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Declassified US documents reveal how Soviets readied nuclear attack during 1983 NATO exercise

Newly released US intelligence files show how close the Soviet Union came to launching a nuclear attack during a NATO weapons exercise in 1983.

The Communist bloc put fighter bombers strapped with nuclear bombs on high alert in East Germany during a ‘war scare’ prompted by NATO’s Able Archer command exercise in November 1983.

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov made ‘preparations for the immediate use of nuclear weapons’ and forces were on 30-minute standby to destroy enemy targets in what was one of the tensest moments of the Cold War.

It was previously known that Able Archer 83 caused panic in the Kremlin but the new documents, which are included in an edition of Foreign Relations of the United States released on Tuesday, show precise details of the Soviet response.

Able Archer exercises were an annual event by NATO military forces that simulated conflict escalation towards a DEFCON 1 nuclear attack situation on the East.

Newly released US intelligence files show how close the Soviet Union came to launching a nuclear attack during a NATO weapons exercise in 1983. Pictured: US Tomahawk nuclear cruise missiles en route to silos upon arrival at Greenham Common Air Base

Some historians believe Ronald Reagan, pictured in November 1983, changed his attitude towards the Soviet Union as a result of the Able Archer scare, towards a policy of rapprochement

Some historians believe Ronald Reagan, pictured in November 1983, changed his attitude towards the Soviet Union as a result of the Able Archer scare, towards a policy of rapprochement 

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov prepared a nuclear counter-strike in the tense Cold War moment

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov prepared a nuclear counter-strike in the tense Cold War moment

But in 1983, the exercise coordinated from Belgium used a heightened realism not previously seen by the Soviets, causing alarm in their ranks.

That year, NATO forces used a new coded communication system, radio silences and the involvements of heads of government including Margaret Thatcher.

The documents, seen by the Washington Post, show how Soviets responded by raising the alarm in the fighter-bomber divisions in East Germany.

All command posts were manned around the clock while the chief of the Soviet air forces, Marshal Pavel Kutakhov, ordered all units in the Soviet 4th Air Army in Poland to also be on alert.

Nuclear bombs were loaded on to one squadron of aircraft in each regiment by the Su-17 fighter bomber divisions.

An intelligence report about a squadron in Neuruppin showed that aircraft had an ‘unexpected weight and balance problem’ during the scare.

US intelligence analysts concluded this was because the squadron was carrying a ‘warload’ that it had never used before.

Lt. Gen. Leonard H Perroots ordered the US not to respond to the Soviets but said he was not aware of the scale of their plans

Lt. Gen. Leonard H Perroots ordered the US not to respond to the Soviets but said he was not aware of the scale of their plans

Nuclear bombs were loaded on to one squadron of aircraft in each regiment by the Su-17 fighter bomber divisions

Nuclear bombs were loaded on to one squadron of aircraft in each regiment by the Su-17 fighter bomber divisions

The aircraft were on ‘readiness 3’, giving them a 30-minute alert to ‘destroy first-line enemy targets’, the documents show.

Soviet forces had long feared NATO could use the cover of an exercise to launch an offensive.

During the Able Archer 83 exercise, Lt. Gen. Leonard H Perroots, a top US intelligence official, contacted his superiors over fears the Soviets were preparing to strike.

Gen. Billy Minter, commander in chief of the US Air Forces in Europe, asked if they should react, but Perroots initially said there was not enough evidence.

But Perroots became increasingly worried as more information came through about Soviet preparations.

The war scare came at a time of increased hostility between the US and the USSR as Ronald Regan ramped up the nuclear rhetoric. Pictured: US troops at Checkpoint Charlie

The war scare came at a time of increased hostility between the US and the USSR as Ronald Regan ramped up the nuclear rhetoric. Pictured: US troops at Checkpoint Charlie

How Able Archer nearly led to war 

The Able Archer nuclear release exercise was carried out by NATO for a number of years to test their preparedness for war.

The exercises consisted of conflict escalation leading to a DECON 1 situation. 

In November of 1983, Soviet officials thought the US was using the exercise as a front for a surprise nuclear attack on the USSR. 

The exercise had some ‘special wrinkles’ that year such as US planes engaging in ‘nuclear warhead handling procedures’ and ‘taxiing out of hangars carrying realistic-looking dummy warheads’.

As Soviet spies were looking to detect signs of an attack, NATO were simulating one.

They noticed that Western leaders were involved with the plans and  a high rate of coded communications between the UK and the US was also intercepted around that time.

But unknown to the Russians, the messages were actually regarding the US invasion of Grenada. 

In 1983’s exercise, NATO used new procedures, new message formats and more sophisticated communication, prompting fears in the USSR. 

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov initiated Operation RYAN so the USSR would be in position to counter-strike against the ‘surprise nuclear missile attack’ that the US never actually intended to launch. 

The USSR placed its air forces­ in East Germany and Poland on higher alert and asked its military intelligence officers to be especially watchful for signs of nuclear war preparations.   

He later wrote: ‘If I had known then what I later found out I am uncertain what advice I would have given.’

The new documents feature in the new edition of Foreign Relations of the United States which covers dealings with the Soviet Union from January 1983 to March 1985.

It includes a 1989 memorandum from Perroots, written at the end of his tour, to record his dissatisfaction with the handling of the war scare.

Perroots died in 2017 and believed he made the right decision not to escalate force but said he lacked full intelligence to make the call.

After the exercise was over, he learned the full extent of the Soviet response which included a standdown of all air forces in the region, meaning a pause in routine flying and preparations for a potential attack.

The standdown was not picked up at the time by Western intelligence agencies.

A 1990 report on the ‘Soviet War Scare’ by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) was declassified by the US government in 2015. 

It was released to the National Security Archive and though it cited the Perroots memorandum, it was not made public. 

The review concluded that relations with the Soviet Union were placed ‘on a hair trigger’ in 1983 after the ‘unprecedented’ response to the NATO exercise.    

The war scare came during a period of heightened tensions between the US and the USSR.

In 1981, Soviet leaders including Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev declared the US was secretly preparing a nuclear attack.  

They launched Operation RYaN, a Russian acronym for ‘Nuclear Missile Attack’, with spies gathering information on how the US would carry out a strike.

In the bellicose early years of the administration of Ronald Reagan, the US escalated military rhetoric against the USSR and heavily built up its arsenal.

The US President declared the USSR an ‘evil empire’, while building up the Strategic Defense Initiative, prompting genuine fears in the East about their intentions.

This led to the paranoia surrounding Able Archer and their rapid response to the perceived threat. 


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