The ’83 ‘war scare’ was real

De­clas­si­fied re­port says Sovi­ets feared nu­clear sur­prise at­tack by U.S.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID E. HOFF­MAN

A nu­clear weapons com­mand ex­er­cise by NATO in Novem­ber 1983 prompted fear in the lead­er­ship of the Soviet Union that the ma­neu­vers were a cover for a nu­clear sur­prise at­tack by the United States, trig­ger­ing a se­ries of un­par­al­leled Soviet mil­i­tary re­sponses, ac­cord­ing to a top-se­cret U.S. in­tel­li­gence re­view that has just been de­clas­si­fied.

“In 1983, we may have in­ad­ver­tently placed our re­la­tions with the Soviet Union on a hair trig­ger,” the re­view con­cluded.

That au­tumn has long been re­garded as one of the most tense mo­ments of the Cold War, com­ing af­ter the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean civil­ian air­liner in Septem­ber and as the West was pre­par­ing to de­ploy Per­sh­ing II in­ter­me­di­ate-range and ground-launched cruise mis­siles in Europe in Novem­ber. But there has been a long-run­ning de­bate about whether the pe­riod known as the “war scare” was a mo­ment of gen­uine dan­ger or a pe­riod of blus­ter for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses.

The re­view con­cluded that for

Soviet lead­ers, the war scare was real, and that U.S. in­tel­li­gence post­mortems did not take it se­ri­ously enough.

Soviet lead­ers were par­tic­u­larly alarmed about the NATO ex­er­cise, known as Able Archer, car­ried out in early Novem­ber 1983 in­volv­ing forces that stretched from Turkey to Bri­tain. Con­ducted an­nu­ally to prac­tice the pro­ce­dures in­volved in the run-up to a nu­clear con­flict, the ex­er­cise had some new wrin­kles that year, in­clud­ing planes that tax­ied out of hangars car­ry­ing re­al­is­tic-look­ing dummy war­heads, the re­view said.

The 109-page doc­u­ment, ti­tled “The Soviet ‘War Scare,’ ” was dated Feb. 15, 1990, and writ­ten for the Pres­i­dent’s For­eign In­tel­li­gence Ad­vi­sory Board, a White House unit that ex­am­ined in­tel­li­gence is­sues. The au­thors of the re­view scru­ti­nized clas­si­fied doc­u­ments and con­ducted 75 in­ter­views with U.S. and Bri­tish of­fi­cials.

Orig­i­nally stamped “Top Se­cret” and con­tain­ing sen­si­tive sig­nals in­tel­li­gence, the re­view was de­clas­si­fied this month in re­sponse to a re­quest from the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Archive, a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion af­fil­i­ated with Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity.

The PFIAB re­view found that the Soviet Union took un­usual mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence pre­cau­tions at the time of Able Archer that pre­vi­ously had been em­ployed only in ac­tual crises. This in­cluded plac­ing air forces in East Ger­many and Poland on higher alert, con­duct­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more re­con­nais­sance flights, and task­ing Soviet KGB and mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers around the world to be on the look­out for signs of nu­clear war prepa­ra­tions.

The Soviet ac­tions “strongly” sug­gest that “Soviet mil­i­tary lead­ers may have been se­ri­ously con­cerned that the US would use Able Archer 83 as a cover for launch­ing a real at­tack,” the re­view con­cluded. It added that the ev­i­dence “strongly in­di­cates that the war scare was real, at least in the minds of some Soviet lead­ers.”

Some de­tails of the Soviet para­noia about a nu­clear at­tack had come to light ear­lier, in­clud­ing re­ports from Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB of­fi­cer who was an agent for Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence. Gordievsky re­vealed to the Bri­tish the ex­is­tence of a KGB in­tel­li­gence-col­lec­tion ef­fort to de­tect in­di­ca­tions that the West was pre­par­ing for nu­clear war. Gordievsky, who de­fected to Bri­tain in 1985, later pub­lished the text of some KGB di­rec­tives, part of a pro­gram known as RYAN or VRYAN, the acronyms in Rus­sian for sud­den nu­clear mis­sile at­tack.

An­dropov’s wor­ries

Yuri An­dropov, the KGB chief who later be­came Soviet leader, was a ma­jor source of the anx­i­ety in Moscow about a sur­prise nu­clear at­tack. In 1981, An­dropov de­clared to a ma­jor KGB con­fer­ence that the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion was ac­tively pre­par­ing for war and that a nu­clear first strike was pos­si­ble. Ac­cord­ing to the re­view, An­dropov put “strate­gic mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence” at the top of KGB col­lec­tion pri­or­i­ties, and he hastily cre­ated a spe­cial “in­sti­tute” within the KGB in 1981 to han­dle it.

His wor­ries about a sur­prise at­tack were am­pli­fied by “one pe­cu­liar mode of in­tel­li­gence anal­y­sis,” a KGB com­puter model to mea­sure per­ceived changes in the “cor­re­la­tion of forces” be­tween the su­per­pow­ers, ac­cord­ing to the re­view. The com­puter went on­line in 1979 to warn Soviet lead­ers when “de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of Soviet power might tempt a US first strike,” the re­view says. The com­puter was at the heart of the VRYAN sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to the re­view, and thou­sands of pieces of se­cu­rity and eco­nomic data were fed into the ma­chine. The com­puter model as­signed a fixed value of 100 to the United States, and Soviet lead­ers felt they would be safe from a nu­clear first strike as long as they were at least at 60 per­cent of the United States, and ide­ally at 70 per­cent. Re­ports were sent to the rul­ing Polit­buro once a month.

Soon, the com­puter model pro­duced bad news. Ac­cord­ing to the re­view, it cal­cu­lated that Soviet power had de­clined to 45 per­cent; it was felt that be­low 40, the Soviet Union would be “dan­ger­ously in­fe­rior.” Al­though “it may seem ab­surd” to think the Soviet lead­ers would put stock in such a com­puter model, the re­view con­cluded, “this ap­proach may have been es­pe­cially ap­peal­ing to top Soviet lead­ers at the time” be­cause they craved some kind of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence of the strate­gic bal­ance.

By 1983, An­dropov had be­come Soviet leader, suc­ceed­ing Leonid Brezh­nev, and su­per­power ten­sions were deep­en­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the re­view, in Jan­uary 1983, the Soviet armed forces added a fifth level of readi­ness to the ex­ist­ing four: “Sur­prise En­emy At­tack Us­ing Weapons of Mass De­struc­tion in Progress.” This fifth con­di­tion “could be de­clared re­gard­less of the readi­ness stage in ef­fect at the time,” the re­view said.

On March 8, 1983, Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan called the Soviet Union an “evil em­pire.” By late that sum­mer, the Soviet lead­er­ship “ap­peared to be brac­ing the pop­u­la­tion for the worst.” Signs were posted every­where show­ing the lo­ca­tion of air raid shel­ters; broad­casts sug­gest­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a U.S. at­tack were on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion “sev­eral times a day,” the re­view says.

Soviet spokes­men ac­cused Rea­gan and his ad­vis­ers of “mad­ness,” “ex­trem­ism” and “crim­i­nal­ity.” Af­ter the Korean air­liner was downed, ten­sions grew over NATO plans to de­ploy the Per­sh­ing II and ground-launched cruise mis­siles in Europe. Near the end of 1983, the 4th Air Army, a Soviet air force unit in Poland, re­ceived or­ders to speed up the trans­fer of nu­clear weapons from stor­age to the air­craft, with a max­i­mum time of 25 min­utes for one weapon, 40 min­utes for two, ac­cord­ing to the re­view.

Mean­while, An­dropov, the Soviet leader, had be­come gravely ill.

New pro­ce­dures in 1983

Able Archer was con­ducted ev­ery year and “rou­tinely mon­i­tored by Soviet in­tel­li­gence.” But the Novem­ber 1983 ver­sion had new pro­ce­dures “which we be­lieve prob­a­bly fu­eled Soviet anx­i­eties,” the re­view found. NATO tested new communications meth­ods, with a more grad­u­ated es­ca­la­tion. The Able Archer ex­er­cise also used live mo­bi­liza­tion ex­er­cises from U.S. mil­i­tary forces in Europe, the re­view said. All this may have looked more re­al­is­tic to Soviet spies, who were watch­ing. Both the KGB and Soviet mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence were or­dered on Nov. 8 or 9 to re­port on in­creased alert at U.S. bases in Europe and to check for other in­di­ca­tions of an im­pend­ing nu­clear at­tack.

The War­saw Pact, the Sovi­et­dom­i­nated de­fense al­liance, also launched an “un­prece­dented” re­con­nais­sance ef­fort, in­clud­ing 36 in­tel­li­gence flights, “sig­nif­i­cantly more than in pre­vi­ous” years. The re­view said th­ese in­cluded fly­ing over the Nor­we­gian, North, Baltic and Bar­ents seas “prob­a­bly to de­ter­mine whether US naval forces were de­ploy­ing for­ward in sup­port of Able Archer.” Also, the War saw Pact im­posed a sus­pen­sion of all mil­i­tary flight op­er­a­tions be­tween Nov. 4 and 10, ex­cept for the in­tel­li­gence flights, “prob­a­bly to have avail­able as many air­craft as pos­si­ble for com­bat.”

The re­view notes that Soviet doc­trine had called for pre­empt­ing a NATO at­tack by strik­ing first — and that the War­saw Pact forces had long as­sumed a NATO of­fen­sive would start un­der cover of an ex­er­cise. “There is lit­tle doubt in our minds,” the re­view con­cluded, “that the Sovi­ets were gen­uinely wor­ried about Able Archer; how­ever, the depth of that con­cern is dif­fi­cult to gauge.” Some Soviet units were prob­a­bly pre­par­ing a pre­emp­tive coun­ter­at­tack, but at the same time, there was no over­all, large-scale mo­bi­liza­tion. This “mixed” ap­proach re­flected the deep un­cer­tainty in the Krem­lin over Western in­ten­tions, the re­view found.

“This sit­u­a­tion could have been ex­tremely dan­ger­ous if dur­ing the ex­er­cise — per­haps through a se­ries of ill-timed co­in­ci­dences or be­cause of faulty in­tel­li­gence — the Sovi­ets had mis­per­ceived US ac­tions as prepa­ra­tions for a real at­tack,” the re­view con­cluded.

In the af­ter­math of Able Archer, the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity com­mis­sioned two post­mortems, in May and Au­gust 1984, look­ing back at the events. Both in­tel­li­gence es­ti­mates de­clared: “We be­lieve strongly that Soviet ac­tions are not in­spired by, and Soviet lead­ers do not per­ceive, a gen­uine dan­ger of im­mi­nent con­flict or con­fronta­tion with the United States.” This con­clu­sion was based on the fact that the West had not seen wide­spread Soviet mo­bi­liza­tion for war.

But the PFIAB re­view was sharply crit­i­cal of both of th­ese in­tel­li­gence es­ti­mates for be­ing “over­con­fi­dent” and overly san­guine. The U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, the board said, “did not at the time, and for sev­eral years af­ter­wards, at­tach suf­fi­cient weight to the pos­si­bil­ity that the war scare was real.”

This crit­i­cism goes to the heart of a long-run­ning de­bate about the war scare. In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials who worked on the 1984 es­ti­mates say they were cor­rect: The Soviet Union was mak­ing noisy ges­tures, not war prepa­ra­tions. The PFIAB re­view chal­lenged that con­clu­sion and said the es­ti­mates should not have been so cat­e­gor­i­cal, that “strongly worded in­ter­pre­ta­tions were de­fended by ex­plain­ing away facts in­con­sis­tent with them.”

The PFIAB re­view re­peat­edly crit­i­cized U.S. in­tel­li­gence on Soviet lead­ers, say­ing at the time of the 1984 post­mortems that “the US knew very lit­tle about Krem­lin de­ci­sion­mak­ing.” It added, “Our own lead­er­ship needs far bet­ter in­tel­li­gence re­port­ing on and as­sess­ments of the mind­set of the Soviet lead­er­ship — its ide­o­log­i­cal/po­lit­i­cal in­stincts and per­cep­tions.” And the re­view said the 1984 es­ti­mates “were over­con­fi­dent, par­tic­u­larly in the judg­ments per­tain­ing to Soviet lead­er­ship in­ten­tions — since lit­tle in­tel­li­gence, hu­man or tech­ni­cal, ex­isted to sup­port them.”

Rea­gan: ‘Re­ally scary’ events

On a sep­a­rate track from the two es­ti­mates, the di­rec­tor of cen­tral in­tel­li­gence, Wil­liam Casey, sent a more alarm­ing mes­sage to Rea­gan in June 1984 about the war scare events. Casey’s in­for­ma­tion came from the in­tel­li­gence warn­ing staff and showed “a rather stun­ning ar­ray of in­di­ca­tors” of an “in­creas­ing ag­gres­sive­ness in Soviet pol­icy and ac­tiv­i­ties.” Rea­gan “ex­pressed sur­prise upon read­ing the Casey mem­o­ran­dum and de­scribed the events as ‘re­ally scary,’ ” former na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Robert McFar­lane was quoted in the re­view.

The war scare marked a turn­ing point for Rea­gan. He ac­knowl­edged that Soviet lead­ers may have har­bored true fears of at­tack.

He wrote in his diary on Nov. 18, 1983: “I feel the Sovi­ets are so de­fense minded, so para­noid about be­ing at­tacked that with­out be­ing in any way soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any in­ten­tion of do­ing any­thing like that. What the h--l have they got that any­one would want.”

Rea­gan later re­called in his mem­oir, “Three years had taught me some­thing sur­pris­ing about the Rus­sians: Many peo­ple at the top of the Soviet hi­er­ar­chy were gen­uinely afraid of Amer­ica and Amer­i­cans. Per­haps this shouldn’t have sur­prised me, but it did. In fact, I had dif­fi­culty ac­cept­ing my own con­clu­sion at first.”

He said he felt that “it must be clear to any­one” that Amer­i­cans were a moral peo­ple who, since the found­ing of the na­tion, “had al­ways used our power only as a force for good in the world.”

“Dur­ing my first years in Wash­ing­ton,” Rea­gan said, “I think many of us in the ad­min­is­tra­tion took it for granted that the Rus­sians, like our­selves, con­sid­ered it un­think­able that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more ex­pe­ri­ence I had with the Soviet lead­ers and other heads of state who knew them, the more I be­gan to re­al­ize that many Soviet of­fi­cials feared us not only as ad­ver­saries but as po­ten­tial ag­gres­sors who might hurl nu­clear weapons at them in a first strike; be­cause of this, and per­haps be­cause of a sense of in­se­cu­rity and para­noia with roots reach­ing back to the in­va­sions of Rus­sia by Napoleon and Hitler, they had aimed a huge arse­nal of nu­clear weapons at us.”


ABOVE: Soviet leader Yuri An­dropov, at cen­ter with other dig­ni­taries at the 1983 May Day pa­rade, was a ma­jor source of the anx­i­ety in Moscow. RIGHT: For Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, chat­ting in 1984 with Soviet For­eign Min­is­ter An­drei Gromyko, the war scare of 1983 marked a turn­ing point.



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