Air Force Intelligence Service Redacts Its Role During Able Archer 83
A declassified National Security Agency history describes the 1983 US-Soviet War Scare as “the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The crux of this War Scare was Able Archer 83, a NATO nuclear release exercise utilizing new “command and control procedures with particular emphasis on the transition from purely conventional operations to chemical, nuclear [operations].”
A declassified British Ministry of Defense document reports that the exercise evoked an “unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83.” US intelligence reported “a high level of Soviet military activity, with new deployments of weapons and strike forces.” After the exercise, CIA Director William Casey warned President Ronald Reagan and other cabinet officials of the “dimension of genuineness” and “high military costs” of the Soviet actions. An obtained summary of a still-classified retrospective 1991 intelligence report showed an “ominous list of indicators” pointing toward “genuine Soviet fear of a Western first strike,” which caused the Soviet military to ready its forces for a preemptive strike on the West. “If so,” the report understated, “war scare a cause for concern.”
I have filed quite a few FOIAs trying to figure out what exactly happened during the Able Archer 83 War Scare and have posted these results and the story as we now know it in the National Security Archive’s Able Archer Sourcebook.
My colleague Jefferey Richelson has recently unearthed another important new lead. In his excellent posting on The Pentagon’s Spies, Richelson includes an internal History of the Air Force Intelligence Service (USAFIS) for 1983. Deep within the history, beginning on page 252, there is a summary of the Intelligence Service’s “exercise monitoring” in 1983. Most of the exercises have been released to the public, but one two-paragraph summary is blacked out. But if you look down to the footnotes, you can see what was hidden – the Air Force Intelligence Service’s participation in Able Archer 83.
Of course we at the Archive were quick to ask for a re-review of this redaction (which you can do two years after the initial review) and are optimistic that the Air Force will release more information. But the footnotes also point to an even more potentially important source: USAFIS after action reports and a DISUM (daily intelligence summary) on Able Archer 83.
Another Air Force After Action report on Able Archer 83 (this one is from the Seventh Air Division, Ramstein) is one of the most illuminating documents that the National Security Archive has gotten declassified about the exercise. This after action report revealed at least four elements that occurred during the exercise which could have alarmed the Soviets: a 170-flight, radio-silent air lift of 19,000 US soldiers to Europe, the shifting of commands from “Permanent War Headquarters to the Alternate War Headquarters,” the practice of “new nuclear weapons release procedures,” including consultations with cells in Washington and London, and the “sensitive, political issue” of numerous “slips of the tongue” in which B-52 sorties were referred to as nuclear “strikes.” These variations, seen through “the fog of nuclear exercises,” did in fact match official Soviet intelligence-defined indicators for “possible operations by the USA and its allies on British territory in preparation for RYaN” — the KGB code name for a feared Western nuclear missile attack (Raketno-Yadernoye Napadenie).
Hopefully following these declassified footnotes will further illuminate the last dangerous paroxysm of the Cold War.
There are two other important documents that the Archive continues to fight for. The first is a key British report on the information that the British first passed to the US warning of the Soviet response to Able Archer 83. It is ominously entitled “The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO.” Guttingly to this researcher, the British Archives released only the first page of this document and claimed that the remainder was exempt from release under the British FOI law. The Archive is continuing its fight for this document to the highest levels. A tribunal will likely hear this case this autumn. Hopefully the majority of this key historical document will be released so that the professed and lauded British “Thirty-Year Rule” can continue to be taken seriously.
The second document that the Archive is continuing to fight for is the retrospective 1991 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report referenced above. The Archive first requested this comprehensive 100-plus page report in 2004. It is being reviewed by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, the “secrecy court of last resort.” Despite the agonizing wait times, the Archive is still hopeful that ISCAP’s release rate of over 80 percent will mean that this key US document will soon be released to the public.
And finally, I should mention that Sundance Television’s new series Deutchland 83 is an excellent chronicle of the War Scare from an East German perspective. It’s most recent episode is entitled “Able Archer.” Perhaps the lure of television will get the declassifiers motivated to release these key documents.