The 1983 War Scare

By Darren Court, Museum Director/Curator

Edited by Jenn Jett, Museum Specialist

As we move through the exhibit planning stage for the new museum, one of the things we hope to do is place events and weapons tested at White Sands Missile Range in context in a way that enriches a visitors understanding. Some of the weapons tested at WSMR had a great impact not only for their military uses, but in a larger geopolitical context. One of these is the Pershing II missile and the role it played in the 1983 “War Scare.” Because of President Ronald Reagan’s heated anti-Soviet rhetoric, fears the Soviet Leadership and KGB had of an American first strike, and events of 1983, the US and USSR came closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Some historians posit that the situation was even more dire because one side – the United States – failed to understand just how tense it had become. We hope this will be the first in a series of closer looks at WSMR’s role in the Cold War.

Soviet KGB Chief Yuri Andropov

Early in 1981, a meeting was held among senior Soviet leadership and its intelligence service, Комитет государственной безопасности, translated as the “Committee for State Security,” but most commonly known by its acronym, the KGB. The topic of this meeting was the possibility of the United States and its NATO allies launching a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. At this time, the Soviets put Operation RYaN, an acronym for “Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie,” or “Nuclear Missile Attack,” into effect, increasing surveillance and detection efforts in determining whether a first strike was being planned. This occurred shortly after a series of NATO psychological operations had begun in earnest – exposing multiple weaknesses in Soviet abilities to detect and deter air and sea-borne forces near Soviet land and air space.

Though Operation RYaN slowed during 1982, the following year it increased tremendously. A number of factors contributed to this and the belief among Soviet leadership that NATO was, indeed, setting the stage for a first strike nuclear option against the Soviet Union.

US President Ronald Reagan. Photo by Mark Reinstein.

Upon assuming the presidency in 1981, President Reagan announced a dramatic increase in military spending, to a large degree in response to defense hawks such at Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze, and Paul Wolfowitz. In addition, at the National Association of Evangelicals conference in Orlando, Florida in 1983, Reagan referred to the USSR as the “Evil Empire,” and later as the “…source of all evil in the world.”

HELSTF – High Energy Laser Stationary Test Facility at WSMR, a test site for SDI technologies

In March 1983, President Reagan announced the new Strategic Defense Initiative, known as “Star Wars.” SDI was a land and space-based missile defense system designed to protect the United States from a Soviet nuclear attack. Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov immediately – and very publicly – attacked President Reagan with the assertion that he was “inventing new plans on how to unleash a nuclear war in the best way, with the hope of winning it.” A few things in Andropov’s response were unprecedented, as he gave specific information regarding numbers and capabilities of US weapons, in addition to referring to Soviet weapons with unusual candor. The state of Soviet technology had fallen so far behind that of the West that Andropov and his GRU and KGB colleagues genuinely worried about the defense readiness of the USSR. A former Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the Soviet General Staff candidly stated, “In the US, small children play with computers…here, we don’t even have computers in every office of the defense Ministry.”

The USS Enterprise

FleetEx ‘83 was a mission that took place between 29 March and 17 April of 1983 and consisted of three carrier battle groups. The US carriers Enterprise, Midway, and Coral Sea, along with their respective escort ships, participated in the exercise. According to Admiral Robert L. J. Long, Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Forces in the Pacific, FleetEx ’83 comprised “the largest fleet exercise conducted by the Pacific Fleet since World War II.” The group consisted of approximately forty ships, 23,000 crew members, and 300 aircraft.

The exercise lasted approximately two weeks and was conducted in the Northern Pacific, within flight range of the Soviet coast. The purpose of the mission was to intentionally provoke the Soviet Union into responding so that US and NATO forces could study their response, tactics, and capabilities as well as demonstrate the effective operations of a three-carrier battle force in joint and combined operations across multiple service branches in both the United States and Canada in a high-threat environment. The exercises were extremely successful and effective in integrating the combined forces of the United States Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Canadian Maritime Command forces into an effective battle-worthy whole. Despite poor weather, the fleet excelled throughout the exercise.

Korean Airlines Flight 007’s Flight Path

On September 1, Soviet Air Defense ordered the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007, killing all 269 people aboard. Aircraft from USS Midway and USS Enterprise had repeatedly overflown Soviet military installations in the Kuril Islands during FleetEx ’83, resulting in the dismissal or reprimanding of Soviet military officials who had been unable to shoot them down – a critical point to consider in understanding the KAL007 downing. There was also a heightened alert around the Kamchatka Peninsula because of a Soviet missile test at the Kura Missile Test Range that was scheduled for the same day. A United States Air Force Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft flying in the area was monitoring the missile test off the peninsula. The downing of the civilian aircraft was considered intentional by the United States, with Reagan calling it “…an act of barbarism born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.” This further inflamed Soviet sensibilities.

Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov. Photo from Legion Media.

Because of concerns that had increased surveillance under Operation Ryan dramatically since 1981, as well as Reagan’s rhetoric and other events of 1983, the USSR was on a very high alert status by September – this included its missile forces. On the 26th, Stanislav Petrov, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow which housed the command center of the Soviet early warning satellites, code-named Oko. Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. If notification was received from the early warning systems that inbound missiles had been detected, the Soviet Union’s strategy was an immediate and compulsory nuclear counter-attack against the United States, to launch on warning, specified in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Shortly after midnight, the bunker’s computers reported that one intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the United States. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous launches in order to disable any Soviet means of counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system’s reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that no missile had been launched. Petrov’s suspicion that the warning system was malfunctioning was confirmed when no missile in fact arrived. Later, the computers identified four additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov suspected that the computer system was malfunctioning again, despite having no direct means to confirm this. The Soviet Union’s land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon. It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.

In explaining the factors leading to his decision, Petrov cited his belief and training that any US first strike would be massive, so five missiles seemed an illogical start. In addition, the launch detection system was new and, in his view, not yet wholly trustworthy, while ground radar had failed to pick up corroborative evidence even after several minutes of the false alarm.

A Pershing II missile is fired from an erector/launcher vehicle on McGregor Range, NM. Photo from the US National Archives.

On 07 November 1983, Exercise Able Archer 83 commenced; as Soviet intelligence services were attempting to detect the early signs of a nuclear attack, NATO began to simulate one. The exercise involved numerous NATO allies and simulated NATO’s Command, Control, and Communications (C³) procedures during a nuclear war. Some Soviet leaders, due to the preceding world events and the exercise’s particularly realistic nature, feared that the exercise was a cover for an actual attack. A KGB telegram of February 17 described one likely scenario:

“In view of the fact that the measures involved in State Orange [a nuclear attack within 36 hours] have to be carried out with the utmost secrecy (under the guise of maneuvers, training, etc.) in the shortest possible time, without disclosing the content of operational plans, it is highly probable that the battle alarm system may be used to prepare a surprise RYAN [nuclear attack] in peacetime.”

A further startling aspect reported by KGB agents concerned the NATO communications used during the exercise. According to the Moscow Centre’s 17 February memo,

“It [is] of the highest importance to keep a watch on the functioning of communications networks and systems since through them information is passed about the adversary’s intentions and, above all, about his plans to use nuclear weapons and practical implementation of these. In addition, changes in the method of operating communications systems and the level of manning may in themselves indicate the state of preparation for RYAN.”

Soviet intelligence appeared to substantiate these suspicions by reporting that NATO was indeed using unique, never-before-seen procedures as well as message formats more sophisticated than previous exercises, which possibly indicated the proximity of nuclear attack.

According to a 2013 analysis by the National Security Archive:

“The Able Archer controversy has featured numerous descriptions of the exercise as so ‘routine’ that it could not have alarmed the Soviet military and political leadership. [Current intelligence] reveals multiple non-routine elements, including: a 170-flight, radio-silent air lift of 19,000 US soldiers to Europe, the shifting of commands from ‘Permanent War Headquarters to the Alternate War Headquarters,’ the practice of ‘new nuclear weapons release procedures,’ including consultations with cells in Washington and London, and the ‘sensitive, political issue’ of numerous ‘slips of the tongue’ in which B-52 sorties were referred to as nuclear ‘strikes.’ These variations, seen through ‘the fog of nuclear exercises,’ did in fact match official Soviet intelligence-defined indicators for ‘possible operations by the USA and its allies on British territory in preparation for RYAN’—the KGB code name for a feared Western nuclear missile attack.”

Anti-Pershing II missile demonstration in Germany. Photo by Rob Bogaerts, Anefo Photo Bureau..

The Pershing II (P2) Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, tested at White Sands Missile Range, was a direct threat to the security of the Soviet Union, according to its leadership. A response to the Soviet SS-20 missile being deployed in the Warsaw Pact nations, the P2 was capable of destroying hard targets such as command and control facilities as well as hardened nuclear missile silos. Their flight time from West Germany to Moscow was only six minutes, giving NATO an overwhelming first strike capability. Because of their ability to strike without giving the Soviets little or no warning, a decision was being made in the USSR whether to strike first.

During the summer of 1983, the planned deployment of the Pershing II, as well as nuclear-capable cruise missiles, to Europe provoked reactions throughout the continent which gradually swelled and became vocal as November approached. The deployment of Pershing II missiles to Germany at the height of this rhetoric, in addition to everything else coming from NATO and the United States, brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than it had been in 20 years, according to some historians.

Following the 1983 War Scare, reports from US intelligence services indicated that American officials were unaware of how close the USSR came to ordering a nuclear first strike. While NATO conducted some of the most realistic nuclear simulations in its history, the intelligence findings from Operation Ryan repeatedly interpreted Able Archer as a real and imminent American military operation to instantly decapitate the USSR government and cripple its ability to retaliate.

In the mid-1980s, President Reagan and USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev were able to slowly diffuse tensions through a series of summits, eventually leading to the 1987 signing and ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by both countries.

US President Ronald Reagan and USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev sign the INF Treaty on 08 December 1987. Photo from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

One thought on “The 1983 War Scare

  1. Most folks have no idea the roll WSMR & Redstone Arsenal played in developing our current Missiles. I remember sitting in Bleachers & watching night Missile shoots. at WSMR. Great place to grow up & be educated.

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