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In nuclear standoff, becoming captive to one view of reality is dangerous, caution and constructive criticism is needed

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Firstpost Print and is being republished in the wake of the Indian Air Force's operations across the Line of Control with Pakistan.

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As India and Pakistan enter yet another crisis, it is sobering to reflect on how easily misperceptions and mistakes can lead towards a war.

In the autumn of 1983, a NATO table-top exercise code-named "Able Archer" practised how a nuclear war might be fought between Nato and the Warsaw Pact members. Able Archer was a command exercise designed to test procedures, but the Soviets were terrified that it might be a cover for a nuclear first strike. They had been watching for signs that such a strike might be coming, and they put their nuclear forces on a dangerous level of alert. A catastrophic escalation was averted because a Soviet double agent warned the West that a drift to war was taking place.

In 1990, the US government declassified a study on the scare. The study concluded that the key lesson is that intelligence organisations on both sides became captive to pre-conceived ideas. The lessons for our time are all too real.

 In nuclear standoff, becoming captive to one view of reality is dangerous, caution and constructive criticism is needed

Representational image. AP

As Ronald Reagan was elected, the détente of the 1970s was being replaced by a desire to confront the Soviets. In the nuclear realm, a series of weapons were deployed which the Soviets believed were designed to eliminate the USSR’s leadership and ability to retaliate. All of this was accompanied by US rhetoric about the need to be able to fight and ‘win’ a nuclear war. The USSR, which was falling behind economically, interpreted this as a concerted attempt to place its existence at risk. Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB and briefly held the top spot before succumbing to illness, was worried that the US was looking for an opportunity to end the Cold War by striking Moscow.

Soviet intelligence, prodded by leaders such as Andropov, responded by frantically seeking to gather information on plans for a surprise attack. It constructed a complex computer model of hundreds of 'indicators' of such an attack, which was called VRYAN after the Russian acronym for Surprise Nuclear Missile Attack. Indicators ranged from evidence of unusual military activities, to evidence of attempts to enhance civil defence measures – unusual blood donation drives, for example. Critically, an assumption was built in to VRYAN that an attack was likely to come under the cover of an exercise.

At this point, bureaucratic dynamics took over. Thousands of reports flooded in of various activities which VRYAN had identified as possible preludes to an attack. It was a classic case of ‘situating’ intelligence collection requirements to stimulate the acquisition of information which validates pre-existing fears – a vicious cycle. In many cases, the ‘indicators’ which Soviet agents fed into VRYAN had been happening for years, but once they were identified as ‘indicators’ of a surprise attack, they were reported – even though nothing, in reality, had changed.

By 1983 the Soviets were deeply worried. Western intelligence knew this. But the declassified report shows that US intelligence believed that this was propaganda designed to convince Nato allies in Europe not to follow the US in modernising military capabilities. The US intelligence community became entrenched in this view and refused to consider any other explanation. Simply put, since the US knew that it did not intend a surprise attack, it assumed that the Russians knew that too.

The stage set for the Able Archer nuclear command exercise in November 1983, which caused the Soviets to begin preparations for nuclear war. Many Cold War historians now believe that only the Cuban Missile Crisis was a graver threat. The crisis passed after a Soviet double-agent who had previously warned of Moscow’s concerns convinced his British handlers that something very serious was going on and London passed this on to Washington. It was only afterwards that Western leaders understood what had happened. Reagan was horrified when he learned that Soviet leaders had actually thought the US was preparing a nuclear strike.

The Able Archer incident resonates today. It is a case study in leaders’ and analysts’ preconceived fears and notions preventing them from considering other possible explanations. The intelligence and analytical communities on both sides failed in their primary duties. On the American side, the intelligence community failed to consider alternate explanations to the growing Soviet statements regarding fear of surprise attack. Instead, it became captive to the idea that Soviet expressions of concern were a deception campaign. On the Soviet side, intelligence officials failed in their duty to tell their leaders what they needed to hear (that the VRYAN exercise was fundamentally flawed), and instead told them what they wanted to hear (that the danger of an American surprise attack was real and growing).

This incident illustrates that it is crucial to avoid the trap of becoming hostage to pre-conceived notions. Populist politicians and the popular press, whether then or now, may be only too happy to stridently parrot well-worn and simplistic explanations for events. Analytical communities, however, must be encouraged to subject such assumptions to critical scrutiny; to ask, “What if there’s another way of explaining this?” Political, military and bureaucratic leaders need to demand of their intelligence and policy advisers a range of views as to what might be going on, and be prepared to consider them.

This requires a shift in culture. Intelligence agencies and military structures are bureaucracies, like any other, and a tendency to ‘group think’ can pervade these institutions. It can become comfortable for analysts and other individuals to go along with the prevailing views and not challenge assumptions. We know today that many KGB agents thought that the VRYAN process was fundamentally flawed, but few spoke up as the prevailing culture would have penalised them.

Leaders must thus cultivate an atmosphere in which constructive criticism of assumptions is encouraged. This is not easy, but it can be done. After the debacle of the ‘WMD that weren’t there,’ following the invasion of Iraq by George W Bush, the US intelligence community instituted a policy of constructing ‘Red Teams’, groups of analysts brought together and specifically charged with trying to pick apart the prevailing view on a given subject, or to suggest alternate explanations as to what may be happening. Crucially, an institutional culture was created whereby membership on a Red Team was not a career impediment.

Political, military and bureaucratic leaders must require those who serve them to provide a range of possible explanations about what is happening. In a nuclear standoff, whether in Europe or South Asia, becoming captive to just one view of reality is dangerous.

The author is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a former civil servant

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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2019 11:21:18 IST