Able Archer 83 (book)

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Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War. Nate Jones, editor. Tom Blanton, foreword. NYC and London, UK: The New Press, 2016.


Military history, with reproductions of original documentation, from the National Security Archive.


There are brief but important references here to THE DAY AFTER[1][2] (p. 45) and WARGAMES (p. 308, n. 52), both watched with profit by President Ronald Reagan. Immediately relevant for this wiki, however, is "Operation RYaN [sic on capitalization; and VRYAN] (the Russian acronym for Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie, or, in English, a nuclear missile attack), an intelligence-gathering operation to detect and possibly preempt a Western nuclear attack on the Soviet Union" (p. 3).

East German documents on Operation RYaN […] recently disclosed that within the KGB, three hundred positions were created so that RYaN's operatives could report on and monitor incoming intelligence and implement the real-time quote transmission and evaluation" of reported indicators showing the likelihood of a western first strike. By July of 1984, [the] KGB chairman [...] expanded Operation RYaN by creating a new division within the First Department […] of the KGB's First Main Directorate […] to implement operation RYaN throughout the KGB and the world. […] The documents also contain references to the primitive computer system that the Soviet Union was attempting to use to track and calculate the "correlation of world forces" — the relative international strength of the Soviet Union — including the risk of nuclear war. [… Double agent] Oleg Gordievsky and reported to the British "a large computer model in the Min[istry] of Defense to calculate and monitor the correlation of forces, including mili[tary], economy [sic], [and] psychological factors, to assign number and relative weights." On November 23rd, 1983, U.S. Defense and Intelligence officials circulated an article entitled "In pursuit of the Essence of War” that described the Soviet computer system "that calculated and computerized" the world's "correlation of forces." The results, it claimed, were "highly objective, empirically provable and readily adaptable to modern data processing." The East Germans, however, we're much more skeptical of Soviet computing prowess [...]. (Introduction pp. 13-14)

For the remainder on Operation RYaN, we recommend reading the long headnote to, and the information in, Document 1: President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Report, "The Soviet 'War Scare,'" February 15, 1990, Top Secret, UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON — from the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library, and emphatically marked on each page with the classification codes and "TOP SECRET" crossed out by hand (pp. [67] f.).

From the introduction to Document 1, stating how this PFIAB report — the initialisms and acronyms are important for the rhetoric of the document — how this

report describes how the "Soviets had concerns 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 U.S. preparations for a nuclear strike." To counter this strike [...] Soviet leader Yuri Andropov initiated Operation RYaN, the Soviet human intelligence effort to detect and preempt a western "surprise nuclear missile attack."

Fortunately "the military officers in charge of the Able Archer [1983] 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, U.S. Air Forces Europe. The report described the Perroots 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 […] may have been what ended the "last paroxysm of the Cold War," the 1983 War Scare. (p. [67])

Note for real-world incidence of human "instinctual decision" overriding more mechanical reactions, a decision paralleling the better known one of Soviet Lr. Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov's decision to disobey protocol when the Soviet Oko nuclear early-warning system reported a U.S. missile attack (also in the tense year of 1983).[3]

The computer aspects of the Able Archer "1983 War Scare" also came in with technology, and the decreasing time to react to nuclear missile attacks, and the fear of "decapitation," with the first-strike attacks killing the officials in the enemy country who could order retaliation, plus the fear that the first strike would render the victim country incapable of a powerful revenge attack (note General Buck Turgidson on this topic in the 1964 DR. STRANGELOVE, definitely which see: the Doomsday Machine is computer-based).

In 1979, the KGB put on line "the computer concept" VRYAN, an

acronym for "Surprise Nuclear Missile Attack." KGB analysts responsible for assessing American strategic intentions operated under the premise that if the US ever obtained decisive, overall superiority, it might be inclined to launch a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. Because the program was supposed to determine quantitatively when such a situation might be approaching, analysts believe it would accurately provide strategic warning. (p. 125) * * *

Before long VRYAN began spewing very unwelcome news — which brought dire predictions. [...] [B]y 1984 VRYAN calculated that Soviet power had actually declined to 45 percent of that of the United states. Forty percent was viewed as a critical threshold. Below that level, the Soviet Union would be considered dangerously inferior to the United States. [REDACTED] [I]f the Soviet rating fell below 40 percent, the KGB and the military leadership would inform the political leadership that the security of the USSR could not be guaranteed, [REDACTED] The USSR would launch a preemptive attack within a few weeks of falling below the 40-percent mark. (p. 126)

This computerized protocol is the background for the Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83, which included exercises in preparing for nuclear "release": i.e., fighting a nuclear war.

In addition to WARGAMES, note for background for the TERMINATOR series and COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT and its source novel — et al. — keeping in mind how long the dangers of Able Archer 83 were kept secret.



RDE, with thanks to Roger Mason, finishing, 27May24