“Let’s play Global Thermonuclear War.”
Thirty-two years ago, just months after the release of the movie WarGames, the world came the closest it ever has to nuclear Armageddon. In the movie version of a global near-death experience, a teenage hacker messing around with an artificial intelligence program that just happened to control the American nuclear missile force unleashes chaos. In reality, a very different computer program run by the Soviets fed growing paranoia about the intentions of the United States, very nearly triggering a nuclear war.
The software in question was a KGB computer model constructed as part of Operation RYAN (РЯН), details of which were obtained from Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB’s London section chief who was at the same time spying for Britain’s MI6. Named for an acronym for “Nuclear Missile Attack” (Ракетное Ядерное Нападение), RYAN was an intelligence operation started in 1981 to help the intelligence agency forecast if the US and its allies were planning a nuclear strike. The KGB believed that by analyzing quantitative data from intelligence on US and NATO activities relative to the Soviet Union, they could predict when a sneak attack was most likely.
As it turned out, Exercise Able Archer ’83 triggered that forecast. The war game, which was staged over two weeks in November of 1983, simulated the procedures that NATO would go through prior to a nuclear launch. Many of these procedures and tactics were things the Soviets had never seen, and the whole exercise came after a series of feints by US and NATO forces to size up Soviet defenses and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983. So as Soviet leaders monitored the exercise and considered the current climate, they put one and one together. Able Archer, according to Soviet leadership at least, must have been a cover for a genuine surprise attack planned by the US, then led by a president possibly insane enough to do it.
While some studies, including an analysis some 12 years ago by historian Fritz Earth, have downplayed the actual Soviet response to Able Archer, a newly published declassified 1990 report from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) to President George H. W. Bush obtained by the National Security Archive suggests that the danger was all too real. The document was classified as Top Secret with the code word UMBRA, denoting the most sensitive compartment of classified material, and it cites data from sources that to this day remain highly classified. When combined with previously released CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), and Defense Department documents, this PFIAB report shows that only the illness of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov—and the instincts of one mid-level Soviet officer—may have prevented a nuclear launch.
The balance of paranoia
As Able Archer ’83 was getting underway, the US defense and intelligence community believed the Soviet Union was strategically secure. A top-secret Defense Department-CIA Joint Net Assessment published in November of 1983 stated, “The Soviets, in our view, have some clear advantages today, and these advantages are projected to continue, although differences may narrow somewhat in the next 10 years. It is likely, however, that the Soviets do not see their advantage as being as great as we would assess.”
The assessment was spot on—the Soviets certainly did not see it this way. In 1981, the KGB foreign intelligence directorate ran a computer analysis using an early version of the RYAN system, seeking the “correlation of world forces” between the USSR and the United States. The numbers suggested one thing: the Soviet Union was losing the Cold War, and the US might soon be in a strategically dominant position. And if that happened, the Soviets believed its adversary would strike to destroy them and their Warsaw Pact allies.
This data was everything the leadership expected given the intransigence of the Reagan administration. The US’ aggressive foreign policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s confused and worried the USSR. They didn’t understand the reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan, which they thought the US would just recognize as a vital security operation.
The US was even funding the mujaheddin fighting them, “training and sending armed terrorists,” as Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Suslov put it in a 1980 speech (those trainees including a young Saudi inspired to jihad by the name of Osama bin Laden). And in Nicaragua, the US was funneling arms to the Contras fighting the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega. All the while, Reagan was refusing to engage the Soviets on arms control. This mounting evidence convinced some in the Soviet leadership that Reagan was willing to go even further in his efforts to destroy what he would soon describe as the “evil empire.”
USSR had plenty of reason to think the US also believed it could win a nuclear war. The rhetoric of the Reagan administration was backed up by a surge in military capabilities, and much of the Soviet military’s nuclear capabilities were vulnerable to surprise attack. In 1983, the United States was in the midst of its biggest military buildup in decades. And thanks to a direct line into some of the US’ most sensitive communications, the KGB had plenty of bad news to share about that with the Kremlin.
The seaborne leg of the Soviet strategic force was especially vulnerable. The US Navy’s SOSUS (sound surveillance system), a network of hydrophone arrays, tracked nearly every Russian submarine that entered the Atlantic and much of the Pacific, and US antisubmarine forces (P-3 Orion patrol planes, fast attack subs, and destroyers and frigates) were practically on top of, or in the wake of, Soviet ballistic missile subs during their patrols. The US had mapped out the “Yankee Patrol Boxes” where Soviet Navaga-class (NATO designation “Yankee”) ballistic missile subs stationed themselves off the US’ east and west coasts. Again, the Soviets knew all of this thanks to the spy John Walker, so confidence in their sub fleet’s survivability was likely low.
The air-based leg of the Soviet triad was no better off. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union had the largest air force in the world. But the deployment of the Tomahawk cruise missile, initial production of the US Air Force’s AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile, and the pending deployment of Pershing II intermediate range ballistic missiles to Europe meant that NATO could strike at Soviet air fields with very little warning. Unfortunately, the Soviet strategic air force needed as much warning as it could get. Soviet long-range bombers were “kept at a low state of readiness,” the advisory board report noted. Hours or days would have been required to get bombers ready for an all-out war. In all likelihood, the Soviet leadership assumed their entire bomber force would be caught on the ground in a sneak attack and wiped out.
Even theater nuclear forces like the RSD-10 Pioneer—one of the weapons systems that prompted the deployment of the Pershing II to Europe—were vulnerable. They generally didn’t have warheads or missiles loaded into their mobile launcher systems when not on alert. The only leg not overly vulnerable to a first strike by NATO was the Soviets’ intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force. Its readiness was in question, however. According to the 1990 briefing paper by the PFIAB, about 95 percent of the Soviet ICBM force was ready to respond to an attack alert within 15 minutes during the early 1980s. The silo-based missiles were out of range of anything but US submarine-launched and land-based ballistic missiles.
The viability of the ICBM force as a response to sneak attack was based entirely on how much warning time the Soviets had. In 1981, they brought a new over-the-horizon ballistic missile early warning (BMEW) radar system on-line. One year later, the Soviets activated the US-KS nuclear launch warning satellite network, known as “Oko” (Russian for “eye”). These two measures gave the Soviet command and control structure about 30 minutes’ warning of any US ICBM launch. But the deployment of Pershing II missiles to Europe could cut warning time to less than eight minutes, and attacks from US sub-launched missiles would have warning times in some cases of less than five minutes.
And then, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” program—the predecessor to the current Missile Defense Agency efforts to counter limited ballistic missile attacks. While SDI was presented as defensive, it would likely only be effective if the US dramatically reduced the number of Soviet ICBMs launched by making a first strike. More than ever before, SDI convinced the Soviet leadership that Reagan was aiming to make a nuclear war against them winnable.
Combined with his ongoing anti-Soviet rhetoric, USSR leadership saw Reagan as an existential threat against the country on par with Hitler. In fact, they publicly made that comparison, accusing the Reagan administration of pushing the world closer to another global war. And maybe, they thought, the US president already believed it was possible to defeat the Soviets with a surprise attack.