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Brian Morra discusses nuclear confrontation with Moscow

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In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Brian Morra, former Air Force intelligence officer and author of “The Able Archers,” a novel based on the true story of a narrowly avoided nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1983. Morra details the key players and events that brought the two global superpowers to the brink of conflict – and what high-risk interventions were required to avert cataclysm. Morra explains how his book – and experience in 1983 – might have meaning for the Russia-led war in Ukraine today. 

Highlights 

  • On similarities between 1983 and today: “Vladimir Putin has already played the nuclear card, in a sense. In this current crisis, he’s issued veiled warnings about nuclear war. His foreign minister Lavrov has issued not so veiled warnings about the potential use of nuclear weapons. So there there is a specter of nuclear war, the prospect for at least a third nuclear war that hangs over the current crisis and is clearly influencing decision making, at least on on the part of NATO. So I think there’s that similarity.” 
  • Communication during a crisis: “The book, ‘The Able Archers’ is largely about crisis management. At the end of the day, I mean, it’s really about how does one navigate through a potentially existential crisis for the world? And decision makers, policymakers today are doing it in real time, aren’t they? I mean, they’re having to navigate a very treacherous terrain that could escalate.” 
  • Comparisons with Cuban Missile Crisis: “One point is that by 1983, the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union were much more potent than they were in 1962. That isn’t to say that the ’62 crisis wasn’t bad – because it was very bad – and it would have been enormously destructive. But again, the arsenals in ’83 were something else entirely.”

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – BRIAN MORRA TRANSCRIPT

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Brian, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.

BRIAN MORRA: Well. Michael, thank you. Thank you very much for the invitation. I’m glad to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL: Congratulations on your new book, ‘The Able Archers.’ It just hit the bookshelves. And I can attest that it’s a great book. It’s a page turner. I could not put it down. I read it in two sittings of a few hours each.

But it’s a terrific book and it’s a novel. I want everybody to know that it’s a novel, but it is really a harrowing reading because it’s a fictionalized account of real events, almost the end of the world, literally.

So I think folks should go out and get the book and read it. I think you’ll really enjoy it, and I think it’ll give you a great perspective on a piece of history that, quite frankly, doesn’t get talked about very much. But Brian, congratulations on the book. It’s fantastic.

BRIAN MORRA: Well, thank you very much for that, Michael. ‘The Able Archers’ is the name of the book, and I decided to write a novel rather than a non-fiction treatment because I thought a novel might have a better shot at reaching a wider audience, frankly. And I think it is an important set of events, as you just highlighted, that deserve to be better known.

And so I thought a novel would be perhaps a better vehicle – the dramatization that’s more character-driven would be a better vehicle for, again, getting the word out, so to speak.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, I think it makes it more sticky.  That’s the way I look at docu-dramas on TV. It often is much more compelling, many more viewers than documentaries. So I could not agree more.

But because it’s a fictionalized account of real events, where I’d love to start, Brian, is I would love to start with the actual history and and walk folks through that before we actually talk about the book a little bit. And I have some questions about the book itself, but I’d love to go through the history.

And the way I’d like to do that is I’d like to tee up some dates and get you to say a few words about those dates, if that’s okay. And the story starts, I think, in May 1980 with the creation of Operation Project RYaN, as I pronounce it.

BRIAN MORRA: RYaN, Yes. Generally, in English, people do call it RYaN. The Russian pronunciation, since it is a Russian acronym, is a bit different. But yes, RYaN.

MICHAEL MORELL: I can go with RYaN. That’s probably easier for me to pronounce. Okay, great. So what was project RYaN and why was it put in place?

BRIAN MORRA: Well, as I mentioned, RYaN is a Russian language acronym that stands for ‘nuclear rocket attack.’ And the implication is it’s a surprise nuclear rocket attack. And that tells you a lot of what you need to know.

I think about what RYaN was about, but the project was initiated by the KGB chairman at the time, Yuri Andropov. And it was a global KGB intelligence collection operation that actually spread to the GRU as well, to Soviet military intelligence.

And the purpose of Operation RYaN was to find indications of U.S. / NATO’s plans to stage a decapitating nuclear first strike against the Soviet leadership. So that, in essence, was the purpose behind RYaN.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the next important date, Brian, is January 20th, 1981. I know exactly where I was on that date. It’s the inauguration of President Reagan. Why is that important to the story here?

BRIAN MORRA: Well, President Reagan is an important player in ‘The Able Archers,’ and I do have him as a character, albeit in the background, if you like, in the book.

Reagan becoming president is important because those of us who remember those days, Ronald Reagan took a very assertive stance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. And he kind of amplified that stance in a number of speeches that he gave over the course of the first term of his presidency, particularly two speeches that I think are best remembered, perhaps, to history, both of which occurred in March of 1983.

The first of those two speeches was his so-called ‘Evil Empire’ speech, in which President Reagan called the Soviet Union ‘the focus of evil in the modern world,’ amongst other things. And then just a few weeks later, in the same month, March 1983, he gave a national address revealing the existence of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was a defense program designed to create a defensive umbrella, if you will, over the United States and its allies to protect from missile attacks – ICBM and sub-launched ballistic missile attacks from the Soviet Union.

The Soviets viewed this as highly provocative. And felt it fit within their pattern that they were looking for in Operation RYaN inasmuch as the Soviets viewed the potential creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative, this umbrella, as a means by which the United States could conduct a first nuclear strike with impunity.

In other words, the United States could attack the Soviet Union and then sit behind its defensive umbrella, effectively negating the effects of a Soviet retaliatory strike. So those are some of the important points or speeches that President Reagan made in March of 1983.

MICHAEL MORELL: And do we know, Brian, how the Soviets read the ‘Evil Empire’ speech, how they thought about it?

BRIAN MORRA: We do. We do. Again, it fit a pattern for them of behaviors in which the West, the United States in particular, was provoking the Soviet Union, calling them names, calling them an ‘Evil Empire.’

For example, later in the year, Reagan used rhetoric of a similar nature in the aftermath of another event I know we’ll get to, in which he accused them of ‘barbaric behavior.’ These are real trigger words for Russians in general who don’t like to be accused of barbarism. I suppose no one does, but they’re particularly trigger words for the Russian psyche.

So the Russians view the ‘Evil Empire’ speech as being highly provocative and very, very negative and and one that they found to feed into their paranoia about the United States. And then coming right on the heels of that, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ speech, as it was known by many or named or termed by the much of the media in the West, just seemed to reinforce that notion that the West has a very low opinion of us. They think that they can create an umbrella to negate billions and billions of dollars of investment in nuclear forces. And they’re not to be trusted. And it just fed into this general narrative that was prevalent in the Kremlin of paranoia.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Brian, I want to just jump back to the previous fall, because there’s another important date, I think, which is November 10th, 1982, which is the death of Brezhnev.

BRIAN MORRA: Yes. Another very important event in this whole saga. Brezhnev passes from the scene and he is replaced in short order by Yuri Andropov, the aforementioned chairman of the KGB. And Andropov had been chairman of the KGB for over two decades.

He succeeds Brezhnev. He brings the paranoid view of the West to really a fever pitch in the Kremlin. And so, yeah, his obsession to power is a very important step along this journey that leads us to the events of the fall of 1983.

MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. And then just two weeks after the ‘Star Wars’ speech, so on April 4th, 1983, there’s a U.S. naval exercise in the Pacific. Tell us what happened and why it was important.

BRIAN MORRA: Yes, the U.S. Navy staged the largest exercise it had ever staged after World War II in the Pacific in late March and early April of 1983 of FleetEx ’83-1, in which the U.S. Pacific fleet sent three carrier battle groups up into the Sea of Okhotsk, which is in the northern Pacific.

The reason that the Sea of Okhotsk is important is that the Soviet Union then and Russia today view the Sea of Okhotsk as an inland sea in effect. It’s surrounded by Siberia, that Kamchatka Peninsula, Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Island chain. It’s used as a bastion area, as a hide location for Soviet nuclear submarines, their ballistic missile submarines. So the Soviets don’t take very well to people swimming or putting carrier battle groups into their inland sea, into their lake, so to speak.

So on the 4th of April, 1983, at the conclusion of this large naval exercise, two US carrier battle groups were transiting south through the Kuril Island chain and F-14s and F-4 fighter aircraft from those carriers overflew Soviet territory and, more insulting to the Soviets, the F-4s practiced mock bomb runs on Soviet military facilities in the Kuril Island chain.

To make matters worse for the Soviets, they had a MiG 23 fighter base in the Kuril Islands and not a single MiG 23 got off the ground during these incursions. So not only did the US Navy conduct these mock bomb runs, but they got away with it, without being intercepted by any Soviet aircraft.

As a result of that incident, the Soviets issued a formal démarche to the US ambassador in Moscow complaining about these overflights as an act of war. And in the Soviet Far East where this all occurred, air defense officers were purged because they didn’t react to this obvious provocation by the United States.

And it set up a series of events in which air defense forces in the Soviet Far East then went on a very heightened alert and began intercepting U.S. intelligence collection aircraft in an unprecedented way.

MICHAEL MORELL: And if you’re a Russian officer or you’re a Soviet officer out there and you’ve just watched a bunch of your friends get purged, you’re not going to make that mistake again.

So, Brian, if you’re a Soviet officer out there and you’ve just watched folks get purged for failing to respond to this U.S. overflight, you know, you’re not going to make that mistake. Which brings us to the really important date when things really heat up, which is September 1st, 1983. What happens?

BRIAN MORRA: Yes. In the early morning hours, local time, Tokyo time, a Korean Airlines passenger flight, KAL-007 was its callsign, which was a747 with 269 passengers and crew on board was shot down by a Soviet air defense fighter just off the coast of Sakhalin Island.

And the 747 crashed into the body of water known as the Tatar Strait, which separates Sakhalin Island from the mainland. And there were no survivors.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what happened? What was that? What did the Soviet see? How did they respond? Why did they shoot it down? What happened there?

BRIAN MORRA: The series of events of that night were as follows. It really started with a planned Soviet ICBM test, and the Soviets would launch ICBMs from Central Asia, and they had a landing zone in the Pacific Ocean off of the Kamchatka Peninsula, so between the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska.

And because we knew about this test, the U.S. Air Force had an intelligence collection aircraft – which was based on a Boeing 707 flying orbits in that area off the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Korean airliner just coincidentally made a navigational error, its crew made a navigational error, and they ended up flying through that orbit of that U.S. Air Force intelligence collection flight.

And the U.S. intelligence collection flight returned to its home base in Alaska – the Soviets, by the way, never did conduct the ICBM test that night. The 747, the Korean airliner, 007, continued along its way, its errant way, well north of the established planned flight route that it should have taken and it overflew the Kamchatka peninsula and overflew Petropavlovsk, which is the largest city in Kamchatka, but more importantly, Petropavlovsk is a major naval base for the Soviet and the Russian Pacific fleet.

It is the home base of a number of a strategic submarine ballistic missile-launching submarines. And so as a consequence of that, it was a highly protected, very secretive place for the Soviets.

So the 747 flies right over it in the middle of the night. The Soviet Air Defense Forces once again – this time they do react. They get off the ground, the fighters get off the ground, but they can’t locate the 747 and the 747 continues along its way unmolested across the Sea of Okhotsk, the aforementioned Sea of Okhotsk, and is undetected by the Soviets again until it approaches Sakhalin Island.

Once it approaches Sakhalin Island, the Soviets do detect it, their radar systems do detect this flight, and the Soviets send up several flights of fighters to intercept the 747. They eventually, one of them, an Su-15, Sukhoi 15, does eventually effect a successful intercept and shoots the aircraft down just off Sakhalin Island.

Now, we do know that the the fighter pilot of that Su-15 did attempt to make contact with the 747. He fired tracer rounds across the nose of the aircraft, but it was the middle of the night. And the air crew on the 747 probably wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what was going on outside of the aircraft. So they never saw these tracer rounds.

And since the aircraft was unresponsive, the 747 was clearly violating the Soviet border. The Soviets gave target destruct orders to that fighter pilot. And he successfully engaged and shot down the 747.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the story moves forward here, Brian, to September 2nd and 3rd, just a day and two days later. And the issue I’d love you to talk about is the heroism of someone named General Donnelly.

BRIAN MORRA: Yes, General Charles L. Donnelly, Jr., was the Commander of U.S. Forces, Japan and Fifth Air Force. He was dual-hatted, as they say in the military, at the time that these events and. General Donnelly really deserves a lot of historical recognition, which he’s never really gotten, I think, for being one of those individuals who prevented an escalation to World War III in the fall of 1983.

So what happened on the dates that Michael describes is that as the U.S. and the Soviets both were attempting to, number one, look for potential survivors from this aircraft, the KAL 007.

And secondarily, in an attempt to find the black boxes from that aircraft, there were a great number of aircraft, military aircraft, as well as naval ships that were converged around the crash site in a very narrow area.

And on the 3rd of September, a U.S. Navy EP-3, which is a large turboprop aircraft configured for intelligence collection with a crew of about two dozen, was flying in the area and was misidentified by the Soviet air defense hierarchy as violating the Soviet border, violating their airspace. It actually was not doing so, but Soviet radars being as unreliable as they were, they tracked this particular aircraft as a border violator.

As such, they scrambled MiG 23 fighters to intercept the EP-3, and they were given target destruct orders. In other words, they were told to shoot it. Now we were intercepting these communications in near real time and we knew what was going on and that these MiG 23s were out after the EP-3 in the command center.

I was working and I was the chief of analysis, of intelligence analysis there. We were able to alert the pilot and co-pilot of that EP-3 that they were in mortal danger. And they took evasive action – which for them, their only real evasive action was to dive from their nominal altitude of about 25,000 feet, dive for the wave tops.

And in an attempt to lose the MiG 23s and and use the clutter, the radar clutter from the wave tops as a way to camouflage their position from those MiG 23s. Simultaneous with that evasive maneuver, General Donnelly, again, the Commander we mentioned a moment ago, had pre-positioned F-15 fighters on combat air control. And at that particular point in time, there were four F-15s on combat air patrol flying over the northernmost island of Japan, which is Hokkaido.

And General Donnelly ordered them to intercept the MiGs, which the F-15s did do, and they successfully intercepted the MiGs. The MiGs, meanwhile, were flying, diving for the wave tops themselves in an attempt to find that EP-3, which they did not. The EP-3 evasive maneuver worked.

The F-15s had a successful intercept on the MiG 23s and were in a position to shoot them down. General Donnelly, very cool-headedly, told the F-15 pilots once he knew the EP-3 was safe, once he knew the Navy plane was safe, he ordered those F-15s to return to their cap position. And he famously, at least to those of us present, said, “I’m not going to start World War III this afternoon.”

MICHAEL MORELL: So there’s a hero on the U.S. side, General Donnelly. And on September 27th, 1983, there’s a hero on the Soviet side, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov.

BRIAN MORRA: Yes. A fascinating figure in history is Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. And Petrov, on the night of the 26th, 27th of September, 1983, had been called in to serve on watch duty at the Soviets National Missile Defense Center, which was located about 100 kilometers or so south of Moscow.

He was called in to duty that night, not because he was a regular watch officer, which he was not. He was an algorithm developer or a signal-processing expert who had a team of engineers working for him. But he was called in that night to serve on watch duty because of the illness of a colleague.

So Petrov is there in the National Missile Defense Center. And it’s shortly after midnight local time, Moscow time, on the 27th of September 1983. The Soviets – relatively new, they’d only been on orbit for a year or so – missile defense, missile warning satellites picked up indications of intercontinental ballistic missile launches from Grand Forks Air Force Base in the United States.

The confidence level, according to the satellites of these launches, was quite high. There actually turned out to be a ‘series of three’ launches, quote unquote, because there there were no actual ICBM launches. But the Soviet satellites detected three different waves of ICBM launches within the course of about 20 minutes or so.

Petrov assessed, with the help of his team, that these were not real launches, they were most likely false alarms. But the as the waves kept coming, I think that call became more and more difficult to to make.

It was probably relatively easy for him on the first wave. But when wave two and wave three came, I’m sure that the pressure went up on him enormously.

MICHAEL MORELL: Then we get to November, early November 1st through the 11th, and within that time period, November 7th and 8th. What happened?

BRIAN MORRA: Well, in those first couple of weeks of November of ’83, NATO conducted a very large scale and hyper-realistic nuclear warfare exercise that was called ‘Able Archer ’83.’ There had been Able Archers in the past. They were run every two or three years or so.

But what made this one unusual, if not unique, was that it coincided with the actual deployment of new U.S. nuclear weapons systems into the European theater, namely the Pershing II missiles, ballistic missiles, into West Germany and ground-launched cruise missiles or GLCMS into the United Kingdom.

And one of the reasons the exercise was was held when it was held in November of ’83 was because of these impending deployments. The it made sense from NATO’s standpoint that they wanted to test command and control procedures relative to these new weapons systems that were coming into the theater.

Unfortunately for the world, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The paranoia in the Kremlin had reached a crescendo. Remember, we spoke earlier in the hour about Operation RYaN and this Able Archer ’83 exercise seemed to fit perfectly with the kind of indications of a surprise nuclear attack that the Kremlin, Yuri Andropov, had been looking for now for several years.

So Able Archer ’83, was a particularly ill-timed event coming on the heels of the Korean airliner shootdown, which had raised alert levels all over the world. And only the Soviets knew of the Petrov incident. But the Petrov incident put the Soviets even more on edge. So again, Able Archer’s timing was untimely.

MICHAEL MORELL: I’m going to let people get the book and and learn why or how we avoided nuclear war in November. But I just want to ask you, how close do you think we came to nuclear war in 1983? And how does that compare to the Cuban Missile Crisis?

BRIAN MORRA: I think that some of the key differences between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the crisis of ’83 are as follows. One point is that by 1983, the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union were much more potent than they were in 1962. That isn’t to say that the ’62 crisis wasn’t bad – because it was very bad – and it would have been enormously destructive. But again, the arsenals in ’83 were something else entirely.

Another key difference is communication, or I should say, lack thereof. But in ’62, most of us will remember or from our history will remember that President Kennedy and the Soviet leader Khrushchev were communicating. They had official communications going back and forth between the Kremlin and the White House. And moreover, President Kennedy assigned his brother, the Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, to open up a back channel line of communication through the Soviet ambassador in Washington. So there was communication going back and forth. There was signaling going on.

That did not happen in 1983 after the Korean airliner shootdown in September. The communications, at least at the senior levels between our Secretary of Defense, George Shultz, and the Soviets, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had essentially ceased. And Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, who had been the same – he was the ambassador in ’62 as well – he tried to open up lines of communication in Washington and met with with a lot of resistance.

So there was there was almost zero communication going on between the Kremlin and the White House. And what that meant was that the potential for miscalculation was almost incalculable. And one had a scenario in which each side knew what it was doing, but they had little insight into at least the intentions of the other side. We did see indications what was of nuclear war preparations. And on that third point, preparations for nuclear war.

The situation in November of ’83, on the Soviet side of the ledger, the preparations for nuclear war were simply unprecedented, unlike anything we saw in 1962. Again, I’m not saying ’62 wasn’t bad. It was. But in ’83, we saw preparations for nuclear conflict and conventional war in the the group of Soviet forces, Germany, in the northern group, the forces of the Soviet Warsaw Pact. So nuclear forces going on alert in an unprecedented way. Conventional forces being sent to the field with two weeks of rations and ammunition. On the strategic side of the ledger, we saw alerts that were unprecedented in the Soviet bomber force. And most alarmingly, we saw the Soviet ballistic missile submarines leave their ports and go to their wartime launch locations under the polar ice cap. So the preparations were chilling.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Brian, I think one of the amazing things about the book is that you’re a player. You, Brian, are a player in the story. One of the characters in the story is your alter ego, which doesn’t come through. I mean, you told me that later, but that makes it even more chilling.

So when folks read this book, you realize that Brian is a player. And just very quickly, Brian, who are you in the in the story?

BRIAN MORRA: Well, there are two main characters in the book. One is an American and one is a Soviet. And the American character is an Air Force captain named Kevin Cattani. And he is my alter ego, but he is based on me. But he’s really an amalgam of not only my experience, but that of others that I knew at the time. So he’s a blend. So I would suggest to readers not to take everything Cattani does says or experiences as my personal experience, although there are critical moments that were my personal experience, like the night of the Korean airliner shoot down, for example.

MICHAEL MORELL: So what meaning does all this have for today? I mean, we are wrapped in this crisis of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What should we take away from ‘The Able Archers’ about today?

BRIAN MORRA: Well, as we know, Vladimir Putin has already played the nuclear card, in a sense. In this current crisis, he’s issued veiled warnings about nuclear war. His foreign minister Lavrov has issued not so veiled warnings about the potential use of nuclear weapons. So there there is a specter of nuclear war, the prospect for at least a third nuclear war that hangs over the current crisis and is clearly influencing decision making, at least on on the part of NATO. So I think there’s that similarity.

I think the the book, ‘The Able Archers’ is largely about crisis management. At the end of the day, I mean, it’s really about how does one navigate through a potentially existential crisis for the world? And decision makers, policymakers today are doing it in real time, aren’t they? I mean, they’re having to navigate a very treacherous terrain that could escalate.

The escalatory arc of the crisis today could mean cyber attacks. You know, in the last day or so, chemical weapons attacks have been discussed. And then, of course, the specter of kind of nuclear hanging over things.

The another similarity, I think, between today and 1983 is the isolation of the leadership and in the Kremlin. And in 1983, Yuri Andropov was, as we’ve already discussed, a rather paranoid individual who had initiated this Operation RYaN program. And he was isolated, certainly from public opinion, which didn’t count for anything much in the Soviet Union.

We have a Vladimir Putin who is increasingly isolated and I would say paranoid about NATO and NATO’s intentions. It’s been well-documented. I think that Putin’s isolation has grown during the COVID pandemic. One only has to look at some of these bizarre photographs of Putin sitting at a lengthy table at one end and the people he’s meeting with at the other. You couldn’t find a better metaphor for isolation, I suppose.

But he’s largely, as many of you will know, been outside of Moscow throughout the last two years. He’s been in Sochi or located in one of his dachas outside Moscow. So there’s an intense isolation from and insulation from the reality that the rest of the world is living in, which I think is similar to 1983.

One last thought about ’83 is that Yuri Andropov was terminally ill during the ’83 crisis, which we know from released documents after the fall of the Soviet Union. We know that alarmed some of his closest advisers, and they weren’t quite sure what he might do as a result of that illness.

So I think yeah, I guess if I’m not sure there are lessons to be learned, but there are certainly things to contemplate in terms of of crisis management, of miscalculation, of miscommunication.

One of the things that I mentioned was the lack of communication in 1983. And we’re seeing very little communication today between the Kremlin and the White House. We have other interlocutors who are attempting to have communication, like President Macron of France and the Prime Minister of Israel. But you know, lack of communication is not a good thing during a crisis like this. It can lead to miscalculation, particularly when I think we have two sides that really don’t understand each other very well at all.

MICHAEL MORELL: Exactly. Brian, thank you for bringing the crisis of ’83 to life, both for us today and more importantly in your book. And I think you did it in a work of fiction that is very powerful. And I hope the book does extraordinarily well.

The book is ‘Able Archers’ and the author is Brian Morra. Brian, thanks for joining us.

BRIAN MORRA: Michael, thank you very much. Appreciate the time.



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