1983: on the brink (part 2)
10 Oct 2013|

President Ronald Reagan and Oleg GordievskyThis post is part two of an extract by the editors from Paul Dibb’s paper The Nuclear War Scare of 1983, to be released later today.

As I explained in yesterday’s post, the world came uncomfortably close to a nuclear war in 1983, over nothing more sinister than a NATO exercise that was misinterpreted by a highly-suspicious Soviet Union. It’s worth understanding what happened then—and what could have been done to avoid it—when we contemplate the growing strategic competition between the nuclear-armed United States and China in our region today.

The big lesson to be learned here is how a country such as America, with all the vast intelligence resources it poured into the Soviet military target, could get it so badly wrong. The fact is that the failure by the US to interpret intelligence indicators and warnings accurately in 1983 could have led to full-scale nuclear war. Misreading Soviet overreactions as being nothing more than a scare tactic may also have led the West to underestimate another threat—a Soviet pre-emptive nuclear strike, either as a result of miscalculation or by design to alter ‘the correlation of forces’ decisively in its favour.

In my view, the Americans concentrated too heavily on technical means of intelligence collection in the Cold War and not enough on accurately interpreting intelligence indicators and warnings based on human and other sources, both covert and public. This was undoubtedly due to the difficulty of penetrating the Soviet intelligence target.  Washington understood little about Soviet Politburo decision-making processes or of current Soviet leadership perceptions of the United States. US intelligence agencies have long had a tendency to rely too much on technical methods of intelligence collection and not enough on understanding what motivates the potential adversary. To achieve this requires deep understanding of the history, geography, culture, the personalities and politics of the target country. There are lessons here for all intelligence agencies in the contemporary era, including Australia’s. For example, North Korea’s leadership is ‘unpredictable’ because we do not really understand it and Iran’s lack of understanding of the US is, at least in part, reciprocated by Washington.

The other lesson is that an understanding of the dynamics and the driving forces of the Cold War, and the exaggerated perceptions that the US and the USSR had of each other, might be applicable to the problems confronting us today. So, for example, the current competition and potential for dangerous stand-offs between China and the US requires us not to exaggerate China’s military capabilities, and China and the US not to indulge in mirror-imaging of each other. There is already a tendency for this error to be evident in certain quarters in the US with the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle, and in China with its development of anti-access/area denial capabilities. China should not be seen in the US as the default adversary and Beijing should not resort to Communist conspiracy theories about the inevitability of war with the capitalist West.

The danger, of course, is that in the event of tensions and conflict between China and the US there would be the potential for nuclear escalation, either by miscalculation or design. It is worrisome, in this context, that there are no nuclear arms control agreements, military confidence-building measures or the practicing of emergency communications procedures between Washington and Beijing, unlike those that existed between Washington and Moscow in the Cold War, and which most of the time played a significant part in helping to avoid military conflict. If not handled carefully, there will be a tendency for the same extreme stereotyping of each other that led to the sort of crises described in this paper. This is not to say that China’s military programs are benign or that Beijing is not striving for political or military advantage. But it is to call for better understanding of China’s national security policies, and the factors that constrain the rate of its economic and military growth, in a more detached way.

Paul Dibb is Emeritus Professor of strategic studies at The Australian National University. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.