The Buzz

This Is How America and the Soviet Union Almost Started a Nuclear War

The U.S. government has just released one of the most worrying reports about the risk of nuclear war in the Cold War and the dangers of miscalculating Soviet intentions.

The top-secret document was released in October 2015. It’s a damning report made by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) in February 1990 about the U.S. intelligence community’s poor knowledge and lack of understanding of the USSR during the 1983 nuclear war scare.

Strategist readers will recall that in October 2013 I authored an ASPI Special Report The nuclear war scare of 1983: how serious was it? I had access to 57 U.S. intelligence documents—many of them National Intelligence Estimates on the USSR formerly highly classified—that had been obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) by the National Security Archive. Using those sources I painted a frightening picture of events in 1983 when the world stood on the edge of the nuclear abyss without America even realizing it. But there was one piece of critical evidence missing—the 1990 PFIAB report, which has only recently been released.

There was a series of crises in 1983 concerning the deployment by the U.S. in Europe of Pershing II theatre nuclear weapons with a flight time of 5 to 6 minutes to Moscow; President Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI, or ‘Star Wars’); his calling of the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’; the Soviet Union’s shooting down of a Korean civilian airliner; and above all a major NATO exercise in November 1983 called ‘Able Archer’, which Moscow saw as a deception operation for the countdown to nuclear war. The Soviet Union’s intelligence organs mounted an unprecedented collection effort in an urgent attempt to detect warning indicators of NATO’s preparations for war. There was also an unprecedented emphasis on civil defense exercises, increased readiness of Soviet ballistic missile submarines and forward deployed nuclear capable aircraft, and massive military exercises responding to a sudden enemy nuclear strike.

In May and August 1984, two top-secret U.S. intelligence post-mortems reviewed recent Soviet military activities and political statements, but—despite the evidence that the CIA had seen from Oleg Gordievsky the KGB chief in London—they declared that “the Soviet leaders do not perceive a genuine danger of imminent conflict or confrontation with the United States.”

The PFIAB Board’s report states that the evidence didn’t support such categorical conclusions. It says that Soviet actions strongly suggested that the USSR’s military leaders may have been seriously concerned that the U.S. would use Able Archer as a cover for launching a real attack and that the evidence strongly indicated that the war scare was real, not least in the minds of some Soviet leaders and particularly the General Secretary of the Communist Party and former KGB chief, Yuri Andropov.

The PFIAB report says that the situation could have been extremely dangerous if during the NATO exercise—perhaps through a series of ill-timed coincidences or because of faulty intelligence—the Soviets had misperceived U.S. actions as preparations for a real nuclear attack. The report is sharply critical of U.S. intelligence estimates for being overconfident and overly sanguine. The US intelligence community, it says, “did not at the time, and for several years afterwards, attach sufficient weight to the possibility that the war scare was real.” The Board repeatedly criticizes U.S. intelligence on Soviet leaders, saying at the time of the 1984 post-mortems that “the U.S. knew very little about Kremlin decision-making” even though senior intelligence analysts wrote confidently about “Soviet leadership intentions.” U.S. intelligence judgements “were overconfident, particularly in the judgements pertaining to Soviet leadership intentions—since little intelligence, human or technical, existed to support them.”

The Board’s report concludes that in 1983 the U.S. may have inadvertently placed its relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger and that for Soviet leaders the war scare was real, and that U.S. intelligence post-mortems didn’t take it seriously enough. As a result, the President was given assessments of Soviet attitudes and actions that understated the risks to the U.S.

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