Sleepwalking toward Nuclear War: The Lessons of the Able Archer Scare
by John Whitehead
Since nuclear weapons were created, nations have repeatedly come close to nuclear war. The most famous episode was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Another terrifying near miss occurred 40 years ago this November.
In 1983, with extreme Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, a NATO military exercise called “Able Archer” further alarmed the Soviets. Soviet leaders feared it was a cover for a surprise US nuclear attack. They responded with their own nuclear war preparations.
Unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, which unfolded largely in public, with both sides aware of the stakes, American leaders were unaware at the time of their Soviet counterparts’ fears and actions. The Able Archer episode offers a lesson in how nations can miscommunicate and misunderstand each other, and how perilous the results are.
(My account is drawn from Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink and Marc Ambinder’s The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983.
US-Soviet relations worsened during the late 1970s. The Soviet Union deployed medium-range nuclear missiles known as “Pioneers,” which could hit targets in western Europe. In response, the United States planned to deploy its own medium-range nuclear missiles, including missiles called “Pershings,” to western Europe.
While US policymakers presumably saw the missile deployment as a reciprocal response, Soviet leaders had a different view. The Pioneer missiles couldn’t hit the United States, but Pershing missiles could hit the Soviet Union. US missiles could hit Moscow and kill Soviet leaders before the Soviets could retaliate. To the Soviets, the Pershings were a sign of US preparations for a surprise attack.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan further deepened Cold War hostilities. Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan’s election as US president the next year heightened Soviet fears of an attack.
In 1981, KGB chief Yuri Andropov launched Operation RYaN, an international intelligence gathering project. Under RYaN (a Russian acronym for “nuclear missile attack”), KGB agents and their allies monitored western nations for signs of an imminent attack, such as heightened alerts at military bases.
Dueling Words and Weapons
Reagan was somewhat open to cooperation with the Soviets and pursued arms control talks early in his administration. Nevertheless, his goal of deploying Pershings to Europe, and his massive military spending, didn’t ease tensions. Arms control talks about the European missiles made no progress.
Andropov became the preeminent Soviet leader in 1982. Matters came to a head between the leaders in 1983, the year the US missiles were due to be stationed in Europe.
Reagan escalated the rhetorical war in a March speech that infamously denounced the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and the “focus of evil in the modern world” (Downing, pp. 66-67). Soon after, he announced US plans to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a military system meant to prevent nuclear missiles from hitting the United States.
Reagan understood SDI as a defensive system that could make nuclear weapons obsolete. However, the Soviets saw SDI as another sign of American plans to attack them: a US “shield” against nuclear weapons would allow the United States to attack the Soviet Union without fear of retaliation. Andropov declared “It is time they stopped devising one option after another in the search for the best ways of unleashing nuclear war in the hope of winning it” (Downing, pp. 104-105).
Meanwhile, Operation RYaN gathered information. RYaN suffered from two flaws, though. First, many indicators of war preparations the Soviets were tracking were so broadly defined that innocuous activities could be interpreted as threatening. A British drive for blood donors, for example, was reported to Moscow as a sign of possible stockpiling of blood supplies for wartime. Second, KGB and other agents tended to tell their superiors what they wanted to hear, thus confirming the superiors’ existing suspicions. The operation thus fueled Soviet fears.
An incident that summer further worsened Soviet relations. The night of August 31/September 1, a civilian Korean Airlines plane went off course and strayed into Soviet airspace. The Soviets apparently mistook the plane for a US spy plane and shot it down, killing all on board. The incident was a horrible accident, but Reagan denounced it as a “crime against humanity” (Downing, p. 182).
Tensions peaked in early November. NATO conducted Able Archer, an annual exercise to practice procedures for authorizing and using nuclear weapons against the Soviets. The exercise involved military personnel at various European locations and consisted mostly of these NATO units exchanging messages.
In theory, Able Archer shouldn’t have been threatening. However, amid worsening relations and the many ominous signs collected by Operation RYaN, the Soviets were in a state of near panic. They feared Able Archer would serve as cover for an actual nuclear attack. Captain Viktor Tkachenko, who commanded a Soviet nuclear missile unit, later recalled being briefed on this danger. Another nuclear unit commander, General-Colonel Ivan Yesin, recalled the fear that “under the pretenses of [NATO] exercises that a sudden nuclear strike could be delivered” (Ambinder, p. 203).
The Soviet military was accordingly on alert, with nuclear weapons at increased readiness. About half the Pioneer missiles were in wartime positions. Some nuclear weapons had been deployed to East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Soviet fighter planes in these countries were kept ready for immediate takeoff if conflict broke out. Soviet listening posts monitored transmission of messages during Able Archer.
Able Archer unfolded until, on November 8, it reached the stage when participants practiced requesting authorization from NATO leadership to use nuclear weapons. At this stage, participants switched to using a new format for sending such messages. The format had been introduced that year. The unexpected break from past practice may have increased Soviet monitors’ fears that Able Archer wasn’t just an exercise.
Tkachenko remembered that on November 8 “We were told to immediately go to raised combat alert.” Yesin similarly remembered that “during the climax of the NATO exercise our state of alert was increased. The commanders of missile forces were told to stay in their bunkers full time in constant radio communication” (Downing, pp. 243, 245).
The Able Archer participants received the mock authorization to use nuclear weapons on November 9. They followed procedures to confirm targets and carry out nuclear strikes. That day, the KGB sent out an urgent message to agents warning the situation was critical and demanding immediate reports of threatening western activities.
Had something unexpected happened at that point—if a NATO military unit had acted provocatively; if a technical malfunction had caused a false alarm; if some freak accident such as the Korean airliner going astray had occurred— the situation might have flared into a real military conflict. Mercifully for humanity, nothing like that happened.
One small but important event might have helped lessen tensions. An eastern bloc spy working with the top levels of NATO sent his superiors a reassuring message on November 9 saying he saw no evidence of actual preparations for war.
Able Archer ended on November 11, without incident and with NATO participants oblivious to the panic their actions had caused.
After Able Archer, US-Soviet relations initially continued their downward spiral. The Pershings and other US missiles were sent to Europe by year’s end. In protest, the Soviets quit arms control negotiations and promised to deploy more missiles of their own.
However, US policymakers gradually realized how alarmed the Soviets had become. US and NATO intelligence noticed the heightened state of Soviet military readiness. Also, a British spy within the KGB passed along to the west information about KGB fears of a possible nuclear attack.
US National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane was disturbed by this information and spoke to Reagan about it. Reagan was also rattled, writing in his diary that the Soviets are “so paranoid about being attacked, that without being in any way soft on them we ought to tell them that no one here has any intention of doing anything like that” (Downing, p. 262).
In January 1984, Reagan gave a speech that, along with criticisms of the Soviet Union, included more conciliatory comments. Reagan stressed the importance of regular dialogue, cooperation on shared interests, and arms control. He stressed the importance of “practical, meaningful ways to reduce the uncertainty and potential for misinterpretation surrounding military activities and to diminish the risk of surprise attack.” Andropov would never reciprocate these sentiments; he died a few weeks later.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader and met Reagan in November. Despite disagreements, the two leaders affirmed the importance of arms control and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” (Downing, pp. 302-307). US-Soviet relations began to move away from the threat of nuclear war.
Three lessons stand out from this bizarre, frightening episode. First and foremost is the profound danger nuclear weapons pose to humanity.
Second is the necessity of international communication. As Taylor Downing notes, “Because there had been almost no dialogue between American and Soviet officials since the invasion of Afghanistan, there were no contacts through which either side could understand how the other was thinking” (Downing, p. 112). Clearer, more frequent communication can help avoid serious misunderstandings.
The third lesson is the need to consider how an adversary might view one’s actions. Steps that US leaders didn’t regard as inherently threatening, such as sending new missiles to Europe or pursuing SDI, were interpreted as serious threats by Soviet leaders. Reagan’s apparent surprise at Soviet fears is notable, given how harshly he had condemned the Soviet Union. Why wouldn’t Soviet leaders fear attack from someone who called their country an “evil empire”?
US behavior may have fallen prey to the understandable human tendency to view one’s actions as benign and to assume everyone else will view them the same way. Remembering an adversary might not view one’s actions that way and trying to imagine how that adversary would interpret those actions is vital.
With international tensions, including tensions among nuclear-armed nations, being a continuing condition of world affairs, the lessons of the Able Archer scare are well worth remembering today. We must never come that close to the brink again.
For some of our other posts on the history of nuclear weapons, see: