Newly Released Documents Shed Light on 1983 Nuclear War Scare with Soviets

“On a hair trigger”: The Soviet Union put warplanes loaded with nuclear bombs on 24-hour alert during a 1983 war scare that was one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War.

By: Nate Jones & David E. Hoffman / Washington Post

The Soviet Union put fighter-bombers loaded with nuclear bombs on 24-hour alert in East Germany during a NATO nuclear weapons command exercise in November 1983, and the alert included “preparations for the immediate use of nuclear weapons,” according to newly released U.S. intelligence records that confirm a “war scare” during some of the most tense months of the Cold War.

It was disclosed previously that the NATO exercise, named Able Archer 83, triggered worries in the Kremlin. But the new documents provide precise details for the first time of the Soviet military response to the NATO exercise, an annual event that practiced a simulated nuclear attack on the forces of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.

According to the documents, the heightened Soviet alert was raised in the fighter-bomber divisions of Soviet forces stationed in East Germany. All command posts were ordered to be manned around-the-clock by augmented teams. In tandem, the chief of the Soviet air forces, Marshal Pavel Kutakhov, ordered all units of the Soviet 4th Air Army in Poland to be covered by the alert.

Fighter-bomber divisions were ordered to load nuclear bombs on one squadron of aircraft in each regiment. These aircraft were to be armed and placed at “readiness 3,” meaning a 30-minute alert to “destroy first-line enemy targets,” according to the documents.

Europe was the scene of a decades-long standoff during the Cold War as both superpowers prepared for conflict on land and in the air, including the possible use of nuclear weapons. A previous review of the war scare noted that Soviet military doctrine had called for preempting a NATO attack by striking first, and Warsaw Pact forces had long assumed a NATO offensive could start under the cover of an exercise such as Able Archer. The West also was prepared to use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack from the larger Warsaw Pact forces.

The Soviet Union deployed nuclear-capable Su-17 fighter-bombers in East Germany with six to eight pylons for bombs. One of the most ominous signs of the 1983 Soviet alert came in an intelligence report about a squadron at Neuruppin, East Germany. The alert aircraft were to be loaded with an electronic jamming pod for protection. However, reporting from the National Security Agency showed that the squadron asked to do without the electronics because of “an unexpected weight and balance problem.”

U.S. military intelligence analysts concluded that “this message meant that at least this particular squadron was loading a munitions configuration that they had never actually loaded before, i.e., a warload.”

A top U.S. intelligence official on the scene during Able Archer, Lt. Gen. Leonard H. Perroots, contacted his superiors at the peak of the tensions. He spoke with the commander in chief of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Gen. Billy Minter. When Minter asked whether the United States should react to what was happening in East Germany, Perroots replied there was “insufficient evidence to justify increasing our real alert posture.” But Perroots grew more worried as information came to him later showing the Soviet nervousness about Able Archer. “If I had known then what I later found out I am uncertain what advice I would have given,” he later wrote.

The new documents were included in an edition of Foreign Relations of the United States released on Tuesday. The new edition covers U.S. relations with the Soviet Union from January 1983 to March 1985, a period that included President Ronald Reagan’s description of the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire,” the launch of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative to build a space-based missile defense, and the September 1983 shoot-down of a civilian Korean airliner.

Moreover, the period included massive antinuclear demonstrations as the United States prepared to station Pershing II missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles in Western Europe to counter Soviet missiles. The Soviet leadership was thrust into uncertainty as three leaders died between 1982 and 1985.

In the new volume, State Department historians included a lengthy editor’s note on the war scare. The note reproduces a January 1989 memorandum from Perroots, titled “End of Tour Report Addendum.” Perroots had served as assistant chief of staff for intelligence, U.S. Air Forces Europe, during the Able Archer exercise and then as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1985 to 1989. At the end of his tour, he wrote the memo to record “his disquiet over the inadequate treatment of the Soviet war scare,” according to the State Department history.

Perroots, who died in 2017, believed that he had made the correct decision not to escalate U.S. force against the Soviets, but that he lacked full intelligence about the Soviet alert. At the time, he thought the Soviet alert was concerning, but not overly so. That view changed when he saw additional intelligence reported only after the exercise had concluded. This “much more ominous picture” included a “standdown” of all Soviet air forces in the region.

A stand-down meant a pause in routine flying activity — and preparations for something else — but it was not picked up right away by Western intelligence, and that later worried Perroots.

He wrote that “a real standdown of aircraft was secretly ordered in at least the Soviet Air Forces units facing the Central Region, and that standdown was not detected,” by the West. “The Soviet alert in response to ABLE ARCHER began after nightfall on Wednesday evening, there was no flying on the following two days which led to the weekend, and then the following Monday was 7 November, the revolution holiday.”

“The absence of flying could always be explained,” Perroots wrote, but then new material arrived that was alarming, and produced an intelligence warning. On Nov. 9, “overhead photography showed fully armed FLOGGER aircraft on air defense alert at a base in East Germany. When this single indicator was raised, the standdown had been underway for a week.” The “FLOGGER” was a Soviet Mig-23 fighter.

In 2015, the U.S. government declassified a 109-page report by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), dated Feb. 15, 1990, and titled, “The Soviet War Scare.” It was released to the National Security Archive, a non­governmental organization affiliated with George Washington University that seeks government documents through the Freedom of Information Act.

The PFIAB review concluded, “In 1983, we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.” The Perroots memorandum was cited in the PFIAB review, but not made public at the time. The National Security Archive had sued the DIA for the record in 2019. The suit is still pending.

According to the PFIAB report, U.S. and British intelligence showed that the Soviet and Warsaw Pact reaction to Able Archer was “unprecedented” and was “activity seen only during crisis periods in the past.” These actions were a reconnaissance effort that included 36 intelligence flights, “significantly more” than in previous years that Able Archer was conducted, and the stand-down of all military flight operations between Nov. 4 and Nov. 10, except for the intelligence flights, “probably to have available as many aircraft as possible for combat.”

The release of the Perroots memorandum adds to the PFIAB conclusion that the war scare was real. But the event has been a Cold War puzzle for many years, and the nature of high-level Kremlin discussions about it are still largely unknown.

In the aftermath of Able Archer, the U.S. intelligence community commissioned two postmortems, in May and August 1984, looking back at the events. Both intelligence estimates declared, “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.” This conclusion was based on the fact that the United States did not see widespread mobilization for war at the time. But the PFIAB review criticized these estimates, saying that the intelligence community “did not at the time, and for several years afterwards, attach sufficient weight to the possibility that the war scare was real.”


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