NATO fear of Russian assault may be overblown; the West has a history of getting it wrong. But then again, so do the Russians. (Part 3)

This is the third and final part of piece looking at both sides of the Cold War’s failure to adequately assess the capability, willingness, and ultimately therefore the threat, of the other, and the role of bias in driving this failure. Part 1 looked at the US’ initial post-WW2 assessment of Russian force levels in Eastern Europe, whilst Part 2 studied the Cuban Missile Crisis. This part looks at the Soviet misinterpretation of NATO actions during Exercise AUTUMN FORGE (although the incident is more commonly referred to as Ex ABLE ARCHER).

Exercise AUTUMN FORGE – Assessing American Intent

1983 has been called the ‘year of maximum danger’, and ‘the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.[1]  Due to SALT I and II, the ‘Open Skies’ policy, and détente, capabilities and dispositions were now well-known.[2]  Both sides had so much nuclear capability that there was little need to chase exact intelligence on it.  Khrushchev summed it up; ‘I once read something McNamara had said about the US having sufficient stocks of nuclear weapons to destroy the world four times over…  There’s no need to destroy the world four times; once is enough’.[3]  The Cold War had moved beyond assessing exact capability.

However, intent remained opaque.  Triggered by Exercise AUTUMN FORGE, large US manoeuvres in Europe, the Soviet leadership became increasingly nervous about NATO intentions, ultimately believing ‘all actions pointed in the direction [of an imminent nuclear attack].’[4]

Bias hindered obtaining accurate intelligence.  The Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov and his inner circle – succumbing to Groupthink bias[5] – had ‘convinced themselves’ that the US was planning on launching a surprise nuclear attack.[6]  This assessment itself was probably at least partly driven by Vivid bias as horrific images of nuclear war were produced in everything from academic texts to popular film.[7]  It also demonstrates the dangers of the Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias, as non-professionals believe their own assessments to be better than experts’.[8]  Displaying Confirmation bias[9], Andropov directed that Soviet intelligence collectors launch Operation RYaN to ‘gather evidence for what he was nearly certain was coming’[10] – the flaw in this reasoning is self-evident.  Despite disagreeing with Andropov’s assessment – the KGB believed that it was ‘more of a storm warning than a hurricane alert’[11] – they ‘dutifully supplied the Kremlin with whatever suspicious evidence they could find, feeding official paranoia.’[12]  The organisational and cultural refusal to speak truth to power had a clear impact.

However, one should examine the broader situation in order to understand Soviet concerns.  Reagan had a clear vision for US foreign policy; ‘to hasten the end of communism.’  The USSR was an ‘evil empire’, communism ‘a form of insanity… contrary to human nature.’[13]  There was resource behind these statements; the only federal department not to reduce its budget under Reagan was the Department of Defense (DoD) – in fact its budget doubled between 1981 and 1986.[14]  Not only was this setting the conditions for a renewed capability race, but it indicated to the Soviets a belligerent intent.  It is unsurprising that Andropov was nervous.

But Andropov’s analysis was again wrong.  Reagan’s narrative served a political purpose; demonising the other is a tried and tested way of building domestic popularity.[15]  Andropov recognised that ‘every election campaign… must be accompanied by anti-Soviet statements’[16], but he did not recognise that the increased DoD budget was not for directly engaging the USSR militarily, but rather ‘to divert priority Soviet resources to meeting future US capabilities beyond their grasp.’[17]  Reagan wanted to outspend the USSR so that ‘they can’t keep up’[18] – he was forcing them into Imperial Overstretch.[19]

This was clear in National Security Decision Directive 75 (NSDD 75).  US strategy for defeating the Soviet Union did not include any aspirations for kinetic engagement – rather it was based around three strands: resistance to Soviet imperialism; internal pressure on the Soviet Union to liberalise; and improved bilateral relations.[20]   Soviet failures to direct appropriately, collect sufficiently, and analyse accurately led to a significantly incorrect conclusion about US intent.


This essay contained three themes: the importance of all elements of the intelligence cycle; the importance of assessing both constituent components of threat – capability and intent; and the role of biases, primarily cognitive, organisational, and cultural, in influencing the obtaining of accurate intelligence.  As a framework within which to examine these themes it assessed that the importance of identifying the opponent’s threat was the main intelligence driver throughout the Cold War, and examined three case studies: US assessments of Soviet conventional capability following WW2; US assessments of Soviet threat during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and Soviet assessments of US intent during Exercise AUTUMN FORGE.  There were mixed successes on both sides, influenced largely by the presence of a wide range of biases.  Over the course of the Cold War capability identification became less important – and once nuclear armament levels reached a certain tipping point it was almost irrelevant – but the requirement to obtain accurate intelligence on the opponent’s intent remained.

Thus despite increasing clarity over capabilities, driven by advances in collection capabilities and increased openness, the impact of biases remained.  Even towards the culmination of the Cold War assessments of the other crucial part of threat assessments – the adversary’s intent – was persistently misjudged.


Complete essay available on request.


[1] Cimbala (2000); Adamsky (2013), p. 6; Johnson (1999), p. 264.

[2] SALT I (1972, SALT II (1979); Marquardt (2007).

[3] Quoted in Heikal (1978), p. 129 (no original source given).

[4] Soviet Deputy Chief of Staff of Strategic Rocket Forces, General Colonel Korobushin, quoted in Hines, et al. (1995), pp. 106-107.

[5] See DCDC (2011), p. A-1 (also called  the Bandwagon Effect).

[6] Cimbala (2014), p. 234.  Also see Harriman (1983), pp. 2-3.

[7] For an example of the former see Kahn (2007); the latter Kubrick (1964).

[8] Dunning, et al. (2003)).  The Soviet Union has a history of this; Stalin believed in 1942 that Germany intended to head for Moscow, ‘whereas all indications were that they were planning something in the south’ (Tissier (1996), p. 8); Khrushchev largely ‘preferred to conduct his own analysis’ (Garthoff (1998), p. 11).

[9] DCDC (2011), p. A-1; Defence Intelligence (2013), p. 5.

[10] Birch (2013).  For an example of these orders see Titov (1983).

[11] Fischer (Undated (circa 1996)), p. 62.

[12] Birch (2013).

[13] Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 21; Reagan (1983); Reagan, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 12.

[14] Figures in Smith (1998), p. 132.

[15] See Wistrich (1999).

[16] Harriman (1983), p. 3.

[17] William Clark, interview with author, Schweizer (2002), p.132.

[18] Quoted in Schweizer (2002), p. 141.

[19] See Kennedy (1998).

[20] NSA (1983).