Able Archer 83

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Able Archer 83 is the codename for a command post exercise carried out in November 1983 by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). [1] [2] As with Able Archer exercises from previous years, the purpose of the exercise was to simulate a period of conflict escalation, culminating in the US military attaining a simulated DEFCON 1 coordinated nuclear attack. [3] Coordinated from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) headquarters in Casteau, Belgium, it involved NATO forces throughout Western Europe, beginning on November 7, 1983, and lasting for five days.

Exercise Able Archer was an annual exercise by NATO military forces in Europe that practiced command and control procedures, with emphasis on transition from conventional operations to chemical, nuclear, and conventional operations during a time of war. When it was active, it was seen as the culmination of Exercise Autumn Forge. The exercise is best known for Able Archer 83, which believed to have nearly started a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Conflict escalation is the process by which conflicts grow in severity over time. This may refer to conflicts between individuals or groups in interpersonal relationships, or it may refer to the escalation of hostilities in a political or military context. In systems theory, the process of conflict escalation is modeled by positive feedback.

DEFCON Alert posture used by the United States Armed Forces

The defense readiness condition (DEFCON) is an alert state used by the United States Armed Forces.


The 1983 exercise introduced several new elements not seen in previous years, including a new, unique format of coded communication, radio silences, and the participation of heads of government. This increase in realism, combined with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some members of the Soviet Politburo and military to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike. [3] [4] [5] [6] In response, the Soviet Union readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert. [7] [8] The apparent threat of nuclear war ended with the conclusion of the exercise on November 11. [9] [10] [11]

In telecommunications, radio silence or Emissions Control (EMCON) is a status in which all fixed or mobile radio stations in an area are asked to stop transmitting for safety or security reasons.

The head of government is either the highest or second highest official in the executive branch of a sovereign state, a federated state, or a self-governing colony, who often presides over a cabinet, a group of ministers or secretaries who lead executive departments. "Head of government" is often differentiated from "head of state", as they may be separate positions, individuals, or roles depending on the country.

Cold War (1979–1985) 1979–1985 phase of the Cold War

The Cold War (1979–1985) refers to a late phase of the Cold War marked by a sharp increase in hostility between the Soviet Union and the West. It arose from a strong denunciation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. With the election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and American President Ronald Reagan in 1980, a corresponding change in Western foreign policy approach toward the Soviet Union was marked by the rejection of détente in favor of the Reagan Doctrine policy of rollback, with the stated goal of dissolving Soviet influence in Soviet Bloc countries. During this time, the threat of nuclear war had reached new heights not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Historians such as Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, and Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, have since argued that Able Archer 83 was one of the times when the world has come closest to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. [12] [13] Other incidents that also brought the world close to such a war include the Soviet nuclear false alarm incident that occurred a month earlier and the Norwegian rocket incident of 1995. [14]

National Security Archive American research and archival institution

The National Security Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-governmental, non-profit research and archival institution located on the campus of the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1985 to check rising government secrecy, the National Security Archive is an investigative journalism center, open government advocate, international affairs research institute, and is the largest repository of declassified U.S. documents outside the federal government. The National Security Archive has spurred the declassification of more than 10 million pages of government documents by being the leading non-profit user of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), filing a total of more than 50,000 FOIA and declassification requests in its over 30 years of history.

Thomas M. Nichols is an academic specialist on international affairs, currently a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School. His work deals with issues involving Russia, nuclear weapons, and national security affairs. He was previously a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Naval War College staff college of the United States Navy

The Naval War College is the staff college and "Home of Thought" for the United States Navy at Naval Station Newport in Newport, Rhode Island. The NWC educates and develops leaders, supports defining the future Navy and associated roles and missions, supports combat readiness, and strengthens global maritime partnerships.

Prelude to NATO exercise

Operation RYaN

A KGB report from 1981 reporting that the KGB had "implemented measures to strengthen intelligence work in order to prevent a possible sudden outbreak of war by the enemy." To do this, the KGB "actively obtained information on military and strategic issues, and the aggressive military and political plans of imperialism [the United States] and its accomplices," and "enhanced the relevance and effectiveness of its active intelligence abilities." KGB Report on 1981.jpg
A KGB report from 1981 reporting that the KGB had "implemented measures to strengthen intelligence work in order to prevent a possible sudden outbreak of war by the enemy." To do this, the KGB "actively obtained information on military and strategic issues, and the aggressive military and political plans of imperialism [the United States] and its accomplices," and "enhanced the relevance and effectiveness of its active intelligence abilities."

The greatest catalyst to the Able Archer war scare occurred more than two years earlier. In a May 1981 closed-session meeting of senior KGB officers and Soviet leaders, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov bluntly announced that the United States was preparing a secret nuclear attack on the USSR. [16]

KGB Main security agency for the Soviet Union

The KGB, translated in English as Committee for State Security, was the main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 until its break-up in 1991. As a direct successor of preceding agencies such as the Cheka, NKGB, NKVD and MGB, the committee was attached to the Council of Ministers. It was the chief government agency of "union-republican jurisdiction", acting as internal security, intelligence and secret police. Similar agencies were constituted in each of the republics of the Soviet Union aside from Russian SFSR, and consisted of many ministries, state committees and state commissions.

General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union De facto Leader of the Soviet Union

The General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was an office of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that by the late 1920s had evolved into the most powerful of the Central Committee's various secretaries. With a few exceptions, from 1929 until the union's dissolution the holder of the office was the de facto leader of the Soviet Union, because the post controlled both the CPSU and the Soviet government. Joseph Stalin elevated the office to overall command of the Communist Party and by extension the whole Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev renamed the post First Secretary in 1953; the change was reverted in 1966.

Leonid Brezhnev 20th-century General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was a Soviet politician. The fifth leader of the Soviet Union, he served as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the governing Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1964 until his death in 1982. His 18-year term as general secretary was second only to Joseph Stalin's in duration. While Brezhnev's rule was characterized by political stability and notable foreign policy successes, it was also marked by corruption, inefficiency, and rapidly growing technological gaps with the West.

To combat this threat, Andropov announced, the KGB and GRU military foreign intelligence arm would begin Operation RYaN. RYaN (РЯН) was a Russian acronym for "Nuclear Missile Attack" (Ракетное Ядерное Нападение); Operation RYaN was the largest, most comprehensive peacetime intelligence-gathering operation in Soviet history. Agents abroad were charged with monitoring the figures who would decide to launch a nuclear attack, the service and technical personnel who would implement the attack, and the facilities from which the attack would originate. It is possible that the goal of Operation RYaN was to discover the first intent of a nuclear attack and then preempt it. [16] [17]

The exact impetus for the implementation of Operation RYaN is not known for sure. Oleg Gordievsky, the highest-ranking KGB official ever to defect, attributed it to "a potentially lethal combination of Reaganite rhetoric and Soviet paranoia." [17] Gordievsky conjectured that Brezhnev and Andropov, who "were very, very old-fashioned and easily influenced ... by Communist dogmas", truly believed that an antagonistic Ronald Reagan would push the nuclear button and relegate the Soviet Union to the literal "ash heap of history". [18] [19] [20] Central Intelligence Agency historian Benjamin B. Fischer lists several concrete occurrences that likely led to the birth of RYaN. The first of these was the use of psychological operations (PSYOP) that began soon after Reagan took office.

Oleg Gordievsky Former colonel of the KGB

Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky, CMG is a former colonel of the KGB and KGB resident-designate (rezident) and bureau chief in London, who was a secret agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service from 1974 to 1985.

Ronald Reagan 40th president of the United States and conservative spokesman

Ronald Wilson Reagan was an American politician who served as the 40th president of the United States from 1981 to 1989 and became the highly influential voice of modern conservatism. Prior to his presidency, he was a Hollywood actor and union leader before serving as the 33rd governor of California from 1967 to 1975.

The "nuclear button" is a figurative term referring to the power to use nuclear weapons. "Pushing the nuclear button" refers to actually using them. The actual procedure for using such weapons is more complex than simply pushing a button. The "nuclear button" may be transferred to another official due to political changes or the incapacitation of a person currently in control of it.

In his report, Fischer also writes that another CIA source was, at least partially, corroborating Gordievsky's reporting. This Czechoslovak intelligence officer—who worked closely with the KGB on RYaN—"noted that his counterparts were obsessed with the historical parallel between 1941 and 1983. He believed this feeling was almost visceral, not intellectual, and deeply affected Soviet thinking." [21]

Psychological operations

The Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap in the North Atlantic. GIUK gap.png
The Greenland–Iceland–United Kingdom (GIUK) gap in the North Atlantic.

Psychological operations (PSYOP) by the United States began in mid-February 1981 and continued intermittently until 1983. These included a series of clandestine naval operations that stealthily accessed waters near the Greenland–Iceland–United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, and the Barents, Norwegian, Black, and Baltic seas, demonstrating how close NATO ships could get to critical Soviet military bases. American bombers also flew directly towards Soviet airspace, peeling off at the last moment, sometimes several times per week. These near-penetrations were designed to test Soviet radar vulnerability as well as demonstrate US capabilities in a nuclear war. [22]

"It really got to them," said Dr. William Schneider, [former] undersecretary of state for military assistance and technology, who saw classified "after-action reports" that indicated U.S. flight activity. "They didn't know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home." [22]

FleetEx '83

In April 1983, the United States Navy conducted FleetEx '83-1, the largest fleet exercise held to date in the North Pacific. [23] [24] The conglomeration of approximately 40 ships with 23,000 crewmembers and 300 aircraft was arguably one of the most powerful naval armadas ever assembled. U.S. aircraft and ships attempted to provoke the Soviets into reacting, allowing the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence to study Soviet radar characteristics, aircraft capabilities, and tactical maneuvers. On April 4 at least six U.S. Navy aircraft flew over Zeleny Island, one of the Kurile Islands. In retaliation the Soviets ordered an overflight of the Aleutian Islands. The Soviet Union also issued a formal diplomatic note of protest, which accused the United States of repeated penetrations of Soviet airspace. [25]

Korean Air Lines Flight 007

On September 1, 1983, the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL 007) was shot down by a Soviet interceptor over the Sea of Japan near Moneron Island (just west of Sakhalin island) while flying over prohibited Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers and crew aboard were killed, including Congressman Larry McDonald, a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia and president of the anti-communist John Birch Society.

Weapons buildup

From the start, the Reagan administration adopted a bellicose stance toward the Soviet Union, one that favored seriously constraining Soviet strategic and global military capabilities. The administration's rigorous focus on this objective resulted in the largest peacetime military buildup in the history of the United States. It also ushered in the final major escalation in rhetoric of the Cold War. On June 8, 1982, Reagan, in a speech to the British House of Commons, declared that, "... Freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history." [26]

On March 23, 1983, Reagan announced one of the most ambitious and controversial components to this strategy, the Strategic Defense Initiative (labeled "Star Wars" by the media and critics). While Reagan portrayed the initiative as a safety net against nuclear war, leaders in the Soviet Union viewed it as a definitive departure from the relative weapons parity of détente and an escalation of the arms race into space. Yuri Andropov, who had become General Secretary following Brezhnev's death in November 1982, criticised Reagan for "inventing new plans on how to unleash a nuclear war in the best way, with the hope of winning it". [27]

The US Pershing II missile Pershing II.jpg
The US Pershing II missile

Despite the Soviet outcry over the Strategic Defense Initiative, the weapons plan that generated the most alarm among the Soviet Union's leadership during Able Archer 83 was NATO's planned deployment of intermediate-range Pershing II missiles in Western Europe. [lower-alpha 1] These missiles, deployed to counter Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles on the USSR's western border, represented a major threat to the Soviets. The Pershing II was capable of destroying Soviet "hard targets" such as underground missile silos and command and control bunkers. [16] [29] [30]

The missiles could be emplaced in and launched from any surveyed site in minutes, and because the guidance system was self-correcting, the missile system possessed a genuine "first strike capability". Furthermore, it was estimated that the missiles (deployed in West Germany) could reach targets in the western Soviet Union within four to six minutes of their launch.[ citation needed ] These capabilities led Soviet leaders to believe that the only way to survive a Pershing II strike was to preempt it. This fear of an undetected Pershing II attack, according to CIA historian Benjamin B. Fischer, was explicitly linked to the mandate of Operation RYaN: to detect a decision by the United States to launch a nuclear attack and to preempt it. [16] [29] [30]

False alarm from the Soviet missile early warning system

On the night of September 26, 1983, the Soviet orbital missile early warning system (SPRN), code-named Oko, reported a single intercontinental ballistic missile launch from the territory of the United States. [31] Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who was on duty during the incident, correctly dismissed the warning as a computer error when ground early warning radars did not detect any launches. Part of his reasoning was that the system was new and known to have malfunctioned previously; also, a full-scale nuclear attack from the United States would involve thousands of simultaneous launches, not a single missile.

Later, the system reported four more ICBM launches headed to the Soviet Union, but Petrov again dismissed the reports as false. The investigation that followed revealed that the system indeed malfunctioned and false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds underneath the satellites' orbits.

Exercise Able Archer 83

A US Air Force after-action report describes three days of "low spectrum" conventional play followed by two days of "high spectrum nuclear warfare." From the National Security Archive. Able Archer 83 After Action Report.jpg
A US Air Force after-action report describes three days of "low spectrum" conventional play followed by two days of "high spectrum nuclear warfare." From the National Security Archive.

A scenario released by NATO details the hypothetical lead-up to the Able Archer exercise, which was used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington D.C. and the Ministry of Defence in London. [32] Dr. Gregory Pedlow, a SHAPE historian explains the war game:

The exercise scenario began with Orange (the hypothetical opponent) opening hostilities in all regions of ACE on 4 November (three days before the start of the exercise) and Blue (NATO) declaring a general alert. Orange initiated the use of chemical weapons on 6 November and by the end of that day had used such weapons throughout ACE. All of these events had taken place prior to the start of the exercise and were simply part of the written scenario. There had thus been three days of fighting and a deteriorating situation prior to the start of the exercise. This was desired because—as previously stated—the purpose of the exercise was to test procedures for transitioning from conventional to nuclear operations. As a result of Orange advance, its persistent use of chemical weapons, and its clear intentions to rapidly commit second echelon forces, SACEUR requested political guidance on the use of nuclear weapons early on Day 1 of the exercise (7 November 1983)... [33]

Thus, on November 7, 1983, as Soviet intelligence services were attempting to detect the early signs of a nuclear attack, NATO began to simulate one. The exercise, codenamed Able Archer, involved numerous NATO allies and simulated NATO's Command, Control, and Communications (C³) procedures during a nuclear war. Some Soviet leaders, because of the preceding world events and the exercise's particularly realistic nature, feared that the exercise was a cover for an actual attack. [34] [35] A KGB telegram of February 17 described one likely scenario:

In view of the fact that the measures involved in State Orange [a nuclear attack within 36 hours] have to be carried out with the utmost secrecy (under the guise of maneuvers, training etc.) in the shortest possible time, without disclosing the content of operational plans, it is highly probable that the battle alarm system may be used to prepare a surprise RYaN [nuclear attack] in peacetime. [36]

Also on February 17, KGB Permanent Operational Assignment assigned its agents to monitor several possible indicators of a nuclear attack. These included actions by "A cadre of people associated with preparing and implementing decision about RYaN, and also a group of people, including service and technical personnel ... those working in the operating services of installations connected with processing and implementing the decision about RYaN, and communication staff involved in the operation and interaction of these installations." [37]

A Soviet SS-20 missile SS20 irbm.jpg
A Soviet SS-20 missile

Because Able Archer 83 simulated an actual release, it is likely that the service and technical personnel mentioned in the memo were active in the exercise. More conspicuously, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl participated (though not concurrently) in the nuclear drill. United States President Reagan, Vice President George H. W. Bush, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were also intended to participate. Robert McFarlane, who had assumed the position of National Security Advisor just two weeks earlier, realized the implications of such participation early in the exercise's planning and rejected it. [38]

Another illusory indicator likely noticed by Soviet analysts was a high rate of ciphered communications between the United Kingdom and the United States. Soviet intelligence was informed that "so-called nuclear consultations in NATO are probably one of the stages of immediate preparation by the adversary for RYaN". [39] To the Soviet analysts, this burst of secret communications between the United States and the UK one month before the beginning of Able Archer may have appeared to be this "consultation". In reality, the burst of communication was about the US invasion of Grenada on October 25, 1983, which caused a great deal of diplomatic traffic as the sovereign of the island was Elizabeth II. [40]

A further startling aspect reported by KGB agents concerned the NATO communications used during the exercise. According to Moscow Centre's February 17 memo,

It [is] of the highest importance to keep a watch on the functioning of communications networks and systems since through them information is passed about the adversary's intentions and, above all, about his plans to use nuclear weapons and practical implementation of these. In addition, changes in the method of operating communications systems and the level of manning may in themselves indicate the state of preparation for RYaN. [41]

Soviet intelligence appeared to substantiate these suspicions by reporting that NATO was indeed using unique, never-before-seen procedures as well as message formats more sophisticated than previous exercises, which possibly indicated the proximity of nuclear attack. [42]

Finally, during Able Archer 83, NATO forces simulated a move through all alert phases, from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1. While these phases were simulated, alarmist KGB agents mistakenly reported them as actual. According to Soviet intelligence, NATO doctrine stated, "Operational readiness No. 1 is declared when there are obvious indications of preparation to begin military operations. It is considered that war is inevitable and may start at any moment." [43]

The unclassified NATO summary of Able Archer 83, kindly provided by SHAPE chief historian Gregory Pedlow, provides a narrative of how the Cold War could have turned nuclear. Image provided by the National Security Archive. Able Archer Summary.jpg
The unclassified NATO summary of Able Archer 83, kindly provided by SHAPE chief historian Gregory Pedlow, provides a narrative of how the Cold War could have turned nuclear. Image provided by the National Security Archive.

According to a 2013 analysis by the National Security Archive: [44]

The Able Archer controversy has featured numerous descriptions of the exercise as so "routine" that it could not have alarmed the Soviet military and political leadership. Today's posting reveals multiple non-routine elements, including: a 170-flight, radio-silent air lift of 19,000 US soldiers to Europe, the shifting of commands from "Permanent War Headquarters to the Alternate War Headquarters," the practice of "new nuclear weapons release procedures," including consultations with cells in Washington and London, and the "sensitive, political issue" of numerous "slips of the tongue" in which B-52 sorties were referred to as nuclear "strikes." These variations, seen through "the fog of nuclear exercises," did in fact match official Soviet intelligence-defined indicators for "possible operations by the USA and its allies on British territory in preparation for RYaN"—the KGB code name for a feared Western nuclear missile attack.

Upon learning that U.S. nuclear activity mirrored its hypothesized first strike activity, the Moscow Centre sent its residencies a flash telegram on November 8 or 9 (Oleg Gordievsky cannot recall which), incorrectly reporting an alert on American bases and frantically asking for further information regarding an American first strike. The alert precisely coincided with the seven- to ten-day period estimated between NATO's preliminary decision and an actual strike. [45] This was the peak of the war scare.

The Soviet Union, believing its only chance of surviving a NATO strike was to preempt it, readied its nuclear arsenal. The CIA reported activity in the Baltic Military District and in Czechoslovakia, and it determined that nuclear-capable aircraft in Poland and East Germany were placed "on high alert status with readying of nuclear strike forces". [10] [46] Former CIA analyst Peter Vincent Pry goes further, saying he suspects that the aircraft were merely the tip of the iceberg. He hypothesizes that—in accordance with Soviet military procedure and history—ICBM silos, easily readied and difficult for the United States to detect, were also prepared for a launch. [47] Lt. Gen. Leonard H. Perroots is credited with the decision not to place NATO forces on increased alert despite increased Soviet readiness, thereby reducing the possibility of a nuclear exchange. [48]

Soviet fears of the attack ended as the Able Archer exercise finished on November 11. Upon learning of the Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 by way of the double agent Oleg Gordievsky, a British SIS asset, President Reagan commented, "I don't see how they could believe that—but it's something to think about." [49]

Soviet reaction

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky. Reagan and Gordievsky.jpg
President Ronald Reagan and Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky.

The double agent Oleg Gordievsky, whose highest rank was KGB rezident in London, is the only Soviet source ever to have published an account of Able Archer 83. Oleg Kalugin and Yuri Shvets, who were KGB officers in 1983, have published accounts that acknowledge Operation RYaN, but they do not mention Able Archer 83. [50] Gordievsky and other Warsaw Pact intelligence agents were extremely skeptical about a NATO first strike, perhaps because of their proximity to, and understanding of, the West.[ citation needed ] Nevertheless, agents were ordered to report their observations, not their analysis, and this critical flaw in the Soviet intelligence system—coined by Gordievsky as the "intelligence cycle"—fed the fear of US nuclear aggression. [51] [52]

Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, who at the time was chief of the main operations directorate of the Soviet General Staff, told Cold War historian Don Orbendorfer that he had never heard of Able Archer. The lack of public Soviet response over Able Archer 83 has led some historians, including Fritz W. Ermarth in his piece, "Observations on the 'War Scare' of 1983 From an Intelligence Perch", to conclude that the Soviet Union did not see Able Archer 83 as posing an immediate threat to the Soviet Union. [53]

American reaction

A memorandum from Director of the Central Intelligence Agency William Casey to President Reagan and other Cabinet-level officials after Able Archer 83 warning of a "rather stunning array of indicators" showing that "The [Soviet] military behaviors we have observed involve high military costs ... adding thereby a dimension of genuineness to the Soviet expressions of concern that is often not reflected in intelligence issuances." From the National Security Archive. 1983 Memo on US Soviet Tension.jpg
A memorandum from Director of the Central Intelligence Agency William Casey to President Reagan and other Cabinet-level officials after Able Archer 83 warning of a "rather stunning array of indicators" showing that "The [Soviet] military behaviors we have observed involve high military costs ... adding thereby a dimension of genuineness to the Soviet expressions of concern that is often not reflected in intelligence issuances." From the National Security Archive.

In May 1984, CIA Russian specialist Ethan J. Done drafted "Implications of Recent Soviet Military-Political Activities", which concluded: "we believe strongly that Soviet actions are not inspired by, and Soviet leaders do not perceive, a genuine danger of imminent conflict with the United States." [8] Robert Gates, Deputy Director for Intelligence during Able Archer 83, has published thoughts on the exercise that dispute this conclusion:

Information about the peculiar and remarkably skewed frame of mind of the Soviet leaders during those times that has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union makes me think there is a good chance—with all of the other events in 1983—that they really felt a NATO attack was at least possible and that they took a number of measures to enhance their military readiness short of mobilization. After going through the experience at the time, then through the postmortems, and now through the documents, I don't think the Soviets were crying wolf. They may not have believed a NATO attack was imminent in November 1983, but they did seem to believe that the situation was very dangerous. And US intelligence [SNIE 11–9-84 and SNIE 11–10–84] had failed to grasp the true extent of their anxiety. [54]

A report written by Nina Stewart for the President's Foreign Advisory Board concurs with Gates and refutes the previous CIA reports, concluding that further analysis shows that the Soviets were, in fact, genuinely fearful of US aggression. The decision of Gen. Perroots was described as "fortuitous", noting "[he] acted correctly out of instinct, not informed guidance," suggesting that had the depth of Soviet fear been fully realized, NATO may have responded differently. [48]

Some historians, including Beth A. Fischer in her book The Reagan Reversal, pin Able Archer 83 as profoundly affecting President Reagan and his turn from a policy of confrontation towards the Soviet Union to a policy of rapprochement. The thoughts of Reagan and those around him provide important insight upon the nuclear scare and its subsequent ripples. On October 10, 1983, just over a month before Able Archer 83, President Reagan viewed a television film about Lawrence, Kansas, being destroyed by a nuclear attack titled The Day After . In his diary, the president wrote that the film "left me greatly depressed". [55]

Later in October, Reagan attended a Pentagon briefing on nuclear war. During his first two years in office, he had refused to take part in such briefings, feeling it irrelevant to rehearse a nuclear apocalypse; finally, he consented to the Pentagon official requests. According to officials present, the briefing "chastened" Reagan. Weinberger said, "[Reagan] had a very deep revulsion to the whole idea of nuclear weapons ... These war games brought home to anybody the fantastically horrible events that would surround such a scenario." Reagan described the briefing in his own words: "A most sobering experience with [ Caspar Weinberger ] and Gen. Vessey in the Situation Room, a briefing on our complete plan in the event of a nuclear attack." [55] [56]

These two glimpses of nuclear war primed Reagan for Able Archer 83, giving him a very specific picture of what would occur had the situation further developed. After receiving intelligence reports from sources including Gordievsky, it was clear that the Soviets were unnerved. While officials were concerned with the Soviet panic, they were hesitant about believing the proximity of a Soviet attack. Secretary of State George P. Shultz thought it "incredible, at least to us" that the Soviets would believe the US would launch a genuine attack. [57] In general, Reagan did not share the secretary's belief that cooler heads would prevail, writing:

We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis... Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that? [58]

According to McFarlane, the president responded with "genuine anxiety" in disbelief that a regular NATO exercise could have led to an armed attack. To the ailing Politburo—led from the deathbed of the terminally ill Andropov, a man with no firsthand knowledge of the United States, and the creator of Operation RYaN—it seemed "that the United States was preparing to launch ... a sudden nuclear attack on the Soviet Union". [19] [59] [60] In his memoirs, Reagan, without specifically mentioning Able Archer 83, wrote of a 1983 realization:

Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn't have surprised me, but it did...During my first years in Washington, I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike...Well, if that was the case, I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us." [61]

Reagan eventually met Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985 and at subsequent summits, leading to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and later treaties.

See also


  1. Although Able Archer 83 simulated the release of Pershing II missiles for the first time, the missiles themselves were not deployed until November 23, twelve days after the exercise completed. [28]


  1. Stephen J. Cimbala (2002). The Dead Volcano: The Background and Effects of Nuclear War Complacency. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 92.
  2. Nate Jones. "The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook". National Security Archive.
  3. 1 2 Benjamin B. Fischer (March 17, 2007). "A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare". Central Intelligence Agency. Archived from the original on January 14, 2009. Retrieved January 13, 2009.
  4. Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions, 85–7.
  5. Beth Fischer, Reagan Reversal, 123, 131.
  6. Pry, War Scare, 37–9.
  7. Oberdorfer, A New Era, p. 66.
  8. 1 2 SNIE 11–10–84, "Implications of Recent Soviet Military-Political Activities", Central Intelligence Agency, May 18, 1984.
  9. Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions, 87–8.
  10. 1 2 Pry, War Scare, 43–4.
  11. "Andøyrakett satte Russland i krigsberedskap" [Andøyrakett put Russia in war preparedness] (in Norwegian). Archived from the original on October 25, 2014.
  12. Roberts, Sam (November 9, 2015). "NATO War Games Unwittingly Put Soviets and U.S. on 'Hair Trigger' in '83, Analysis Suggests". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2019.
  13. Nichols, Tom (August 9, 2014). "Five Ways Nuclear Armageddon Was Almost Unleashed". The National Interest.
  14. John Lewis Gaddis; John Hashimoto. "Cold War Chat: Professor John Lewis Gaddis, Historian". CNN. Archived from the original on September 1, 2005. Retrieved December 29, 2005.
  15. From the National Security Archive.
  16. 1 2 3 4 Fischer, Benjamin B (1997). A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare – Phase II: A New Sense of Urgency. CIA.
  17. 1 2 Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions, 74–6, 86.
  18. Fischer, "A Cold War Conundrum": Appendix A: RYAN and the Decline of the KGB Archived August 2, 2006, at the Wayback Machine .
  19. 1 2 Testimony of Oleg Gordievsky to Congress.
  20. Reagan, Ronald (June 8, 1982). "Address to Members of the British Parliament". University of Texas archives.
  21. Fischer, Ben B. "The 1983 War Scare in US-Soviet Relations" (PDF). National Security Archive. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 28, 2015. Retrieved November 21, 2015.
  22. 1 2 Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994), p. 8, as quoted at Fischer, "A Cold War Conundrum" (CIA Centre for the Study of Intelligence, 2007). Retrieved on May 18, 2013.
  23. Johnson, p. 55
  24. Richelson, p. 385
  25. 1983: The most dangerous year by Andrew R. Garland, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  26. "Ash Heap of History: President Reagan's Westminster Address 20 Years Later - Remarks by Dr. Richard Pipes". June 3, 2002. Archived from the original on January 11, 2012. Retrieved November 23, 2012.
  27. Fischer, A Cold War Conundrum: "Star Wars"
  28. Pry, p. 34
  29. 1 2 Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions, 74–6.
  30. 1 2 White, Andrew (1983). Symbols of War: Pershing II and Cruise Missiles in Europe. London: Merlin Press. pp. 25–9.
  31. Schmalz, pp. 28–29
  32. "Exercise ABLE ARCHER 83: Information from SHAPE Historical Files" (PDF). National Security Archive. March 28, 2013. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 16, 2013.
  33. "Exercise Scenario" (PDF). National Security Archive. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 16, 2013.
  34. Fischer, Reagan Reversal, 123.
  35. Fischer, "A Cold War Conundrum": Able Archer 83 Archived August 2, 2006, at the Wayback Machine .
  36. Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions, 78.
  37. Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions, 72.
  38. Oberdorfer, A New Era, 65.
  39. Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions, 76.
  40. Walker, Martin (1993). The Cold War: A History. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 276.
  41. Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions, 80–81.
  42. Andrew and Gordievsky, KGB, 599–600.
  43. Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions, 79.
  44. "The 1983 War Scare: "The Last Paroxysm" of the Cold War Part II".
  45. Andrew and Gordievsky, KGB, 600.
  46. Gates, From the Shadows, 271, 272.
  47. Pry, War Scare, 44.
  48. 1 2 "The 1983 War Scare Declassified and For Real". National Security Archive. Retrieved December 6, 2015.
  49. Oberdorfer, A New Era, 67.
  50. Fischer, "A Cold War Conundrum": Appendix B: The Gordievsky File
  51. Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions, 69.
  52. DiCico, Jonathan M. (August 2017). "DiCicco on Jones, 'Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War'". H-Net. Trapped in an intelligence cycle that reinforced fears of susceptibility to surprise nuclear attack, Soviet leaders took steps toward an anticipatory counterattack.
  53. Ermarth, Fritz W. (November 11, 2003). "Observations on the 'War Scare' of 1983 From an Intelligence Perch" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on July 24, 2006. Retrieved May 21, 2006.
  54. Gates, From the Shadows, 273.
  55. 1 2 Reagan, An American Life, p. 585.
  56. Fischer, Reagan Reversal, 120–2.
  57. Shultz, George P (1993). Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. p. 464.
  58. Reagan, An American Life, 257.
  59. Nina Stewart, in a report to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, 1990, as cited in Oberdorfer, A New Era, 67.
  60. Fischer, Reagan Reversal, 134.
  61. Reagan, An American Life, 585, 588–9.

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