Washington, D.C., February 17, 2021 – “What might have happened that day in November 1983 if we had begun a precautionary generation of forces” against a Soviet alert in response to the Able Archer 83 NATO nuclear release exercise? This is the question Lieutenant General Leonard H. Perroots asked in his January 1989 End of Tour Report Addendum published this week in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series, edited by Elizabeth C. Charles.
The FRUS volume, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981–1988, Volume IV, Soviet Union, January 1983–March 1985, is a collection of more than 380 declassified records documenting the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
The volume includes a trove of revelations about the 1983 War Scare, including the almost completely unredacted text of Lt. Gen. Perroots’s “parting shot before retirement” (Document 2). Perroots served as Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Air Forces Europe, during the 1983 Able Archer exercise, and rose to become the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. In January 1989, Perroots sent senior intelligence officials a classified “letter outlining his disquiet over the inadequate treatment of the Soviet war scare” before retiring from government service.
Perroots’s letter sparked a full, all-source investigation by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, culminating in its highly secret 1990 report “The Soviet ‘War Scare’” (Document 4). The National Security Archive won declassification of the PFIAB report in 2015 through an interagency appeals panel decision after a 12-year struggle. The detailed PFIAB report concluded that the U.S. “may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger” during Able Archer, and commended Perroots for having avoided any escalation.
In 2017, DIA responded to the Archive’s FOIA request for the Perroots letter by saying it couldn’t find a copy. The Archive then identified the three boxes of retired DIA records where the letter likely existed, and finally went to court against DIA in February 2019, represented by pro bono attorneys John S. Guttmann and Hilary T. Jacobs of the lawfirm of Beveridge & Diamond. To date, DIA has continued to refuse to release the record. Fortunately, the State Department Historian’s Office proceeded on a separate track.
The Perroots letter provides extraordinary new detail on what actually happened in 1983. He asserted that a lack of intelligence of Soviet intentions and apprehensions during Able Archer 83 could have led to “a potentially disastrous situation.” He cited a National Security Agency warning (based on signals intelligence) that found as the exercise progressed, “Soviet Air Forces, GSFG [Group of Soviet Forces in Germany] placed on heightened readiness.” According to Perroots, Soviet fighter-bombers were placed at 30-minute alert and were readying for potential battle.
On receipt of the Soviet alert warning, Perroots informed his Commander in Chief, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, General Billy Minter, of the “unusual activity” in response to Able Archer 83. Minter asked Perroots if the Air Force “should increase the real force generation,” but Perroots stated that it should “carefully watch the situation” but not increase “real alert posture.” At the time, Perroots did not have the full picture of the Soviet alert and acknowledged that “[i]f I had known then what I later found out I am uncertain what advice I would have given.”
The 1990 PFIAB report describes Perroots' decision not to escalate as "fortuitous, if ill-informed" and states that he and his fellow officers “acted correctly out of instinct, not informed guidance, for in the years leading up to Able Archer they had received no guidance as to the possible significance of apparent changes in Soviet military and political thinking."
After Perroots' previously unknown instinctual decision, the danger of Able Archer 83 and of the 1983 War Scare tapered off as several days later the Soviet Air Force returned to normal alert status.
Top U.S. officials on the distribution list for the National Intelligence Daily would have gotten a whiff of the problem, along with some down-playing of the risk, when they read a NID entry for November 10, 1983 (Document 1), about an increased alert level among Soviet air forces in response to Able Archer. The NID remarked that the Soviets had gone on alert before. "This alert, however, is unusual in breadth and in involvement of strike units," the document noted. In an attached "Comment," however, U.S. analysts concluded this was just readiness training.
But Perroots was dismayed by what he learned from subsequent intelligence reporting about Soviet actions during Able Archer 83. These sources included the British asset and double agent Oleg Gordievsky, British signals intelligence analyzed by Ministry of Defence analyst Harry Burke, and some U.S. intelligence assessments, including one whose text is published for the first time in this FRUS volume.
A December 2, 1983, NSA message entitled, “Soviet 4th Air Army at Heightened Readiness in Reaction to Nato Exercise Able Archer, 2–11 November 1983” includes the alarming revelation that Chief of the Soviet Air Forces Marshal Pavel S. Kutakhov had ordered all units of the Soviet 4th Air Army on alert “which included preparations for immediate use of nuclear weapons.”
After learning of this “much more ominous picture,” Perroots was “on a soapbox … whenever I could discuss it at the appropriate classification level. I spoke to the Senior Military Intelligence Officers’ Conference (SMIOC), and I buttonholed a lot of people.” Perroots was so jarred by these events that he finally felt obliged to write directly to the PFIAB and the CIA director. His letter warning of the nuclear danger of Able Archer 83 was among his last acts before leaving government service six years after the War Scare.
Evidently, the message hit a nerve. The FRUS volume also includes an undated memorandum (Document 3), probably from early 1989, cowritten by two senior analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Chief of the Office of Soviet Analysis and the Director of the National Warning Staff, both of whose names are redacted, responding to Perroots’ concerns about Able Archer 83. Fritz Ermarth, Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the agency, forwarded the memo to both the Director of Central Intelligence and the Deputy Director.
Unlike some previous CIA reporting which downplayed the war scare, the two senior staffers describe the Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 as “a worrisome episode in which Soviet Air Forces in Central Europe assumed an abnormally high alert posture in early November 1983 in response to a routine NATO command post and communications exercise.”
The memo concludes that “Perroots’s concerns about this episode are legitimate to the extent that they deal with Washington’s support to the US military commands” and surfaced “long-standing warning problem, i.e., the need for the Intelligence Community in Washington to provide more timely, discriminating, and accurate warning in support of the theater commander.”
“Without these, another officer in his position might recommend a precautionary US Air Force alert in Europe that could have serious escalatory consequences[.]”
While U.S. securocrats have succeeded in marring many of the three-decades-old records in the FRUS volume with a heavy dose of redactions—and even redacted the prose of the editor’s Appendix on Able Archer—the volume nonetheless does a significant service and fulfills its mandate of providing a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” history of this extraordinarily important chapter of U.S.-Soviet relations in the mid-1980s.
Among other contributions, the new evidence sheds additional light on past secret intelligence debates over the danger of the War Scare and invigorates current inquiries into the danger of nuclear miscalculation. Far from being “debunked,” the War Scare is now even more ripe for study and consideration of lessons to be learned.