The Year We Almost Died

The “Cold War” was a state of undeclared war that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until the collapse of Russia’s Communist government in the early 1990s. Unlike a “hot” war, where two sides are actively shooting at each other, the “cold” war was all about readiness, posturing, and brinksmanship. If the Soviets came out with a new tank, the US would develop a missile that could pierce its armor. If the US came out with a submarine that was much quieter than its predecessors, the Soviet Union would develop better sonar for detecting it. If the Soviets sent $10 million worth of arms to a tribe in Africa, the US would send $20 million worth of arms to a competing tribe.

The Cold War was breathtakingly expensive and affected almost every country on earth. Although the US and Soviets never directly went to war, the Cold War did get awfully “warm” at times. In 1983, in fact, the world came to the very brink of a nuclear holocaust. Twice. And for that, you can blame Able Archer.

It all started with the 1980 US presidential election. President Carter (and Presidents Ford and Nixon before him) had pursued a policy of détente – a relaxing of tensions – between the US and the Soviet Union. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan actively rejected détente. Reagan felt that the previous administrations – Carter’s, especially – had used détente as an excuse to cut military spending. He felt that the United States could not negotiate with the Soviets with a weakened military. He called it “Peace Through Strength”, and it terrified the Soviets.

So shortly after Reagan’s inauguration, the Soviet leadership launched Operation RYAN, the largest peacetime intelligence gathering operation in Soviet history. Whereas before RYAN the Soviets had relied on professional spies attached to embassies as “cultural attaches” or “technical advisors”, RYAN greatly expanded the number of spies, and often included “ordinary folks” like janitors, secretaries, and cooks.

Unfortunately for the Soviets, their plan came with a built-in flaw: RYAN participants were “strongly encouraged” to report anything the Soviet leadership might deem useful. Problem was, there was the implication that “bad things” would happen to the participants (or their families back in Russia) if the agent reported too little. So RYAN agents, figuring it was better to report too much instead of getting a bullet in the head for reporting too little, began seeing signs of war virtually everywhere. An American military officer dropping off several uniforms at the dry cleaners wasn’t simply a soldier returning from overseas with a bunch of dirty clothes, he was “a high-ranking officer preparing for a nuclear war”. A large pizza delivery order from the Pentagon wasn’t “a special treat for Bob’s birthday”, it was a “planning session for a nuclear strike”. The Soviet leadership received these reports and encouraged more, thus creating a feedback loop for RYAN agents. In time, RYAN agents were reporting something as mundane as an admiral stopping at Dairy Queen for a milkshake as earth-shattering intelligence, and Soviet intelligence became ever more paranoid.

The Soviets’ paranoia wasn’t helped by a series of PSYOPs – psychological operations – the US began in February of 1981. NATO vessels began to aggressively patrol areas of the North Sea and North Atlantic between Greenland and the UK (known as the Greenland – Iceland – United Kingdom gap, or GIUK gap). The point behind the PSYOPS was to see how close NATO warships could get to Soviet military bases without detection. US planes were also sent perilously close to Soviet airspace, in order to see how well Soviet RADAR worked. The US planes would approach Soviet airspace at top speed, then pull away at the last possible moment. This drove the Soviets insane. The US knew the PSYOPS were affecting the Soviets, but the American military had no idea that Project RYAN existed. Thus, no one in the US military command knew just how paranoid the Soviets were becoming.

Their paranoia was kicked into a even higher gear by Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) on March 23, 1983. Whereas the Reagan administration saw SDI as a missile defense system, the Soviets saw it as a way to gain an military advantage. To their way of thinking, a space-based system that could shoot down Soviet missiles allowed the US to consider a first strike. Whereas the previous situation between the Soviets and United States was like two people with handguns pointed at each other, SDI would give the US a bullet-proof vest. In the Soviet mind, this made the US more likely to pull the trigger.

Around this time, Reagan also announced the deployment of Pershing II missiles in Western Europe. Built to counter the Soviet Union’s SS-20 missiles, Pershing II missiles could strike Soviet “hard targets” like command bunkers and missile silos. And since they were located in Western Europe instead of the US, they could hit their targets in four to six minutes. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Pershing IIs could also be readied for launch in minutes and came with a then-revolutionary “self-correcting” navigation system. To the Americans, they seemed a logical defense against the SS-20s. To the Soviets, their advanced features and close proximity was yet another sign of American aggression.

And then, on September 1, 1983, a commercial airliner flew directly in to all this fear and paranoia. Korean Air Flight 007 was a regularly-scheduled commercial flight traveling from New York City to Seoul, South Korea. It took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport at around 12:25am that morning, around 35 minutes behind schedule. It stopped at Anchorage International Airport to refuel, then turned south towards South Korea. Unfortunately, pilot Chun Byung-In took the plane too far to the south, and KAL 007 crossed into Soviet airspace over the Kamchatka Peninsula, home to a nuclear air base at Sakhalin. The KAL pilot had no idea that the Soviets were planning to test their new SS-25 missile in that area that very night. The Soviets, wary of American eavesdropping due to the GIUK PSYOPs, tracked the KAL jet, then launched fighter jets to intercept the plane. For reasons that are still not clear, Chun Byung-In did not respond to Soviet attempts to reach him by radio, nor did he respond when one of the fighter jets fired several warning shots from his 23mm guns. The Soviets, convinced the unresponsive jet was an American spy plane, ordered the jet shot down. The lead aircraft then fired two missiles at KAL 007. The 269 passengers – which included Georgia Congressman Larry McDonald – and the crew of KAL 007  were killed.

Rather than simply admit that they’d made a mistake, the Soviets then harassed the American, Korean and Japanese search and rescue teams by flying false flags, sending fake signals, flying bombers overhead (and occasionally “locking on” to US ships with their missiles) and even sending an armed boarding party to one Japanese ship. American and Soviet relations, never good to begin with, had reached an all-time low.

It was on September 26, 1983 that the world almost ended for the first time. The KAL 007 incident had just happened, and US, Korean and Japanese search ships were still looking for debris from the incident. As luck (or fate) would have it, a lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow, the Soviets’ equivalent of NORAD, America’s main missile defense bunker in Colorado Springs.

Shortly after midnight, the early warning system detected an American ICBM heading towards the Soviet Union. Petrov was convinced that it was a false alarm – after all, why would America launch a single missile towards Mother Russia? Later that evening, the system detected another launch, this time of four missiles. Petrov could have called his superiors in a panic, and they might have launched a volley of nuclear missiles at the United States. Petrov was sure that the US, even as angry as they were over KAL 007, would launch far more missiles in an initial attack, and was also convinced that the Soviet’s new missile detection system was full of bugs. It was. Some rare high-altitude clouds reflected sunlight in just such a way that the Soviet spy satellite detected them as a missile launch. Although the Soviets later added verification from an additional satellite to fix this problem, had it not been for Petrov’s cool demeanor, the world might have ended that day.

NATO had no knowledge of Operation RYAN or the near missile launch of September 26th. It also had no idea about the true depth of paranoia their PSYOPs and the KAL incident had inflicted on the Soviets. Unaware, NATO went ahead with some scheduled exercises on November 2, 1983. Codenamed Able Archer 83, the goal of the war games was to portray, as realistically as possible, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

Normally, “war games” involved smallish groups of soldiers and equipment. Perhaps American and German tank regiments would simulate a Soviet attack. Or maybe several battalions of ground troops would pretend to take on the Soviet army. Able Archer would be different. The games would activate everyone, including support staff not normally involved in such games. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl would even be sent to their country’s nuclear command bunkers. Every last detail had seemingly been thought through by NATO brass to make the “invasion” as realistic as possible.

On February 17, 1983, the KGB issued a memo which stated, among other things, that the spy agency felt that NATO forces would use a “training exercise” as cover for an actual invasion. Able Archer, with its complete submersion into realism, seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It didn’t help that the Soviets noticed several unusual streams of heavily encrypted communication between Washington and London only a few weeks before Able Archer; this turned out to be related to the US invasion of Grenada, a British territory, on October 25th. All the Soviets knew was that there was a flurry of secret communication between the US and UK leadership, and a couple of weeks later a hyperrealistic war game started. Just as the KGB had predicted, radio traffic increased, military personnel involved in nuclear weapons were activated, and thousands of troops started massing on the border between East and West Germany. Soviet intelligence agents reported that NATO was using several techniques and technologies never seen before, and also reported that the moves from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1 were real, not exercises.

The Soviets freaked. All of their intelligence, whether accurate or not, seemed to follow the KGB’s theoretical NATO invasion plans to the letter. The Soviets sent urgent messages to all of their spies and military bases to be on the lookout for suspicious NATO (or American) activity. The Soviets also readied their nuclear arsenal: the Baltic Military District, in Czechoslovakia, went on high alert, as were nuclear capable aircraft in Poland and East Germany. Former CIA agents also believe that ICBM silos were made ready for launch. The Soviets, it seems, were only seconds away from launching a nuclear attack on the West.

Thankfully, it never happened. On November 11, 1983, Able Archer ended, and the Soviets stood down their nuclear weapons. Several Soviet agents stationed in the West, including Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB double agent, were not convinced that NATO would launch a first strike against the Soviet Union. It was perhaps only due to people like Gordievsky that a nuclear holocaust was averted… for the second time that year.

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