The incredible story of the 1983 war game that triggered a tense, brittle period of nuclear brinkmanship between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
What happened in 1983 to make the Soviet Union so afraid of a potential nuclear strike from the United States that they sent mobile ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) into the field, placing them on a three-minute alert?
Marc Ambinder explains the anxious period between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1982 to 1984, with the “Able Archer ’83” war game as the fulcrum of the tension. With astonishing and clarifying new details, he recounts the scary series of the close encounters that tested the limits of ordinary humans and powerful leaders alike. Ambinder explains how political leadership ultimately triumphed over misunderstandings, helping the two countries maintain a fragile peace.
Ambinder provides a comprehensive and chilling account of the nuclear command and control process, from intelligence warnings to the composition of the nuclear codes themselves. And he affords glimpses into the secret world of a preemptive electronic attack that scared the Soviet Union into action. Ambinder’s account reads like a thriller, recounting the spy-versus-spy games that kept both countries—and the world—in check.
From geopolitics in Moscow and Washington, to sweat-caked soldiers fighting in the trenches of the Cold War, to high-stakes war games across NATO and the Warsaw Pact, The Brink serves as the definitive intelligence, nuclear, and national security history of one of the most precarious times in recent memory.
The Brink CHAPTER 1 Détente’s Rise and Fall IN THE EARLY 1970S, COLONEL General Andrei Danilevich, then in the research of the Soviet General Staff (the equivalent to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff), had overseen the Soviets’ first large-scale quantitative and computer assessment of a nuclear war. In cold, hard numbers, in the best of circumstances:
• The Soviet military would be virtually powerless after a first strike.
• At least 80 million Soviet citizens would be dead.
• It would be virtually impossible to quickly rebuild and reconstitute critical infrastructure because more than 80 percent of the country’s heavy industry would be destroyed.
• Europe would be a nuclear wasteland for years.
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, watched this happen. He was “visibly terrified,” Danilevich remembered.
During the exercise, three launches of ICBMs with dummy warheads were scheduled.
To enhance realism, Brezhnev was given an actual button to push.
Three years before this exercise, in June 1973, Brezhnev had visited the White House. The enduring image from the summit was that of a Russian premiere playfully whispering into Richard Nixon’s ear. Brezhnev was ebullient that day. Nixon was his equal. The American president’s secret friendly gestures to China had given the Kremlin a chance to counter with open overtures to the United States, and so, Nixon and Brezhnev had agreed in May 1972 to the first treaty that limited the use of strategic weapons in the nuclear age: the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT).
They had also signed a measure to limit the development of defenses against nuclear missile attacks, reasoning that if mutual vulnerability were ratified into the framework for further reductions, the actual advent of war would be a remote possibility at best.1
Just a few months after Brezhnev returned to Russia, détente was tested by reality.
Israel had armed its Jericho missiles with nuclear weapons, desperate to force a reluctant Nixon to reprovision their military after a preemptive attack by Syria and Egypt. The blackmail worked, and the United States provided guns, ammunition, and intelligence that allowed Israel to save itself. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had worried that US involvement in this conflict would give cause for oil-producing countries to withhold supplies as a bargaining chip, which would push the US to menace those countries, which would spark a heated response from the Soviet Union.
And that, they believed, would threaten the vitality of détente. After Israeli forces started to tighten the noose around Egypt’s Third Army, despite the US having promised the Soviets Israel would not do so, Egypt asked for, and obtained, direct assistance from Moscow. But the Soviets decided to go further. They readied their bomber squadrons in Moscow and made sure that the US knew about it. A heavily fortified column of Soviet ships carrying armaments moved into the narrow slit of water between Black Sea and the Mediterranean.2 On October 24, a telegram from Brezhnev announced his intention to intervene unless a ceasefire was brokered immediately. Nixon had fallen asleep, possibly drunk.3 (Watergate was in its end game. He had just fired the special prosecutor he had earlier appointed to absolve himself.)
In the Situation Room, the National Security Council deliberated in Nixon’s absence; after a discussion that included the possibility that this cascading crisis could lead to global war, the council decided to raise the Defense Condition (DEFCON) level to 3, around midnight. ICBM missileers in their silos across the Midwestern United States strapped themselves into chairs to brace for incoming nuclear explosions.4 The Soviets noticed immediately, because the message (the length of a tweet, as is the launch order) was transmitted over an unsecured telephone network called the PAS (Primary Alerting System) that used commercial landlines, which they could easily monitor.5 Victor Israelyan, a senior minister at the time, recalls that Yuri Andropov, then the chairman of the KGB, recommended raising the Soviet alert status. The Defense Minister, Andrei Grechko, wanted to move 70,000 troops toward the battlefield. “The participants realized that the central issue was whether the Soviet Union was prepared to confront the US and engage in a large-scale war.” Fortunately, the Soviets decided not to respond at all, assuming that it was Nixon’s jitters and penchant for provocative action that had generated the American change in nuclear status.6
It later emerged that the Soviets could not muster the same type of public display that accompanied the DEFCON changes. They were, as Israelyan said, “unprepared.” The crisis abated because one side chose not to act (or simply could not).
But the president of the United States was barely involved in these decisions. As his Watergate crisis grew, Nixon’s new Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, worried that Nixon was increasingly paranoid and self-protective, almost childlike at times, and not in the right frame of mind to make military decisions. He secretly investigated what would need to happen if a president wanted to order US troops to fortify Washington so that he could keep himself in office. Schlesinger kept a gimlet eye on the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert D. Cushman Jr., a Nixon loyalist who had helped the CIA meddle in domestic politics. He ordered the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to notify him if Nixon or anyone else at the White House ordered any major military action; Schlesinger had no confidence that he would be informed beforehand.7 In essence, Schlesinger prepared an unconstitutional counter-coup against a possible hypothetical unconstitutional coup from the duly elected president. This nuclear crisis had little to do with direct geopolitical conflict escalation and everything to do with messy domestic politics and human psychology. Brezhnev was in the middle of it. It scared him.
Danilevich stood beside the Soviet leader and watched him contemplate the decision to push the button.
Visibly shaking, and pale, Brezhnev turned toward the head of his general staff, and asked, for clarification: would there be any real-world consequences?
“Andrei Antonovich, are you sure this is just an exercise?”
That was the first and last time that Brezhnev would participate in a nuclear exercise. His health was in decline. He had recurring bouts with amnesia and forgetfulness after a massive heart attack in 1976. The Politburo barely functioned then, consisting of a cadre of central committee members who were, in the words of one Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst, “doting, ineffectual sycophants.” Many were old; some were senile. But they did not force Brezhnev to relinquish power after he ceased to function as an effective president because his pliability was seen as much less threatening to the ruling oligarchy than new blood would be.9
Into this leadership vacuum stepped four ambitious, canny men. Together, they ruled the country’s military, intelligence, and nuclear institutions during the next ten years.
Andrei Gromyko was the acerbic, hard-headed minister of state, in office since 1957. Dmitry Ustinov was the chief of the central committee’s military and defense policy committee and the patron of the Soviet defense industry. Yuri Andropov was the chairman of the KGB, responsible for intelligence gathering at home and abroad. But most interesting, for our purposes, was Nikolai Vasilyevich Ogarkov, by 1977 the chief of the General Staff, the Soviet equivalent of the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs.
Though the massive Soviet state drifted for years, plodding with ponderous but powerful momentum in whatever direction compromises among powerful organizational and bureaucratic interests might take it, it had a nuclear vector. Gromyko and others in the Politburo believed that the future of the Soviet Union lay in the application of détente across all parts of its empire. The outspoken Ogarkov chafed under the political constraints imposed upon him by both the tone and substance of Brezhnev’s negotiations with the Americans.10 He believed that the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) had consigned the Soviet nuclear deterrent to history because it so severely limited the Soviet ability to catch up with American missile technology. He accused the US and NATO, and (remarkably) “NATO apologists” within the Politburo of seeking to undermine the principles of détente by changing the rules midstream: the US and NATO would not consider cruise missiles based in Europe to be “strategic” weapons but had insisted that the new generation of supersonic Soviet fighter bombers be so designated, regardless of what kind of armament they carried or how long they could stay airborne without refueling.11
In 1974, at Vladivostok, the United States and the Soviet Union had essentially agreed to table those issues, capping the number of strategic bomb delivery vehicles—subs, missiles, bombers—at 2,400 each, with 1,320 weapons allowed to contain multiple warheads. Because the size and reach of the Soviet ICBM force was the foundation of its deterrent, the Soviets would reject proposals that would chop the numbers of deployed ICBMs in any form without extracting qualitatively equivalent concessions from the United States. The 1979 SALT II treaty proposals, which Gromyko, Ustinov, and Brezhnev supported, would have allowed the Soviets to retain their numerical edge in the ICBM forces, but would, in just about every other arena, kneecap the development of nuclear technology. It would cap the number of “delivery vehicles” at 2,250. But SALT II never went into effect; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan convinced President Carter to pull the treaty from its probable ratification by the US Senate. The US would adhere to its limits, grudgingly; it meant, for certain, that the future of nuclear warheads would be to pack more on one missile—to MIRV them up. (MIRV stood for Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle.) “A lot of people looked at arms control as a way to get more nuclear weapons, rather than fewer nuclear weapons,” an American defense analyst said.12
Ogarkov understood well that he was fighting a rear-guard battle to modernize the Soviet military. His solution, which had won the backing of the General Staff by the time Reagan was inaugurated, was to shift the entire focus of the Soviet defense posture away from nuclear conflict and toward the development of a massive, effective, technologically agile conventional force. Ogarkov, too, had concluded that a nuclear war might be survivable. He believed that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction—MAD—had an expiration date, particularly as both empires developed the capacity to carry out swift, surgical, surprise decapitation strikes against the other. Ogarkov believed that both the US and the Soviet Union had interlocking interests that might lock them into a confrontation in a theatre, or region, without letting it spill over onto the rest of the globe—and the European continent would be ground zero.13
The Soviets believed that the US Department of Defense was always on the prowl for ways to get ahead of the politicians who ran it, in much the same way as the Soviet military had developed a momentum of its own within the tighter confines of its own political system. For all intents and purposes, the Soviets had determined that both sides had real and visible vulnerabilities, intractable weaknesses that made the prospect of losing a nuclear exchange more viable. The Soviets worried, for example, that their own political system of central control made it easier for the US to plan a decapitation strike.14
As the arms race accelerated, Soviet war plans evolved. No longer did they anticipate responding to a first strike from the US. Instead, all plans for major wars assumed that the Soviets would find a way to attack first, because, quite simply, the side that did attack first would have the best chance to win.15 The Soviets would pound their chests and bluff, when they had to, to prevent the US from assuming that it had achieved strategic superiority. Priority would be given toward sabotage of the nuclear command and control system and then toward aggressive espionage, not only to steal US secrets but to find ways of discrediting US strategic doctrine as well. Soviets would stress their advantages: silo hardness, throw weight (heavy weapons), mobility, leadership continuity and survivability.16 Skepticism about limited nuclear strikes—for the US, limited meant “in Europe” and to the Soviets, Europe was home—advances in silo hardening and of multiple warheads on missiles—had persuaded the general staff to conclude that the enemy would have enough nuclear weapons left after a first strike to retaliate.17 Like the US, the General Staff also began to develop plans to launch nuclear weapons on warning—a “retaliatory meeting strike” is what they called it. But the technology to accurately detect missiles and their trajectories didn’t exist for the Soviets in the 1970s.18 The system was glitchy. Only human spies and signals could determine whether the US was about to strike. This was one reason why more emphasis was placed on human intelligence until Soviet satellite and technical intelligence technology caught up with the rest.
Marshal Ogarkov and his budding revolution found resistance in several corners. Ustinov was responsible to the politicians, who were overwhelmingly concerned with nuclear politics and had short-term imaginations.19 The politicians, even in the Soviet Union, were accountable to some degree to the Soviet populace, whose support was essential. The Soviets had their guns versus butter debate. too. Revolutionizing the Soviet military would take a lot of money away from economic development.20 The Russian military engineer Viktor Kalashnikov had foreseen early in the Cold War that the United States would try to force the Soviet Union to commit the maximum resources to nuclear and other weapons in order to squeeze its economy. When Ogarkov became the chief of the general staff, the Soviet Union was committing 60 percent to 70 percent of its industry to defense needs, and its economy was fragile. Real GDP declined yearly.
By the late 1970s, the Soviets determined that the effective power of the US nuclear arsenal increased by a factor of 3 over the Soviet nuclear arsenal, primarily due to better accuracy and targeting technology.21 The Soviets knew that their brand-new SS-18 Satan and SS-19 Stiletto intercontinental ballistic missiles were good, but they weren’t great. They certainly did not perform as well as the US intelligence community assumed they would. The Soviets had a good bead on what the US intelligence community believed, thanks to ubiquitous leaks, its own network of spies, and the ever-helpful congressional hearings that forced defense officials to testify on the record.
They knew that the earliest CIA projections about these weapons—the projects that put these missiles’ accuracy at within a radius of quarter of a mile or so—were more correct than the ones than American defense hawks adopted as fact by the end of the 1970s. Those false estimates—the ones Ronald Reagan came to believe as gospel—projected that existing Soviet warheads could probably strike within a circular radius of just 400 feet of their exact target.22
The difference between a quarter of a mile and 400 feet is the difference between a missile silo surviving a nuclear strike or being destroyed by it. The Soviets knew that if their own warheads were used to strike first, the US ICBM force would not be obliterated; at least several hundred ICBMs could be launched in retaliation.23
Like the Americans, the Soviets strove for strategic superiority, paying lip service to MAD and privately looking for ways to one-up what they saw as the cutting edge in American technology. While the American misestimates had deterrent value, they also fed the beast that would rise up to slay the (nonexistent) dragon. To the Americans, a window of vulnerability to their own decapitation was opening.24 To the Soviets, their growing weakness begot increased pressure for the Soviets to consider preemptive strikes, which would be equivalent of a first-strike plan.25
When it became clear, early on, that their invasion of Afghanistan would be a disaster to the Soviets and expose a gap in their defenses because they had committed so many troops to the cause, the Politburo expedited plans to field the multi-warhead, 5,000-kilometer-range SS-20 missiles in silos across the Soviet Union. The SS-20s, which the Soviets called Pioneers, were mobile. Their launch convoys could move anywhere; the missiles could hit targets all across Western Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Their effect was destabilizing. Europe was terrified of them.
And so, NATO decided to respond, in kind. The US would field to five countries in Europe cruise missiles, both stationary—the Pershing IIs—and mobile—the Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles, or GLCMs (pronounced “Glick-ums”). The West’s missiles would not actually touch European soil until later in the decade, but their projected capabilities were far more menacing. The Soviets believed that the Pershing IIs could reach Moscow. That meant the Soviet leadership could be five minutes away from decapitation at any moment once they were deployed. Brezhnev, among others, understood this in his gut.
Brezhnev’s meeting, back in 1973, with a second American president—a future American president, to be sure—only added to the anxieties he carried with him as the 1980s dawned. Ronald Wilson Reagan’s life was not ordinary. He had saved seventy-seven lives in the course of one summer as a lifeguard. He starred in more than fifty movies. He was an effective, popular president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1954, taking on strikers led by artists with (assumed) ties to Communism. To the public, he insisted that Hollywood could rid itself of communists without government intervention. At the same time, to the FBI, he was confidential informant T-10, helping the authorities compile a blacklist. He consumed Soviet dissident literature, re-reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Whitaker Chambers’s Witness. He divorced his first wife, married Nancy Davis, and found his second career on the mashed-potatoes circuit as a corporate ambassador for General Electric. He consumed GE’s culture and adopted its beliefs. He spoke to more than several hundred audiences, met tens of thousands of American workers face-to-face, and made millions of dollars.26 He once gave more than a dozen speeches in a single day. He would later describe his “self-conversion,” his adoption of an unfettered belief in free markets and free minds, even as he retained an affection for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He watched the Democratic Party move left toward John F. Kennedy, and, under the tutelage of his GE job, he grew skeptical of trade unions.27 GE endowed him with the skills of a politician. His speech at the 1964 Republican convention turned him into a household name among conservatives, speaking of his journey out of the Democratic Party and telling the delegates that he and they had a “rendezvous with destiny.”28 He blasted socialism, and what he called the “enslavement” of millions in Soviet satellite countries. “There’s no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace—and you can have it in the next second—surrender,” he said.29 It was the best speech Republicans had heard all week, and his profile rose higher than that of their nominee, Barry Goldwater. The party recruited him to run for governor of California. He won the election.
It was in 1973 in this formal capacity that Reagan met Brezhnev one morning in San Clemente, California. Brezhnev knew that Reagan was a movie actor, charismatic, and the leader of a wing of his party. But he was ill prepared by his aides, who had assumed that their breakfast meeting would be a courtesy call. Nixon had taken care not to lecture Brezhnev in their informal gatherings, but Reagan, by his own account, had no such strictures.
Are you aware, Reagan asked, that the hopes and dreams of millions depend on the agreements you’re reaching?
I am dedicated, Brezhnev had replied, to fulfilling those hopes and dreams.30 Brezhnev would later say he found Reagan insulting—and “obscurantist.”
Reagan finished his second term in California and ran for president in 1976. He almost stole the Republican nomination from the moderate wing of the party. Four years later, he stood behind a podium to accept it, blasting Carter’s weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence.” He spoke, too, of his “first and foremost” objective: “the establishment of lasting world peace.31
It would not come from détente. Reagan did not believe the Soviets were equals. Instead, he believed, as near gospel, that the Soviet Union had spent the 1970s pouring money into their capacity to deliver and survive a first nuclear strike.
Marc Ambinder is a highly regarded reporter, DuPont award-winning television producer, and teacher at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Ambinder was a White House correspondent for National Journal, the politics editor of The Atlantic, and an on-air analyst and consultant for CBS News. He spent four years at ABC News, covering politics and policy. Ambinder also consults for Fortune 100 companies on strategic and corporate communication. He lives in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Brink.
“Ambinder’s account of a serious threat of global annihilation—stemming from a 1983 NATO war exercise—is spellbinding. . . . a masterpiece of recent history.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“Marc Ambinder uncovers the gripping details of a true, terrifying story. Meticulously researched, Ambinder’s tale reads like a novel, but has real life lessons that are more relevant than ever.”—Martha Raddatz, Chief Global Affairs Correspondent, ABC News
“An informative and often enthralling book…Ambinder writes in the appealing style of Tom Clancy.”—Kirkus
"We may want to forget, but Marc Ambinder has forced us to remember how close we came to extinction during the waning years of the Cold War. The Brink is a compelling story not just of dangerous plans and terrifying exercises, but of the daily efforts of human beings in both the United States and the Soviet Union who were trying to stave off global nuclear war. As we head into another dangerous new era in the 21st century, The Brink should be required reading for citizens—and their leaders –who too often underestimate how difficult it was for all of us to reach the end of the 20th century without obliterating the planet."—Tom Nichols, author of No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security and The Death of Expertise
"Ambinder’s gifts as a scholar and storyteller keep the reader in a state of high suspense as he unspools the amazing untold true story of a simmering crisis with Russia that almost came to nuclear blows. In taking us for a thrill ride inside an intricate plot with intriguing characters, The Brink feels like fiction but it will stand as the definitive study of an episode in our history that put hundreds of millions of lives in jeopardy and bears lessons for the nuclear dangers we still face today.”—Bruce Blair, co-founder of Global Zero and Research Scholar, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University