Able Archer: The war that didn't happen

Thirty years ago, in November 1983, one of the most dangerous crises of the Cold War occurred when the Soviet leadership convinced itself that the United States might be about to launch a nuclear attack. Spooked by the increasingly hostile East-West relationship, the Soviet Union fixated on Able Archer, a NATO command post exercise simulating the decisionmaking steps leading to nuclear war, which it suspected might be a cover for actual attack preparations.

Information about how dangerous the crisis actually was is still coming out 30 years later (Jamie Doward, “How a Nato war game took the world to brink of nuclear disaster,” Guardian, 2 November 2013):

Chilling new evidence that Britain and America came close to provoking the Soviet Union into launching a nuclear attack has emerged in former classified documents written at the height of the cold war.

Cabinet memos and briefing papers released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a major war games exercise, Operation Able Archer, conducted in November 1983 by the US and its Nato allies was so realistic it made the Russians believe that a nuclear strike on its territory was a real possibility.

When intelligence filtered back to the Tory government on the Russians’ reaction to the exercise, the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, ordered her officials to lobby the Americans to make sure that such a mistake could never happen again. Anti-nuclear proliferation campaigners have credited the move with changing how the UK and the US thought about their relationship with the Soviet Union and beginning a thaw in relations between east and west.

The papers were obtained by Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), an organisation that campaigns against nuclear proliferation, who said that the documents showed just how risky the cold war became for both sides.

“These papers document a pivotal moment in modern history – the point at which an alarmed Thatcher government realised that the cold war had to be brought to an end and began the process of persuading its American allies likewise,” he said.

“The Cold War is sometimes described as a stable ‘balance of power’ between east and west, but the Able Archer story shows that it was in fact a shockingly dangerous period when the world came to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on more than one occasion.”

Able Archer, which involved 40,000 US and Nato troops moving across western Europe, co-ordinated by encrypted communications systems, imagined a scenario in which Blue Forces (Nato) defended its allies after Orange Forces (Warsaw Pact countries) sent troops into Yugoslavia following political unrest. The Orange Forces had quickly followed this up with invasions of Finland, Norway and eventually Greece. As the conflict had intensified, a conventional war had escalated into one involving chemical and nuclear weapons.

Numerous UK air bases, including Greenham Common, Brize Norton and Mildenhall, were used in the exercise, much of which is still shrouded in secrecy. However, last month Paul Dibb, a former director of the Australian Joint Intelligence Organisation, suggested that the 1983 exercise posed a more substantial threat than the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. “Able Archer could have triggered the ultimate unintended catastrophe, and with prompt nuclear strike capacities on both the US and Soviet sides, orders of magnitude greater than in 1962,” he said .

Nato and its allies initially thought the Soviet response was the USSR’s own form of war-gaming. However, the classified documents obtained by the NIS reveal just how close the Russians came to treating the exercise as the prelude for a nuclear strike against them.

A classified British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) report written shortly afterwards recorded the observation from one official that “we cannot discount the possibility that at least some Soviet officials/officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and possibly other nuclear CPXs [command post exercises] as posing a real threat.” The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because it “took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the Nato exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring”.

Armstrong told Thatcher that Moscow’s response “shows the concern of the Soviet Union over a possible Nato surprise attack mounted under cover of exercises”. Much of the intelligence for the briefings to Thatcher, suggesting some in the Kremlin believed that the Able Archer exercise posed a “real threat”, came from the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky.

Formerly classified files reveal Thatcher was so alarmed by the briefings that she ordered her officials to “consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by miscalculating western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react”. She ordered her officials to “urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise Nato attack”.

More information on the Able Archer crisis can be found in The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook, compiled by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

You can also see much of the story in the 2007 documentary 1983: The Brink of Apocalypse.

Thirty years after that dramatic November, the Soviet Union is long gone, and the tensions and paranoia that made nuclear war seem both thinkable and imminent to Soviet leaders have also disappeared.

But thousands of nuclear weapons — many still operating on high alert — remain, and those weapons continue to pose a threat to everyone on this planet.

As Peter Burt told the Guardian,

“Even though the cold war ended more than 20 years ago, thousands of warheads are still actively deployed by the nuclear-armed states. … We continue to face unacceptably high risks and will continue to do so until we have taken steps to abolish these exceptionally dangerous weapons.” has encouraged Canadians to contribute their efforts to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

In one example of those efforts, volunteer campaigners with Regina’s Making Peace Vigil recently presented a number of MPs with nearly 200 signatures on a petition requesting that Canada take the lead in calling upon national governments to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

On 22 October 2013, Mr. Ray Boughen, the MP for Palliser, presented the petition in the House of Commons:

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to present two petitions on behalf of the residents of Regina, who expressed deep concern about the continuing threat posed by nuclear weapons across the globe.

The petitioners call upon the Government of Canada to call upon national governments to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons, leading to their complete elimination.

Tags: 1983, Able Archer, Accidental nuclear war, ICAN, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Making Peace Vigil, National Security Archive, NATO, Nuclear crisis, Nuclear disarmament, Nuclear Information Service, Nuclear war, Nuclear weapons, Soviet Union