In late 1983 the United States and Soviet Union stumbled into the “war scare” – after the Cuban missile crisis, perhaps the most dangerous period of the Cold War. With the 40th Anniversary of the war scare last month, and as the United States again finds itself focused on Strategic Competition with Russia and China, this historical episode has important crisis management lessons for today.

In the early 1980s, a British-run spy, Oleg Gordievski, revealed that the Russian KGB was looking for indicators of a U.S.-led surprise nuclear strike. This shouldn’t have been a shock; the CIA also looked for indicators of a potential Soviet attack on the United States. But U.S. national security officials largely downplayed alleged Soviet concerns. The more charitable reason stemmed from the fact that the Warsaw Pact maintained a 2:1 military advantage over NATO, and the Soviet Union possessed robust nuclear forces; why would Moscow be concerned about a surprise U.S. nuclear attack? The less charitable reason stemmed from an underlying ideological narrative that the Americans were the “good guys,”, the Soviets were the “bad guys,” and Moscow certainly “knew” the United States would never attack. In other words, a strategic world view created blindspots and unduly impacted military planning judgments and assumptions.

What wasn’t fully appreciated by those dismissing the Gordievski reporting was the extent to which the Reagan administration’s prudent military build-up spooked Kremlin planners. Increases in defense spending, military modernization, doctrinal war-fighting concepts like Air/Land Battle that envisioned attacks deep into Warsaw Pact territory, the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) which could potentially neutralize the Soviet nuclear deterrent , politically provocative rhetoric (“ash heap of history”), and various offensively oriented Presidential Directives fed a Soviet inferiority complex. Marshal Ogarkov, then Chief of the General Staff, even lamented that Soviet military equipment was two generations behind that of NATO.

Against a backdrop of heightened geopolitical tensions, NATO conducted Exercise Able Archer 83, a command post exercise envisioning eventual nuclear escalation with the Soviet Union. While some U.S. officials evinced concerns about the nature of the exercise, there was insufficient understanding of, and appreciation for, how the Soviet Union would interpret the exercise. Only later would it be revealed the extent to which Moscow ratcheted up nuclear readiness in response by moving nuclear weapons, putting aircraft on alert, transferring some leadership to bunkers, and so forth. Fortunately, the exercise ended without incident, and over the course of the next year, the war scare passed as Washington and Moscow sought to stabilize relations. How close the two superpowers came to war remains a matter of debate, but the margin for error was far smaller than generally realized at the time.

President Reagan acknowledged in his diary that he hadn’t fully appreciated the gravity of the situation. And a declassified study by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) concluded that the Soviets were “genuinely worried” and “that at least some Soviet forces were preparing to preempt or counterattack a NATO strike launched under cover of Abler Archer.” The PFIAB’s bottom line was that “the President was given assessments of Soviet attitudes and actions that understated the risks to the United States.”

In today’s environment of Strategic Competition, a few crisis management-related lessons and implications are evident:

  1. The importance of understanding adversary perceptions of their security interests and red lines. The Biden administration explicitly highlighted these issues in its National Defense Strategy. And DOD leaders have made every effort to engage counterparts to avoid inadvertent escalation; the recent agreement between President Biden and Chinese President Xi to restart military-to-military contacts is a step in the right direction.
  2. We must continually reevaluate whether Great Power intelligence services are competent and exercise sound tradecraft. Can Russian and Chinese intelligence organizations discern actual U.S. military intentions given Washington’s fractious, polarized political environment? Assuming they draw accurate conclusions, do they tell Putin/Xi the truth or do they shape the message in an ideological manner to curry favor? And how is the message received? The Russian debacle in Ukraine highlights the relevance of such concerns.
  3. We must appreciate the extent to which serendipity and coincidence can further complicate efforts at managing a crisis . Earlier in 1983, unrelated events – a Soviet technical failure that created an illusion that the United States had launched 5 ICBMs toward Moscow, the KAL 007 shootdown that wasn’t as straightforward as a seemingly deliberate attack on a civilian airliner, and U.S. worldwide readiness increases responding to the Beirut Embassy bombing rather than Soviet activity, , all contributed to a backdrop of tensions and heightened geopolitical risk.
  4. And finally, the contemporary dangers of the “deep state” narrative and a potential “Schedule F” could threaten our ability to successfully manage crises. The U.S. Intelligence Community isn’t always right, but a commitment to objectivity and a willingness to speak “truth to power” are critical attributes of the IC. Public servants’ oath is to the Constitution, not an Administration of any political party. If a President can recklessly remove nonpartisan civil servants because he doesn’t like intelligence assessments, it risks undermining continued objectivity and could easily lead to a chastened workforce self-censoring its judgments. The entire national security system could be undermined.

The 1983 war scare does not in any way suggest that the United States back down from bullies or forego actions that are in the U.S. national security interest. It does suggest that the United States needs sophisticated, knowledgeable, and non-ideological individuals weighing the impact of its actions; as evidenced by U.S. policy in Ukraine, extraordinary care is being taken to calibrate weapons’ transfers and other actions. Crisis management is invariably hard – assuming political leadership understands the level of the crisis at hand. Unfortunately, if an administration is prone toward ideologues unaccustomed to viewing matters from an adversary’s perspective, and/or if political leadership tends toward uninformed, impulsive decisions, the outcome could be catastrophic. Exposure to a broad array of opinions and reasoned decision making are critical – particularly during periods of crisis with other nuclear armed adversaries. Sun Tzu’s timeless guidance from 2000+ years ago remains prophetic: “know your enemy and know yourself.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government. 

Image: Fighter jet (via GettyImages).