The Able Archer Nuclear Test: “The Greatest Intelligence Failure in U.S. History”

Soviet RSD-10 missile.

It was an intelligence failure of a scope to vastly exceed all others, when one nuclear superpower perceived the other moving to a nuclear first strike and prepared for war, while the other missed all the signals and believed it was business as usual.

It was 1983, when tensions between the United States and Soviet Union were at one of the most intense points in the Cold War. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov believed the Reagan Administration was preparing to launch a nuclear strike on his country, and that a NATO exercise to mimic a nuclear war, Able Archer 83 taking place in the early days of November, was a cover for the real thing. Soviet nuclear forces were put on combat alert, bombers were loaded with nuclear weapons, nuclear subs were put out to sea, and mobile missile launchers were dispersed.

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Leonard Perroots, NATO deputy intelligence chief, on duty during the exercise, received reports of the activity but decided not to recommend that NATO nuclear forces mirror the increase. He later said he had a gut feeling nothing was amiss. A later review by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) said Perroots decision “made in ignorance (was) fortuitous, if ill informed . . . “

“Had Perroots mirrored the Soviets and escalated the situation, the War Scare could conceivably have become a war,” writes Nate Jones in one of three recent histories of the 1983 close call, Able Archer 83: The Secret NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War.

The story of Soviet first strike fears is told in the first part of this series, while the Soviet preparations for a potential first strike during Able Archer 83 are related in the second. This third part covers the slow realization by western leaders of how scared the Soviets were, and how close we came to World War III. Robert Gates, secretary of defense under the Bush and Obama administrations, and CIA deputy director during the exercise, later said, “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.”

“Only later was it appreciated how severely rattled the Soviet leadership had become and how they had come to believe what no American could accept, that the United States would unleash a war by taking the initial step and launching a pre-emptive first strike,” writes Taylor Downing in another of the recent accounts, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink.  Both the U.S. and Soviet “intelligence failures in November 1983 had in fact been on a staggering scale . . .  For years the question would be asked in the CIA, how had we missed such a dangerous moment?”

Mark Ambinder, in the third history of the 1983 war scare, Able Archer 83: The Secret NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War, says a senior intelligence official “told me it was the greatest intelligence failure in the history of the United States.”  He quotes Gates calling the failure “monumental.”

The fact is that both nuclear superpowers have studied and modeled first strike strategies. In a nuclear war the overwhelming advantage goes to the side that strikes first, crippling the enemy’s ability to respond by wiping out most of its weapons and command and control systems. So each side is prepared to launch the first salvo if it perceives the other side is preparing to do so. (This is detailed in the first part of this series.) That was the danger created by Soviet perceptions that Able Archer 1983 was cover for a first strike.

It remains unknown how close the Soviets came to launching their own pre-emptive attack, a topic to which I will return below. But everything about Able Archer 83 and the events surrounding it sends the clearest of messages, especially in a time when conflicts between nuclear-armed great powers are at perhaps the highest pitch in history. We must abolish nuclear weapons, or their use in war at some point is virtually inevitable.

Beginning to grasp the danger

It took months for U.S. and western leaders to realize the danger confronting the world in those early days of November, and years to fully analyze the intelligence failure. But even as the exercise was wrapping up, Ronald Reagan was starting to grasp what had happened, and the consequences of his own heated anti-Soviet rhetoric. On a presidential tour of Asia, riding on Air Force One, National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane handed Reagan intelligence reports on the increased tempo of Soviet nuclear forces.

Jones reports that according to McFarlane, “The president read the reports and responded with ‘genuine anxiety’ and disbelief that his actions could have led to an armed attack.” Days later, he started to set up a group of high ranking officials “to help us in setting up some channels,” he wrote in his November 18 diary entry. “I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being soft on them we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that.”

Writes Jones, “McFarlane recounts that Able Archer had a ‘big influence’ on Reagan’s thinking.”

Reagan would subsequently begin to tone down his bellicose “Evil Empire” rhetoric, and on January 16 delivered a conciliatory speech on national television. Calling for arms control, Reagan said, “If the Soviet Government wants peace, then there will be peace.” By 1987, that would lead to the first nuclear arms control treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty negotiated with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and discussions to abolish all nuclear weapons which came heartbreakingly close. That treaty laid the groundwork for the START treaty signed in 1991 and renewed in 2010, which limits each side’s deployed nuclear weapons, those not in storage, to 1,550, and ICBMs to 7,000

Perroots was also beginning to revise his opinions. In December 1983 he catalogued a large number of signs of increased Soviet military activity (listed in part two) in a memo for CIA National Intelligence Officer for Warning David McManis.  The intelligence community was beginning to grasp that Soviet fears might be real. McManis was tasked with putting the picture together and evaluating whether this might indeed be the case.

But overall, intelligence agencies were downplaying the situation. A December 1983 CIA evaluation “concluded that, ‘Contrary to the impression conveyed by Soviet propaganda, Moscow does not appear to anticipate a near-term military confrontation with the United States,’” Downing reports. The CIA saw it as a ploy to stop deployments of intermediate range missiles in Europe and set up divisions between the U.S. and its allies. Reagan himself had earlier asked Arthur Hartman, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, “Do you think the Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?”

Tensions remain high

On February 8, 1984, Yuri Andropov died of kidney failure, to be replaced by Konstantin Chernenko as Soviet leader. But Soviet actions indicated their fears had not diminished. On March 10, Britain conducted an exercise to disperse mobile cruise missiles in Europe. Days later, in an unprecedented move, the Soviets launched a test ICBM flight on a polar route toward the U.S.

Then on March 28, General A.S. Milovidov, a leading Soviet nuclear strategist, published an article in the Soviet Ministry of Defense newspaper that warned “the Soviet state’s strategic forces are in a supreme state of readiness  . . . the entire armed forces and all military control systems must be in a state of high combat readiness today.” Language in his article, writes Ambinder, indicated “the Soviets would treat all American exercises as real.” He quotes a U.S. intelligence official as saying this was as if the U.S. would constantly be at DEFCON 2, the highest alert short of imminent nuclear war.

As if to confirm this, an April 4 U.S. exercise testing strategic nuclear systems, which involved missile launches, bomber flights and naval deployments, was matched by Soviet exercises for the first time. In the North Atlantic a flotilla of over 200 ships, the largest Soviet fleet ever assembled, was accompanied by missile launches on land and at sea.

A young U.S. Army officer, Captain Stephen Schwalbe, who analyzed Soviet military exercises for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) noticed a pattern. The polar missile launch especially caught his eye. Unlike other intelligence officials, he concluded, as Ambinder writes, “ . . . there was little difference between the Soviet exercises and advanced preparation for war. . . The Soviets feared a surprise attack from the West. All of their major exercises began with some sort of bolt-from-the-blue strike.”

Perroots again weighed in with an attachment to Schwalbe memo, noting “months and months of unusual behavior” by the Soviets. He saw among Soviet leaders “a major shift in its thinking on the possibility of armed confrontation with the United States,” Ambinder writes, and advised evaluation of how U.S. actions were affecting Soviet behavior.

Still, denial reigned at the top.  A Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) conducted by the DIA and issued in May 1984 would acknowledge the increased Soviet activity during Able Archer 83. But, writes Downing “it still concluded decisively, ‘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.’”

McManis, reading the memos from Schwalbe and Perroots, was continuing to put the pieces together. He told CIA Director William Casey he disagreed with the SNIE’s conclusions. Casey drafted his own memo to the intelligence community, and briefed Reagan on June 20. It is the first official record to reach the president documenting that Soviet fears might be more than “huffing and puffing.” He called out “a rather stunning array of indicators of increasing aggressiveness in Soviet policies and activities.” Among them were deployment of submarines, not using military trucks in their usual role aiding the harvest, and delay of troop rotations.

“The point of blustering is to do something that makes the opponent pay high costs while the blusterer pays none or little,” Casey wrote. “The military behaviors we have observed involve high military costs  . . . adding thereby a dimension of genuineness in the Soviet expressions of concern that is often not reflected in intelligence issuances.” (Quoted in Ambinder)

Writes Jones, Reagan found the report, “really scary.”

Nailing the case

The most compelling evidence that the Soviets were genuinely worried about a first strike was settled by a leak from a double agent cultivated by British Intelligence, Oleg Gordievsky, a high-level KGB officer stationed at the London embassy. As reported in the second part of this series, on November 8 and 9 during Able Archer 83, flash telegrams went out from KGB headquarters to intelligence stations throughout Western Europe. Flash indicated that immediate attention was required. In Gordievsky’s long career, a flash telegram was a new thing.

Jones recounts how he later wrote that the flash messages indicated KGB headquarters believed it was possible “that the countdown to a nuclear first strike had actually begun.” Gordievsky himself was skeptical. But he took copies of the telegrams to share with his handlers.  When British intelligence analysts correlated the telegrams with increased Soviet activity during Able Archer, they concluded Soviet fears were real. In March, the British communicated this to U.S. officials, including State Department Under Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger, who still dismissed this as Soviet propaganda. Nonetheless, Margaret Thatcher convened a cabinet meeting to discuss the findings April 4. She would communicate the reality of Soviet fears to Reagan.

McFarlane was not skeptical. He found the Gordievsky material “shocking . . . an insider . . .  was reporting genuine alarm in the Soviet leadership . . .  (He) made it clear that there was no denying that this fear on the Soviet side was real.”  It was, Downing writes, “The clearest hint at how dangerous the situation had in reality become.” Geoffrey Howe, British foreign secretary at the time, later wrote, “Gordievsky left us in no doubt of the extraordinary but genuine Russian fear of real-life nuclear strike.” (quoted in Downing)

Gordievsky’s double agentry would later be uncovered due to a leak by CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames. Recalled to Moscow, he was smuggled out by British intelligence in 1985, and would meet Reagan in 1987. He went on to write a review of Able Archer that was read in full by Reagan. In it he wrote, “The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss during Operation RYaN (the Soviet intelligence effort to detect preparations for a first strike). But during Able Archer 83 it had, without realizing it, come frighteningly close – certainly closer than any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.” (Quoted in Jones)

How close did we come?

Perroots would enter the picture once more. In 1989, after rising to head the DIA, he issued “his parting shot before retirement,” writes the PFIAB in its 1990 assessment of the dangers during Able Archer 1983, the first full study accessing all the materials. He sent a letter to the intelligence advisory board “outlining his disquiet over the inadequate treatment of the Soviet war scare . . . “ Without that letter, Jones writes, the 1990 assessment might never have been done.

Jones quotes from the report. The PFIAB was “deeply disturbed by the U.S. handling of the war scare, both at the time and since.” Able Archer 83 “may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”  “There is little doubt in our minds that the Soviets were genuinely worried about Able Archer.” It is an “especially grave error to assume that since we know the U.S. is not going to start World War III, the next leaders of the Kremlin will also believe that.”

The Soviet nuclear forces alert during Able Archer 83 had no known precedent. PFIAB found that “it appears that at least some Soviet forces were preparing to preempt or counterattack a NATO strike launched under the cover of Able Archer.” Writes Jones, “The Soviet Union, which believed its only chance of surviving a NATO strike was to preempt it, readied its nuclear arsenal. What remains unknown – or secret – is exactly which Soviet forces went on alert or how close the Soviets came to launching a nuclear attack to preempt a feared NATO strike.”

Jones asserts that “the likelihood of nuclear war by miscalculation (increased) to an unacceptable degree” during able Archer. “There was a genuine risk that Soviet leadership could have believed false RYaN reports of a Western nuclear strike and preempted it, leading to general nuclear war.”

It may have only been the reports of a double agent working for East German intelligence that averted that outcome. Rainier Rupp, codenamed Topaz, who worked in NATO headquarters, was asked by his handlers to report on whether anything unusual was happening there. Nothing was, he reported. He also scanned all relevant documents and passed them on to his handlers. In a later interview quoted by Ambinder, Rupp said that since Soviet leaders had “confidence in the sources, Moscow finally dropped the option of a preemptive counter-attack.” Downing speculates, “Perhaps the news from Topaz that there were no plans for war at NATO headquarters saved the day.”

The critical necessity of nuclear abolition

The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was cancelled by the Trump Administration in 2019, while Russia charges that missile defense sites set up by NATO in Poland and Romania in 2009 under the Obama Administration could readily be converted to launching cruise missiles 7 to 10 minutes flying time from Moscow. Russian fears of a strike that decapitates leadership and prevents response to nuclear attack are in play now, as they were in 1983. Russian leaders have given potential placement in Ukraine of missiles that would be even closer to Moscow as a reason for the Russian invasion. The same factors driving the 1983 war scare are driving the real war of today.

Meanwhile, the START Treaty to limit strategic nuclear weapons is on life support. The U.S. and Russia in 2021 agreed to an extension to 2026. But prospects after that are uncertain. In a new interview with Newsweek, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovsaid, “The Russian-American interstate dialogue has been practically frozen . . . It equally pertains to the consultations on strategic stability and arms control discontinued by the American side. Naturally, we note some sketchy signals from the U.S. administration, and personally Joe Biden concerning the resumption of the START dialogue, but what is behind those signals remains to be seen.”

The view among informed experts is that this is a time of nuclear danger on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Able Archer 83 war scare. Continuing escalation of the Ukraine War on both sides is increasing the danger. In a time of conflict, the chance that unforeseen events could trigger a nuclear exchange are intensifying. And as during Able Archer 83, when communications between nuclear powers breaks down, the possibilities for miscalculating the intentions of the other side grow far greater.

A fundamental reality underscored in this series is that the overwhelming advantage in a nuclear war goes to the side that strikes first, destroying the other side’s nuclear weapons while potentially decapitating leadership and disrupting command and control that would allow a retaliatory strike. As Ambinder notes, “The soundness and reliability of nuclear command and control is largely a myth, a just-so story, designed to give everyone from American voters to their presidents a sense of comfort that the requirements on their side of the globe for mutually assured destruction will work in favor of peace . . . “

The facts of nuclear weapons say that, in fact, the overwhelming incentive is to use them if there is a belief the other side is prepared to strike. How close we came to nuclear extermination during the Able Archer exercise in November 1983 is unknown. But what can be reliably asserted is that if great powers retain nuclear arsenals, they will be used someday.

We must abolish nuclear weapons.

This first appeared on Patrick Mazza’s substack page, The Raven.