“Let’s play Global Thermonuclear War.”
Thirty-two years ago, just months after the release of the movie WarGames, the world came the closest it ever has to nuclear Armageddon. In the movie version of a global near-death experience, a teenage hacker messing around with an artificial intelligence program that just happened to control the American nuclear missile force unleashes chaos. In reality, a very different computer program run by the Soviets fed growing paranoia about the intentions of the United States, very nearly triggering a nuclear war.
The software in question was a KGB computer model constructed as part of Operation RYAN (РЯН), details of which were obtained from Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB’s London section chief who was at the same time spying for Britain’s MI6. Named for an acronym for “Nuclear Missile Attack” (Ракетное Ядерное Нападение), RYAN was an intelligence operation started in 1981 to help the intelligence agency forecast if the US and its allies were planning a nuclear strike. The KGB believed that by analyzing quantitative data from intelligence on US and NATO activities relative to the Soviet Union, they could predict when a sneak attack was most likely.
As it turned out, Exercise Able Archer ’83 triggered that forecast. The war game, which was staged over two weeks in November of 1983, simulated the procedures that NATO would go through prior to a nuclear launch. Many of these procedures and tactics were things the Soviets had never seen, and the whole exercise came after a series of feints by US and NATO forces to size up Soviet defenses and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983. So as Soviet leaders monitored the exercise and considered the current climate, they put one and one together. Able Archer, according to Soviet leadership at least, must have been a cover for a genuine surprise attack planned by the US, then led by a president possibly insane enough to do it.
While some studies, including an analysis some 12 years ago by historian Fritz Earth, have downplayed the actual Soviet response to Able Archer, a newly published declassified 1990 report from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) to President George H. W. Bush obtained by the National Security Archive suggests that the danger was all too real. The document was classified as Top Secret with the code word UMBRA, denoting the most sensitive compartment of classified material, and it cites data from sources that to this day remain highly classified. When combined with previously released CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), and Defense Department documents, this PFIAB report shows that only the illness of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov—and the instincts of one mid-level Soviet officer—may have prevented a nuclear launch.
The balance of paranoia
As Able Archer ’83 was getting underway, the US defense and intelligence community believed the Soviet Union was strategically secure. A top-secret Defense Department-CIA Joint Net Assessment published in November of 1983 stated, “The Soviets, in our view, have some clear advantages today, and these advantages are projected to continue, although differences may narrow somewhat in the next 10 years. It is likely, however, that the Soviets do not see their advantage as being as great as we would assess.”
The assessment was spot on—the Soviets certainly did not see it this way. In 1981, the KGB foreign intelligence directorate ran a computer analysis using an early version of the RYAN system, seeking the “correlation of world forces” between the USSR and the United States. The numbers suggested one thing: the Soviet Union was losing the Cold War, and the US might soon be in a strategically dominant position. And if that happened, the Soviets believed its adversary would strike to destroy them and their Warsaw Pact allies.
This data was everything the leadership expected given the intransigence of the Reagan administration. The US’ aggressive foreign policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s confused and worried the USSR. They didn’t understand the reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan, which they thought the US would just recognize as a vital security operation.
The US was even funding the mujaheddin fighting them, “training and sending armed terrorists,” as Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Suslov put it in a 1980 speech (those trainees including a young Saudi inspired to jihad by the name of Osama bin Laden). And in Nicaragua, the US was funneling arms to the Contras fighting the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega. All the while, Reagan was refusing to engage the Soviets on arms control. This mounting evidence convinced some in the Soviet leadership that Reagan was willing to go even further in his efforts to destroy what he would soon describe as the “evil empire.”
USSR had plenty of reason to think the US also believed it could win a nuclear war. The rhetoric of the Reagan administration was backed up by a surge in military capabilities, and much of the Soviet military’s nuclear capabilities were vulnerable to surprise attack. In 1983, the United States was in the midst of its biggest military buildup in decades. And thanks to a direct line into some of the US’ most sensitive communications, the KGB had plenty of bad news to share about that with the Kremlin.