Able Archer comes from an actual set of events that took place in 1983. The Cold War was coming to its climax, with Ronald Reagan driving up military spending and rhetoric. America was poking the wounded Soviet Union with a stick, practically begging the beast to lash out at us. Things came to a head in September 1983. While the US and its allies performed war exercises, the Soviet Union shot down a civilian airliner. Then, less than three weeks later, a Soviet military satellite registered multiple nuclear Minuteman ICBM launches from the United States.
MOSCOW, MOSCOW OBLAST, USSR
Yuri Andropov was resting comfortably in his hospital bed. An hour earlier, he had been hooked up to the dialysis system in the suite. He had had some vodka afterwards, and a couple of cigarettes while lying in bed. The television was tuned to the state channel ‘Fourth Programme’—known for its intellectual broadcasts. Tonight, Andropov was enjoying the broadcast of a Bolshoi production of Cipollino. His heavy-eyed viewing of the ballet was interrupted by the military hotline ringing on the telephone table next to his bed.
“Comrade Secretary, it is Marshal Ustanov.”
“What is it, Dimitry?”
“Yuri, the Oko Serpukhov-15 has a launch. Actually, five launches.”
“How many missiles?”
“Only five, Yuri. There are five individual launches.”
“Very. Our man, Petrov believes it is a false reading. A ghost.”
“Why would he think such a thing?”
“He has no visual confirmation. Neither on satellite nor otherwise. And it is too early to read any inbounds on radar.”
“Do you trust his judgement, Dimitry?”
“I have to. Reagan’s generals have to know that a launch of a handful of missiles isn’t an effective first-strike. And to launch from the U.S. mainland gives us considerably more time to retaliate. No, if I were in command, I would launch Pershings from European sites. They’d be in our theatre much quicker and the load is equal to the Minuteman. It doesn’t make sense.”
“How long until they are visible by radar, Dimitry? And how long after that will they strike?”
“Yuri,” Ustanov checked his watch. “I have seven minutes until over-the-horizon registers any possible inbounds. Seventeen minutes after that, they will begin hitting targets, if they exist at all.”
“And your man checked the satellites for any malfunction?”
“That’s affirmative, Yuri. He performed everything, exactly as designed.”
“Then he must be wrong. The system has been designed by the finest engineers in the world. Built by the finest workers in the world. I want all ground troops put on high alert and prepared for the eminent nuclear attack. The Air Defense must be scrambled, and all nuclear weapons put into launch-ready status. I also want the Atlantic Fleet to move to fail-safe positions from the Labrador coast to Cuba, the Pacific Fleet to take positions from the Bering Strait to California. Coordinate with the Regional Soviets’ military leadership, as well. I expect the entire military of the glorious Soviet Union to be up and mobilized within the next ten minutes. This is not an exercise. This is the opening chorus of Reagan’s master plan. Do you understand? We have to be ready, so if we do see these inbounds on the horizon, we can snap to our defenses.”
“It does not seem like the most effective strategy to start a war. It defies logic. I trust Petrov’s observation. I believe this is a false reading.”
“Listen Ustanov, you may be the Marshal of the Soviet Union and understand conventional strategies, but I have been a student of the enemy my whole life. This Reagan is an unconventional leader. He never really served in the military—he was an actor during the Great Patriotic War. Not a warrior. He does not think like you or me. We have been closely monitoring everything the West has been doing. They have been moving troops and preparing for war according to RYaN. The time has come, you have been given your orders, time is wasting.”
“Da. Consider it done, Comrade Secretary.”
Andropov hung up the phone, swung his legs around to the floor, put on his slippers and trod off to his conference table. He swept all the reports off the table, letting them fall to the floor, leaving a solitary map of the world on the polished wood.
“Lana,” he shouted towards the door of his medical suite. A nurse and a bright, young-looking major came rushing through the door, switching the lights on as they entered.
“Lana is home for the night, Comrade Secretary,” the major reminded Andropov. “Is there something wrong?”
“Nyet.” He shouted as he pointed at the nurse. “I do not need medical assistance. Go back to your station.” He turned his eye to the major. “You there, what is your name?”
“Romanov. Major Gennady Romanov,” the major answered proudly.
“A Romanov,” Andropov exclaimed. “Ha. I thought we had done away with your kind. Come here, boy.”
Major Romanov had not been called a boy in some thirty years. He quickly moved to the table, just the same. “Comrade Secretary?”
“Get Koldunov on the line. I want to speak to him directly. And then get me Admiral Gorshkov. And get the Alternate Command Center up and operational. We will need to move quickly.”
The Major saluted the Secretary General, turned on his heel and quickly made for his desk just outside the suite. He went to his operational handbook and looked up the home exchanges for the Marshals of the air and sea. He buzzed the phone on the conference table as soon as he had Koldunov on the line. Once the transfer was made, he dialed the Admiral’s line. Gorshkov was not home, according to his adjunct, so he hung up and immediately dialed the Admiral’s Chief of Staff, Admiral Vladimir Chernavin. He buzzed another line on Andropov’s table when he connected with the Vice Admiral.
“Gorshkov, hold a moment. I’m on with Koldunov. Let me patch you in.” He covered the receiver and called out to the Major. “Romanov, how do I merge the two lines?”
The Major ran in and hit a few buttons on the phone, then nodded to the Secretary General.
“Comrades, the time has come. Our…”
“Comrade Secretary, this is Admiral Chernavin. I apologize for the interruption, but your man must not have been able to raise Admiral Gorshkov.”
“That’s fine, Chernavin. You will have to take command until we get Gorshkov.”
“Yes sir. I will have men gather the Admiral posthaste.”
“Fine. Fine. Gentleman, as the Admiral is so fond of saying, ‘Better is the enemy of good enough.’ We have been alerted of an American ICBM launch. Destiny has given us the opportunity to be better than the Americans. I am authorizing you to prepare all defensive nuclear weapons for launch. Do not hesitate. Put all squadrons and all ships on the highest preparedness, this is not an exercise. I repeat that, this is not a drill. I expect both of you, Admiral Gorshkov, and Marshal Ustanov to head to the alternative command center immediately. That is all. May we defend our glorious Soviet Union and protect the workers from this imperialist aggression.”
CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, CO, USA
Brigadier General William “Chip” Conklin stood 6’4,” 285 lbs. The son of an Indiana crop duster, Chip had been flying since before he could see over the controls. He was a talented left tackle, known throughout the region as the best offensive lineman in 4A. When it came time for college, excellent schools like Purdue and Notre Dame came calling, trying to keep the big kid home. Chip had a good mind for numbers and an engineer’s eye for details. His leadership on the football field attracted the service academies, and while West Point was never a consideration—the flight command training opportunities were far too limited—the Naval Academy and recently opened Air Force Academy were very real possibilities. The only problem with Annapolis was his size. He was far too big to be a fighter pilot, like every teenage boy interested in flying dreamed of, so he knew he would be relegated to transports, cargo planes, and other support aircraft. The Navy’s roster of large aircraft was also quite limited—so, Colorado Springs would end up with a coveted lineman.
Chip took easily to the controls of the C-118 Liftmaster and found himself a place in the Air Transport Service of the United States Airforce. From a junior officer, he rose quickly through the ranks of the Air Force, with several years of combat service in Vietnam. He would eventually captain Air Force Two, flying Dr. Henry Kissinger on secret missions into Communist China to iron out details for President Nixon’s historic summit with Mao Zedong. All the while, Chip was making good political allies throughout all the services and in the halls of democracy. When the time came for him to hang up his pilot’s wings and take a command post, the timing was perfect. He fell into the XO position at Cheyenne Mountain, and was instrumental in the Air Force’s efforts to keep NORAD completely under Air Force administration. There were virtually no personnel from any of the other services stationed at Cheyenne Mountain, other than a couple of liaisons and observers. The swabbies didn’t much like Airmen nosing around at Charleston or Pensacola, and the Marines kept everyone out of San Diego. The Army didn’t really care much; they were so damn big they’d let anyone hang around. You would always see leathernecks and swabbies on army bases. But as for the Air Force, Cheyenne Mountain was the pinnacle of their stations, and they kept it a family affair.
As the XO at NORAD, Chip was always in the loop on operations at the Command Center. When he wasn’t physically on location, he was wired detailed reports hourly via ARPANET. His assistant carried a suitcase-sized portable computer, built by IBM, which could connect to ARPANET through any secure phone line. Conklin was very tech-savvy, and very intelligent, but knew virtually nothing of the coding language used by his assistant to link into ARPANET. That was fine, as long as Chip knew enough computing to operate the message and report systems; he was well ahead of the curve over most of his contemporaries.
Conklin was at his home, on the base grounds at Peterson AFB. A full-bird Colonel was manning the Comm at NORAD, and Conklin was trying to get some rest before the next wave of Autumn Forge ’83 activity was due to start. The Air Force had been moving troops all over the globe, especially in Western Europe, as part of the joint NATO training activities. If there was one thing he had learned in old Curtis LeMay’s Air Force, it was that rigorous training and constant vigilance were the best prevention for indecisiveness and poor judgment. “Old Iron Ass” would have loved the Autumn Forge operations. Men and machines practicing every facet of control and command in preparation for nuclear war. LeMay had been a transport man, himself—never a fighter driver. He led the Berlin Airlift, and created the strategic refueling operations that enabled the US bombers to reach anywhere they wanted.
When the hotline rang at Conklin’s home, he shouted to his eldest daughter to pick it up. He was on the shitter, and had to pinch off and wipe, before he could get to his den to take the call. His daughter, seventeen years old and the spitting image of her mother, was every bit the respectful, courteous young woman at home her parents had trained her and her two younger sisters to be. Her mother had been a beauty queen crowned at the annual Lake Ponchartrain Strawberry Festival. Mom would be the First Runner-Up at the Miss Louisiana Pageant 1961 and was just that close to competing at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. But, when the general’s daughter Meghan Conklin was out and about, she had quite a reputation. Nonetheless, she stood holding the phone, waiting for her father to emerge from the bathroom.
“Oh God, did something die in there?” she asked, covering the mouthpiece when her father came into the den, one room over from the bathroom. “I think the smell followed you.”
“Very funny. Who’s on the horn?”
“Colonel Zolberg, NORAD.”
“Okay, close the door behind you, and light a candle or something in the bathroom. Thanks.” Conklin settled into the big, leather chair behind his oak desk. “Conklin, go.”
“General, this is Colonel Zolberg,” the man on the other end of the phone stated crisply and directly. He provided an authentication code and other information to establish the validity of the call. It couldn’t have been anything but authentic, anyway. The hotline was an encoded, direct line to NORAD command, and no one other than a high-ranking Air Force commander would have access.
“Affirmative, I repeat, we have a reading of no less than twenty Soviet land-based missiles launched. SS-17 Spankers, primarily.”
“Affirmative, General. They have been verified via satellite.”
“Thank you, Colonel. I order the Defense Condition be raised to one, and all bases be put on high alert. All airborne bombers to failsafe. All other crews scrambled. Any naval activity?”
“Negative. None of their boomers have launched.”
“Fine. Ready all weapon systems for retaliatory strikes. I want everything set by the time I am through speaking to the President. Expect an affirmative launch order from the Commander in Chief. Have the target solutions for the Minutemen ready to be communicated, as well.”
“Sir, is this a drill?” The Colonel broke with the formal dialog. He knew it was not an exercise, he had seen the inbound ballistic missiles on the satellite displays for himself but felt compelled to verify that this wasn’t some sort of drill. Between FleetEx, Autumn Forge, and Able Archer, the recent weeks had seen a lot of exercises. Considering all this, and the Russians shooting down an airliner, the Colonel felt as helpless and out-of-control as a buck-private.
“This is no goddam drill, Colonel. Now get your head straight and take care of your business. And I want to know immediately when those missiles become visible on the DEW-line. They should be coming over the pole soon and hitting the Pinetree radar stations in the next few minutes.”
Conklin put down the NORAD hotline, rubbed his temples and then picked up the line again. A male operator was on the other end instantly.
“Connect me to the President. Tell him it is Conklin. This is not a drill.” He spoke in clear, measured, calm tones to the Specialist working the switchboard. Then he covered the mouthpiece as he heard the faint static and clicking of the connection being made. “Gracelyn, round up the kids and go.” He waited to hear someone, either the leader of the free world, or his wife. There was no answer from either. “Dammit, Grace. Do you hear me?”
“Do you want to scare the girls, Chip? Quit your yelling.”
“Grace, this is no shit. Get the kids and go. Now. Right, fucking now…” He still had the receiver by his ear but was no longer covering the mouthpiece as he shouted to his wife. “Uh, no sir, I wasn’t yelling at you, Mr. President. Sorry. This is Conklin, NORAD, we have detected a launch… No sir, this is not a drill… Yessir, confirmed. Yessir, affirmative… Yessir, DefCon one… Standard retaliatory targets… Yes, activate the EBS… Affirmative… Will do… Copy that, SAC Command, I will hold the line.” Conklin was now on hold while the Presidential switchboard made emergency calls to the Congressional leadership and security advisors. The Strategic Air Command, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Secretary of Defense were also contacted. Gracelyn had arrived at her husband’s den just as the President put him on hold.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
He covered the receiver again and told his wife, “Get the kids and go. Now. Right now.”
She covered her mouth as she gasped. She knew exactly what he meant. “It can’t be. It is a mistake, isn’t it? They’ve misread something, haven’t they?”
“No.” Conklin shook his head. “This is real. Get the kids and go to the base shelter. As soon as the EBS is broadcast, the place is going to be packed. Go now, and you’ll be able to get in first and grab a bunch of racks together. I don’t know when I will be able to come and get you. It will be weeks, if not months.”
Gracelyn had come to know her husband well. He was not a man that made grand statements, nor was he a man that needed great displays of emotion. She knew that she had married a military man and had long since accepted all the responsibility that came with that. She entered the den, gave her husband a hug that said, “I will protect the family, you protect the country” and then she turned and dutifully marched into the hall and called out to the two youngest Conklin girls.
There was a crackle on the phone, followed by a White House switchboard operator. She announced that Conklin was about to be patched into the Situation Room, and that the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor would be on the line. There were three computerized beeps on the line, a bit of static for a moment, and then the click of the line engaging.
“Chip, it’s General Vessey. What have you got?”
“Sir, we’ve got no less than twenty confirmed SS-17 Spankers launched from Soviet land locations. They are on a pole-crossing, northernly trajectory. Have not yet reached the DEW-line. No boomers have launched yet, I’m sure they’re moving into position. I have not spoken to NORAD…” He looked at his watch. “I have not spoken to NORAD in four minutes, twenty-two seconds, so I do not have the latest update.”
“That’s fine, Chip. We have the board up now; I see we now have Soviet bombers in flight. Wallace, do we have any troop movements?”
“Affirmative, John. Soviet troops are massing near the Fulda Gap, along the Czechoslovakian line, and East Germany. They had been moving several companies out of Afghanistan in recent months, too.”
“We’re getting reports of their boomers moving into launch depths from SOSUS. We have attack subs on a handful of their boomers,” explained Admiral Watkins, anticipating the question. “But those Typhoons are a bitch to find.”
“So, what’s the plan, gentlemen?” the President asked in his trademark, matter-of-fact cowboy accent.
“Let’s immediately get the civilian warnings engaged. Make the move to the Greenbrier Resort, relocate all Congressional personnel in D.C. currently. And I recommend a full, retaliatory strike.” The Chairman spoke calmly, as if ordering the launch of enough firepower to end civilization one hundred times over was as easy as ordering a pizza.
“I disagree.” It was Strategic Air Commander, General Bennie Davis. “They have not committed to a full-strength strike. I believe we have an obligation to make a counterstrike of proportionate strength.”
“But this is their first salvo, Ben.” This time it was General James Hartinger, Chairman of the Aerospace Defense Command. “As soon as we launch our retaliation, they’ll commit themselves to total war. This initially volley was probably all they had in ready-status.”
“That doesn’t make sense, sir.” Conklin interjected. “This is an unprovoked first strike. They aren’t shooting from the hip, here. They had time to consider this move, spin-up their missiles and make a calculated strike. No sir, I don’t think they are looking to vaporize us. They are going strategic.”
“That seems logical, General Conklin.” The President was listening to his military advisors carefully. “Caspar, what do you think?”
“I am in agreement with General Conklin. This is a surgical strike. They are looking for a fight. I think a measured nuclear retaliation, followed by a ground assault is the best course of action.”
“Let’s do something. The clock is running,” Conklin reminded the group.
“Do we know the estimated targets?” asked Admiral Watkins.
“Not until they hit the DEW. They could be going anywhere. When they go over the pole, we can calculate the trajectory and get a ballpark. But that’s all we’ll have. The Spankers are MIRV-equipped. We’ll be looking at four reentry vehicles per missile, and depending on the reentry deployment, angle, speed, etc., they can be scattered pretty far.” This was information that all the military men already knew. Conklin’s explanation was more beneficial to the civilians on the line.
“Time until they reach the Distant Early Warning?” Secretary Weinberger asked.
“We’re looking at… Ten to fourteen minutes, sir.”
The Joint Chiefs and the President’s advisors debated for two more minutes before coming to a conclusion. It was time to move, anyway. The President, key staff and family were being rounded up for the helicopter ride to the hills of West Virginia. The Greenbrier Resort was a bucolic property that had been a popular vacation spot in the 1960s and 70s. Despite the changing American taste for vacations, with more and more people going to warmer climates for their time off, the Greenbrier managed to stay very well maintained. Once fully booked—nearly year-DE the resort would barely sell half its rooms on a good week. No one outside of the government, save for a handful of caretakers with inexplicably high security clearance, knew that beneath the Greenbrier there was a miniature city, ready to serve as the halls of government for the entire United States.