Soviet fighter jets, forward-based in what was then East Germany, were loaded with nuclear bombs and prepared for “immediate use,” as Moscow readied its forces for a potential full-scale war with NATO in 1983. These are among the latest details to have emerged about the ‘war scare’ that year, which saw the two sides on the brink of a major conflict, all due to very serious misunderstanding.
The catalyst for the Soviets going onto a war footing in November 1983 was NATO’s upcoming annual Able Archer command post and communications exercise, which tested the ability of the alliance’s forces across Europe and beyond to conduct nuclear warfighting in a highly realistic fashion. Combined with other global tensions at that point in the Cold War, the Able Archer 83 maneuvers were misconstrued by the Soviets as genuine preparations for an all-out assault.
While the broad scope of this Cold War flashpoint has become much better known since the declassification in 2015 of a U.S. government report into the incident, details that reveal the seriousness of the situation, and how the Soviet side geared up for a nuclear war continue to emerge.
The new revelations come from a new batch of intelligence documents on these events released by the U.S. State Department and they paint an alarming picture, as Soviet forces prepared for the Armageddon that their leaders seem to have sincerely expected was about to come.
In the past, it was known that Able Archer’s warfighting simulations caused serious alarm among Moscow’s leadership. Since these drills used a scenario based on a nuclear attack on the Warsaw Pact, it’s easy to perceive how, if the intentions were misunderstood, that the situation could very quickly become extremely hazardous.
The exercise scenario for Able Archer 83 itself began with the hypothetical enemy forces opening hostilities in Europe on November 4, after which NATO went on general alert. The virtual enemy initiated the use of chemical weapons on November 6. While this was all scripted, the exercise itself began on November 7 and ran over five days. It was based around a simulated transition from conventional and chemical warfare to a nuclear exchange. Above all, the drills were designed to give NATO command posts and communications networks training in this kind of escalation. The realism was such that among those involved were British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
“In 1983,” a subsequent investigation by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board stated, ”we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair-trigger.”
What we can now understand, too, are some of the precise mechanisms that put the two superpowers onto a potential nuclear collision course.
Derived from signals intelligence collected at the time, the documents describe how the Soviet military command posts across East Germany were ordered to be manned by augmented teams around the clock. In particular, we now know how the Soviet 16th Air Army, with its dozens of airbases scattered across East German territory, responded when the alarm was raised, being placed on a heightened state of alert on the evening of November 2.
As the spearhead of the 16th Air Army, the fighter-bomber divisions, which primarily flew MiG-27 Flogger and Su-17 Fitter combat jets, plus smaller numbers of swing-wing Su-24 Fencers, were the focus of much of the activity. It’s not surprising, too, that NATO was keeping a close eye on these units, as they would have been tasked with nuclear strikes against the alliance’s airfields, missile bases, and other key targets.
It wasn’t just the 16th Air Army that was preparing for war, either. Further to the east, the Soviet 4th Air Army in Poland was also put on alert, on the orders of Marshal Pavel Kutakhov, the chief of the Soviet Air Forces.
Among the fighter-bomber divisions, one squadron within each regiment was ordered to arm its aircraft with nuclear bombs. Typically, each regiment had three squadrons, of which one was a specialist in nuclear strike missions, regularly practicing loading and unloading weapons, and flying appropriate attack profiles.
The now-declassified documents state that the nuclear-armed jets were put on 30-minute alert, with their crews briefed to “destroy first-line enemy targets.” Providing the intelligence is accurate, and one squadron from each of the eight Soviet fighter-bomber regiments in East Germany was armed with at least one nuclear bomb. That would have provided around 96 aircraft ready for a nuclear strike, depending on serviceability, based on a nominal squadron strength of 12.
It’s a little-known fact that within the Soviet Air Force’s tactical aviation branch, known as Frontal Aviation, almost all combat aircraft included a variant tailored for the carriage of freefall nuclear bombs. Even today, however, few details are available about the weapons themselves. As of 1983, the standard tactical nuclear bombs included the RN-40 and RN-41, carried by the MiG-23, MiG-27, MiG-29, Su-17, and Su-24. Western sources give the RN-40 an approximate yield of 30 kilotons — twice that of the “Little Boy” bomb that the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima near the end of World War II.
As well as the nuclear weapons themselves, NATO intelligence confirmed that at least one of the Su-17M4 Fitter-Ks at Neuruppin Air Base — home of the 730th Fighter-Bomber Aviation Regiment — was fitted with an electronic jamming pod for self-protection, more evidence that offensive missions were being planned. Intelligence gathered from the National Security Agency then revealed that the squadron encountered “an unexpected weight and balance problem” and was told to continue without the electronics gear.
“This message meant that at least this particular squadron was loading a munitions configuration that they had never actually loaded before, i.e., a warload,” U.S. military intelligence analysts concluded at the time.
The hazards of the 1983 ‘war scare’ are still all too clear to see, almost four decades later. After all, as mentioned before, this was a critical point in the Cold War. Before Able Archer, tensions had already been heightened by a variety of factors, including an escalating arms race, increasingly belligerent statements from leaders on both sides, leadership crises in the Soviet Union, and a previous ‘scare’ in which a serious malfunction led to a Soviet satellite control center to alert officials to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack from the United States. In September 1983, just months before the annual Able Archer exercise, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL007) had been shot down by a Soviet Su-15 Flagon interceptor over the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 passengers and crew on board.
While the regular Able Archer maneuvers were known to the Soviets, they still considered it most likely that World War III would begin with a surprise NATO attack under the cover of just such an exercise. When all these elements came together in late 1983, there was a terrifying sense of inevitability in how the Soviets began preparing for nuclear war.
This, of course, is with the benefit of hindsight and it is fortunate that critical decision-makers at the time were not necessarily aware of how the Soviets had responded to the exercise. The recently released documents also include the testimony of Air Force Lieutenant General Leonard H. Perroots, who was, at the time, Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence within U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE), headquartered at Ramstein Air Base in then-West Germany. Perroots recalled contacting his superiors at the time of the ‘war scare,’ including the USAFE commander-in-chief, General Billy Minter.
Minter asked Perroots for his assessment of what was happening in East Germany and was told that there was “insufficient evidence to justify increasing our real alert posture.” But Perroots admitted later that, as more details became available about the status of the Soviet forces across the border, he became ever more concerned. “If I had known then what I later found out I am uncertain what advice I would have given,” he later admitted.
Perroots maintained that he had made the right call in not recommended an escalation on the NATO side. However, he was aware that he lacked a complete picture of the preparations that the Soviets were making. It was only after the exercise that he began to realize just how serious the situation appeared, including what was happening across Soviet airbases in East Germany.
On this occasion, we should probably all be thankful that Perroots was not a party to the details of Soviet preparations for a nuclear war that we now have to hand. All in all, the 1983 ‘war scare’ continues to provide sobering reminders of the dangers of nuclear brinkmanship and how suspicions between foes can rapidly escalate into something altogether much more perilous.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org