled use of battlefield tactical nukes. The Soviets thought the bombers’ presence escalated the exercise to simulating or perhaps actually delivering strategic nuclear weapons. Though the actual 1983 exercises had the bombers dropping conventional munitions, “The B-52 presence meant one thing to the Soviets: nuclear strikes.”
The B-52s conducted refueling exercises over Europe, seemingly ready to cross the line to attack the Soviet Union. Aggravating Soviet fears further, a C-130 flew across East Germany to divided Berlin sending out signals that spoofed the profile of a B-52.
“Thoroughly white hot”
The Soviets had another reason to fear Able Archer was a cover for a first strike. They believed that such an event would occur during a national holiday, when people were celebrating and letting their guard down. The early days of November were the celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution, the triumph of the Soviet Communist Party. Just as Able Archer was ready to get underway, Politburo member Grigory Romanov on Nov. 5 made a speech commemorating the revolution.
“During the speech,” Jones writes, “Romanov declared that ‘perhaps never before in the postwar decades has the atmosphere in the world been as tense as it is now.’ ‘Comrades,’ he went on to say, ‘the international situation is at present white hot, thoroughly white hot.’”
The day after, NATO exercises began in earnest. Starting Nov. 6 three days of conventional warfare were modeled. Troops began maneuvers in central Germany’s Fulda Gap, the place where a Soviet invasion was thought most likely. Then on Nov. 8, NATO command simulated a request to the U.S. president and British prime minister to release nuclear weapons. Though this was a command post exercise, real actions would have been visible to the Soviets. Dummy bombs were loaded onto planes. On the second day of conventional operations, which included a chemical war scenario, troops put on protective gear. Nuclear delivery systems were dispersed in woods near their bases.
“Bu November 7, it would be clear to an observer that Able Archer 83 was not just a paper exercise,” Ambinder writes.
Other unusual aspects of the exercise would also show up as RYaN attack metrics. A goal of the 1983 Able Archer was to test new nuclear release procedures and codes, which might have seemed to the Soviets as first strike indicators. Periods of radio silence were also a sign for which the Soviets were looking. The exercise modeled all Defcon alert stages up to general alert. Also potentially alarming the Soviets was the move of NATO command from its permanent headquarters to an alternative command bunker.
On Nov. 8 and 9, flash telegrams went out from KGB headquarters to intelligence stations throughout Western Europe. Flash indicated that immediate attention was required. At the London embassy, high level KGB operative Oleg Gordievsky knew by the stir around the communications room something was up. In his long career, a flash telegram was a new thing.
Gordievsky was also a double agent for British intelligence who would later fully defect to the west. Jones recounts how he later wrote that the flash messages indicated KGB headquarters believed it was possible “that the countdown to a nuclear first strike had actually begun.” Gordievsky himself was skeptical. But he took copies of the telegrams to share with his handlers. They would later play a crucial role in causing western leaders to understand what they did not during Able Archer, that the Soviets were seriously afraid the west was ready to unleash its nuclear arsenals.
Soviets go on combat alert
The Soviets were taking a range of steps to prepare, some of which the west was noticing, but was not interpreting as readying for a strike:
The number of surveillance flights over Europe increased to at least 36.
From Nov. 4-10, all Soviet aircraft except surveillance planes were grounded. The CIA thought it was to let crews celebrate the Bolshevik Revolution, even though previous groundings had been in anticipation of a possible attack.
Satellite reconnaissance did indicate many MIG-23 fighters were on alert, sitting on airstrips in East Germany and Czechoslovakia ready to take off in a moment.
Many Tupolev TU-22M bombers in East Germany were fueled and loaded with nuclear weapons, ready to take off in 15 minutes.
Air defense radars that usually ran only intermittently ran constantly.
Submarines were being put out to sea.
Half of SS-20 mobile launchers were dispersed from their bases, while the usual portion was 10%.
Regular troop rotations were delayed.
Use of army trucks in the harvest, a standard procedure, was halted.
Lieutenant General Leonard Perroots, who ran the U.S. Air Force intelligence operation in Europe from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, was picking up on many of these signs. “But Perroots was not alarmed,” Downing writes. “He had received no intelligence briefings warning him that Soviet leadership was anxious about preparations for war or that Able Archer 83 had prompted a serious panic.”
So, in one of what may be the pivot moments in all of human history, Perroots decided to do “nothing in the face of evidence that parts of the Soviet armed forces were moving to an unusual level of alert.” Downing writes, “He later said that this was down to his ‘gut instinct not informed guidance.’ He simply could not imagine the Soviets were mobilizing their nuclear arsenal for an attack on the West.”
Jones notes that a later review found Perroots decision to not act as “fortuitous, if ill-informed.” He did the right thing for the wrong reason. “Had Perroots mirrored the Soviets and escalated the situation, the War Scare could conceivably have become a war.” He compares it to an earlier decision by Stanislav Petrov, who was in charge of the Soviet missile command center when on Sept. 27, 1983, a new satellite system indicated 5 U.S. missile launches. He decided not to report it to higher command. Who knows how a fearful Soviet leadership would have responded in the hair trigger environment in the wake of the KAL 007 shootdown and Reforger transport of troops to Europe?
Petrov is one of two Russians who are described as “The Man Who Saved the World.” I tell their story here. Incidents where nuclear war may have been prevented by the actions of a single person are perhaps the strongest case we should abolish nuclear weapons entirely.
Able Archer comes to a head
If events had turned out differently, we might remember 11-9 rather than 9-11 as one of the most catastrophic days in history. At least, those of us who survived if anyone did.
“On the evening of Wednesday, 9 November 1983, everything came to a head,” Downing writes. Able Archer had reached a point where the Nov. 8 nuclear weapons request to launch 350 nuclear weapons was approved. All Soviet nuclear forces were on combat alert. Soviet leaders were hunkered down preparing for the worst. Andropov waited that evening in the hospital room where he was being treated for the kidney failure that would soon kill him. A military aide held the briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes. In an apparently unprecedented move, General Staff Chief Nikolai Ogarkov was at the central command bunker, authorized to launch if Andropov was killed.
Writes Downing, “. . . they sat out the night, trembling . . . But no alarm was received of enemy launches . . . Probably the most dangerous moment of the Cold War passed. As dawn came up on another day, the world had survived.”
But western leaders were slow to realize it. They were dimly aware Soviet actions indicated something unusual, but it took months and even years to fully realize, as then CIA deputy director Robert Gates later said, “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.”
Next: How western leaders came to realize the danger the world confronted during Able Archer 83, and what it says about the need to abolish nuclear weapons. Go here.
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