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Able Archer 83: the nuclear war game that put US-Soviet relations on “hair trigger”

Twenty-one years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a NATO exercise, Able Archer 83, came terrifyingly close to precipitating an accidental nuclear war.

National Security Archive

When “Blue’s” limited attack failed to stop “Orange” forces, NATO commanders proposed “follow on use of nuclear weapons” – essentially a carte blanche escalation – which they duly executed on the morning of November 11. Only then, with almost nothing left to destroy, did Able Archer 83, the NATO war game designed to practice the release of nuclear weapons during wartime conditions, come to an end.

While the 1983 nuclear conflagration was fictional, the top military and political leaders involved were entirely real, and the war game they enacted was based wholly on global strategic realities.

Now available to purchase, Able Archer 83, by the National Security Archive’s Nate Jones, tells the story of this dangerous but largely unknown nuclear exercise, the generals who ran it, and the American and Soviet leaders it affected, through a selection of declassified documents pried from U.S. and British agencies and archives, as well as formerly secret Soviet Politburo, KGB, and other Eastern Bloc files. The book vividly recreates what the U.S. government’s spy agency, the National Security Agency, described as “the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The book shows that Able Archer 83 simulated nuclear launch procedures so realistically that it triggered a Warsaw Pact response “unparalleled in scale” and risked actual nuclear war, in the words of a recently declassified, authoritative, all-source intelligence review included in Able Archer 83. This high-level review “strongly suggest[ed]” to its authors, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, “that Soviet Military leaders may have been seriously concerned that the U.S. would use Able Archer 83 as a cover for launching a real attack” and that “some Soviet forces were preparing to pre-empt or counterattack a NATO strike launched under cover of Able Archer.

The all-source intelligence review concluded, "There is little doubt in our minds that the Soviets were genuinely worried by Able Archer" and that the U.S. intelligence community's erroneous reporting made the "especially grave error to assume that since we know the US is not going to start World War III, the next leaders of the Kremlin will also believe that."

Exercise Scenario :

The unclassified summary of Exercise Able Archer 83 provided by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) describes how NATO envisioned and practiced nuclear war.

According to the account of the exercise, the impetus for nuclear war began in February 1983 with a change of leadership in the Kremlin. By March, the new fledging Soviet leadership was fighting proxy wars against the United States in the Middle East by providing political and military support to Iran, Syria, and South Yemen.

[...]

Unable to repel the Soviet’s ground advance, NATO attempted to send a message to the Warsaw Pact via nuclear signaling –the nuclear destruction of one city in the hope of averting total nuclear war. On the morning of November 8 NATO requested permission for “initial limited use of nuclear weapons against pre-selected fixed targets” on the morning of November 9. The Western capitals granted NATO permission to destroy Eastern European cities with nuclear attacks.

But “Blue’s use of nuclear weapons did not stop Orange’s aggression.” As a result, the next day the leader of NATO’s military, the Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR), requested a “follow-on use of nuclear weapons.” Washington—and the other capitals—approved this request within twenty-four hours and on November 11 the follow-on attack was executed; a full-scale nuclear war had broken out.

Full:


Key points:

  • This all-source intelligence review of the 1983 War Scare, released to the National Security Archive after a 12-year fight– concludes that the danger posed during Able Archer 83 was real. "There is little doubt in our minds that the Soviets were genuinely worried by Able Archer… it appears that at least some Soviet forces were preparing to preempt or counterattack a NATO strike launched under cover of Abler Archer" and that "the President was given assessments of Soviet attitudes and actions that understated the risks to the United States." According to the PFIAB, the US Intelligence Community's erroneous reporting made the "especially grave error to assume that since we know the US is not going to start World War III, the next leaders of the Kremlin will also believe that."

  • The potential for war with the Soviet Union was frequently on President Reagan’s mind. Months after the War Scare, he met his Ambassador to the Soviet Union Arthur Hartman in the Oval Office. Reagan held two index cards with three questions printed on them during his meeting. The final one asked, "Do you think Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?" and remains the most important question of the 1983 War Scare. In his diary, Reagan wrote, "Art Hartman came by. He's truly a fine Ambas. It was good to have a chance to pick his brains." But any answer that the ambassador gave to the president has not been found.

  • While Akhromeyev [former head of the Soviet General Staff,] states that he felt no "immediate threat of war," he stated that “the Soviet leadership was gravely troubled by the state of Soviet-America relations” and that, "I must tell you that I personally and many of the people that I know had a different opinion of the United States in 1983 than I have today [1990]. I considered that the United States is [was] pressing for world supremacy … And I considered that as a result of this situation there can [could] be a war between the Soviet Union and the United States on the initiative of the United States."

  • According to the CIA, “If they [the Soviets] had convincing evidence of US intentions to launch its strategic forces (in, for example, and ongoing theater war in Europe) the Soviets would attempt to preempt” but, “[b]ecause preempting on the basis of such evidence could initiate global nuclear war unnecessarily, the Soviets would have to consider the probable nuclear devastation of their homeland…” Nonetheless, “The Soviets have strong incentives to preempt in order to maximize theater damage to US forces and limit damage to Soviet forces and society.

Full report:


Recall that, an evil coincidence(?) is that the same year the film WarGames was released, according to which a young hacker who unwittingly accesses WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a United States military supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war, gets WOPR to run a nuclear war simulation, originally believing it to be a computer game. The simulation causes a national nuclear missile scare and nearly starts World War III.

Previously:

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