Articles

This declassified US intelligence report from 1990 is one of the most terrifying things you'll ever read

The 1983 US-Soviet "war scare" is one of the most controversial episodes of the Cold War.


Now we finally know it was also one of the most dangerous, thanks to a February 1990 reportpublished by the National Security Archive at George Washington University this week after a 12-year Freedom of Information Act battle.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The US and Soviets were dangerously close to going to war in November 1983, the bombshell report found, and the Cold War-era US national-security apparatus missed many 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 Soviets had 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 important, 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 state of play.

Its conclusions are chilling, even 32 years later.

It turns out the 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 out of the ordinary was happening during Able Archer.

They couldn't have been more wrong. Following are the main findings in the report.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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."

Photo: flickr/mightyohm

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."

Photo: Department of Defense

The Soviets realized 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 realize 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 for a number of reasons, 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 analyzed 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% or below of US power. It reached 45% at points during the run-up 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:

Photo: National Security Archive

 

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, realizing 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 1983.

There were some odd things about Able Archer, and the Soviets' 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 front-line 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 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 many aircraft as possible for combat.'"

Photo: US Archives

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 realized the Soviets were at a higher state of alert but didn't change their defense 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 Lt. Gen. 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 other's intentions, actions — indeed, their entire worldview — so badly that war nearly broke out.

The superpowers created a situation where simply doing nothing was an unwitting and perhaps civilization-rescuing act of courage.

NEWS
Michael Selby-Green

Britain is no longer a 'tier one' military power

Theresa May asked Britain's defence secretary to justify the UK's role as a "tier one" military power, causing dismay in the Ministry of Defence. Underlying the statement is a realisation that the UK can no longer economically compete with top powers, defence experts told Business Insider.

"It's a reflection of our economic status — times are tough," said Tim Ripley, a defence analyst, adding: "It's all about money... if you don't have money you can't spend it."

The Prime Minister questioned defence secretary Gavin Williamson on whether money for the military should be reallocated to areas like cyber, and if Britain needed to maintain a Navy, Army, Air Force and nuclear deterrent all at once.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This Microsoft training fast tracks veterans into sweet tech careers

Solaire Brown (formerly Sanderson) was a happy, gung-ho Marine sergeant deployed in Afghanistan when she realized her military career was about to change. She was tasked with finding the right fit for her post-military life – and she knew she wanted to be prepared.

Injuries sustained during mine-resistant vehicle training had led to surgeries and functional recovery and it became clear Brown would no longer be able to operate at the level she expected of herself as a Marine.

Like many of the 200,000 service members exiting the military each year, Brown knew her military training could make her a valuable asset as an employee, but she was unsure of how her skills might specifically translate to employment in the civilian world.

Enter Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA), a program Microsoft started in 2013 to provide transitioning service members and veterans with critical career skills required for today's growing technology industry.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH
Dave Smith

This video of a drone with a flamethrower will haunt your dreams

Watch the video in the tweet below. Are you experiencing both amazement and fear? You're not alone.

This video has been making the rounds on Twitter recently, but it was actually filmed a little over a year ago. According to Gizmodo, an electric-power maintenance company in Xiangyang, China, had been using these flame-throwing drones to burn off garbage and debris from electrical wires.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This band hires vets — especially when they go on tour

As veterans re-enter the civilian workforce, many struggle to make the transition. This is why opportunities (ahem — touring with famous heavy metal bands) for employment are so important. Five Finger Death Punch has made it a mission to offer such opportunities.

Keep reading... Show less
NEWS
Christopher Woody

Soldiers at the border are doing grunt work to stay out of trouble

National Guard troops deployed to the border in Arizona are puttering around doing administrative and maintenance work in order to keep them out of potentially dangerous situations and to allow the border patrol to focus on working in the field.

Troops have been deployed to the border in the past — both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama sent troops there under similar circumstances — but the ones currently stationed in Arizona are even farther from the border than past deployments, according to a Politico report, and have no involvement in law-enforcement activity there.

President Donald Trump has called for up to 4,000 troops from various states to deploy to the border from Texas to California. Only about 200 Arizona National Guard soldiers have been put to work there, less than one-third of the 682 who have been authorized to deploy.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

This Brazilian trainer thinks it can replace the Warthog

Brazil has had a decent aerospace industry centered on Embraer, a conglomerate that made everything from airborne radar planes to trainers. However, that industry has gotten a little too full of itself lately. They think one of their trainers can replace the A-10.

Now to be fair, this trainer, the Super Tucano, is doing some attack work with the Afghan Air Force and is a contender in the Air Force's OA-X program, advancing to a fly-off with the AT-6. Two other contenders, the AT-802 and the Textron Scorpion, didn't make it to the fly-off. Stinks to be them, but honestly, could any of them really replace the A-10?

Keep reading... Show less

Here's how working out every day can save you money

It's no secret that service members don't make a whole lot of money compared to the intense workload they face every single day. Since this lack of funds can limit things we like to do during our days off, we have to find little ways to compensate our cash to make sure we pay our bills.

Every few weeks, veterans should sit down and create a budget plan and adequately manage their incoming cash flow. These charges typically account for rent, groceries, and entertainment. The costs add up quickly, and it doesn't feel like there's much left over to put in savings.

But what if we told you that you can save some real coin if you just decided to it start hitting the gym on a daily basis?

Would that potentially blow your mind?

Keep reading... Show less

Migrant children in the US might be moved to military bases

The Trump administration is considering housing up to 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on military bases in coming months, according to lawmakers and a Defense Department memo obtained by The Washington Post.

In a notification to lawmakers, the Pentagon said that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services asked whether beds could be provided for children at military installations "for occupancy as early as July through Dec. 31, 2018."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) addressed the issue on the Senate floor on June 21, 2018.

Keep reading... Show less