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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Able Archer and the near accidental destruction of planet Earth

This recently declassified report on the 1983 Able Archer military exercise is a must read for anyone with an interest in nuclear weapons or in staying alive.

If it were not so deadly serious, much of the report could have come from a comedy show. 

It concerns the near destruction of planet Earth in 1983 through an accidental nuclear war being caused by the Soviet's misinterpreting the annual announced Able Archer military exercise as a cover for the real thing.

The exercise was conducted against a background of escalating military tension between the US and the Soviet Union. In 1980 Ronald Reagan had come to power on a policy that the best way to ensure US security was to build military dominance rather than accept treaty restrictions such as d├ętente (by the way he was also warned that the Earth had only 40 years to go before imploding from climate change but decided the need to be able to destroy it first was more important - but that's another story).
Reagan's strategy built up on the first strike capability that the US had started to amass in the 1970s. A principle component of this was the new Trident missile system. Unlike its Polaris predecessor, it could rain down thousands of mega tonne nuclear warheads precisely on Russian military installations in little more than five minutes, rather than just a couple of hundred on Russian cities over 10 minutes. Make no mistake, first strike was what Trident was about then and what Trident is about today. Though it is also a second strike weapon of last resort, that is not its principle purpose, despite what the politicians might like to say.

Bob Aldridge - ex-Trident Missile Designer, responsible for re-entry vehicles.

The Soviets responded to Trident with a first strike weapon of their own, the SS20 missile system. Its 10 minute flight time meant it could destroy NATO forces in Europe and the rest of Europe within 10 minutes.

So the Americans responded to the SS20 by deploying the Pershing II missile system in Germany with a flight time of 5 minutes. This terrified the Soviets. They had a much stricter chain of nuclear command requiring the President and the Minister to Defense to jointly issue the command to fire. Given that Soviet presidents at this time were continually bed ridden, there was little chance the command to fire could be made within the warning time of a Pershing missile being fired from West Germany and hitting Moscow. Pershing and Trident together gave the US the ability to destroy much of the Soviet nuclear forces in a pre-emptive attack. This became an issue of indescribable panic to the Soviets, especially when Reagan had just branded them as the evil empire and made his famous joke that he was about to start bombing within an hour, thinking his microphone was switched off. 

Now for a funny bit - Footnote 15, page 39 of the report says the Pershing missiles did not have the range to reach Moscow. Moscow need not have panicked after all.

To try and get a measure of the risk they faced, the Soviets built a massive computer system (VRYAN) requiring a team of 200 people to operate. Despite its immense cost, it probably used at best a bunch of nebulous measurements and algorithms. Like many computer models, it took garbage in, mixed it around and what came out was considered gospel. Its output was a quantitative measurement of the US military and economic advantage over the Soviet Union. The US was given a benchmark score of 100 and if the Soviet Union's comparison measurement fell below 40, they would conclude that the situation they faced was untenable and so would automatically launch a first strike against the US and Europe.

Now for a not so funny bit; when it was first run it scored the Soviets at 45, just 5 points above the threshold to strike pre-emptively. Almost without doubt, one of the things that would have factored into these calculations was their false perceptions of the Pershing II missiles and their general first strike disadvantage against Trident. Pershing and Trident together, were creating exactly the environment they were supposed to prevent.

So when the Able Archer exercise came along and assisted by the VRYAN programme, the Soviets made all the logical assumptions that in hindsight the US military should have expected.  The result of those apparently logical assumptions was that the US was about to instigate a first strike, and consequently the Soviets should get theirs in first. 

As for those assumptions that so nearly tipped the world in nuclear Armageddon; the Soviets had been preparing their own first strike strategy for years, despite claiming at the time that they weren't, so they expected the US to be doing the same. The US had after all had developed a massive lead in first strike capability and with the introduction of Trident were about to leave the Soviet Union even further behind, so why would Soviets not come to the conclusion of an imminent attack? The Soviets war plan had always been that they would prepare for a first strike under the cover of a military exercise,  so when NATO organised a mass exercise from the Arctic Circle to Turkey, involving  B52 bombers and the roll out of dummy nuclear warheads, what were they supposed to think?

The Soviets did the only thing that was logical to them. They loaded their nuclear weapons and forward deployed their fighters, bombers and submarines and prepared to make a first strike. Their leaders having convinced themselves that war was inevitable decided to get the first strike in.  
News of the strange (and highly dangerous) Soviet behaviour started to reach US commanders. Fortunately they were so badly trained they did not understand what was happening and missed the significance. Purely as a result of their shear incompetence they did not respond. Their unintentional delay gave the Soviets time to pause and step back from launching a first strike nuclear attack on an unprepared NATO and Western Europe.

I guess you can call this one of the funny bits.

Probably what is not so funny is that all the issues this report covers still exist today. Yet, there are more nuclear armed states and all operate first strike attack strategies supported by various stealth technologies. They all face a common mode threat of climate change, yet it does not seem that any of the lessons have been learnt. 

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