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The 1983 War Scare Declassified and For Real

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The 1983 War Scare Declassified

The newly released Soviet «War Scare» report – previously classified «TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON» and published today after a 12-year fight by the National Security Archive – reveals that the 1983 War Scare was real. According to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), the United States «may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger» during the 1983 NATO nuclear release exercise, Able Archer 83.

Policymakers, and now historians have had vehement disagreements about the War Scare, leading some to describe1 the debate as «an echo chamber of inadequate research and misguided analysis,» and the CIA itself to downplay the danger in its 1984 review. This newly declassified PFIAB document, however, provides the strongest evidence to date that the danger of the War Scare was real, as the only study written with access to all US intelligence files on US/NATO actions and the Soviet response in the fall of 1983.

The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), sometimes called «the secrecy court of last resort,» was instrumental in spurring the declassification of this document after the Archive’s initial 2004 request. ISCAP’s efforts helped break through the referral black hole that continues to prevent the public from seeing billions of other pages of documents locked in our Presidential Libraries. The George H. W. Bush Presidential Library also helped in trying to win this document’s release, but was continually stymied by an «unnamed agency» that would not allow the Library to perform a declassification review, despite that «unnamed agency» failing to complete its own review since 2004.[1]

According to documents reviewed by the Board and dissected in the declassified PFIAB report, by 1983 «The Soviets had concern that the West might decide to attack the USSR without warning during a time of vulnerability…thus compelling the Soviets to consider a preemptive strike at the first sign of US preparations for a nuclear strike.» To counter this strike (which the West never intended to launch), Soviet leader Yuri Andropov initiated Operation RYaN2, the Soviet human intelligence effort to detect and preempt a Western «surprise nuclear missile attack.»

Gorvachev quote

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. The report describes Perroots’s decision as «fortuitous, if ill-informed» and states that «these officers acted correctly out of instinct, not informed guidance, for in the years leading up to Able Archer they had received no guidance as to the possible significance of apparent changes in Soviet military and political thinking.»

Perroots’s instinctual decision not to respond to the Soviet escalation in kind –an act until now unknown– may have been what ended the «last paroxysm of the Cold War,» the 1983 War Scare.

Declassified NATO and US Air Force documents have shown that the Able Archer 83 exercise included significant new provocative features, which could have been misperceived by the Soviets 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.»

The PFIAB report reveals even more potential warning signs that could have been misinterpreted by the Soviets, described as «special wrinkles,» including «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 PFIAB report also shows that President Reagan learned about, and reacted to, the danger of nuclear war through miscalculation. After reading a June 19th 1984 memorandum from CIA Director William Casey describing «a rather stunning array of indicators» during the War Scare that added «a dimension of genuineness to the Soviet expressions of concern,» the president «expressed surprise» and «described the events as ‘really scary.'»

Months earlier, Reagan was already concerned about Soviet fears. A week after Able Archer 83’s end, on November 18, 1983, the President wrote in his journal, «George Shultz & I had a talk mainly about setting up a little in house group of experts on the Soviet U. to help us in setting up some channels. 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 that no one here has any intention of doing anything like that.»

Towards the end of the War Scare, President Reagan asked his Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Arthur Hartman, «Do you think Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?»

Six years later, after the Cold War had ended, the 1990 PFIAB report answered President Reagan’s question: «There is little doubt in our minds that the Soviets were genuinely worried by Able Archer… it appears that at least some Soviet forces were preparing to preempt or counterattack a NATO strike launched under cover of Abler Archer» and that «the President was given assessments of Soviet attitudes and actions that understated the risks to the United States.» According to the PFIAB, the US Intelligence Community’s erroneous reporting made the «especially grave error to assume that since we know the US is not going to start World War III, the next leaders of the Kremlin will also believe that.»

«The Board is deeply disturbed by the US handling of the war scare, both at the time and since. In the early stages of the war scare period, when evidence was thin, little effort was made to examine the various possible Soviet motivations behind some very anomalous events… When written, the 1984 SNIE’s [assessments]3 were overconfident.» That estimate, written by veteran Soviet analyst Fritz Ermarth, downplayed the hazards.

Rather than shy away from discussing and analyzing the danger of nuclear war through miscalculation, the Board, chaired by Anne Armstrong, and the report’s primary author, Nina Stewart, wrote that it hoped its «TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON» report would prompt «renewed interest, vigorous dialogue, and rigorous analyses of the [War Scare]» – at least by the few cleared to read it!4

Finally, with the declassification and publication of the The Soviet «War Scare , the public can now read the most comprehensive and authoritative internal report available on the danger of nuclear war by miscalculation during the 1983 Able Archer War Scare.


The document contains several other revelations:

  • The PFIAB based their conclusions on hundreds of documents and more than 75 interviews with American and British officials.
  • The document presents unreported information about Soviet actions to prepare for nuclear war, beginning in 1981. These included official briefings by Soviet officials to their East European allies warning «that the world was on the brink of war»; increasing deployments of Spetsnaz forces, expanding reservist call-ups, and extending active duty tours; ending military support for the harvest (last seen before the 1968 Czech invasion); increasing procurement of military equipment in 1983 by 5 to 10 percent (at the expense of production of civilian goods); converted plants from tractor to tank production and buying back airframes from Eastern European countries; improving the time needed to launch a ballistic missile from a submarine to 20 minutes; enhancing nuclear strike forces in the forward area by deploying nuclear capable SU-24 bombers to East Germany, Poland, and Hungary; deploying, for the first time ever, nuclear-capable artillery to front line ground forces opposite NATO; and reports that a letter from Andropov was read at closed party meetings across the country which «decla[ed] that the motherland was truly in danger and that there was no chance for an improvement in relations with the United States.»
  • The document also provides new information on Operation RYaN, likely from Oleg Gordievsky, including more details on the primitive computer model the Soviets apparently used to help determine if and when the US would launch a nuclear attack at the USSR. This computer, developed by military and economic specialists, consisted of a database of 40,000 weighted military, political, and economic factors, including «indicators» reported from agents abroad. «Before long,» the report states, the computer «started spewing very unwelcome news:» that by 1984 Soviet power had declined to just 45 percent of that of the United States.5
  • Operation RYaN, according to a 1988 CIA assessment, «resulted from high-level political concern, and was not solely an intelligence initiative.» The FBI did not detect the establishment of Operation RYaN, but did «note an increase in Soviet targeting and collection of US military plans beginning in 1982»; according to the report, residencies abroad received a warning that «the United states was positioning itself for war.»
  • The report also includes new information on the US detection of the Soviet response to Able Archer 83. Moscow’s actions included an «unprecedented technical collection foray against Able Archer 83,» including over 36 Soviet intelligence flights, significantly more than previous exercises. These were conducted over the Norwegian, North, Baltic, and Barents Seas, «probably to determine whether US naval forces were deploying forward in support of Able Archer.» Warsaw Pact military reactions to Able Archer 83 were also «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 may aircraft as possible for combat.» Several other actions remain redacted and hidden. Two of these likely involve nuclear preparations as the phrase «30-minute, around-the-clock readiness time and assigning priority targets» was not redacted. The report’s authors conclude that this response «strongly suggests to us that Soviet military leaders may have been seriously concerned that the US would use Able Archer 83 as a cover of launching a real attack.»
  • Almost all signals intelligence information in this report remains classified, although it can be gleaned that Western intelligence did intercept communications showing Soviet anxiety about Able Archer 83: «Had we not obtained this piece of intelligence, the Able Archer exercise likely would have been viewed in even more benign ways than it was. We believe this calls into question the kinds of signals we are likely to get from national technical means when, in times of internal Soviet crisis, the USSR military behaves in a defensive, reactive manner, particularly to US or NATO maneuvers.»
  • Though also partially redacted, the report discusses a potential «force-wide» alert during Able Archer 83, noting that «we had not seen a «force –wide» Soviet alert since World War II.
  • Another area that remains largely redacted is the British role in discovering the «unprecedented Soviet reaction» and relaying it to the United States. Some British Ministry of Defense documents have previously been declassified and the National Security Archive is continuing to fight for the release of the key British report entitled, The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War against NATO. A hearing where the Archive will argue for the report’s release will be held before a first tier tribunal in the United Kingdom on November 23 and 24, 2015.
  • But what is not classified is that the State Department brushed off the concerns of danger presented to Undersecretary for Political Affairs Laurence Eagleburger by British Ambassador Oliver Wright. According to Eagleburger, State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research presented a «skeptical version of events» designed to «discourage the British.» In «some American quarters» there was a suspicion that the British Foreign Office was «simply capitalizing on a good political occasion to force President Reagan to tone down his rhetoric and delay deployments of the INF missiles.» Documents previously obtained by the National Security Archive corroborate the State Department’s aversion to examining the danger of the War Scare. After its estimate was completed, the State Department requested a sanitized version to share with NATO allies. This sanitized version removed all mentions of Able Archer 83 and the Soviet response to that exercise –the very reason the estimate was drafted– and hid the increased danger that the NATO exercise had engendered from the very countries that participated in it.
  • The US relied upon British intelligence about Able Archer 83 because, initially, US intel believed nothing was amiss. The Soviet aircraft «stand down» was not reported by the Defense Intelligence Agency until a week after it began, and according to the report, no President’s Daily Brief mentioned Able Archer 83 or the Soviet response while it was being conducted.
  • Finally, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board notes that it likely never would have studied the War Scare had it not been for Lieutenant General Perroots, whose «fortuitous, if ill-informed» decision not to respond to Soviet escalation helped quell the danger of Able Archer 83. According to the PFIAB, by 1988, new intelligence had forced the agencies to reassess their estimates of the War Scare – but they did so quietly. «The last most definitive intelligence community word on the Soviet war scare seemed destined to languish in an annex…that was unintended for policymakers’ eyes.» However Perroots sent the PFIAB and others a «parting shot» before retirement, a letter «outlining his disquiet over the inadequate treatment of the Soviet war scare.» Fortunately, the PFIAB heeded his advice. A secret risk of nuclear war is still an unacceptable risk of nuclear war.



[1] The existence of this PFIAB report was first revealed by Don Oberdorfer in his book The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era (Simon and Shuster: 1991), 67.

[2] РЯН is the Russian acronym for Raketno Yadernoye Napadenie (Ракетно ядерное нападение), or «nuclear missile attack.»

[3] The SNIE states, «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.»

[4] At the time that this report was delivered to President Bush, the PFIAB included James Q. Wilson, John S. Foster, Jr., Bernard A. Schriever, Glenn Campbell, Gordon C. Luce, John Tower, and Chairperson Anne Armstrong. It has been reported that Nina J. Stewart was the primary author of this report. On February 15, she was the acting executive director of the Board. Before her role on the PFIAB she served as the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security. After resigning from the PFIAB, she served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counterintelligence.

[5] Documents recently released by the Cold War International History Project show that the Soviets’ East Germans allies were highly skeptical of Soviet computing prowess, however. Past «Soviet experiences show us that a danger exists of computer application concepts not getting implemented,» snidely wrote Stasi foreign intelligence chief Marcus Wolf when he was informed of the Soviet’s efforts.

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These materials are reproduced from with the permission of the National Security Archive. Edited by Nate Jones, Tom Blanton, and Lauren Harper. For more information contact: (202) 994-7000.


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