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Able Archer


National Security Archive has put together an interesting collection of material on the 1983 Able Archer exercise, which freaked the Russians out.

“Do you think Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?” President Reagan asked his Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Arthur Hartman in early 1984, according to declassified talking points from the Reagan Presidential Library. President Reagan had pinpointed the question central to the 1983 War Scare. That question was key to the real-time intelligence reporting, the retroactive intelligence estimates and analyses of the danger, and it remains the focus of today’s continuing debate over the danger and lessons of the so-called “Able Archer” War Scare.

Some, such as Robert Gates, who was the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence during the War Scare, have concluded, “After going through the experience at the time, then through the postmortems, and now through the documents, I don’t think the Soviets were crying wolf. They may not have believed a NATO attack was imminent in November 1983, but they did seem to believe that the situation was very dangerous.”[1] Others, such as the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Fritz Ermarth, wrote in the CIA’s first analysis of the War Scare, and still believes today, that because the CIA had “many [Soviet] military cook books” it could “judge confidently the difference between when they might be brewing up for a real military confrontation or … just rattling their pots and pans.”[2]

“Huffing and puffing?” “Crying wolf?” “Just rattling their pots and pans?” While real-time analysts, retroactive re-inspectors, and the historical community may be at odds as to how dangerous the War Scare was, all agree that the dearth of available evidence has made conclusions harder to deduce. Some historians have even characterized the study of the War Scare as “an echo chamber of inadequate research and misguided analysis” and “circle reference dependency,” with an overreliance upon “the same scanty evidence.”[3]

To mark the 30th anniversary of the War Scare, the National Security Archive is posting, over three installments, the most complete online collection of declassified U.S. documents, material no longer accessible from the Russian archives, and contemporary interviews, which suggest that the answer to President Reagan’s question — were the Soviets “huffing and puffing” or genuinely afraid? — was both, not either or.

I while ago I chatted with Nate Jones on this subject:

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  • To be fair, Andropov was near death and paranoid by profession, and a lot of the military higher ups at the time were the same bunch who let a German teenager land a Cessna in Red Square. The early 80s weren’t exactly a time of calm and competence in Soviet leadership.

  • Another Anonymous

    the same bunch who let a German teenager land a Cessna in Red Square

    That may not have been the single coolest thing in human history, but I forget the other nominees.

    (Even despite the pilot’s various, um, issues. Like anyone normal would try that?)

    • Captain Bringdown

      In the realm of amazingly audacious acts, Mathias Rust’s flight certainly ranks right up there. I’d say that Phillipe Petit’s high-wire stunt at least deserves a nomination, if not the crown.

      • Another Anonymous

        That was daring, but “cool” is measured in part by a studied indifference to authority.

        Petit was flouting the NYPD. Rust thumbed his nose at the Soviet Union, at a time when it was widely supposed to be one of the two mightiest military forces on the globe.

        … There seems to be a relatively subtle act of vandalism at the Wikipedia article on Petit:

        “In 2013, on the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Station, Philippe Petit was set to reprise his 1974 walk to much fanfare. But for some unknown reason, the walk was cancelled minutes before the scheduled time.”

        • rea

          Rust, oddly, actually helped bring about the end of the Cold War, as Gorbachov used the incident to discredit his opposition in the Soviet military.

        • William Berry

          No shit?

          Clever, but sick.

    • To be fair to the Russians, a Cessna is a difficult target for a high performance jet. A typical Soviet interceptor of that time, say an SU-15, had a stall speed that was probably almost double the Cessna’s top speed.

      The best thing to go after a Cessna would probably be an attack helicopter. Except they’re generally not trained for air-to-air, they’re part of the Army and they’re not in any way associated with PVO (the Soviet equivalent of NORAD).

      And once he gets over a major city like Moscow, even the Soviets probably wouldn’t want to start shooting off SAMs and AAA which is likely to cause a lot more collateral damage than whatever an 1800 pound Cessna is likely to cause.

      • Another Anonymous

        I believe the main issue is failure to detect in the 1st place? Suppose there had been a nuke in that plane? Sure would make all those fancy-pants ICBMs look like a waste of dollars/rubles.

        … As for interception, would the high-speed jet not just fire a couple of missiles?

        • I doubt there’s a nuke small and light enough for a Cessna 172 to carry. With full fuel tanks it might carry 400 pounds in addition to the pilot, except not in the back seat because it would probably be out of CG limits.

          I’m thinking the typical Soviet interceptor of that era would have had a tough time getting a radar lock on something that size and I doubt the Cessna had enough heat signature for the heat seekers they had then.

          Their air-to-air missile of that era just weren’t very good (unlike their current crop which are excellent).

          • UserGoogol

            Well, tactical nukes can get extremely small. Of course, tactical nukes by definition aren’t really designed to be dropped on their own, so the damage would have been limited. (Although on the other hand, people would have still freaked out if even a small nuclear bomb had been snuck into Soviet airspace.)

            • I flew B-52s. We only carried “crowd pleasers”.

  • The same CIA which was so confident here, was the same one which completely missed the Embassy takeover in Iran, and then whiffed on the collapse of the same USSR that they thought they knew so well, just a few years later.

    And let’s not even mention Vietnam, ok? Or, Iraq.

    So, pardon me if I don’t think there wasn’t some bit of luck involved in not solving our present and future global warming problems, by igniting the entire planet in flames.

    If I live to be 100, which I won’t, I’ll still take anything the CIA says with as large a grain of salt as I can find.

    • DocAmazing

      This cannot be repeated often enough. The CIA does dirty tricks quite well, but generally sucks at intelligence. It World Factbook is decent, but any other info it brings deserves scrutiny.

      • I think that’s the best description I’ve ever heard of the CIA.

      • Murc

        One of the worst policy decisions ever made in this country was giving the CIA any other power than intelligence gathering and analysis, and especially to let it run it’s own paramilitary units.

        It should be restricted to intelligence gathering and analysis, period. In fact, I’m not sure analysis shouldn’t be hived off into a separate agency with different priorities. And decisions on what to do with that intelligence should be made by the state department and/or the armed forces, not the spooks.

        • snarkout

          Except there’s already both a State Department intelligence unit and the DIA.

          • Murc

            … okay?

            I don’t see how “the State Department has it’s own intelligence unit” has much bearing on my desire that the CIA not be allowed to instigate coups or kidnap foreign nationals or do other shit that has fuck-all to do with intelligence gathering without, at the VERY least, needing approval from actual decision-making bodies that are empowered to craft policy.

            • It is my understanding that almost all CIA supported coups and other major black ops were approved by the US commander in chief. I have never heard it argued that CIA operated independent of Eisenhower in Iran or Guatemala for instance. I am also pretty sure that Eisenhower and Kennedy approved of the Bay of Pigs Operation. Likewise the support of a Hmong army in Laos by the CIA was not something that the Kennedy White House did not support. I have a collection of documents from the LBJ Presidential Library on the 14 February 1966 coup in Ghana and LBJ certainly knew about and endorsed the CIA actions here. Nixon was not ignorant of the role of the CIA in 9/11 1973 in Chile either. So given that it is the President of the US that approved all these operations is there a lack of decision making bodies? The president is a decision making body.

              • joe from Lowell

                What Otto said.

                In its operational incarnation, the CIA is a tool of the White House. It always has been.

                We’d never say “The Army and Marine Corps invaded Iraq.” We say “George Bush invaded Iraq.”

                And yet, people talk as if the CIA was skylarking in the Bay of Pigs.

                • SteveHinSLC

                  Wait. So who decided they wanted Roland dead?

              • DocAmazing

                “Approved” is a slippery word here. Frequently, the President signs off on non-specific proposals and lets the spooks handle the specifics. Frequently, large CIA ops are run out of the Vice-President’s office (Nixon, GHW Bush, Cheney) for that added “plausible deniability” flavor.

          • MacGyver

            …and 14 other intel agencies.

        • MacGyver

          Decisions on what to do with the intelligence collection/analysis is already made by policy-makers in the executive branch and Congress.

      • ajay

        The CIA does dirty tricks quite well, but generally sucks at intelligence

        I’m not sure that the first part of that sentence is true either.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t think any intelligence agency does that well. What they do do well is convincing everyone how important they are.

      • desertrat

        Go read ‘Legacy of Ashes’. The CIA doesn’t do dirty tricks very well, either…

  • Hogan

    I’m noting “circle reference dependency” for future overuse.

    • I.M.Shocked

      I believe it was used in trying to prove Iraq had acquired yellowcake.

      That, along with “an echo chamber of inadequate research and misguided analysis” and “the same scanty evidence” could refer to either Team B under Reagan, or Bush the Lessor’s Pentagon Office of Special Plans. There’s something about the names Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz that I just can’t put my finger on…

      Would it be irresponsible to not speculate?

    • joe from Lowell

      It does seem particularly apt for this time in history. Seven different conservative web sites all linking to the same Michelle Malkin opinion column = independent confirmation.

  • jon

    Innovations in Strategery, aforethefact. There are so many stories of miscalculation, confusion, accident and blunder, on all sides, it’s an absolute miracle that there was never a nuclear exchange.

    • FMguru

      Given the way Our Elites have handled Iraq, the 2008 economic collapse, and the current climate catastrophe, the fact that we somehow managed to avoid nuking the planet during the Cold War is something of a miracle. Doubly so when you consider the cast of characters included LeMay, Kissinger, Stalin, Nixon, LBJ, Andropov, Reagan, and Mao.

  • Mean Mister Mustard

    The CIA fucked JFK at the Bay of Pigs resulting in his threat to break them into a million pieces and we know how that turned out.

    To mark the 30th anniversary of the War Scare

    We are approaching the 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder. Will the remaining docs be released?

    • rea

      Will the remaining docs be released?

      They’re in the same vault as Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate.

      • Mean Mister Mustard

        BOLLOCKS !http://jfkfiles.blogspot.com/2012/06/national-archives-to-keep-jfk-secrets.html

        “As you know, the JFK Act authorized unprecedented powers for the ARRB, including the ability to overturn an agency decision on declassification, with the President as the only appeal authority. Although agencies did appeal ARRB decisions, President Clinton did not overturn any access determinations on appeal. The power wielded by the ARRB meant that more records were declassified and made available under the JFK Act than would have been released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or any currently applicable review provision of the prior or current Executive Order on Classified National Security Information.

        “As previously mentioned, the 1,171 remaining postponed documents will be released in 2017, unless the President personally certifies on a document by document basis that continued postponement is necessary and that the harm from disclosure is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure. Moreover, as you point out, the JFK Act clearly intended for periodic releases prior to the 2017 date. To date all of the periodic release dates have been met, including in 2006, when the CIA made preemptory releases of all documents that were postponed from release until 2010. Thus, the only documents in the Collection that are still withheld in full for classification reasons are the 1,171 CIA documents that the ARRB agreed should not be released until 2017.

        Actually it was a trick question cuz Obama has already passed the buck to the next POTUS

    • witless chum

      It resulted with him engaging in a dick measuring contest with the Soviets over missiles in Cuba and risking nuclear war to “win” said contest?

      The fact that we still hold up a guy who pulled that shit as some kind of great paragon of leadership is a worse shame than the wildest Kennedy assassination theory would be. If it weren’t total hogwash, of course.

      • Mean Mister Mustard

        At least he had the cajones to confront CIA

    • Woodrowfan

      except they redeemed themselves in his eyes over Cuba during the missile crisis. And the “break up” ended up just being the creation of DIA as a rival agency.

  • The Soviet system was so centralized and top-down oriented that they were very much afraid that we might try to “decapitate” their leadership with a surprise attack.

    The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman is an interesting read.

    • asdfsdf

      Hell, a decapitation strike is still their main worry. The kerfluffle over Central European BMD systems was the fear that an SM-3 body would make a hell of a precision ballistic missile right on their doorstep, and they’d never even know.

  • dilbert dogbert

    Just a rant on “bloging heads”
    When I look at the guys in the video I think of that photo of Bill Gates and team in the 70’s. No I would not have invested a penny in Microsoft.
    Video turns off my analytic brain just like TV does.
    Again Don’t.
    That is what happens when you grow up without TV.

    • Another Anonymous

      Eventually, computer graphics will allow them to chat via avatars that look and sound like Scarlett Johannson and Ryan Gosling. Maybe they should wait for that technology.

    • rea

      When I look at the guys in the video I think of that photo of Bill Gates and team in the 70′s. No I would not have invested a penny in Microsoft.

      And you would have been wrong, wouldn’t you?

  • Ralph Hitchens

    I think Robert Gates’ reflective view was correct. Able Archer certainly did alarm the Soviet leadership to a surprising extent. And I do agree that within the Politburo leadership was weak at that time. Brezhnev was dead, Andropov dying, and the best-qualified successor (Gorbachev) was held back in favor of a complete nonentity, Chernenko. (Gates, by the way, seems to be a far more sensible fellow these days that he was back in the 80s, when he and most of his senior Soviet experts were hardline reform-deniers well into the Gorbachev years.)

    As for the CIA, the Directorate of Intelligence (which does analysis) has always seen itself as the premier source of “one-stop shopping” for policymakers, regardless of topical area. Their institutional hubris was pretty much a given when I was in the IC (83-04), a hubris that stubbornly persisted in spite of getting things wrong — some well-documented such as the Iraq WMD fiasco, & others that for some reason passed almost unnoticed, such as their near-hysterical prediction of a collapse of the Russian nuclear power sector during Y2K. The DI had some of the most intelligent people I met when I was “in the business,” but they were very hard to push back against once their collective mind was made up.

    • DocAmazing

      A joke at the time: Soviet leaders are chosen, blossom, Andropov.

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