Playing Chicken: To the Edge with the USSR and Russia

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By JP Miller. Contributing Editor.

USBGlobalBasesMapR50[Map courtesy of The Movement. Click map for larger view.]

In this age of perpetual war and the United States (US) strategy of leap-frogging from conflict to conflict (see Lily-Pad Roll, Gaither Stewart), imposing their military might on whatever they deem is in the “national interest”, it is incumbent on us and the countries that suffer this strategy to pay attention to history—Cold war history even. The struggle in Ukraine is the latest contest between East and West, Russia and the US. And, revisiting the forgotten Cold War could offer some clarity for Eastern Ukraine and Russia. The US and NATO have a long history of projecting imperial power, defying long-established agreements, ignoring acceptable or reasonable behavior and continue to manipulate international law. Pay attention Russia and East Ukraine. NATO’s build-up in the former Soviet Caucuses is the largest since the Cold War.

From 1983 to 1988, the United States Army and Air Force conducted what they told us was war games. In 1985 to 1988, I was a Corporal in a secretive unit called the 41st Field Artillery based in Schwabisch Gmund, West Germany. We were constantly in the field. Our mission was to simulate nuclear war with the East Germans and the Soviet Union with tactical nuclear weapons. Our sister unit was in Neu-Ulm and designated the 81st Field Artillery. Both units were considered Quick Reaction Forces (QRA) and were actively erecting mobile nuclear weapons in the Black Forest of Germany and many times only a few miles from the borders of East Germany and Czechoslovakia. We often sent what we called “Azimuth Star” disinformation in the open and encrypted to misdirect the Soviet forces and their allies. My fellow cryptos and I broke many classified codes from their responses which gave us an abundance of frantic communication from the Soviet command to their field units. It was called operation Able Archer and Reforger. Only, I didn’t know that the “simulated” war was the edge of nuclear insanity.

Reagan and his Generals had installed a new class of mobile missile erectors in Germany which were able to set-up, fire a nuclear warhead, and move rapidly to another launch site. I can still remember opening the safes that held targeting data and launch codes. I had a Top Secret security clearance and hence was privy to nearly all classified materials. We mated the warheads, erected the missiles, and counted down to launch until the last second when command, with a new intranet communication device (the internet’s beginning), would call a stand down before the end of the launch cycle.

According to new information provided by the National Security Archives which is available on Unredacted, the US made a point of skirting the Helsinki Accords of 1976. This confidence building agreement clearly stated that notification of such exercises between the Cold War opponents would be mandatory so as to avoid any unnecessary misunderstanding and prevent misinterpretation of the other’s intentions, preventing accidental nuclear release. Well, the US decided that since the “mandatory” accords were non-binding (none are anyway) and pushed the European theatre into a virtual and nearly very real nuclear exchange with the USSR. The Soviets took the accords seriously and were unprepared for what would happen.

The US decided to forgo the accords and attempt to hide mobile missile movements, cruise missile readiness, troop surge, and B-52 mobilization as a secret exercise to rattle the saber at the East. The US military decided that maintaining the secrecy of the new weapons, the surge of troops, and their capabilities were paramount and purposely “failed” to notify the USSR or East Germany of any “maneuvers”. By the time the USSR detected the undisclosed movements and was taken by surprise it could have easily seen these extreme and aggressive “movements” as a prelude to a real world first strike. In fact, the Soviet military, uninformed about what was supposed to be designated as “maneuvers” and fed disinformation about the nature of the movements had a strong reaction to them and feared a NATO attack. All the signs of an attack were there—40,000 troops in the field, missile countdowns, and B-52 fly overs. It indicated an actual attack and nuclear release rather than a maneuver. The US, in the open, even referred to the exercise as “attacks”, daring the Soviets to act accordingly. Today, the US is again tempting Russia. As NATO troops build a massive presence in the former Soviet states, now isolating the Ukraine with troop and weapon movements, the baiting by NATO can be seen as a prelude to invasion as what happened with the Cold War simulated nuclear release debacle. Imagine Canada and Mexico stacking troops and the most sophisticated weapons yards from US borders. Get the picture?

The release of this information by Unredacted only tells part of the story. And, since at the beginning of my military career, I was a crypto-analyst and missile crewmember with the Pershing II unit at the time, I witnessed the extreme measures that the Command structure used to confuse and tempt the Soviet forces which were a few mere miles from many of our shifting positions. I fed what was called “Azimuth Star” disinformation to the Soviet command, broke release codes for the US Army and we simulated actual release of nuclear weapons on a grand scale. We had two Pershing II units with a total of 108 solid- fueled rockets, two staged Hercules nuclear missiles with from 5 to 60 kiloton nuclear yield warheads. The missiles were made very accurate by using an early self-correcting GPS gyroscope which could reach the edge of space and fall to earth to target within 100 feet. Their unclassified maximum range was around 1, 800 kilometers but the actual range was well over 2,200 kilometers which gave them ample ability to reach targets in the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany. The targeting data was fed to the missile’s analog computer after command chose a target and we matched our data with theirs on a plastic card with “go” codes.

Alongside our units, the German military had the antiquated Pershing 1a missile system that had been built to deliver up to 400 kiloton conventional or nuclear weapons at a much shorter distance, albeit their yield made it impossible for “friendly” troops to survive so they were designated as non-nuclear. We were so close to the borders of Eastern Europe that our radios picked up normal, in the clear and encrypted radio traffic from most all opposition military units. We were stealthy with radar and satellite deflecting camouflage and easily mobile.

The Pershing II had the ability to fire and move in under an hour to another launch site in the Black Forest under a massive camouflage array. Five ton trucks under cover of darkness and in black-out mode delivered a multitude of warheads. In fact, as ignorant as I was then, I once climbed into the back of one of the covered 5 ton trucks and fell asleep between around 15 warheads. I awoke to the voice of an officer calling for me to “get the fuck out of our nukes”.

Very important was the constant bogus radio traffic and shifting command sites. The command changes were to ensure the ability to release the weapons if one Command and control site was compromised. The perfection of the system was a very real threat to the Soviets and their satellite countries. Eventually and in response, the Soviets deployed their SS-20 mobile systems all over the Eastern USSR and by 1986 had 279 Missiles operational and pointed at the Western European countries.

When the German public became aware of this activity, we were met by varying degrees of protest and hostility. Protestors would dress in costumes to hide their identities because the Politzi would take pictures and prosecute. We would have the occasional blocked road during our movements where protestors threw what looked like grenades or satchel charges under the erectors. Many protestors threw them directly at the ring of us surrounding and protecting the Erector-Launchers and two-staged rockets full of solid rocket fuel. On a few occasions, protestors came at us trying to get at the missiles and we had to use our M-16’s as battering rams to disperse them. Of course, we were using live ammo in case of a breach but I remembering thinking I was not going to kill a person for the sake of a damn missile. But, the fear got the best of me many times and I once struck a man with the butt of my M-16 shattering his jaw. We also took sporadic gunfire at the storage facility in Mutlangen, resulting in close calls and returned fire at the woods outside the walls and razor wire. Now, as I think about my role in what was a Dr. Strangelove like insanity, it brings me back to how we cryptos laughed in our command and control trailers and practiced a frenetic “end of the world” scenario which is much too ridiculous to recount. We had no idea what we were really doing and how much we pushed the Soviets to the edge. It was game—a very dangerous game.

When I rotated back to the states and to Jungle training for the next war which would begin at the supposed end of the Cold War, the SALT treaty began what was supposed to be the destruction of this entire class of weapons but would end up as a half-measure. No surprise there. But, I never knew how close we came to actual nuclear exchange until many years later. Today, the Cold war is considered by many people a benign period in history for the most part, the truth is that there were many hot wars around the world where US and USSR troops and military weapons were in conflict. And, the European theatre was no different in terms of eminent danger and real world animosity. Had I known at the time, I could have done nothing different. The machine was rolling and rolling right to the edge of mutual destruction. And, what happens in the Ukraine today could whip us back to the Cold War rhetoric and the feints and jives of a divided and nuclear threatened Europe. Hell, they might as well put up another grand wall to keep us idiots out.

JP Miller is a disabled veteran, journalist, and writer who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina beside the Atlantic Ocean. He has published short stories and political essays in The Literary Yard, The Southern Cross Review, The Greanville Post, Pravda, Countercurrents, Uncommon Thought and Cyrano’s Journal.

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