1983 Revisited

May 2013


pg9Historian and researcher Nate Jones of the National Security Archive marks the 30th anniversary of a tension filled year in Cold War history by publishing an interesting three part series on the geopolitical gamesmanship that occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1983. At the center of Jones’ research are the events that preceded and culminated in NATO exercises ABLE ARCHER and REFORGER. Jones posts an impressive collection of recently declassified documents that will certainly be of interest to Cold War historians and those on active duty during this period.

As the 1980s were known as the decade of “Maritime Strategy”, naval forces certainly played a vital role in this period of escalated tension.. As Benjamin Fischer of the Central Intelligence Agency recounts:

According to published accounts, the US Navy played a key role in the PSYOP program after President Reagan authorized it in March 1981 to operate and exercise near maritime approaches to the USSR, in places where US warships had never gone before.Fleet exercises conducted in 1981 and 1983 near the far northern and far eastern regions of the Soviet Union demonstrated US ability to deploy aircraft-carrier battle groups close to sensitive military and industrial sites, apparently without being detected or challenged early on. These exercises reportedly included secret operations that simulated surprise naval air attacks on Soviet targets.

In the August-September 1981 exercise, an armada of 83 US, British, Canadian, and Norwegian ships led by the carrier Eisenhower managed to transit the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap undetected, using a variety of carefully crafted and previously rehearsed concealment and deception measures. A combination of passive measures (maintaining radio silence and operating under emissions control conditions) and active measures (radar-jamming and transmission of false radar signals) turned the allied force into something resembling a stealth fleet, which even managed to elude a Soviet low-orbit, active-radar satellite launched to locate it.As the warships came within operating areas of Soviet long-range reconnaissance planes, the Soviets were initially able to identify but not track them. Meanwhile, Navy fighters conducted an unprecedented simulated attack on the Soviet planes as they refueled in-flight, flying at low levels to avoid detection by Soviet shore-based radar sites.

In the second phase of this exercise, a cruiser and three other ships left the carrier battle group and sailed north through the Norwegian Sea and then east around Norway’s Cape North and into the Barents Sea. They then sailed near the militarily important Kola Peninsula and remained there for nine days before rejoining the main group.

In April-May 1983, the US Pacific Fleet held its largest exercises to date in the northwest Pacific. Forty ships, including three aircraft carrier battle groups, participated along with AWACS-equipped B-52s. At one point the fleet sailed within 720 kilometers (450 miles) of the Kamchatka Peninsula and Petropavlovsk, the only Soviet naval base with direct access to open seas. US attack submarines and antisubmarine aircraft conducted operations in protected areas (“bastions”) where the Soviet Navy had stationed a large number of its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). US Navy aircraft from the carriers Midway and Enterprise carried out a simulated bombing run over a military installation on the small Soviet-occupied island of Zelenny in the Kuril Island chain.

In addition to these exercises, according to published accounts, the Navy applied a full-court press against the Soviets in various forward areas. Warships began operating in the Baltic and Black Seas and routinely sailed past Cape North and into the Barents Sea. Intelligence ships were positioned off the Crimean coast. Aircraft carriers with submarine escorts were anchored in Norwegian fjords. US attack submarines practiced assaults on Soviet SSBNs stationed beneath the polar ice cap.

These US demonstrations of military might were aimed at deterring the Soviets from provocative actions and at displaying US determination to respond in kind to Soviet regional and global exercises that had become larger, more sophisticated, and more menacing in preceding years. The projection of naval and naval air power exposed gaping holes in Soviet ocean surveillance and early warning systems. For example, in a Congressional briefing on the 1983 Pacific exercise, the chief of naval operations noted that the Soviets “are as naked as a jaybird there [on the Kamchatka Peninsula], and they know it.”

For those interested in naval strategy or this era of naval history, Newport Paper #33 published by the Naval War College provides an excellent account of the evolution and impact of naval strategy during the 1980s.

Posted by Robert Kozloski in History, Navy

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