Armageddon: 1983, Reagan and the Strategy of Psychological Warfare – Full Post


By the 1980s, after a decade of détente with the Soviet Union during the Nixon and Carter administrations, the incoming administration under Republican President Ronald Reagan dramatically overhauled the foreign policy strategies of its predecessors and ushered in a new foreign policy initiative of containment to thwart the military influence of Moscow being exercised in the ongoing threat to the NATO allies in Western Europe as well as their growing presence in the Middle East and the Caribbean. The Soviet Union had been a consistent threat to Western Europe for at least 29 years since the end of WWII and the partitioning of the spheres of influence between the Warsaw and NATO powers in East and Western Europe post-1949.  According to a 1990 declassified report by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board on the Soviet arms buildup that was being drastically stimulated during this time-period, “From the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s, the military forces and intelligence services of the Soviet Union were redirected in ways that suggested that the Soviet leadership was seriously concerned about the possibility of a sudden strike launched by the United states and its NATO allies.”

There was perhaps significant reason for the Soviet Union to be concerned, as Reagan’s foreign policy was geared towards directly peeling back Soviet influence in Europe instead of merely containing it. The most crucial step that Reagan took to push back against the Soviet SS-20 apparatus aimed towards the West, was the deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe. In the late 1970s, the Soviet Union deployed intermediate range missiles (SS-20s) in Eastern Europe, which increased to 225 SS-20s by 1981with three warheads each. It is apparent that Reagan’s original connotation of the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” and forming his containment strategy around that generic theme was enough to send the Moscow regime into a panic. By the time of the Able Archer 83 NATO command-post exercise in November 1983, the world was on the precipice of another nuclear threat arguably worse than the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Careful analysis shows that it was the Reagan administration’s brilliant utilization of a carefully crafted psychological warfare strategy reflected in exceptional manipulation of world politics, presidential directives, key events and strategic weapons strategies culminating in 1983 that dramatically shifted the balance of power away from Moscow towards Washington to

the Soviets’ chagrin and paranoia. What transpired during the Able Archer incident was a direct result of President Reagan’s victory in the West German Election outcome, the Soviet’s massive Operation RYAN intelligence program to surveil U.S. policy, Reagan’s passing of NSDD-75 and NSDD-85 which dramatically shifted U.S. foreign policy away from decades of containment towards rolling back Soviet influence in the world, Reagan’s political manipulation of the KAL007 crisis and Reagan’s strategic weapons, military and naval deployments all within 1983. These strategies effectively crippled Moscow’s leadership’s stability to the brink of war. But these strings of events would also serve as a major testament to the brilliance of President Reagan’s foreign policy strategy, a strategy that would separate him from all of his predecessors.

The West German Elections and SDI:  Poking the Caged Bear (January-March 28, 1983)

On January 17, 1983, the Reagan administration released National Security Decision Directive 75 (NSDD-75) outlining the United States’ new foreign policy strategy towards Europe, the Far East and abroad within the context of the American-Soviet conflict. According to the document, “In Europe, the Soviets must be faced with a reinvigorated NATO. In the Far East we must ensure that the Soviets cannot count on a secure flank in a global war. Worldwide, U.S. general purpose forces must be strong and flexible enough to affect Soviet calculations in a wide variety of contingencies. In the Third World, Moscow must know that areas of interest to the U.S. cannot be attacked or threatened without risk of serious U.S. military countermeasures.” With the decision by NATO to deploy strategic weapons in Western Europe some time earlier, Reagan’s directive came on the heels of an unstable and nervous Soviet regime trying to thwart NATO’s goals before they became a reality. A major part of this effort originated in West Germany during its 1983 parliamentary elections. Not only did the Soviet regime’s goals of checking NATO hinge on the West German election outcome, but now they had to deal with official U.S. foreign policy being geared towards completely peeling back Soviet influence in the world.  Secretary of State George Schultz believed the document to have shifted U.S. policy beyond containment and détente into a proactive policy of “rollback,” a profound use of psychological warfare to cripple Soviet stability. Secretary of the Interior Bill Clark, asserted that such a policy would “‘turn the Soviet Union inside itself,’ encouraging ‘anti-totalitarian changes within the U.S.S.R.’ ‘America,’ said Mr. Clark, would ‘seek to weaken Moscow’s hold on its empire.’”

General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, following the death of his predecessor Leonid Brezhnev in late 1982, was determined to maintain strategic weapons dominance over the U.S. within the numerous satellite states over which Moscow had been exerting influence. Moscow had to legitimize itself in the eyes of foreign leaders by undergoing a massive propaganda campaign to paint the Reagan administration as a warmonger to isolate Washington away from its NATO allies, ideally West Germany. In a speech in Prague to the Political Consultative Committee on January, 1983, Secretary Andropov stated in characterization of the Reagan administration, “If in the past the Americans, when speaking about their nuclear weapons, preferred to emphasize that those were, first of all, means of ‘deterrence’,” now, by creating improved missile systems, they are not trying to conceal the fact that those are realistically designed for a future war.” According to historical evidence, they were genuinely concerned about Reagan’s ambitions. According to a previously classified National Intelligence Estimate report published in February 1983, “…the Soviets were seeking ‘superior capabilities to fight and win a nuclear war with the United States’ and to ‘assure a high probability of winning in a nuclear conflict.’”

It’s inconceivable that Moscow would gear its foreign policy around this goal if it didn’t believe the U.S. itself was preparing for some kind of preemptive nuclear strike of its own. Minimally, to their credit, the Andropov regime had reason to be concerned. Andropov needed to push for a postponement of the deploying of Reagan’s Gryphon and Pershing II Missiles later that year via the stirring up of the Western allies. “Moscow would escalate the war scare rhetoric, charging the United States with preparing for Armageddon, and intensify its propaganda campaign in Europe against the deployment of the Pershing II package.” The crux of this scheme would be in West Germany, whose current elections at the time would be the cornerstone to the country’s commitment to solidarity with the NATO alliance against the Soviet Union going into the Fall of 1983 when the missiles were scheduled to be deployed. U.S. President Reagan’s strategy also hinged on the outcome.

Around election season between January-February 1983, The Bundestag, the legislative body of the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany), was split between a Reagan-supporting Christian Democratic Union/Free Democrat Party coalition and an anti-NATO opposition made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and supported by the Green Party. If Moscow could aggravate the West Germans enough to vote the SPD into power under their Soviet-sympathizing candidate for the chancellorship, Hans-Jochen Vogel, Andropov would be able to potentially halt Reagan’s ambitions and protect the Soviet Union’s weapons dominance in Europe. Moscow even went as far as to publicly express an interest in an East-West non-aggression treaty in order to tip the scales of international sentiment, as well as public opinion within West Europe and the United States in Moscow’s favor and against Reagan. “Publicly,” the West European leaders seemed to take kindly to overtures from Moscow, but they secretly “…described the proposal ‘as another Soviet effort to hinder the possible deployment of new NATO nuclear missiles at the end of the year.’” In essence, particularly amongst pro-deployment leaders like CDU chancellorship candidate Helmut Kohl, there existed well-placed skepticism of Moscow’s intentions. Politically, it didn’t matter. SPD leader Vogel became the de facto apologist for Moscow’s overtures, even citing that Andropov had given new offers to destroy both missiles and warheads (a first) aimed at the NATO allies, including some of their SS-20s. Also, taking a step back from the “too-idealistic” “zero-option” solution of both former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and President Reagan, as well as strongly pushing for West Germany to abandon alliance solidarity in pursuit of its own interests and accept the Soviets “apparent” willingness to compromise, Volgel’s position was strengthened in the polls.

The rise in SPD popularity amongst West German voters was so concerning that CDU leader Helmut Kohl requested that Reagan remain flexible within his perspective of the zero-option’s viability while they both publicly reaffirm their commitment to NATO solidarity and the zero-option, lest the German electorate swing in Volgel’s favor. FDP Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich-Genscher, in support of maintaining the CDU/CSU FDP majority coalition in the Bundestag, advocated toward a “Zwischen Losung, an interim solution, agreeing to deployment numbers higher than zero and below 572, but continuing negotiations. Both positions were calculated to strengthen the CDU-FDP appeal to the voters and split the electoral opposition.”

Moscow was upping the pressure. Soviet Minister Andrei Gromyko, in Bonn around mid-January, lambasted the Reagan administration while pushing Kohl to maintain détente, stating that the United States was being led by “…‘gamblers and con men’ who were ‘not capable of seeing things as they are’ were ‘ready to plunge humanity into a nuclear catastrophe for the sake of their ambition.’”  Such imageries portraying Reagan as a nuclear warmonger since his administration began were translating into massive protests occurring all over West Germany and even within the United States itself from 1982 to election day in 1983.

In 1983, one “anti-Euromissile” protest drew about half of a million protestors in Bonn, West Germany. Earlier in June 1982, a New York peace rally drew as many as 750,000 protestors in Central Park. The Soviets’ propaganda tactics seemed to have been working for Moscow, until a grave miscalculation threw a wrench in the SPD momentum.  In response to Hans Dietrich-Genscher’s compromising proposal to lessen the number of deployed Pershing II missiles to under 572, the Soviet response was an adamant “NO!” which blew a hole in Volgel’s narrative that the Soviets were willing to accept compromise. Thornton argues that over time, “It became increasingly evident that the Soviets would do nothing to assist Volgel’s election challenge by taking a more flexible stance…” Bavarian premier, Josef Strauss, further strengthened the U.S. image and the case for NATO missile deployment by highlighting the failed Geneva conventions that were consistently emphasizing Moscow’s stubbornness against any flexibility with their policy position, going as far as to reject Moscow’s earlier propaganda showing willingness to reduce their own stockpiles, “‘… countermeasures “must be taken” against the SS-20 missiles because we cannot expect the Soviets to destroy ‘weapons systems in which they have invested $30 billion in rubles.’”

The election, entering a dead heat by March 6, resulted in an astonishing win for the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition under Helmut Kohl with a 55.8 percent of the majority vote against 38.2 percent claimed by the SPD, firmly placing Kohl and the Christian Democrats into power and all but giving the green light to the NATO missile deployment later that Fall. Andropov and the Soviet regime’s own inflexibility to any U.S. missiles in Western Europe during the Geneva talks failed them miserably. Now, with West Germany firmly under the influence of the West, they would have to look to an “analogous SS-20 missile deployment” of their own to counterbalance the imminent threat against them over the Berlin Wall. This election outcome was enough to put the Soviets into a panic that their efforts at postponement had failed. Now was the time for Reagan to play his hand to frighten the Soviets further into confusion.

On March 28, 1983, President Reagan released National Security Decision Directive 85 (NSDD-85), which documented Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Not only did it reiterate the imminent deployment of long-range missiles to Western Europe, but its notation of a “space-based missile defense shield” to neutralize the Soviet weaponry was viewed by the Soviet regime as “…an expansion of the arms race into space and an attempt to seek offensive nuclear superiority…The correct belief among experts in the USSR was that the new missiles would render Moscow, including Soviet nuclear command, vulnerable to a decapitating first strike.”  The democratic circles within the U.S. foreign policy sphere saw the program as a “pipe-dream,” even going as far as dubbing SDI “Star Wars.” The Kremlin, on the other hand, saw the program as a legitimate threat setting the foundation for Reagan to launch a nuclear strike against which Moscow could not effectively retaliate. As Downing writes, “If the US knew that it could survive a nuclear attack, not only was thirty years of massive investment by the Soviet Union rendered instantly obsolete, it also meant that Washington was far more likely to start a nuclear war.”

But there was something cleverer at work. SDI was not simply a method to counteract the SS-20 missiles pointed at NATO allies in Western Europe, but as Reagan himself noted in his personal diary a month earlier on February 11, 1983, “So far the only policy worldwide on nuclear weapons is to have a deterrent (e.g. mutually assured destruction). What if we tell the world we want to protect our people, not avenge them; and that we’re going to embark on a program of research to come up with a defensive weapon that could make nuclear weapons obsolete?” This wasn’t just wishful thinking on behalf of Reagan, and the Soviets were at least privy to America’s superior technological capabilities against its own weapon advantages. The kind of weaponry that would characterize the SDI program would be made up of nuclear X-ray lasers, subatomic particle beams and computer-guided projectiles fired by electromagnetic rail guns. The technology, according to Thornton, was already under development for many years even if the completion of the weapons wouldn’t be accomplished for another 20 years. The Soviets anticipated this, which explains their growing anxieties going into the Able Archer exercise later that year. Thornton argues that Reagan “…announcing the decision in March 1983 was supremely political and psychological…convincing the Soviet leadership that the United States could accomplish what the Soviets themselves were trying to accomplish, and do it sooner.” Andropov, responding to Reagan’s announcement, said that if SDI were pursued, it “…would actually open the flood-gates to a runway race of all types of strategic arms, both offensive and defensive.” This would be the precipice of Moscow’s growing terror at the prospects of an American missile-defense system and what would eventually cause the Soviets to abandon their strategy of missile coercion altogether, but not without going “…to the brink of war to wring every ounce of benefit from their huge, decades-long investment in missile power.”

What made the situation even more precarious was that Reagan’s announcement of SDI via a televised address came just three weeks after his fiery “evil-empire” speech, which had branded the Soviet Union as the “…unequivocal enemy of the United States. An anti-ballistic missile system—one which would give the United States complete protection from the Soviet Union—was the natural next step.” Andropov had been deducing this years earlier as KGB chief and Reagan knew it.  In fact, while Reagan and his officials grew concerned about the Soviet weapons buildup in Eastern Europe and its political influence that had been brewing since the 1970s, “…they also firmly believed that the Soviets had important vulnerabilities that could be effectively targeted by U.S. policy.” The Soviet regime’s psychological stability, would be Reagan’s overarching primaria metam. 

RYAN: Moscow on Edge (May 1981-September 1, 1983)

The events in 1983 weren’t just a perpetual competition of leverage to “one-up” an opponent for controls over greater spheres of influence, but it was also part of an already years-long game of frantic intelligence gathering on behalf of the Soviets. By the time Reagan announced his imminent strategic arms buildup in Western Europe, Moscow was already on high alert that the U.S. was indeed preparing for war years earlier. As the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board noted in their partly-redacted declassified report, “In early 1983, Soviet military intelligence created a new directorate to organize and manage ‘illegal’ agent networks worldwide. The urgency of this move reportedly reflected perceptions of an increased threat of war…. working-level officers treated the subject of wartime confrontation very seriously, because they believed war could break out at any moment.”

The report rationalizes Moscow’s floundering with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, by clandestinely building anti-aircraft systems against the provisions of the treaty signed during the détente under the Carter administration. A major part of the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty talks, the ABM Treaty specifically limited the construction of defense systems that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union would build in order to curb the need to construct more and new offensive weapons to overcome one another’s defense system apparatus. But as Thornton notes, “The Russians were probing the boundaries of the treaty by reportedly testing ‘a variety of surface-to-air missiles in ABM mode, in violation of the treaty including the SAM-10 and SAM-12.” What compounded the brazenness of such violation was that the missiles were also mobile, another ‘treaty violation,’ and were also in ‘mass production.

Since the beginning of President Reagan’s administration, the KGB (Soviet Intelligence) had been placed on high alert. As a senior KGB official noted of then-General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s speech in the Lubyanka in May 1981, “The new administration, he declared, was actively preparing for nuclear war. To the astonishment of most of his audience, Andropov (then-intelligence chief) then announced that, by a decision of the Politburo, the KGB and GRU were, for the first time, to cooperate in a worldwide intelligence operation codenamed RYAN.” This mass-intelligence gathering initiative, would be bolstered by an Institute for Intelligence Problems, a new Soviet bureau that would utilize extensive computer analyses and “…create a matrix based on unambiguous signs of nuclear war preparation.”Andropov had made Project RYAN top priority for the KGB rezidents (agents) located around the world, even within the United States itself.  “From the start of Project RYAN, the opponent’s nuclear exercises would be watched more closely by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact intelligence services (including East Germany’s massive Ministry for State Security), and the Soviet Union would ratchet up its own nuclear alert status, just in case.”

Historian John Koehler documents that numerous counter-espionage agencies within the Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe had discovered numerous technical gadgets located at strategic locations such as ammunition depots and air bases, even within the Soviet Union itself. As far as any agency knew, these gadgets were just suspected to have something to do with espionage, even though they couldn’t decipher their specific functions. However, as Koehler documents, “In the end, East German technicians believed they had solved the puzzle: the gadgets were sensors capable of recording traffic in and around air bases, munitions depots, rocket bases, and according to former Stasi Colonel Wiegand, of registering emissions from nuclear munitions. The data were transmitted at predetermined intervals to a U.S. satellite that crossed over East Germany.”

On top of concerns of United States’ weapons buildup, conspiracy theories began to be drawn that the United States was attempting to sabotage Soviet weapons systems. These conspiracies had already been brewing years earlier. In one specific incidence, then-intelligence chief Yuri Andropov, in 1978, had speculated that America’s Central Intelligence Agency apparatus had created a secret unit to initiate deep-cover sabotage operations, to which the CIA had neither the intentions, nor the necessary capabilities. But for all intents and purposes, Moscow’s paranoia was the underpinning of Reagan’s entire foreign policy strategy.

Moscow had painfully learned the threat of lack of intelligence that nearly decimated the Soviet Union when Nazi forces invaded Stalingrad in 1941 during Operation Barbarossa. They were intent not to let themselves be surprised again, even if it meant being unreasonably paranoid. In fact, such lack of preparation for the Nazi invasion led to “…the capture of hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers, the occupation of much of Western Russia and Ukraine, and a terrible war that left the nation in ruins.” Moscow was determined not to make that mistake again, let alone with President Reagan controlling U.S. foreign policy. Project RYAN would be the answer to Moscow’s deep intelligence problems.

KGB agents operating within Britain, the United States, Japan and other NATO countries were given the specific task of looking for any specific indicators that would point to preparations for a nuclear strike. There were five principal categories of intelligence-gathering: Political, Military, Intelligence, Civil Defense and Economics. Such categories narrowed down the field of indicators agents were to monitor for each category. For example, the first category (Political) instructed surveillance of the rhetoric of certain political leaders (monitoring their aggression) as well as their whereabouts for abrupt changes in their schedules that indicated emergencies, such as an unexpected evacuation of the US embassy in Helsinki. The military category, as Downing notes, surveilled the obvious: “Any unusual activity or raised security around air bases or missile silos might suggest that preparations for a strike were being made.” Following the establishment of Operation RYAN in 1981, Downing notes that “So many reports started to come in from its agents that the KGB in Moscow set up a computer program to process the flow of all the information.”

The decision to initiate Project RYAN was not germane simply to the Reagan administration’s foreign policy goals, since the president’s plans were still in the formative stage in 1981 but were already part of ongoing concerns of the United States’ weapons capabilities for an offensive strike. The action to pool the efforts of both the KGB and the GRU’s intelligence apparatuses within the Soviet Union alone (not accounting for other Warsaw intelligence agencies who received the RYAN directive from Moscow) was enough to generate great skepticism of its rationality, and leading those with knowledge of America’s then-inferiority in the strategic weapons balance with Moscow to consider the Soviet regime as being seriously “alarmist.”

The 1990 Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Report outlined that the KGB was placing heavy pressure on Moscow’s East European allies to offer intelligence support. For example, Andropov and foreign intelligence head of the KGB Vladimir Kryuchkov, began to apply heavy pressure on Czechoslovakian Interior Minister Jaromir Obzina to pull Czech intelligence efforts towards RYAN. The coercion efforts worked, and Interior Minister Obzina began lobbying the Czech Politburo to consider the immediacy of the “threat” from the U.S., to which Prague responded by beginning to issue to its intelligence field-offices a “Minister’s Directive of Top Priority” to begin collecting information on U.S. operations along five substantial areas: political, military, science and technology, civil defense and economics, verbatim to the KGB/GRU’s RYAN directive issued in May. It was clear Moscow was looking for any excuse for preemptive action. As Oleg Kalugin, a senior KGB official summarized, “…the ‘ailing, ageing leadership, unable to move ahead with any domestic reforms, surrounded by surging Western nations economically and technologically and the advance of a very militant President in the United States, Ronald Reagan, verbally at least…really scared them out of their wits.” Events that would transpire later in September of 1983 would reveal just how unstable Reagan’s foreign policy had made the Moscow regime.

KAL007: The Crux of Soviet Paranoia (September 1, 1983).

Soviet phased-array radar systems, one of the highly regulated components of ABM within the 1972 ABM treaty (it allowed identification and interception of numerous incoming warheads), were of primary concern to the Reagan administration, particularly because Moscow had been fiddling around with the agreements by placing two of these defensive systems within the USSR interior, a violation of the treaty which stipulated that such systems be placed solely on the periphery and be used purely as warning mechanisms only. However, a U.S. intelligence discovery of a new phased-array radar system sometime earlier in late 1982 was located deep within the Soviet interior near the city of Krasnoyarsk. Interior-placed systems, however, could operate anti-ballistic defense systems themselves. The Krasnoyarsk phased-radar system was located around 125 miles from a “…field of [SS-18] missiles, close enough to become part of a second ABM system.” The administration needed to determine if the Soviet Union was set to break out from the 1972 ABM Treaty through knowledge of Krasnoyarsk’s operational status.

To do this, CIA Director Bill Casey would bait Moscow via a Korean Airlines civilian airliner (KAL007) flying deep into Soviet airspace in order to provoke an electronic response from the phased-radar system in Krasnoyarsk, which covered Sakhalin, the Sea of Ohkotsk, and Kamchatka. An electronic response emitted through microwave pulses would be picked up by an anti-ballistic missile radar ferret named “Jumpseat” hanging over Siberia.  Casey also ordered spoofing aircraft along KAL007’s path through Soviet airspace to jam Soviet communications in order to confuse any prospective Soviet air defense response. The mission allowed U.S. intelligence analysts to conclude that the new phased-radar system would not be operational by the time of the Pershing II missile weapons deployment in late 1983, but as KAL007 was completing its mission and exiting Soviet airspace on September 1st, a Soviet-interceptor jet shot it down, an unexpected response from a panicked Soviet intelligence that had been spoofed.

But Soviet ground radar (amidst the panic) had determined that the airliner was in fact a foreign, 747 civilian-airliner, but speculated that it must have a devious purpose. It didn’t matter, however, because Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, who oversaw the response tactics, had received authorization for the use of force from the Politburo to shoot down the airliner.  As Thornton documents, “As KAL007 was exiting Sakhalin airspace approximately over the port city of Nevelsk and heading southwestward in the direction of Moneron Island…. Soviet ground controllers were screaming the command to shoot down the airliner with missiles.” This event showed how nerve-wracked Washington had made the Soviet regime. Casey’s mission, albeit a major unintended error on his part, had provoked Soviet intelligence to knowingly strike a civilian airliner. All Project RYAN had accomplished up to this point from as early as 1981 was increasing Soviet anxiety, causing them to react irrationally where careful strategy mattered most. The KAL007 Crisis would be one of these cases. As Pry noted, “The KAL007 incident illustrates the hair-trigger mindset of the Soviet military, born out of its fear that World War III was imminent.”

PSYOPS: Reagan’s Trident (April-November 1983)

Since the beginning of Reagan’s entry into office, one of the administration’s top priorities involved modernizing U.S. foreign policy through carefully-placed strategic weapons deployments, specifically to address the extenuating issue of strategic weapons vulnerability that had been left over from the Carter administration when U.S. foreign policy had been geared towards détente with Moscow. In fact, the détente vigorously pursued by President Carter during the SALT II Treaty of 1979 had offered up vital information on U.S. weapons technology on a silver platter with the false hope that Moscow would exercise geopolitical restraint. The result was disastrous. The Soviets exploited the agreement to attain a first-strike nuclear capability, which weakened the U.S. strategic position in the global balance of forces and all but emboldened the Soviets to invade Afghanistan that same year. By 1981, the Soviets had already deployed much of their hard-target capability without the U.S. deploying any new weapons system to counter it. Reagan was determined to close this vulnerability by dedicating $180 billion in October of 1981 to a five-part military modernization program which would improve command and control systems, deploy new sub-launched missiles, deploy a land-based missile and bring much needed improvements to strategic defense. By 1983, he would get his chance to throw his military weight around while the Soviets were already operating under extreme duress. The massive increases in the military budget “…begun by the Reagan administration ushered in an entirely new campaign of psychological military warfare.”  Unleashing the newly refined power of the U.S. Navy in 1983 would serve as the peak-point of this ambitious venture.

In April 1983, a massive naval task force sailed into the Sea of Okhotsk, a Soviet strategic position on Russia’s easternmost point where they had established several naval bases purposed for firing submarine-launched nuclear missiles at the U.S. mainland in the event of war. This task force exercise (dubbed FleetEx 83), which included the massive nuclear-powered USS Enterprise air-craft carrier, consisted of 40 ships, 23,000 men, more than 300 aircraft and sea vessels from the Canadian navy under the command of U.S. Navy Admiral Lang and would be claimed to be the largest fleet exercise by the Pacific Fleet ever done since WWII. The buildup of the Pacific Fleet was endemic to Reagan’s goals against Soviet weapons superiority. During the first two weeks of FleetEx 83, the three massive carrier groups in the exercise “…sailed up and down the Sea of Okhotsk parallel to the Siberian coast, as if taunting the Soviet airfields, naval bases and military garrisons there. Accompanying them were B-52 bombers and AWACs (advanced warning aircraft)…” One night, the U.S. carrier Midway (which carried nuclear weapons), shut down its electronic emissions and went dark against Soviet monitoring stations, only to power up right on the Kamchatka peninsula (a critically important location that housed more nuclear sub-marine bases and military facilities), flabbergasting the Soviets. This was followed the very next day by aircraft from the fleet carriers initiating a “…mock attack on a Soviet military installation at Zeleny in the Kurile Islands.” The plan was to taunt the Soviets to see how they would react and respond by tricking the Soviets into being completely unaware of what American forces were up to. The plan succeeded when the Soviet Air Defense located in the Far East was placed on high alert two days after the mock attack, a status that would remain throughout most of the year. But this major exercise was just the latest in a string of strategic naval actions meant to probe Soviet border stability during the Reagan administration. In fact, throughout 1983, “American naval exercises were (already) staged without warning near important bases along the Soviet coastline; SAC bombers entered Soviet airspace and then left it, testing air defenses.”

Reagan vigorously exploited this strategy in 1983.  Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, noted the severity of the shift in Naval strategy that had taken place in Europe. The appearance of a heavy U.S. naval presence in key points near the Soviet border were made to appear as if the United States was preparing for an attack. As Lehman notes, “Instead of choke point barriers and convoys, the Soviets now faced offensive naval strikes off all their major naval bases… the Soviets now faced imaginative new U.S. and allied operational concepts and tactics.” Specifically, as a result of Reagan’s provocative naval strategy, by 1983, the Soviets were now faced with “major concentrations of (American) naval power in the Norwegian sea, northern Norway, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Artic and western Pacific Oceans…” In essence, Reagan was vying to make Soviet leadership perceive that the U.S. was cornering them across the globe. The Soviet reaction to Reagan’s naval tour de force was telling, and it rippled all across the map. “They tried intimidation. They tried analysis. They scrubbed our international communications that—unknown to us—they were reading by the thousands. They countered with big—and small exercises and operations of their own.” They even extended their own naval forces into the seas, tightened up their coastal security and were griping indignantly about an imminent U.S. nuclear first-strike. The Soviet naval doctrine had been primed throughout the early 1980s to gain the upper hand on naval superiority through a sea control/sea denial paradigm where the Soviet fleet would position itself to extend new controls over strategic positions (sea control) while extending sea denial zones where Soviet ships would be able to preempt enemy forces from controlling any new sea areas. The main intent for the Soviets was to achieve the war-stopping capability of circumventing U.S. support to Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Iceland, a major swath of the North Pacific and including all the waters around western Alaska, the Aleutians, Taiwan and restricting access to the Artic. Reagan’s provocative naval deployments were gutting this strategy, and the Soviets knew it. In fact, suspecting a checkmate on the seas, the Soviets even began a propaganda campaign as early as 1983 attempting to paint the U.S. navy as a threat to world peace.

The “nail in the coffin” for the Soviets was their conclusion that Reagan’s naval strategy was in fact Moscow’s strategy: using military exercises to mask surprise invasions, which they had effectively done in Poland in 1981. In other words, they thought Reagan was turning their own military strategy on their heads. In fear that their game was up and fearing Reagan’s perceived irrationality in leaving the option of a first-strike ambiguous, “…they were mirror-imaging their own thought processes, since surprise and achieving the ‘first salvo’ were cornerstones of their military doctrine.” Aside from the incorrect assumption that Reagan was looking to strike Moscow first, Reagan did in fact win an imagery with his naval strategy from the Soviets that made him appear just as ambitious and power-hungry as they were. This imagery of an irrational “madman” terrified the Soviet regime. According to testimony given by Soviet Capt. 1st Rank V. Strelkov which juxtaposed Soviet fears, the distinguishing feature of the U.S. naval deployments was “…their anti-Soviet orientation, working through provocative missions…The principal means of implementing the ‘new’ naval strategy of intensifying the threat to the Soviet Union from the oceans and seas is activating the everyday activities of the American fleet directly off the Soviet coast.” Soviet deputy foreign minister Mikhail Kapitsa affirmed this view, “The crux of the matter is that Imperialism (the U.S.) is creating a global military coalition, which has linked three fronts of forward deployment of the first strike: Western Europe, Near East [and] the Indian Ocean, and East Asia [and] the Pacific.”

Reagan’s strategy also came close to the U.S. mainland. In a speech given to the Kremlin in December 1982, Andropov had warned the Reagan administration that any attempt to use or build any of the planned strategic arms systems in Reagan’s package would result in the Soviets launching corresponding weapons systems, which included a missile “analogous” to the deadly U.S. MX missile and a new long-range cruise missile. In Grenada, where the Soviet-backed New Jewel Movement had just overthrown the ruling government in October 1983, Reagan had suspected early on in January of 1983 that the Soviets would exercise their “analogous deployments” there. As then-assistant secretary of defense for inter-American affairs Nestor Sanchez noted, “‘If the Sovietization of Grenada continued…Moscow could literally place hostile forces and weapons systems capable of striking targets deep in the United states.’” The KAL007 Crisis, however, in a surprising twist, actually gave incredibly vital intelligence to Reagan that answered an ongoing question of whether Andropov could follow-up with his “analogous deployment” threats. The shooting of the civilian airliner proved that the Soviets would be unable to activate a nationwide missile defense system and painted Andropov’s earlier countermeasure threats as bluffs and encouraged Reagan that he could in fact forestall any Soviet attempt to deploy SS-20 missiles into Grenada while going ahead with the original goal to deploy the Pershing II missile into Western Europe.

Reagan snubbed the Soviet threat, and in April 1983 deployed four carrier battle groups into the Caribbean area, comprised of over sixty ships and over 250 aircraft. Coupled with earlier naval exercises probing the Soviet lines, these kinds of deployments were also part of the rationale for the Soviet misfire during the KAL007 Crisis. The U.S. Navy literally had the Soviets feeling surrounded, so much so that the Soviets deployed four spy ships among our Second Fleet Readex (readiness exercise) in the Caribbean in order to scout Reagan’s deployments. Strike Fleet Commander Admiral James Lyons echoed Reagan’s strategy through retaliatory action: “…missile after missile took down drone after drone –as eleven Harpoons (anti-ship missile systems) had eleven direct hits…” Admiral Lyons’ message behind these reactions to Soviet participants in the attack juxtaposed Reagan’s psychological war at sea, “‘Admiral Gorshkov (Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union), eat your heart out.” Reagan soon took things a dramatic step further to add another clip in his psychological warfare arsenal.

On October 23, 1983, following the assassination of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop by a communist military junta within the People’s Revolutionary Government, Reagan prepared to use direct military action within the country. Desperate to deter such a policy, the Soviet Union and its satellite regime in Cuba opted to divert Washington by deploying two truck bombs in Beirut, Lebanon into a U.S. Marine barracks and French compound, which both exploded and killed 241 Marines and 56 French soldiers.

Reagan deduced that the two events in Lebanon and Grenada were not isolated incidents but both connected to Moscow. In essence, he could have suspected what they were trying to accomplish with the Bierut incident. The attempt to dent Reagan’s ambitions in the Caribbean failed, and the president initiated NSDD-110 to officially launch a strategic military strike. On October 25, 1983, the United States invaded Grenada with a team of Army Rangers, U.S. Marines, and Navy Seals. Dubbed Operation Urgent Fury, “The invasion had ostensibly been launched to protect the lives of American citizens and restore order amid the aftermath of a military coup (a political cover). It also achieved another goal (perhaps the underlying reason entirely): the overthrow of a Communist regime backed up by the Soviet Union and Cuba (the first time in history).” Approximately nineteen American soldiers, forty-five Grenadians and twenty-five Cubans were killed in the fighting. Aside from the bonus of attaining major popularity in the United States as a strategic victory, the invasion of Grenada was just the latest in a drastic series of strategic maneuvers meant to cripple Soviet psychological stability. It was clear that the Soviet Union was attempting to arm Grenada in order to turn the geopolitical tables by frightening the U.S. into believing the Soviets were going to be targeting intermediate range missiles deep into U.S. territory. Losing control of this territory was a devastating blow to Soviet strategy to regain some level of regional leverage against the U.S., which was evident in the Soviet leadership’s immediate propaganda campaign that followed the incident blaming the United States for attacking Grenada just to offset the losses it suffered in Lebanon, when in fact it had orchestrated the Lebanon incident to deter the United States’ ambitions in Grenada.

In Grenada, the Soviets believed that keeping the threat close to U.S. borders would prevent weapons deployment in Western Europe. According to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger’s memoirs on the invasion, “The United States – Caribbean security forces found Soviet weaponry in crates marked ‘Oficina Economica Cubana.’ We discovered large numbers of weapons, many still in crates in Grenada. The single largest concentration was at Frequente. There were six warehouses full of weapons at that site…Grenada was a well-performed military operation, and one that served very well the interests of America and our allies.” The U.S. victory had eliminated a crucial bargaining chip for Moscow (e.g. denying the Soviets the “analogous option’) as the U.S. continued its probing operations along Soviet borders to force Moscow into paranoid and irrational policy-making, which would ultimately materialize just a few weeks after the invasion.

Conclusion: Able Archer and The Razor’s Edge

On November 7, 1983, the Reagan administration would unveil its coup de grace by initiating approval for participation in a massive war game exercise dubbed Able Archer 83 in cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), where forces were placed on high alert (codenamed: DEFCON 1) during a simulation in Brussels, Belgium that scripted a real-time pathway to nuclear war. This wasn’t an isolated exercise, but the finale of an ongoing simulated land-war in Europe, “including as many as 40,000 troops (19,000 of them American), the “culmination” of both Autumn Forge 83 (a major military exercise that included nearly 200 airlifts of thousands of troops into Europe under radio silence) and Reforger 83 (an annual NATO exercise meant to simulate deployment of troops quickly in the event of a conflict with Warsaw Pact countries).” The response to the exercise by the Soviets was unprecedented: Planes in Poland and East Germany were immediately equipped with bombs, 70 SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) were placed on high alert, and submarines loaded with nuclear weapons capabilities were deployed under the Arctic ice, with the intent to avoid detection by American radar and sonar systems.

Reagan’s public announcement of SDI, the string of land-based NATO exercises, PSYOPS, the West German election outcome, the political manipulation of the KAL007 Incident, provocative naval deployments and strategic weapons deployments that culminated to a crescendo during the Able Archer exercise in November were enough to push Moscow to see viability in fighting a world-ending nuclear war, stroked in major part by the massive Operation RYAN program that could be directly traced to the Soviet Union’s preparation for retaliatory strike. “Although most agents (RYAN agents) did not believe an attack was imminent, they were ordered to report their raw observations of events, not their assessment of what the observations meant. This critical flaw in the Soviet intelligence system…played a key role in exacerbating the Soviet leadership’s fears of a U.S. nuclear strike.”

U.S. and British intelligence revealed that the Soviets’ reacted to Able Archer by placing their nuclear forces on alert, a reaction completely unique apart from reactions to previous exercises. KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky noted that flash telegrams (under the RYAN program) bombarded KGB and GRU residencies in Western Europe reporting “alerts on U.S. bases.” The implication was that a countdown to a U.S. nuclear first-strike had already begun.

Apart from previous military exercises, the Able Archer Incident incorporated live mobilization exercises involving U.S. military forces in Europe, another crucial tactic that sent Moscow’s leadership into an Armageddon frenzy.  It wasn’t until after the Able Archer exercise concluded on November 11 that Soviet forces were told to stand down. The U.S achieved more than what they bargained for by frightening the Soviets to this degree of panic over the string of events that culminated to this point in 1983. However, as Ronald Reagan determined following the incident, “…the United States was in its strongest position in two decades to negotiate with the Russians from strength.”

Utilizing all elements of political and military strategy is key in destabilizing your opponent to gain an advantage. 1983 was indeed itself identified by a world near Armageddon but it also was a testament to the brilliant strategic mind of Reagan and his desire to finally resist the strength of a major Communist enemy by exploiting its weaknesses to U.S. advantage.




Jones, Nate, Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War (New York: The New Press, 2016).

Nau, Henry, Conservative Internationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

“NSDD-75: U.S. Relations with the USSR,” Federation of American Scientists, January 17, 1983, accessed September 13, 2018.

Kengor, Paul, “Crucial Cold War Secret.” The Washington Times. January 13, 2008, accessed September 13, 2018.

Pry, Peter, War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink (Westport: Praeger Publishers. 1999).

Thornton, Richard, The Reagan Revolution III: Defeating the Soviet Challenge (Victoria: Trafford Publishing. 2009).

Downing, Taylor, 1983: Reagan, Andropov and a World on the Brink (New York: De Capo Press, 2018).

Anderson, Martin and Annelise Anderson, Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save The World from Nuclear Disaster (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009).

Crowley, Kevin, “The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI): Star Wars,” The Cold War Museum, May 2, 2008, accessed September 9, 2018.

“Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI),” Atomic Heritage Foundation, July 18, 2018, accessed September 9, 2018.

Marlo, Francis, Planning Reagan’s War: Conservative Strategists and America’s Cold War Victory (Dulles: Potomac Books, 2012).

Kimball, Daryl and Kingston Reif, “The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, August 1, 2012, accessed August 30, 2018.

Ambinder, Marc, The Brink: President Reagan and The Nuclear War Scare of 1983 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018)

Koehler, John, Stasi (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999).

Thornton, Richard, The Reagan Revolution I: The Politics of U.S. Foreign Policy (Victoria: Trafford Publishing, 2003).

Schlosser, Eric, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (New York: The Penguin Group, 2013).

Lehman, John, Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2018).

Burns, John, “Soviet Announces Offer For Cutting Missiles in Europe,” The New York Times, December 22, 1982, accessed October 16, 2018.

Weinberger, Caspar, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon (New York: Warner Books Inc., 1990).

“Nuclear Close Calls: Able Archer 83,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, June 15, 2018, accessed November 17, 2018.

Reagan, Ronald, An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s