Declassified documents reveal Soviets readied nuclear attack in 1983

Thirty minutes from nuclear war: Newly-declassified US documents reveal how paranoid Russians loaded nukes onto fighters in East Germany in 1983 over fears NATO exercise was invasion

  • NATO forces carried out Able Archer exercise to simulate a nuclear attack
  • But Soviet leaders feared the exercise was cover for a genuine offensive
  • They readied fighter bombers with ‘warloads’ and were on 30-minute alert 

Newly released US intelligence files show how close the Soviet Union came to launching a nuclear attack during a NATO weapons exercise in 1983.

The Communist bloc put fighter bombers strapped with nuclear bombs on high alert in East Germany during a ‘war scare’ prompted by NATO’s Able Archer command exercise in November 1983.

Soviet leaders made ‘preparations for the immediate use of nuclear weapons’ and were on 30-minute standby to destroy enemy targets in what was one of the tensest moments of the Cold War now revealed by the declassified documents.

It was previously known that Able Archer 83 caused panic in the Kremlin but the new documents, which are included in an edition of Foreign Relations of the United States released on Tuesday, show precise details of the Soviet response.

Able Archer exercises were an annual event by NATO military forces that simulated conflict escalation towards a DEFCON 1 nuclear attack situation on the East.

Newly released US intelligence files show how close the Soviet Union came to launching a nuclear attack during a NATO weapons exercise in 1983. Pictured: US Tomahawk nuclear cruise missiles en route to silos upon arrival at Greenham Common Air Base

But in 1983, the exercise coordinated from Belgium used a heightened realism not previously seen by the Soviets, causing alarm in their ranks.

That year, NATO forces used a new coded communication system, radio silences and the involvements of heads of government including Margaret Thatcher.

The documents, seen by the Washington Post, show how Soviets responded by raising the alarm in the fighter-bomber divisions in East Germany.

All command posts were manned around the clock while the chief of the Soviet air forces, Marshal Pavel Kutakhov, ordered all units in the Soviet 4th Air Army in Poland to also be on alert.

Nuclear bombs were loaded on to one squadron of aircraft in each regiment by the Su-17 fighter bomber divisions.

An intelligence report about a squadron in Neuruppin showed that aircraft had an ‘unexpected weight and balance problem’ during the scare.

US intelligence analysts concluded this was because the squadron was carrying a ‘warload’ that it had never used before.

Lt. Gen. Leonard H Perroots ordered the US not to respond to the Soviets but said he was not aware of the scale of their plans

The aircraft were on ‘readiness 3’, giving them a 30-minute alert to ‘destroy first-line enemy targets’, the documents show.

Soviet forces had long feared NATO could use the cover of an exercise to launch an offensive.

During the Able Archer 83 exercise, Lt. Gen. Leonard H Perroots, a top US intelligence official, contacted his superiors over fears the Soviets were preparing to strike.

Gen. Billy Minter, commander in chief of the US Air Forces in Europe, asked if they should react, but Perroots initially said there was not enough evidence.

But Perroots became increasingly worried as more information came through about Soviet preparations.

He later wrote: ‘If I had known then what I later found out I am uncertain what advice I would have given.’

The new documents feature in the new edition of Foreign Relations of the United States which covers dealings with the Soviet Union from January 1983 to March 1985.

It includes a 1989 memorandum from Perroots, written at the end of his tour, to record his dissatisfaction with the handling of the war scare.

Perroots died in 2017 and believed he made the right decision not to escalate force but said he lacked full intelligence to make the call.

After the exercise was over, he learned the full extent of the Soviet response which included a standdown of all air forces in the region, meaning a pause in routine flying and preparations for a potential attack.

The standdown was not picked up at the time by Western intelligence agencies.

A 1990 report on the ‘Soviet War Scare’ by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) was declassified by the US government in 2015.

The review concluded that relations with the Soviet Union were placed ‘on a hair trigger’ in 1983 after the ‘unprecedented’ response to the NATO exercise.     

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