Friday, November 26, 2010

1983 - The Brink Of Apocalypse

One of the most frightening episodes of the Cold War took place in November 1983. It was probably the closest we ever got to a full blown nuclear war between the Unites States and the Soviet Union, even closer than during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. And it all happened in total secrecy.

In 1983, tensions between Washington and Moscow rose to a dangerous level. The Soviet Union, who had always trailed the United States in the field of technology, finally closed the gap in military power by an immense increase of their nuclear arsenal to more than 11,000 warheads. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, convinced that the U.S. would attack the USSR sooner or later, was determined to get a strategic advantage. He also initiated operation RYAN (Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie or Nuclar Missile Attack), a worldwide hunt for information that would indicate an imminent first strike by the United States.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan on the other hand wanted to regain superiority by taking a technological lead. The U.S. also tried to provoke enormous defense expenditures by the USSR to bring them on the verge of bankruptcy. In March 1983, Reagan presented his Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI, also referred to as the Star Wars program. SDI would, once developed and in place, neutralize any Soviet missile that was launched towards the United States. This would render the Soviet strategic arsenal ineffective. Reagan also decided to deploy Pershing II nuclear missiles all across Europe, at the doorstep of the USSR. It was a game of poker with high stakes and it caused a very rapid deterioration of relations between the two powers. In a provocative speech, Reagan called the USSR an Evil Empire.

Two events were the catalyst of a catastrophic chain of events. The first one occurred on September 1, when Korean Air Lines flight 007 deviated from its assigned route and accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace. Soviet Command, convinced that the Boeing 747 was a spy plane, sent four Sukoi and MiG interceptors. Indeed, USSR air space was frequently violated by USAF airplanes that gathered technical intelligence, and the airliner flew over Soviet military installations in the Kuril Islands. The SU-15's were ordered to shoot down the plane. All 269 civilian passengers and crew aboard were killed. The Western world was outraged and condemned the Soviets.

The second event occurred on the night of September 26. Inside a bunker of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces near Moscow, Lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov resumed his night shift. His bunker was part of an early warning system with satellites, to detect incoming U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Suddenly, their computers detected a missile launch and minutes later gave a missile attack alarm. Eventually, the system reported five missiles. Indoctrinated that any U.S. nuclear strike would be massive, Petrov distrusted the computer reports and ignored the alarm. He could not believe that they would only launch five missiles. He was right and it proved to be a life saving decision. The event was kept secret but the flawed early warning system showed the vulnerability of the Soviets and made them even more nervous.

The seeds for a dangerous chain of events were sown. Then, on November 2, NATO started a large command post exercise, codenamed Able Archer. The exercise was a simulation of a conflict that culminated in a nuclear war. There were no real troop movements involved. It was a communications only exercise with signals troops all across Western Europe, sending coded messages, and lead from a NATO nuclear bunker in Belgium. The scenario included a gradually escalating situation, with communications between heads of states, periods of total radio silence and eventually a DEFCON1 alert, indicating an imminent nuclear attack.

Russian forces intercepted the communications and were puzzled. Their traffic analysis told them there was a huge event going on. NATO used the words Exercise Exercise Exercise on each of their messages. However, after the events one month earlier, the Soviets were convinced that any attack by NATO would start under the disguise of an exercise. The encrypted communications and unexplained radio blackouts (simply pauses in the war game) added to the paranoia of the Russians. Moreover, Soviet intelligence officers abroad were expected to report signs of an imminent attack. Reports that stated otherwise were unacceptable for the KGB leaders and the Kremlin. So the agents, in good KGB bureaucratic tradition, reported non-existing signs.

By November 7, according to the exercise scenario, NATO forces failed to counter a chemical attack and preparations were made to initiate a large nuclear strike. Alarmed by the increased coded communications between NATO countries, the U.K. and the United States, the Soviet Army and Air force initiated a massive war-time deployment of troops in Eastern Europe and their nuclear arsenal was prepared for launch, thumbs ready on the buttons! Their Northern Fleet steamed to the Baltic and nuclear missile submarines disappeared under the sea surface.

On the eve of November 8, NATO command decided to start the nuclear attack. They pushed the big red button, exercise Able Archer was finished and everyone went home. Total silence in the aether. Little were they aware that Soviet command expected the attack to come on a holiday, when the Russians were off-guard, and November 7 was Revolution Day in Russia. When Able Archer ended, all went deadly quiet and the Soviets were ready to counter the attack or initiate a preemptive attack. Fortunately, they kept their nerves together, waited and... nothing happened.

When President Reagan was informed by intelligence and spies about how scared the Soviets really were, and how U.S. intelligence failed to notice how close they were to a nuclear war, he was shocked and decided to drastically change the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. He soon started talks with the new Soviet leader, Michail Gorbatsjov. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Being stationed in West Germany, from early 1983 onwards for many years, I'm glad that lessons were learned from that frigtning event. It could have been my and everyone else's last year.

There is an excellent paper by Nathan Bennett Jones about Operation RYAN and Able Archer (pdf) and the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence published a piece on the 1983 Soviet War Scare. Paul Dibb from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote a special report on the 1983 nuclear war scare. The National Archive's Able Archer Sourcebook provides many declassified documents. For an idea of how a nuclear war looks like, you could watch The Day After (1983), the movie that scared Ronald Reagan like hell. I can recommend General John Hacket's book The Third World War, August 1985 (see Amazon) about how a war in Europe would look like if they bring tactical nukes on the war theatre. It's a fictionalized but very accurate scenario.

More information on how the Soviets perceived the U.S. nuclear threat is found on my previous blog on U.S. Strategic Intelligence on the USSR. Read also 3 Seconds from Word War 3. On my Silent Warriors blog you can ready about the risks of U.S. spy missions above the USSR.There's a very good and gripping documentary about those extraordinary events in 1983 on the Internet.

Update 6 Nov 2015: The National Security Archive just released the Able Archer Source Book webpage with a large number of declassified documents and primary sources.

Below, the full 75 minutes documentary 1983 The Brink Of Apocalypse. The documentary explains in detail exercise Able Archer, the Soviet reaction to it and how close we were to nuclear war.


Anonymous said...

I watched the video you referenced and it is hair raising to think that we were actually that close to a nuclear war back then. I was only 12 years old then but I do remember watching "The Day After" on TV. I think we were all frightened at the prospect of nuclear war back then and we were glad to see the end of the cold war in 1989.

Arash kayaan said...

Actually operation Able Archer came to an abrupt end, amid fears of a nuclear war between the two powers. The activities of russian side was interpreted as an imminent preparation of a nuclear assault on Western targets, and thus in the spirit of not frightening them from a Nato led nuclear attack, Nato and U.S dropped the exercises ahead of schedual.

Anonymous said...

I have not watched the video yet, but will. I came across this blog because I was researching information on REFORGER 83. I served in one of the units that participated in it. I always thought that I was fortunate to have served during peace-time, only to find out later how REALLY BAD the situation was. Thank you to the people who de-escalated the crisis!