Update, 11/29/20: It's a very different Thanksgiving weekend here in 2020, but even when the tables have been smaller and there hasn't been any travel, the Ars staff are heading off on vacation to recharge, take a mental break and maybe Stream a movie or five. But five years ago, around this time, we followed a newly released government report from 1990 that described a KGB computer model … one that almost pulled a WarGames, just IRL. With the movie now streamed on Netflix (which sets our schedule for the day off), we thought we'd re-pop this story for an accompanying Sunday reading. This piece was first released on November 25, 2015 and appears unchanged below.
"Let's play Global Thermonuclear War."
Thirty-two years ago, just months after the release of the movie WarGames, the world came closest to nuclear Armageddon. In the film version of a global near-death experience, a teenage hacker playing around with an artificial intelligence program that is in control of the American nuclear missile force causes havoc. In fact, a very different Soviet computer program fed the growing paranoia about the intentions of the United States and nearly sparked nuclear war.
The software in question was a KGB computer model created as part of Operation RYAN (РЯН). Details on this were obtained from Oleg Gordievsky, the London division chief of the KGB, who was also spying for the British MI6. Named after an abbreviation for "Nuclear Missile Attack" (Ракетное Ядерное Нападение), RYAN was an intelligence operation launched in 1981 to help the intelligence community predict whether the US and its allies were planning a nuclear strike. The KGB believed that by analyzing quantitative data from information about US and NATO activities relating to the Soviet Union, it could predict when a sneak attack was most likely.
As it turned out, Exercise Able Archer & # 39; 83 triggered that prediction. The war game, which was played over two weeks in November 1983, simulated the procedures that NATO would go through before a nuclear launch. Many of these procedures and tactics were things the Soviets had never seen before, and the entire exercise came after a series of subtleties by the U.S. and NATO forces to assess Soviet defenses and launch Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on Jan. Kill September 1983 As the Soviet leaders monitored the exercise and looked at the current climate, they put one and one together. At least according to the Soviet leadership, Able Archer must have been a cover for a real surprise attack planned by the US and then led by a president who may be crazy enough to do so.
While some studies, including an analysis by historian Fritz Earth 12 years ago, downplayed the actual Soviet response to Able Archer, a newly published 1990 report from the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) to President George HW Bush was released The National Security Archives suggests that the danger was all too real. The document was classified as top secret with the code word UMBRA, which denotes the most sensitive subject for classified material, and it cites data from sources that are still highly classified to this day. Combined with previously published documents from the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Department of Defense, this PFIAB report shows that only Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's illness – and the instincts of a mid-level Soviet officer – could have prevented a nuclear launch .
The balance of paranoia
When Able Archer & # 39; 83 got underway, the U.S. defense and intelligence community believed the Soviet Union was strategically safe. A top secret joint network assessment between the Department of Defense and the CIA published in November 1983 said: "We believe the Soviets have some clear advantages today, and those advantages are likely to continue, although the differences may narrow somewhat over the next 10 years." however, it is likely that the Soviets will not consider their advantage as great as we would estimate. "
The assessment was spot on – the Soviets certainly didn't see it that way. In 1981 the KGB's Foreign Secret Service Directorate conducted a computer analysis using an early version of the RYAN system to determine the "correlation of world forces" between the USSR and the United States. The numbers suggested one thing: the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, and the US could soon assume a strategically dominant position. And when that happened, the Soviets believed that their opponent would strike to destroy them and their allies in the Warsaw Pact.
This data was all the leadership expected given the intransigence of the Reagan administration. The aggressive foreign policy of the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s puzzled and troubled the USSR. They did not understand the response to the invasion of Afghanistan, which they believed the US would only recognize as an important security operation.
The US even funded the mujahideen who fought against it, "trained and dispatched armed terrorists," as Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Suslov put it in a 1980 speech (these trainees, including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden was inspired to jihad). And in Nicaragua, the United States threw weapons against the Contras who fought against the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega. Meanwhile, Reagan refused to move the Soviets to arms control. This mounting evidence convinced some members of the Soviet leadership that Reagan was ready to go further to destroy what he would soon refer to as the "evil empire".
The USSR had reason to believe that the US also believed it could win a nuclear war. The Reagan administration's rhetoric was backed by an increase in military capabilities, and much of the Soviet military's nuclear capabilities were vulnerable to surprise attacks. In 1983, the United States was in the midst of its greatest military build-up in decades. And thanks to a direct link to some of the most sensitive communications in the United States, the KGB had a lot of bad news to share with the Kremlin.
The sea leg of the Soviet strategic forces was particularly at risk. The U.S. Navy's SOSUS (Sound Monitoring System), a network of hydrophone arrays, tracked almost every Russian submarine entering the Atlantic and much of the Pacific, as well as U.S. submarine defenses (P-3 Orion -Patrol planes, submarines with fast attack, as well as destroyers and frigates) were practically on or after Soviet submarines with ballistic missiles during their patrols. The USA had mapped the "Yankee Patrol Boxes", in which ballistic missile submarines of the Soviet Navaga class (NATO designation "Yankee") were stationed off the east and west coast of the USA. Again, the Soviets knew all of this thanks to the spy John Walker, so confidence in the viability of their sub-navy was likely to be low.
The Soviet Triad's airborne leg was no better off. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had the largest air force in the world. However, the use of the Tomahawk cruise missiles, the initial production of the US Air Force's AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile and the imminent deployment of Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles in Europe meant that NATO was able to strike at Soviet airfields with very little warning. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union's Strategic Air Force needed as much warning as possible. Soviet long-range bombers were "kept in a low state of readiness," according to the advisory board's report. It would have taken hours or days to prepare bombers for an all-out war. Most likely, the Soviet leadership assumed that their entire bomber force would be caught on the ground and wiped out in a sneak attack.
Even theater nuclear forces like the RSD-10 Pioneer – one of the weapon systems that prompted the Pershing II to be deployed in Europe – were vulnerable. They generally did not have warheads or missiles loaded into their mobile launchers unless they were on alert. The only leg that was not particularly vulnerable to a first strike by NATO was the Soviet ICBM (Intermediate and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) force. Their willingness, however, was questionable. According to the PFIAB briefing paper from 1990, around 95 percent of the Soviet ICBM armed forces were ready to respond to an attack alarm within 15 minutes by the early 1980s. The silo-based missiles were out of range of anything other than US submarine and land-based ballistic missiles.
The viability of the ICBM force in response to a sneak attack was based solely on how much warning time the Soviets had. In 1981, they brought a new early warning ballistic missile radar system (BMEW) into operation over the horizon. A year later, the Soviets activated the US-KS satellite network for the launch of nuclear weapons, known as "Oko" (Russian for "eye"). These two measures warned the Soviet command and control structure about 30 minutes before a US ICBM launch. However, the deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe could cut warning times to less than eight minutes, and US missile attacks could in some cases have warning times of less than five minutes.
And then President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or the “Star Wars” program – the predecessor of the Missile Defense Agency's current efforts to counter limited ballistic missile attacks. While SDI has been portrayed as defensive, it would likely only be effective if the US drastically reduced the number of Soviet ICBM launched by first strike. More than ever before, SDI convinced the Soviet leadership that Reagan wanted to win a nuclear war against them.
Combined with his persistent anti-Soviet rhetoric, the leadership of the USSR saw Reagan as an existential threat to the country at Hitler's level. In fact, they made this comparison public, accusing the Reagan administration of bringing the world closer to another global war. And maybe, they thought, the US president already believed it was possible to defeat the Soviets with a surprise attack.