written by Todd DePastino

Author Brian J. Morra and the book cover The Able Archers

Inspiring VBC Magazine’s focus on the 1983 War Scare this issue was our 40th anniversary conversation with former Intelligence Officer and author Brian J. Morra on VBC Happy Hour back on October 30. We talked with Morra about his experiences that year and his book, The Able Archers. The Able Archers is a historical-fiction thriller that’s been optioned by Legendary Entertainment for film and television.

Morra conducted extensive research into recently declassified documents to write the book, but he also had a front-seat view of 1983’s nuclear brinksmanship as Chief of Intelligence Analysis for US Forces Japan at Yokota Air Force Base.

He was there when the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 on September 1, and he led an early investigation into the cause. Things were so tense, even the inquiry almost sparked nuclear confrontation with the Soviets.

Two days after the shootdown, Soviet Air Defense mistakenly judged a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft circling over the Flight 007 crash site as spying on Russia. Two MiG-23 fighters were dispatched to shoot the EP-3 down.

The EP-3 crew detected the threat and went into an evasive dive toward the ocean. Meanwhile, US Air Force General Charles L. Donnelly, commander of US forces in Japan, ordered four F-15s to intercept the MiG-23s.

Amidst the radar clutter caused by the wave tops, the MiGs lost the EP-3, which escaped to Japanese air space. But the F-15s found their marks and were ready to engage the MiG-23s.

Donnelly wisely ordered the pilots to break off and resume their patrolling orbit.

Brian Morra was there when another general officer challenged Donnelly’s decision to backdown.

“I don’t think I’ll start World War III this afternoon,” said Donnelly in response.

Morra’s intelligence team, along with others, determined the shootdown of Flight 007 was a tragic error, not an international atrocity. But Washington had its own narrative, and President Reagan condemned the demise of the passenger plane as a “massacre” and an “unfounded attack.”

Morra also served under Leonard Perroots, the Air Force general who convinced his superiors and NATO not to escalate in response to the Soviet mobilization during the Able Archer exercise.

In order to write a fictional account of 1983 that was faithful to history, Morra wanted to disclose a lot of information that had been classified for decades. The manuscript was put to close scrutiny by the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies and cleared without a single redaction. The Able Archers is the first in a projected series of thrillers that will take readers through the end of the Cold War.

On our VBC Happy Hour, Brian Morra suggested several lessons we should take from the Able Archer War Scare.

First, “meaningful communication between adversaries is essential.” If there had been communication between the adversaries in 1983, tensions would not have escalated as high. Such communication is what savd the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Second, decisions need to be made calmly and without emotion. One principal danger is reacting too quickly, before all the facts are known and the risks calculated. Good leaders aren’t swayed by the emotional demands of their peers or subordinates.

Third, know your enemy. You don’t know the danger unless you are familiar with your adversary’s preoccupations and patterns of behavior. “Perroots relied on his experience and gut in response to the Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83,” Morra explained.

And, finally, “mirror imaging of one’s adversary is extremely dangerous.” The self-knowledge of Washington, DC, leadership in the 1980s was that “America doesn’t do Pearl Harbors.” That is, we don’t do sneak attacks unprovoked and would never launch a nuclear first strike at will. But just because we believed that about ourselves didn’t mean the Soviets did also. In fact, the Soviets did believe that the US was fully capable and willing to start a war.

Brian J. Morra is a former Air Force Intelligence officer and retired senior aerospace executive. You can find out more and order The Able Archers (Koehler Books) at brianjmorra.com. You can read an excellent article by Morra, “The Near Nuclear War of 1983” in Air & Space Forces Magazine (December 2, 2022): www.airandspaceforces.com/article/the-near-nuclear-war-of-1983/