How the world was saved from a nuclear catastrophe
by John Green
Sun 2nd Nov 2014
Most people of a certain age will clearly remember where they were and what they were doing when the Cuban missile crisis erupted in 1962. We all thought our days were numbered and a nuclear world war was about to be unleashed. This, though, wasn’t the last time of such a scare. In 1983 the world once again stood on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, but few realised it. Able Archer won’t mean anything to most people.
Ronald Reagan was elected president of the USA in 1980 and ushered in a period of aggressive armaments build-up and crusader rhetoric against the ‘evil empire’. He, along with his close political ally, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a new and dangerous confrontational policy. He surrounded himself with fanatical anti-communist warriors, like Richard Perle (the Prince of Darkness), Dick Cheney, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Wolfowitz and George Bush etc who were all determined to confront the Soviet Union. After years of detente, the Helsinki Accords and a general easing of tension, the world was once again plunged into a new phase of the Cold War that threatened to become very hot with these dangerous brinkmanship policies.
Reagan declared peaceful coexistence a dead duck. He gave the green light to a giant rearmament programme with the idea of forcing the Soviet Union into an armaments race it couldn’t win and thus tip the strategic balance in favour of the USA. He announced his SDI (Star Wars) project and ushered in a new arms race with the aim of bringing about the ruin of the Soviet economy in the process.
Neo-conservative Perle put in place plans for a doable and winnable, limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union by means of a carefully orchestrated decapitation strike out of the blue. In US neo-con circles the talk was about knocking out the Soviet command, control and communications centres (C3), leaving the Red Army ‘running about the farmyard like a headless chicken’ without being able to fire a single missile back. To this end the Pentagon prepared the stationing of new, highly accurate, intermediate range Pershing II missiles in Europe, which had the capability of decapitating the command, control and communication centers of the political and military leadership of the Soviet Union within five minutes from start in Germany. Thus this deployment would clearly be a game changer and tip the strategic balance decisively in favour of the US/NATO. Washington and NATO publicly justified this planned undermining of the East-West-balance as a necessary reaction to the new, medium range SS20 missiles the Soviet had just introduced in Eastern Europe. In contrast to the Pershing II, however, the SS 20 – while augmenting Soviet options in case of war in Europe – did not upset the strategic balance, as they could not hit C3-targets in the USA.
In 1979, as part of its medium range nuclear modernization programme, NATO took the decision to deploy new cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. The first particularly destabilising Pershing missiles were deployed in West Germany in autumn 1983. Because of this provocative escalation and the concomitant reduction of launch warning time, tensions were stretched to breaking point. All the more, as the Soviet leadership was absolutely convinced by then, that the US were seriously planning a nuclear surprise attack under the cover of a large scale manoeuvre. In order to gain advance knowledge of such plans, the KGB and the Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU), within the framework of operation RYAN, had been ordered already back in 1979 to give top priority to scan and collect all sorts of information that could indicate preparation for such an attack and which would allow – if possible – to pre-empt it through a counter attack. Through a series of unfortunate accidents, world events and other technical developments, by autumn 1983 entire sets of indicators, some true, some by mistake, that fitted the Soviet high command’s anticipation of how the lead in scenario of the US/NATO C3 decapitation attack against the USSSR would look like flashed red alert. And while NATO moved into the field for its giant Able Archer exercise close to the West German- East German border, Soviet nuclear weapons were readied for a preemptive strike. At one time, Soviet nuclear bombers were sitting on the tarmac in their East German airbases, engines running, waiting for the order to go. If this order had come, most likely a nuclear holocaust, at least for Europe and the UK would have ensued, if not all-out nuclear war.
We were spared this end largely due to the efforts of one man: Rainer Rupp, who at the time held a top job in NATO headquarters in Brussels, but at the same time was secretly working for the GDR foreign intelligence service HVA. He was not your common or garden spy, but a man who was prepared to give vital information to the GDR and Soviet Union in order to help ensure continued peace in Europe and to help prevent an accidental or deliberate outbreak of hostilities. He was convinced, as he could see from NATO’s own “cosmic top secret” documents that the Soviet Union was not planning a deliberate attack or first strike against the USA nor a conventional invasion of Western Europe.
Rupp had become politically radicalized as a student after seeing the re-emergence of neo-Nazi forces in Germany and witnessing the virulent anti-communism that was being whipped up. He was not prepared to sit idly by and let a third world war take place.
As a highly intelligent and assiduous worker, he soon rose within the NATO hierarchy to a position of trust and responsibility. He knew every detail of the plans concerning a potential third world war, whether it involved a strategy of Massive Retaliation, (Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD) or Flexible Response. In either case, central Europe would have become a place of unbelievable destruction with a massive death toll and widespread contamination.
A conventionally waged war was not considered an option by NATO because it felt the Soviet Union would win such a war. Its strategy involved the early and first use of tactical nuclear weapons, already stationed close to borders to the Warsaw Pact - the policy was based on the concept of either ‘fire them or lose them’ if a border conflict flared up. Massive Retaliation was certainly not an immediate option for either side, as they both knew that in all likelihood they would both be doomed. Confining the theatre of war to Europe using the flexible response option was certainly very much in the interests of the USA.
Richard Perle, State Secretary in the Pentagon for planning and policy, was of the opinion that a limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union could be fought and won without massive damage to the US. Back in the early 1980s they knew that the Soviet Union had an advantage in terms of conventional weaponry, as well as the large size of its armed forces, and would prevail in a non-nuclear war scenario. Therefore the nuclear ‘beheading’ option appealed to the criminal warmongers in the Pentagon as it seemed to present a realistic chance of succeeding.
In the autumn of 1983, the worst case scenario looked as if it was about to unfold. Reagan’s crusader rhetoric and his Star Wars programme, together with the decision to station Pershings in Europe had raised tensions. The Soviet Union now had only minutes of warning in the event of a nuclear attack. It considered that NATO’s previous policy of defence preparation had now been transformed into one of waging a pre-emptive war. The USSR had already experienced surprise invasions of its territory in the Second World War, which cost 27 million lives, and it didn’t wish to be caught out again.
The political tension had been further sharpened in that same year by the downing of the Korean airliner KAL 007 on 1 September. The full story, why that passenger plane deviated by almost 90 degrees from its course to deeply penetrate a highly sensitive Soviet defence area where strategic missile were hidden, has still not been adequately explained. But the incident took place at a time when the USA had been actively provoking Soviet defence reactions at different places along its long borders in order to assess the reaction of the air defence systems, monitor communications, identify and locate the respective C3 centers. The inexplicable straying of Korean Airlines 007 into Soviet airspace over the sensitive region of Kamchatka and the refusal of the Korean pilots to respond to calls to change course made the Russians doubly fearful. Rupp has serious doubts that the deviation of the Korean Airlines plane over Soviet airspace was a genuine mistake, all the more, as he has seen months later a secret assessment about the Soviet C3-centers in the Far East, which had been sent by the US-military intelligence Agency DIA to the Situation Centre in NATO where Rupp served on a rotating basis as Chairman of the Current Intelligence Group. In this document, the DIA called the successful identification of the C3 centers in the Soviet Far East “a windfall gain” of the downing of KAL007.
Many years later, Rupp’s suspicion was corroborated, at least indirectly, by statements from a former high-ranking CIA officer and subsequent official CIA-historian Ben Fisher. He admitted that after Reagan’s assumption of the presidency in 1980 a highly dangerous period began with extremely provocative violations of Soviet borders on land, sea and air in order to test its responses.
Able Archer took place in that context. The planned combined NATO exercises for the autumn of 1983 were viewed by the Soviets as a pretext for a first strike. They were not prepared to wait for a first strike to hit them and they desperately needed to know urgently if such a plan was indeed about to be put into practice. They were convinced that Able Archer was not simply an exercise but a ruse to initiate a first strike. The Soviets knew that after the stationing of new US missiles in Europe they would only have a warning time of around 5 to 8 minutes if they wished to retaliate in the case of a pre-emptive strike. Any misunderstanding on either side could lead rapidly to a nuclear catastrophe.
The exercises were carried out under very realistic conditions and the scenario from Moscow’s perspective appeared to be a preparation for a first nuclear strike. The manoeuvres took place over ten days, beginning on 2 November, and involved all Western Europe. The aim was a simulation of a co-ordinated deployment of nuclear weapons and their use. What was particularly alarming was that there were new elements in the exercise: middle-range nuclear weapons were brought onto the field for the first time and absolute radio silence was maintained; a new code format was introduced for communications. And, for the first time, leaders of all the NATO countries were involved which also alerted Moscow to the unusual high political significance of the exercises. Moscow also thought, wrongly, that the USA had put its troops on the highest alarm stage, DEFCON 1. In reality DEFCON 1 was only simulated during the exercise.
Convinced of an immediate US attack, the Soviet Union put its own strategic nuclear forces on red alert. The smallest mistake would have unleashed a catastrophe. Even Gorbachev later declared that the situation at the time was as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis, but with an even greater nuclear potential.
The US had already been holding its missile forces in a state of high alert preparedness since 1981. Rupp, because of his inside knowledge, felt the Soviet concerns were unfounded. After all, he himself was involved in the NATO-Situation Center (War Room) at the highest level in the NATO exercises and would have known if Able Archer had been used as a cloak to launch a surprise attack against the USSR. Moscow was informed of this, but still remained extremely suspicious. They demanded firm proof that this was the case. So Rupp, at great danger to himself, was able to provide it and by doing so was able to reassure the Soviet military leadership and head off the start of an accidental nuclear holocaust.
As a result of his later exposure as a spy, due to the defection of a top GDR counter intelligence officer in 1989, he was given a 12 years jail sentence in his home country of Germany. At the same time, a former Nazi guard from Auschwitz who was co-responsible for the deaths of thousands was handed down a three and a half year sentence. West German agents who had been imprisoned in the GDR were all released immediately.
Years later, at a conference on international espionage in 2005 in Berlin, the former CIA-head for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Milton Bearden, congratulated the former Head of East German foreign intelligence HVA, the legendary Markus Wolf, saying that thanks to his excellently placed source in NATO-HQ in Brussels peace had been saved in 1983 as he had ‘been able to calm the recipients in Moscow’ and in this way avoid a nuclear war.