The 1983 US-Soviet “war scare” is one of the most controversial episodes of the entire Cold War.
Now, we finally know it was also one of the most dangerous — thanks to a February 1990 report, published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University this week after a 12-year Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) battle.
The US and the Soviets really were dangerously close to going to war in November of 1983, the bombshell report found — and the enormous Cold War-era US national security apparatus missed many of the warning signs.
That 1983 “war scare” was spurred by a large-scale US military exercise in Eastern Europe called Able Archer that the Soviets apparently believed was part of allied preparation for a real war. The Soviet military mobilized in response.
US-Soviet relations had definitely plunged in the early 1980s, but since then experts have debated how close the US and the Soviets had actually come to the abyss during Able Archer.
Had the Soviets really believed Able Archer was preparation for a preemptive strike? Was the intensifying rhetoric of high-ranking Soviet leaders in the run-up to Able Archer meant for domestic consumption, or was it a reflection of actual fears? Was the 1983 Soviet military mobilization intended as internal and external political messaging, or as sincere preparation for war? Most importantly, would the Soviets ever have struck first — and were their conditions for a first strike close to being satisfied during Able Archer?
We now have some of the answers. On October 24, the National Security Archive published the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report on the war scare. The 1990 study is the US intelligence apparatus’ final word on just how close the world came to war in 1983 — and how aware American decision-makers were of the actual state of play.
Its conclusions are chilling, even 32 years later.
It turns out Soviets believed the US wanted to launch a nuclear first-strike. The US fell victim to the inverse error and didn’t think the Soviets were serious about preparing for war — partly because they didn’t think the Soviets thought the US wanted to launch a nuclear first-strike. As a result, US military and intelligence decision-makers didn’t believe that anything terribly out of the ordinary was happening during Able Archer.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Here are the main findings in the repot:
The Soviet leadership and intelligence agencies thought the US was planning to fight and win a nuclear war. In the early 1980s, in response to a US nuclear modernization drive, “Soviet analysts calculated that the US intended [new generations of ballistic missiles] as a means for developing a first-strike force.” The Soviets may also have “calculated that NATO’s decision to field 600 Pershing IIs and cruise missiles was not to counter their SS-20 [intermediate-range missile] force, but yet another step towards a first-strike capability.”
The report documents how this fear of an American first-strike morphed into a kind of corrosive conventional wisdom. In 1981, the KGB formally sent out instructions to monitor possible NATO war preparations, noting that it is “of special importance to discover the adversaries’ concrete plans and measures linked with his preparation for a surprise nuclear missile attack on the USSR and other Soviet countries.”
The report flatly states that “KGB bosses seemed already convinced that US war plans were real.”
“KGB officers in [Moscow] agreed that the United States might initiate a nuclear strike if it achieved a level of overall strength markedly greater than that of the Soviet Union. And many agreed that events were leading in that direction,” the report added.
In reality, the US was never contemplating a first strike. One of the more worrying aspects for the Able Archer incident, in the report’s view, is that “Soviet leaders, despite our open society, might be capable of a fundamental misunderstanding of US strategic motives.”
The Soviets realised they were becoming weaker and thought they’d probably lose the nuclear war they believed the US might be planning. Once the Soviets started thinking in terms of a possible nuclear war, they began to realise they didn’t stand much of a chance of winning it.
As the report states, “There was common concern that the Soviet domestic situation, as well as Moscow’s hold on Eastern Europe, was deteriorating, further weakening Soviet capacity to compete strategically with the US.”
Moscow was in a seemingly weak position due to a number of factors, including: an economic slowdown; political unrest in Soviet-dominated Poland; the deployment of the Pershings to eastern Europe; and the diplomatic fallout from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Intriguingly, the report describes a Soviet computer system that analysed thousands of strategic variables to determine the Soviet Union’s strength relative to the US. The Soviet leadership would reportedly consider a preemptive nuclear strike if the computer ever found that Soviet power had fallen to 40% of US power or below. It reached 45% at points during the the runup to Able Archer.
The Soviets also determined that growing US missile strength would decimate the Soviet nuclear capabilities in a first strike to the point that a second strike would soon become ineffectual or even impossible. As this chart from the report demonstrates, the adversaries’ nuclear strike capabilities were drifting ever further apart:
The Soviets responded by moving to cut the launch preparation time of second-strike nuclear platforms like submarines and battleships from several hours to just 20 or 30 minutes. After a point, second-strike nuclear missions became the primary focus of Soviet bomber crew training, according to the report. In the conventional realm, the Soviets began calling up reservists, sending Spetsnaz paramilitaries to the eastern European front line, deploying nuclear-capable artillery pieces in eastern Europe, and even converting tractor factories for tank production.
In the psychological realm, Soviet leaders grew paranoid, realising the balance of power that had defined their country’s entire strategic outlook would soon be a thing of the past.
It was in this context that the US’s Able Archer exercise began in November of 1983.
There were some very odd things about Able Archer — and the Soviet response to it. The Soviets’ concern about Able Archer is understandable, at least in the context of their lager paranoia: Able Archer included the airlift of tens of thousands of US troops to central European frontline areas. The operation had a notable nuclear component to it as well.
“We are told that some US aircraft practiced the nuclear warhead handling procedures, including taxiing out of hangars carrying realistic-looking dummy warheads,” the report states.
The Soviets responded as if an actual war was imminent. As the National Security Archive summary of the document puts it, “Warsaw Pact military reactions to Able Archer 83 were … ‘unparalleled in scale’ and included ‘transporting nuclear weapons from storage sites to delivery units by helicopter,’ suspension of all flight operations except intelligence collection flights from 4 to 10 November, ‘probably to have available as may aircraft as possible for combat.'”
In the US, everybody missed everything. The Soviets were serious about preparing for a possible impending nuclear war. And the US didn’t even know it.
Soviet activities around the “war scare” didn’t make a single presidential daily briefing. The US military realised the Soviets were at a higher state of alert but didn’t change their own defence posture in response. Two later intelligence community reports on the incident also misinterpreted Soviet actions.
Indeed, one of the heroes of the war scare is Lieutenant General Leonard Perroots, the US Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence in Europe during Able Archer. Perroots did nothing to change the US military’s alert status or readiness even as the Soviets were acting on a deep-seated fear of a possible US first strike. This, of course, was because Perroots wasn’t receiving any intelligence suggesting this fear was underlying Soviet mobilizations. The US had missed just about every clue.
The report calls Perroots’ inertia “fortuitous, if ill-informed.” Had the US military changed its operating procedure in eastern Europe, it would only have escalated tensions and enhanced the chances of an accidental war.
The phrase “fortuitous, if ill-informed” sums up the entire 1983 war scare. The two sides misunderstood the others’ intentions, actions — indeed, their entire worldview — so badly that an actual war nearly broke out.
The superpowers created a situation where simply doing nothing was an unwitting and perhaps civilisation-rescuing act of courage.
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