written by Todd DePastino

MIM-104 Patriot Rocket Being Launched

History often happens when we’re not paying attention.

That was the case in the early 1980s, when even those serving in the US military were largely unaware of how close we came to nuclear exchange and World War III with the Soviet Union. Even the President of the United States didn’t recognize the danger until after the fact. When Ronald Reagan discovered the truth, he shifted course and helped bring the Cold War to an end.

The second week of November 1983, Soviet intelligence detected what they thought were US preparations for a nuclear attack. Fearing a debilitating first strike, Russian officials mobilized for their own preemptive assault, putting their entire arsenal of 11,000 nuclear warheads on maximum readiness. Their goal was to destroy US missile silos before they could activate.

What prompted Soviet fears was a highly realistic NATO command post exercise named Able Archer, part of the larger Autumn Forge and Reforger (“REturn of FORces to GERmany”) war games held every year in Western Europe since 1969.

Days after Able Archer concluded, the Soviet state-run newspaper Pravda complained that NATO’s exercises “are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from a real deployment of armed forces for aggression.”

We now know this remark wasn’t a mere observation. It was a warning: when weapons of mass destruction are on hair triggers, the slightest ambiguity in intention-signaling can mean the difference between status quo and annihilation.

The nuclear scare of Able Archer 83 wasn’t a one-off near-miscalculation, but the culmination of tensions that had been building for years. Changes in leadership, increased military adventurism, heightened rhetoric, a renewed arms race, and a growing gap between the thriving West and the declining East all contributed to the crisis.

In 1983, we came as close to nuclear war as any time in our history, including the Missiles of October in 1962.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, in fact, had marked a turning point in the Cold War. The brinkmanship of those thirteen days spooked both sides. The following year, the US and USSR began cooperating as never before, first by establishing a “hotline” between the Kremlin and the White House and second by signing the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The Nixon administration sought even warmer relations with the Soviets. Nixon’s special National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, referred to his superpower approach as détente, a French word meaning “relaxation.”

Indeed, by the time Nixon left office, tensions between the US and USSR had relaxed considerably. Nixon’s breakthrough visit to Mao’s China in February 1972 was followed by a historic trip to Moscow three months later to meet with Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. That summit, which continued through two more face-to-face meetings, yielded the Anti-Ballistic Missile and Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT I) agreements, as well as a host of deals over trade, human rights, scientific cooperation, and oceanic exploration.

There was even a great Nixon-Brezhnev toast to peace followed by a spontaneous Brezhnev bear hug. The era of confrontation, as Nixon later wrote, had been replaced by one of negotiation.

Black and white photo of Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet Union) and President Nixon (United States) drinking a toast

Leonid Brezhnev, left, proposes a toast at the State Department after signing a U.S.-Soviet cooperation deal in 1973 (AP)

It didn’t last.

President Jimmy Carter abandoned Nixon-Kissinger’s realpolitik (a hard-nosed geostrategic approach to foreign policy) in favor of a more high-minded attitude. Referring to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, Carter condemned un-democratic allies like Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. He also sharply criticized the Soviet Union for its violations of free speech and worship and repression of political dissent.

Soviet leader Brezhnev, so visibly affectionate with Nixon, never warmed to Carter and threatened to walk out of further arms control talks (SALT II).

1977 Soviet Union poster of Communist Party members

Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union members” Soviet poster, 1977

Then, at the end of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support a pro-Soviet government there. In retaliation, Carter placed an embargo on grain exports to Russia and pressured the US Olympic Committee to boycott the 1980 summer games in Moscow.

The Soviets consoled themselves that Carter, at least, wasn’t a warmonger. The President claimed to believe in détente, and he certainly disapproved of committing US troops abroad unless it was absolutely necessary. Carter had also publicly condemned traditional American anti-Communism, the obsession that had led the country to Vietnam.

In other words, President Jimmy Carter never saw our nation’s mission as defeating Communism or containing its spread around the world.

President Ronald Reagan emphatically did. A staunch anti-Communist since his days as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s, Reagan sought not to contain Communism but actually to roll it back by evicting pro-Soviet governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Reagan took Carter’s moral critique of the Soviet Union and supercharged it with anti-Communist rhetoric, a dramatically increased defense budget, and a willingness to flex American muscle overseas.

On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, inaugurating what historians sometimes call the Second Cold War.

*          *          *

Four months after Reagan moved into the White House, Leonid Brezhnev stood before a closed meeting of KGB officers and told them détente was dead. President Reagan, he said, was bent on destroying the Soviet Union.

The speaker who followed Brezhnev at the podium, KGB head Yuri Andropov, hit even harder. Reagan, Andropov explained, was erratic and unpredictable. It was likely that the Americans were planning a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.

The situation was so dire, Andropov went on to say, that he was launching a new global intelligence gathering program designed specifically to detect NATO preparations for nuclear war.

Its name was Operation RYAN, an acronym for Raketno-YAdernoe Napadenie, or “nuclear missile attack.” Some agents called the operation “VRYAN,” the V standing for the Russian word vnezapnoe: surprise.

Operation RYAN’s rallying slogan was “Do not miss the moment when the West is about to launch war.”

The history of Operation RYAN is an object lesson in confirmation bias. That is, Soviet agents collected only information that could be interpreted to support Andropov’s preexisting belief that the US was planning a first strike. The KGB used pretzel logic to twist even the most innocuous observations—what time office lights went out at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall or the status of blood drives in London—to bolster the case for a preemptive first strike.

Soviet experts in the West ascribed such extreme fears as examples of “traditional Russian paranoia.” But the Soviet Union’s sense of foreboding in the early 1980s had both historical roots and contemporary triggers.

Every one of the 27 members of the Soviet Politburo was old enough to remember June 12, 1941, when Hitler launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, the largest ground invasion in history. The Red Army was caught flat-footed, and the German Wehrmacht swept east, slaughtering millions and coming within 14 miles of Red Square.

And Hitler’s was only one of five major attacks from the West in 500 years, each coming when Russian power was compromised or ill-prepared to meet the existential threat.

Soviet leaders judged the new post-détente era of 1981 as one of those historical moments of maximum danger. The Soviet Union, they believed, had become vulnerable to defeat.

Soviets called it the “Correlation of Forces,” a pseudo-scientific Marxist-Leninist examination of the historical moment, conducted regularly to gauge progress in the uneven but, in their view, inexorable march to World Socialism. The Correlation of Forces was a broad and visionary statement of the world situation at any given time. It provided a guide for policy and action.

Things had looked great back in the 1970s, when revolutionary gains in Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua heralded a rising socialist tide in the Third World.

But now, the Correlation of Forces had turned against that tide, and Soviet world leadership was appearing to wane. The West claimed advantages in technology, economy, and international prestige. The US setback of the Vietnam War hadn’t prevented the development of new and powerful weapons. Neither had it broken NATO nor stopped CIA and other covert capitalist operations around the world.

The Soviet Union was spending an enormous percentage of its GDP on nuclear weapons to the detriment of its domestic economy. Soviet leadership’s grip on the socialist world seemed to be loosening. Nationalist and ethnic-driven allegiances inside the Soviet sphere, including both the Soviet Union itself and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, hadn’t evaporated after decades of “Russification.” In fact, as with the Polish Solidarity movement, non-Russian populations of the Eastern Bloc were showing increased restlessness, viewing the Soviet Union more as an unwelcome imperial master than a protecting ally.

1983 map showing GIUK Gap between Iceland, United Kingdom and Norway

The GIUK gap in the North Atlantic, showing international boundaries as of 1983 (CIA)

In light of the 1981 Correlation of Forces estimate, Ronald Reagan’s election signaled that the United States had awoken to its advantages. Reagan came into office and immediately began poking the bear, not only with his anti-Soviet rhetoric but also with a series of off-the-books military operations intended to provoke the Soviets and probe gaps in their defenses.

Americans called them psychological warfare operations or “PSYOPs.” They were conducted by air and sea and involved violating Soviet air space and territorial waters. They began shortly after Reagan took office and followed no discernable pattern or obvious purpose, other than to spook the Soviets and reveal vulnerabilities.

The US sent bombers over the Arctic Circle and fighters along the Asian periphery. Air maneuvers ratcheted up, then stopped just as suddenly, only to restart.

“It really got to them,” one high-ranking US official recalled. “They didn’t know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home.”

An unclassified CIA intelligence monograph, Ben F. Fischer’s A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare, confirms the devastating psychological impact of these operations on the Soviets.

Fisher details the special effectiveness of the naval operations. In August and September of 1981, a massive NATO carrier group led by the USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) transited the strategic Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap—the only Atlantic sea route to the Soviet Union—largely undetected. The NATO ships and planes used radio silence, emission controls, radar jamming, phony radar transmissions and a host of other concealment and deception measures to thwart Soviet surveillance and launch simulated attacks on Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. They even were able to evade satellite monitoring and managed to “destroy” Soviet planes during air refueling.

Then, a secret detachment of four ships peeled off the convoy and entered the Barents Sea, just off Russia’s strategic Kola Peninsula (Murmansk), and stayed there for nine days. It was an unprecedented violation of Soviet defenses.

US operations grew bolder. American intelligence ships collected information while patrolling close to Crimea in the Black Sea and along the coast in the Baltic. Attack submarines under polar ice simulated strikes on their Soviet ballistic missile counterparts. The US, it seemed, was able to roam at will, and the Soviets were at a loss to respond.

The most devastating infiltrations came in April-May 1983 during FleetEx 83, a massive Navy exercise in the North Pacific. Three aircraft carrier battle groups made up of 40 ships, 300 aircraft, and 23,000 crewmembers moved from the Aleutian Islands toward the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. The Soviets jealously guarded the Kamchatka Peninsula, home of a warm-water ballistic missile submarine base. The US armada ventured toward the base to provoke a Soviet reaction that could then be studied by the US Office of Naval Intelligence.

The first week of April, several Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters took off from the USS Enterprise and the USS Midway and overflew a Soviet military base on the Kurile Islands south of the peninsula. The mission was to simulate a bombing raid.

The Soviets failed to provide a timely response to the air space violations. It was a crushing humiliation.

The Kremlin protested the incursions, launched retaliatory overflights in the Aleutians, and fired their top Far East Air Defense officers. Then, it ordered its new Air Defense commanders to place the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kuriles on maximum alert.

As the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral James D. Watkins, remarked in a Congressional hearing in 1983, the Soviets “are as naked as a jaybird [on the Kamchatka Peninsula],. . .  and they know it.”

If that was true, Russia’s only defense was its nuclear arsenal.

*          *          *

FleetEx 83 was just one episode in a cascade of crises that pushed the US and USSR to the brink of nuclear war in the third year of the Reagan administration.

A month before FleetEx, President Reagan spoke at the National Association of Evangelicals convention in Orlando. His aim was to urge religious leaders to reject the nuclear freeze movement. But it was the extreme rhetoric Reagan used—calling the Soviet Union “an evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world”—that caught the world’s attention.

The Cold War, Reagan declared, wasn’t a mere realpolitik standoff between rival Great Powers. It was a holy crusade of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, with no neutral ground.

Two weeks later, the President announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an ambitious proposal for an invincible shield against intercontinental and submarine-based ballistic missiles. SDI involved far-out plans for lasers, particle beams, supercomputers, and advanced materials and technologies that didn’t yet exist. Both supporters and detractors of the expensive project called it “Star Wars,” a movie reference that combined Reagan’s Hollywood past with his “Evil Empire” rhetoric and faith in speculative technology.

Most scientific and defense experts dismissed SDI as fantasy. But the Soviets didn’t. They saw Star Wars as a profoundly destabilizing weapons system.

The only thing that had prevented World War III was nuclear deterrence, known colloquially as  “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD). First strikes were unthinkable because they would inevitably trigger fatal counterstrikes.

But, Moscow figured, if the US could create a dome of protection around itself, nothing would deter it from attacking Russia with impunity. The only solution was to hit the US before SDI was operational.

Yuri Andropov, now General Secretary after Brezhnev’s death in 1982, found some solace in SDI being years away from deployment.

Not so with the new Pershing II Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, which the US announced were tested and ready for delivery to West Germany before the end of 1983.

The Pershing II was faster and more accurate than its predecessor, the Pershing 1a, and far more of an immediate threat than SDI. The Soviets believed–inaccurately, it turns out—that the new missile could hit Moscow six minutes after launch. That would give NATO the opportunity to decapitate the Soviet Union, preventing retaliation. A preemptive first strike of its own might be the Kremlin’s only shot at survival.

*          *          *

On September 1, 1983, Soviet Air Defenses on the Kamchatka Peninsula were on high alert. Still stung by the FleetEx 83 incursions in April, they were determined to secure the region for the test flight of a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the SS-25, scheduled to land at the Kura testing range. US intelligence knew of the test and dispatched an RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft to the area to capture whatever information it could about the new weapon.

The test never happened, and the RC-135 left the area. As it departed, a commercial passenger airliner, Korean Air Lines (KAL) Flight 007 carrying 269 passengers from Anchorage to Seoul, crossed paths with it and strayed into restricted Soviet air space.

Map of US and Soviet Union to show flight path of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983

Actual and planned flight path of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983 (CIA)

KAL 007’s autopilot navigation system was either not working, or the crew had failed to switch it to the proper mode. The plane drifted off course across the Kamchatka Peninsula and then over the Sea of Okhotsk.

Soviet MiGs scrambled to intercept it. A malfunctioning early warning radar system made it hard for the Soviets to identify and keep track of the plane. Confusion and near-panic reigned at Soviet Far East District Air Defense Forces Command as it struggled to confront the intruder.

KAL 007 crossed into Russian air space a second time over Sakhalin island just north of Japan. A Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 interceptor aircraft finally made visual contact with the Boeing 747. The fighter pilot could see it was a civilian plane. But he suspected the Boeing was a mask for a military mission.

Air Defense command ordered the Su-15 to shoot the foreign plane down, even as it re-entered international air space. The interceptor positioned itself under the 747 and fired two air-to-air missiles into the passenger plane’s fuselage.

KAL 007 spiraled into the Sea of Okhotsk killing everyone aboard.

The Soviets would later claim that KAL 007 was on a spy mission. Privately, they believed they had made a mistake and suspected the flight had been deliberately sent to provoke the shootdown as a pretext for nuclear war.

In his televised address to the nation four days later, President Reagan did all he could to inflame Soviet fears:

My fellow Americans:

I’m coming before you tonight about the Korean airline massacre, the attack by the Soviet Union against 269 innocent men, women, and children aboard an unarmed Korean passenger plane. This crime against humanity must never be forgotten, here or throughout the world. . . . It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.

From his sickbed-soon-to-be-deathbed, General Secretary Yuri Andropov issued a lengthy denunciation of the United States, condemning Reagan’s “outrageous militarist psychosis” and blaming him for the shootdown of KAL 007.

Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, a diplomat since World War II, remarked that tensions with the US following the KAL 007 tragedy were higher than at any time he could remember.

“The world situation,” he said, “is now slipping toward a very dangerous precipice . . . Problem No. 1 for the world is to avoid nuclear war.”

*          *          *

Able Archer 83 began on November 7 as the culminating exercise of Autumn Forge. The NATO war game tested the alliance’s ability to wage war on the Great European Plain in the event of the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of West Germany.

Reforger was the penultimate component of Autumn Forge. It was a grand show of resolve that rattled nerves in Moscow, airlifting 19,000 US troops and 1,500 tons of cargo to Europe under radio silence. The Soviets never saw them coming.

Then, Able Archer. Unlike Reforger, Able Archer took place behind closed doors at NATO Command, Control, and Communications centers, from the Supreme Headquarters in Belgium through subordinate commands throughout Western Europe. Able Archer wasn’t intended to intimidate the Kremlin, but to rehearse the final escalation from conventional to nuclear war.

Soviet intelligence routinely monitored the annual Able Archer exercise. But, in 1983, as documents declassified in 2015 demonstrate, Soviet analysts were alarmed by how little information they could gather. With new encryption techniques, the US made Able Archer 83 more opaque than its predecessors.

One US intelligence report later explained that the command post exercise that year had introduced “special wrinkles, which we believe probably fueled Soviet anxieties.”

Such wrinkles included the loading of dummy warheads, communications with Washington and London, and an unusual volume of transmissions at command centers throughout NATO. Unlike prior versions of the drill, Able Archer 83 saw the progression of US forces from normal to maximum readiness, DEFCON 1, the highest state of alert.

On November 8, KGB headquarters sent urgent messages to agents throughout Europe to report on indications of an impending nuclear attack. Other Warsaw Pact intelligence services joined the effort. Their suspicion was that Able Archer would be used as cover for a decapitating first strike.

Meanwhile, Soviet air bases grounded their planes to prepare for combat activity. The only flights were 36 intelligence sorties to track US ground and naval movements. Soviet Air Force units loaded their fighters and bombers, reviewed their target assignments, and put them on 30-minute alert to “destroy first-line enemy targets.”

The Soviet Army cancelled leaves and also its traditional participation in the grain harvest. According to CIA analysts, the Soviets likely also armed their ICBM missiles and prepared them for launch.

This activity didn’t go undetected by US intelligence. Brigadier General Leonard H. Perroots, the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Air Force Europe (USAFE) at Ramstein AFB took note of the unusual escalation. A technical anomaly especially got his attention: the Soviets had equipped their airplanes with electronic countermeasure jamming pods. These were usually left off because they caused balance problems.

Perroots’ analysts explained: the pods indicated the Soviets were loading special munitions, probably nukes.

Perroots spoke to his superior, USAFE Commander, General Billy Minter. “I told him we had some unusual activity in East Germany that was probably a reaction to the ongoing  ABLEARCHER,” he later wrote.

The intelligence chief had no proof of the Soviet alert-Able Archer connection. It was just a guess. Perroots advised Minter not to respond in kind with further escalation.

An intelligence report of the war scare would later characterize Perroots’ recommendation as “a fortuitous, if ill-informed, decision.”

Perroots’ gut instinct may have averted nuclear war.

*          *          *

A few weeks after Able Archer, the White House received word of the Soviet war scare during the exercise. The information came via the CIA, by-way-of the British MI6, by-way-of a Russian KGB double agent named Oleg Gordievsky. National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane delivered the news to the President with a heathy dose of skepticism. There’s little record of Reagan’s response.

But, it just so happened, the President had been quietly rethinking his hardline approach to the Soviets. On October 10, one month before Able Archer, Reagan had previewed the ABC television movie The Day After about an American town wiped out in nuclear war. In his diary, Reagan noted film was “anti-nuke propaganda.” Still, he admitted, “It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed.” It confirmed his resolve “to see there is never a nuclear war.”

Before The Day After, nuclear war had seemed an unthinkable abstraction to Reagan, something not remotely likely to happen and, therefore, not worthy of serious consideration. Now, for the first time, Reagan consented to a Pentagon briefing on the impact of such a real-life cataclysm.

Those in the Situation Room that day described the President as “chastened.” Reagan wrote in his diary, “A most sobering experience with Cap W. [Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger] & Gen. Vessey [Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey] in the situation room—a briefing on our complete plan in the event of a nuclear attack.”

Reagan instructed the Department of State to set up back channel communications with the Soviet Union to minimize the risk of misunderstandings or faulty intention-signaling. “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.”

In early 1984, CIA Director William Casey presented Reagan with an extensive report on Soviet thinking and zeroed in on Soviet fears of a US first strike.

“Do you suppose they really believe that?” Reagan asked. “I don’t see how they could believe that—but it’s something to think about.”

Think about it, he did.

In his memoirs, Reagan wrote of his Cold War transformation in late 1983:

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 . . . During my first years in Washington, 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 . . .  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 . . . Well, if that was the case, I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us.

In 1984, nudged by election-year polls showing public fears of nuclear war, Reagan began to pursue his own version of détente with the Soviet Union. He relaxed his anti-Communist rhetoric and looked for opportunities to work with the Soviets.

A big one came unexpectedly following the death of Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, after only one year in office in March 1985.

Desperate to avoid appointing another geriatric, ailing leader, the Soviet Politburo selected the youngest man in its midst, a 54-year-old visionary named Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev recognized the rot at the core of Soviet society, a problem he said went far beyond an unfavorable “Correlation of Forces.” He wanted to restructure the whole system (perestroika) and introduce openness and transparency to governing (glasnost). He never imagined his reforms would explode the Soviet Union.

Neither did Reagan. Gorbachev engaged the President like no other adversary had. And Reagan, for his part, pushed the new Soviet leader to go further with his reforms.

Over a series of summits, the Soviet Union agreed to arms control and the loosening of Moscow’s grip on Eastern Europe. They even agreed in principle to abolish all nuclear weapons.

At the final summit, in Moscow in May 1988, a journalist asked Reagan if he still considered the Soviet Union the evil empire. “No,” he replied, “I was talking about another time, another era.”

That other era had been just five years earlier, during a year of Cold War peril that surely holds lessons for us today, if only we choose to learn them.