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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Able Archer 83 / RYAN

Soviet relations had come full circle in 1983. Europeans were declaring the outbreak of a Cold War II, and President Mitterrand compared the situation to the 1962 Cuban crisis and the 1948 Berlin blockade. Such fears were exaggerated, but the superpowers squared all in a conflict likely to erupt into war. Moscow was in the midst of a “war scare" that had two distinct phases and two different dimensions — one concealed in the world of clandestine intelligence operations since 1981, and the other revealed in the Soviet media two years later.

The KGB assessment was more of a storm warning than a hurricane alert. But Politburo forecasters reached a stark political judgment: the chances of a nuclear war, including a US sturprise nuclear attack, were higher than at any time during the entire Cold War. In May 1981, General Secretary Brezhnev and then KGB chiefAndropov briefed the Politburo assessment to a closed KGB conference. Then Andropov took the podium to tell the assembled inteiligence managers and officers that the KGB and the GRU were being placed on a permanent intelligence watch to monitor indications and warning of US war-planning and preparations. Codenamed "RYAN", this alert was the largest Soviet peace, time intelligence effort.

During 1982, KGB Center assigned RYAN a high, but not overriding, priority. Then, on 17 February 1983, KGB residents already on alert received “eyes only” cables teiling them that it had “acquired an especial degree of urgency” and was “now of particularly grave importance.” They were ordered to organize a permanent watch using their entire operational staff, recruit new agents, and redirect existing ones to RYAN requirements.

In discussing the heightened emphasis on RYAN, Yuri Shvets, a former KGB officer in the Washington rezidentura, observed in his 1994 book that information cabled to Moscow from the RYAN collection program was used in daily briefing books for the Politburo. He also noted that the program required an inordinate amount of time.

Moscow’s urgency was linked to the impending US deployment of Pershing II intermediate-range missiles in West Germany. Very accurate and with a flight time under 10 minutes, these missiles could destroy hard targets, including Soviet command and control centers and missile silos, with littie or no warning. Guidance cabies referred to RYAN's critical importance to Soviet military strategy and the need for advance warning “to take retaliatory measures.” But Soviet leaders were less interested in retaliation than in preemption and needed RYAN data as strategic warning to launch an attack on the new US missile sites.

In March 1983, President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “focus of evil in the world,” as an “evil empire.” General Secretary Andropov suggested Reagan was insane and a liar. Then things got nasty. Following Andropov's lead and no doubt his direction, the Soviet media launched a verbal offensive, of a kind not seen since Stalin, that far surpassed Reagan’s broadsides. Reagan was repeatedly compared to Hitler and accused of “fanning the flames of war”.

On 23 March 1983, President Reagan announced a program to deveiop a ground and space based anti-ballistic missile shield designated the Strategic efense initiative (SDI) but quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by the media. Four days later and in direct response — Andropov lashed out. He accused the United States of preparing a firsts strike attack on the USSR and asserted that Reagan was “inventing new pians on how to unleash a nuclear war in the best way, with the hope of winning it.” The war scare had joined the intelligence alert. For the first time since 1953, a Soviet ieader was telling the Soviet people that the world was on the verge of a nuclear holocaust. This candor wss a sign of sincerity, Moscow was worried.

The Soviets seemed to treat SDI more seriously than many US scientists and even some White House aides did at the time. There were two reasons. First, the Soviets, despite their boasting in the 1970s, had practically unlimited faith in US technical capability. Second, SDI had a profound psychological impact. The KGB in the early 1980s saw the international situation--in Soviet terminology, the "correlation of world forces"--as turning against the USSR and increasing its vulnerability.

During the first Reagan administration, US policy toward the Soviet Union was conducted on two tracks. The first encompassed normal diplomatic relations and arms control negotiations. The second was a covert political-psychologicai effort to attack Soviet vulnerabilities and undermine the system. It was a secret offensive on economic, geostrategie, and psychological fronts designed to roll back and weaken Soviet power. For most 1981-83, there were more trains running on the second track than on the first. The PSYOP was calculated to play on what the White House perceived as a Soviet image of the President as a “cowboy” and reckless practitioner of nuclear politics. The US purpose was not to signal intentions so much as keep the Soviets guessing.

RYAN may have been a response to the first in a series of US military probes along Soviet borders initiated in the Reagan administration’s first months. These probes — psychological warfare operations, or PSYOR in Pentagon jargon — aimed at exploiting Soviet psychological vulnerabilities and deterring Soviet actions. The administration‘s “silent campaign” was also practically invisible, except to a small circle of White House and Pentagon aides, and, of course, the Kremlin.

The Navy played an even bigger role than SAC after President Reagan authorized it in March 1981 to operaate and exercise in areas where the US fleet had rarely — or never — gone before. Major exercises in 1981 and 1983 in the Soviet Far northern and Fat eastern maritime approaches demonstrated US ability to depioy aircraft carrier battle gronps close to sensitive military and industriai areas without being detected or shaddowed. Using sophisticated and carefully rehearsed deception and denial techniques, the Navy eluded the USSR’s massive ocean reconnaissance system and eariy warning systems. Some naval exercises included “classified” operations in which carrier-launched aircraft managed to penetrate Soviet shore-based radar and air-defense systems and simulate “attacks” on Soviet targets.

The recently declassified February 1990 report on the Soviet War Scare of 1983, published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, describes how dangerously close the US and Soviet Union were to going to war. “According to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), the United States "may have inadvertently placed its relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger" during the 1983 NATO nuclear release exercise, Able Archer 83,” it states.

Declassified NATO and US Air Force documents have shown that the Able Archer 83 exercise included significant new provocations, which could have been misperceived by the Soviet Union as preparations for an actual strike. These included: a 170-flight, radio-silent air lift of 19,000 US soldiers to Europe during Autumn Forge 83, of which Able Archer 83 was a component; the shifting of commands from "Permanent War Headquarters to the Alternate War Headquarters;" the practice of "new nuclear weapons release procedures" including consultations with cells in Washington and London; and the "sensitive, political issue" of numerous "slips of the tongue" in which B-52 sorties were referred to as nuclear "strikes".

Additional warming signs that the USSR could easily have misinterpreted included "pre-exercise communications that notionally moved forces from normal readiness, through various alert phases, to General Alert;" and that "some US aircraft practiced the nuclear warhead handling procedures, including taxiing out of hangars carrying realistic-looking dummy warheads."

The Soviet Union did actually believe that the US was preparing for a real war and mobilized its military in response. 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. The US, as it turns out, knew nothing of these activities.

On the night of 8 or 9 November, Moscow sent a flash cabie from the Center advising, incorrectly. that US Forces in Europe had been put on alert and that troops at some US bases were being mobilized. The cable reportedly said that the alert may have been in response to the recent bombing attack on a US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, or related to impending US Army maneuvers, or the US may have begun the countdown to a surprise nuclear war. Recipients were asked to evaluate these hypotheses. At two airbases in East Germany and Poland, Soviet fighters were put on alert for the first and last time during the Cold War.

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. Fortunately "the military officers in charge of the Able Archer exercise minimized this risk by doing nothing in the face of evidence that parts of the Soviet armed forces were moving to an unusual level of alert." The decision not to elevate the alert of Western military assets in response was made by Lieutenant General Leonard Perroots while serving as Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Air Forces Europe. Had the US military changed its operating procedure in Eastern Europe, it would have escalated tensions and enhanced the chances of an accidental war.

KGB Col. Oleg Gordievsky, number two in the London residency, efected — actually, aflter M16 exfiltrated him from the USSR — and was made available for debriefing. London used the Gordievsky material to inliuence Reagan, because his hardline policy was strengthening Soviet hawks. The United States and USSR came close to war as a result of Kremlin overreaction; Gordievsky’s timely warning to Washington via M16 kept things from going too far. Gordievsky’s information was an epiphany for President Reagan, who was shaken by the idea that the Soviet Union was fearfui of a US surprise attack.

The Soviets were obsessed with the historical parallel between 1941 and 1983. This feeling was almost visceral, not intellectual, and deeply affected Soviet thinking. The German invasion was the Soviet Union’s greatest military disaster, similar to — but much more traumatic than — Pearl Harbor. It began with a surprise attack that could have been anticipated and countered, but was not because of an intelligence failure. The connection between surprise attach and inadequate warning was never forgotten.

The historical example of Operation Barbarossa may account for the urgency, even alarm, that field intelligence officers attributed to Kremlin paranoia. This gap in perceptions may have reflected a generation gap. The Brezhnev / Andropov generation had experienced the war firsthand as the formative experience of their political lives; for younger Soviets, it was history rather than living memory.

The intelligence “failure” was a failure of analysis, not collection. Stalin received multiple detailed and timely warnings of the impending attack From a variety of open and clandestine sources. But he gave the data a best case or not-so-bad case interpretation, assuming incorrectly — that Hitler would not attack without issuing an ultimatum or fight a two-front war while still engaged in the West. Stalin erred in part because he deceived himself and in part because German counterintelligence also deceived him.

The prewar intelligence failure was Stalin’s, but he blamed the intelligence services. This left an indelible stain on Soviet intelligence that Andropov, as KGB chief and later party chief, may have been determined not to let happen again.

Russian nuclear forces were placed on alert in readiness to launch a first strike just in case in May 1992, during the Armenian/Azerbaijan crisis; in October 1993 during the parliamentary crisis in Moscow that resulted in fighting in the streets in Moscow between Yeltsin forces and that of the national Communist parliament; during January 1995 in response to, of all things, the launch of a meteorological rocket by Norway; probably during Battle-Griffin in 1996 which was a NATO exercise held up near Norway; possibly during Central-Asian Battalion-97, a Partnership for Peace exercise held in the fall of 1997; and during Desert Fox in December 1999.

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Page last modified: 11-12-2016 18:34:56 ZULU