The newly released Soviet "War Scare" report - previously classified "TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON" and published after a 12-year fight by the National Security Archive – reveals that the 1983 War Scare was real. According to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), the United States "may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger" during the 1983 NATO nuclear release exercise, Able Archer 83.
The documents prove that the "balance of terror" during the Cold War was very fragile. The philosophy of the MAD (mutually assured destruction), based on the theory of deterrence, might not be sufficient to prevent a nuclear war.
According to the theory of deterrence, "the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy's use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which neither side, once armed, has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction)
The revelation also shows that the prevention of a nuclear war came not as a result of a well-coordinated general strategy, or, effective communication channels between the two Cold War rivals, but from the reactions of specific individuals like Lieutenant General Leonard H. Perroots!
From the National Security Archive:
According to documents reviewed by the Board and dissected in the declassified PFIAB report, by 1983 "The Soviets had concern that the West might decide to attack the USSR without warning during a time of vulnerability…thus compelling the Soviets to consider a preemptive strike at the first sign of US preparations for a nuclear strike." To counter this strike (which the West never intended to launch), Soviet leader Yuri Andropov initiated Operation RYaN, the Soviet human intelligence effort to detect and preempt a Western "surprise nuclear missile attack."
Fortunately "the military officers in charge of the Able Archer exercise minimized this risk by doing nothing in the face of evidence that parts of the Soviet armed forces were moving to an unusual level of alert." The decision not to elevate the alert of Western military assets in response was made by Lieutenant General Leonard Perroots while serving as Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Air Forces Europe. The report describes Perroots's decision as "fortuitous, if ill-informed" and states that "these officers acted correctly out of instinct, not informed guidance, for in the years leading up to Able Archer they had received no guidance as to the possible significance of apparent changes in Soviet military and political thinking."
Perroots's instinctual decision not to respond to the Soviet escalation in kind –an act until now unknown– may have been what ended the "last paroxysm of the Cold War," the 1983 War Scare.
Declassified NATO and US Air Force documents have shown that the Able Archer 83 exercise included significant new provocative features, which could have been misperceived by the Soviets as preparations for an actual strike. These included: a 170-flight, radio-silent air lift of 19,000 US soldiers to Europe during Autumn Forge 83, of which Able Archer 83 was a component; 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."
The PFIAB report reveals even more potential warning signs that could have been misinterpreted by the Soviets, described as "special wrinkles," including "pre-exercise communications that notionally moved forces from normal readiness, through various alert phases, to General Alert;" and that "some US aircraft practiced the nuclear warhead handling procedures, including taxiing out of hangars carrying realistic-looking dummy warheads."
The PFIAB report also shows that President Reagan learned about, and reacted to, the danger of nuclear war through miscalculation. After reading a June 19th 1984 memorandum from CIA Director William Casey describing "a rather stunning array of indicators" during the War Scare that added "a dimension of genuineness to the Soviet expressions of concern," the president "expressed surprise" and "described the events as ‘really scary.'"
Months earlier, Reagan was already concerned about Soviet fears. A week after Able Archer 83's end, on November 18, 1983, the President wrote in his journal, "George Shultz & I had a talk mainly about setting up a little in house group of experts on the Soviet U. to help us in setting up some channels. I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them we ought to tell them that no one here has any intention of doing anything like that."
According to the PFIAB, the US Intelligence Community's erroneous reporting made the "especially grave error to assume that since we know the US is not going to start World War III, the next leaders of the Kremlin will also believe that."
Other interesting elements from the revelation include "more details on the primitive computer model the Soviets apparently used to help determine if and when the US would launch a nuclear attack at the USSR. This computer, developed by military and economic specialists, consisted of a database of 40,000 weighted military, political, and economic factors, including 'indicators' reported from agents abroad. 'Before long,' the report states, the computer 'started spewing very unwelcome news:' that by 1984 Soviet power had declined to just 45 percent of that of the United States."
A remarkable coincidence(?), is that the same year, the film WarGames was released, according to which a young hacker who unwittingly accesses WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a United States military supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war, gets WOPR to run a nuclear war simulation, originally believing it to be a computer game. The simulation causes a national nuclear missile scare and nearly starts World War III.
The big question naturally arise: are there any reliable mechanisms today who could eliminate the possibility of a nuclear war? Are there any communication channels between the US, Russia and China in the new Cold War?