Thursday, September 26, 2013

30 Years Ago Today, The World Almost Ended

Each generation faces its own unique threat.  In the context of modern warfare, I think this partially accounts for that perennial misunderstanding, the so-called generation gap.  We all want to feel special, so to some degree this translates to infusing the unique threat we face with hyperbole; that our threat is somehow the worst, the greatest, the most insidious, evil, pick whatever adjective suits your passion.  It gets more passionate, of course, if you subscribe to dispensationalist religious beliefs.  Surely, this new threat is worse than all previous threats, so get ready for that Book of Revelations Armageddon, for truly we must be in the End Times.

Except we're not.  And it isn't.  The threat that we currently face from terrorism is real and serious.  It is hardly existential.  Previous generations had it far worse.  As far as immediate military threats spearheaded by a fanatical madman, no one beats Hitler.  Period.  Compare the last 12 years including 9/11 living through al-Qaeda compared with what Germans and the rest of the world had to deal with in the 12 years comprised of 1933-1945.  I rest my case.  And as much as it irks me to hear any geezer have the egocentricity to call themselves The Greatest Generation, I have to say thank you.  I wish the leaders of your generation had the foresight, as Clemenza said in The Godfather, to have "stopped Hitler at Munich."  But that point aside, stop him you did, and the civilized world is eternally grateful to you.

The one caveat to this argument is that Hitler didn't really represent an existential threat.  (Unless, of course, you happened to be Jewish, or homosexual, or Gypsy, or just plain having enough conscience and guts to oppose the perverted Nazi ethos.)  But neither does terrorism, unless you happen to believe the Chechens can overcome their snowball's chance in hell odds of overthrowing the Russian government, gain possession of their nuclear arsenal and break the codes to unleash Apocalypse Now.  Which brings me to the main point of this post: if the greatest military threat is an existential threat, i.e. the ability to wipe human existence off the face of the earth, then the greatest threat ever occurred during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear annihilation.  If the Cold War got hot enough to unleash World War III, the hundreds of millions incinerated in the cities targeted would be the lucky ones.  The unlucky would be the rest of the world's population facing the prospect of Nuclear Winter.  As the speed of environmental existential threats go, if Global Warming is a marathon, Nuclear Winter is a 100 meter sprint.

Many people think the only time we ever came close to nuclear war was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  But there was another crisis behind the scenes in 1983 that most people were not aware of.  If not for the cool head and accurate "gut" of one Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, we might not be here:

Sept. 26, 1983: The Man Who Saved the World by Doing ... Nothing

By Tony Long Email 09.26.07

Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov prevented a Soviet retaliation against the United States by detecting a satellite error.
Photo: Gyori Antoine / Corbis 
1983: A Soviet ballistics officer draws the right conclusion -- that a satellite report indicating incoming U.S. nuclear missiles is, in fact, a false alarm -- thereby averting a potential nuclear holocaust.

Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret bunker outside Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union's early-warning satellite system, when the alarm bells went off shortly after midnight. One of the satellites signaled Moscow that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles at Russia.

Given the heightened tensions between the two countries -- the alarm coincided with the beginning of provocative NATO military exercises and barely three weeks after the Russians shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space -- Petrov could have been forgiven for believing the signal was accurate. The electronic maps flashing around him didn't do anything to ease the stress of the moment.

But Petrov smelled a rat. "I had a funny feeling in my gut" that this was a false alarm. For one thing, the report indicated that only five missiles had been fired. Had the United States been launching an actual nuclear attack, he reasoned, ICBMs would be raining down on them.

"I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it." Petrov's gut feeling was due in large part to his lack of faith in the Soviet early-warning system, which he subsequently described as "raw." He reported it as a false alarm to his superiors, and hoped to hell he was right.

Petrov was initially praised for his cool head but later came under criticism and was, for a while, made the scapegoat for the false alarm. Further investigation, however, found that the satellite in question had picked up the sun's reflection off the cloud tops and somehow interpreted that as a missile launch.

Petrov lives today on his army pension in a village outside of Moscow.

(Source: Washington Post)

What's really scary is that this false alarm that happened 30 years ago today was only the beginning.  It's easy to forget the level of tension that existed then if you didn't live through it, but I did.  I remember the brinksmanship practiced during the first term of Reagan's presidency, exemplified in the phrase he used to describe the Soviet Union: "evil empire."  I remember the incident alluded to above, the Soviet shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (no kids, 007 is not a sick joke on my part) on September 1, 1983, killing all 269 passengers aboard, including sitting Congressman Lawrence McDonald, which seemed to give teeth at the time to the "evil empire" accusation.  Later, evidence was revealed through Project Censored that US intelligence had an overriding interest in Soviet military activities in the area overflown by the Korean airliner.  (Maybe the 007 flight designation really was a sick joke!)  But at the time, even without the intimate knowledge of behind the scenes details, the tension was real and palpable.  It's no coincidence that two major Hollywood productions dealing with nuclear holocaust, the Oscar nominated Testament and the highly rated TV movie The Day After were made in 1983.  President Reagan even saw a special screening of The Day After on October 10, more than one month prior to the national broadcast, which "greatly depressed" him, but didn't affect him enough to put a hold on Exercise Able Archer 83, which really kicked the nuclear brinksmanship crisis between the US and USSR into high gear in November.
The Day After movie still

The existence of Exercise Able Archer 83 has been public knowledge for many years.  But earlier this year, newly declassified documents gave a more complete picture of just what a threat to the existence of humanity this exercise presented:

New Documents Reveal How a 1980s Nuclear War Scare Became a Full-Blown Crisis

Photo: Department of Defense

During 10 days in November 1983, the United States and the Soviet Union nearly started a nuclear war. Newly declassified documents from the CIA, NSA, KGB, and senior officials in both countries reveal just how close we came to mutually assured destruction — over a military exercise.

That exercise, Able Archer 83, simulated the transition by NATO from a conventional war to a nuclear war, culminating in the simulated release of warheads against the Soviet Union. NATO changed its readiness condition during Able Archer to DEFCON 1, the highest level. The Soviets interpreted the simulation as a ruse to conceal a first strike and readied their nukes. At this period in history, and especially during the exercise, a single false alarm or miscalculation could have brought Armageddon.

According to a diplomatic memo obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by National Security Archives researcher Nate Jones, Soviet General Secretary Yuri Adroprov warned U.S. ambassador Averell Harriman six months before the crisis that both countries “may be moving toward a red line” in which a miscalculation could spark a nuclear war. Harriman later wrote that he believed Andropov was concerned “over the state of U.S.-Soviet relations and his desire to see them at least ‘normalized,’ if not improved.”

The early 1980s was a “crisis period, a pre-wartime period,” said Gen. Varfolomei Korobushin, the former deputy chief of staff of the Soviet nuclear Strategic Rocket Forces, according to an interview conducted by the Pentagon in the early 1990s and obtained by Jones. The Kremlin’s Central Committee slept in shifts. There were fears the deployment of Pershing II ballistic missiles to Europe (also in November 1983) could tip the balance. If a conventional war erupted, Soviet planners worried their troops would come close to capturing the nuclear-tipped missiles, prompting the United States to fire them.

The Soviet Union, according to an unclassified article written for the CIA’s classified Studies in Intelligence journal and provided to Jones, notes that Soviet fears of a preemptive American nuclear attack “while exaggerated, were scarcely insane.” This stemmed from the Soviet experience during World War II, when the Third Reich launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion in human history. Soviet officials worried history might be repeated by NATO.

Oleg Gordievsky, a CIA and MI6 source during the Cold War, was previously known to have warned the West about these fears,  but the CIA article identifies a second source of this information: a Czech intelligence officer with ties to the KGB who “noted that his counterparts were obsessed with the historical parallel between 1941 and 1983. He believed this feeling was almost visceral, not intellectual, and deeply affected Soviet thinking.”

President Reagan wasn’t sure, and in March, 1984, asked Arthur Hartman, his ambassador to the Soviet Union, “Do you think Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?” We don’t know what Hartman said in response, but John McMahon, the CIA director at the time, believed the Soviets were simply “rattling their pots and pans” to stop further Pershing II deployments.

It’s unclear how much of the fear was just pots and pans. Jones writes that although “real-time analysts, retroactive re-inspectors, and the historical community may be at odds as to how dangerous the War Scare was, all agree that the dearth of available evidence has made conclusions harder to deduce.” Jones did not get all the information he asked for. (The complete list of unclassified documents are collected at the Archives’ website, with two more sets of documents to follow.) The NSA told him it had 81 more documents, but did not release them. However, it did “review, approve for release, stamp, and send a printout of a Wikipedia article,” he noted.

Still, we do have more evidence of serious Soviet preparations. Documents obtained by Jones detail a massive KGB intelligence-gathering mission called Operation RYaN. (The name is a Russian acronym for “nuclear missile attack.”) According to the CIA article, RYaN was “for real” and accelerated in the early 1980s during the scare. The goal was to find out if and when the United States and NATO would attack. According to KGB instructions sent to agents in London, Soviet spies were to monitor bomb shelters, blood banks, military bases and key financial and religious leaders for signs of war preparations. “Many of the assigned observations would have been very poor indicators of a nuclear attack,” Jones warns.

But in another sense, the scrambling for any scrap of intelligence — whether good or bad — reflected a feverish belief among some quarters that war was just around the corner. “[T]he Reagan administration marked the height of the Cold War,” notes one declassified history published by the National Security Agency. “The president referred to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire, and was determined to spend it into the ground. The Politburo reciprocated, and the rhetoric on both sides, especially during the first Reagan administration, drove the hysteria. Some called it the Second Cold War. The period 1982-1984 marked the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Worse, there were “a lot of crazy people” in the Kremlin and Soviet military command, according to Vitalii Tsygichko, an analyst for the Soviet General Staff who was interviewed by the Pentagon. “I know many military people who look like normal people, but it was difficult to explain to them that waging nuclear war was not feasible. We had a lot of arguments in this respect. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there are a lot of stupid people both in NATO and our country.”

Considering the consequences of a war, and how close it came, those comments certainly ring true.

It would be comforting to think that with the end of the Cold War in 1991, the threat of nuclear annihilation has vanished.  But that isn't the case.  On January 25, 1995, a Norwegian missile launched to study the aurora borealis was mistaken by Russian military as a US Trident missile flying over Russian airspace.  President Boris Yeltsin had actually opened the nuclear briefcase when Russian radar confirmed the missile was heading out harmlessly to sea.  But that's hardly comforting to know how close we can come to suicide as a species by complete accident!

Why is it that the civilized world has banned chemical weapons, but has yet to outlaw the greatest WMD of all, nuclear bombs?  I give credit to President Obama for his recent attempt to reduce the number of nuclear warheads down to 1,000 each, (current totals: US - 4,650 Russia - 5,200) but that's still 2,000 warheads capable of creating the Mother Of All Accidents.  It's a great first step, too bad Congressional Republicans and Vladimir Putin are unified in opposing it.  Perhaps they've forgotten their history, how close we've come to extinction.

Or maybe they remember and are nostalgic for the good old days of nuclear paranoia!  Dovetails nicely with the current 80's nostalgia!

Yes, the world is headed for destruction.
Is it a nuclear war?
What are you asking for?

1 comment:

Tanya Savko said...

Wow, I don't think I ever heard about Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov and his world-saving assessment. Thank God it was he and not someone less experienced on the horn that day. And I remember that PiL song - I think I taped it off KROQ in high school!