Countdown to Declassification: Finding Answers to the Able Archer 83 Nuclear War Scare
By Nate Jones, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November, 2013
The USSR and US Came Closer to Nuclear War Than We Thought
By Douglas Birch, The Atlantic, May 28, 2013
New Documents Reveal How a 1980s Nuclear War Scare Became a Full-Blown Crisis
By Robert Beckhusen, Wired, May 16, 2013
By Nate Jones, ForeignPolicy.com, May 21, 2013
Nate Jones and Robert Farley Discuss Able Archer 83
Blogging Heads "Foreign Entanglements," May 31, 2013
"One Misstep Could Trigger a Great War": Operation RYaN, Able Archer 83, and the 1983 War Scare
By Nate Jones, May 17, 2009
Thirty years ago: the nuclear crisis which frightened Thatcher and Reagan into ending the Cold War
By Peter Burt, Nuclear Information Service, November 3, 2013
By Walter Süß and Douglas Selvage, translated by Bernd Shchaefer, The Cold War International History Project e-Dossier 37
Posted - November 7, 2013
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Washington, D.C., November 7, 2013 – Today marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of Able Archer 83, a NATO exercise that utilized "new nuclear weapons release procedures" to simulate the transition from conventional to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Although US officials saw Able Archer 83 as a routine exercise, it resulted in an "unprecedented Soviet reaction" which US intelligence eventually inferred "was an expression of a genuine belief on the part of Soviet leaders that US was planning a nuclear first strike," according to the largest collection of declassified documents on the 1983 War Scare compiled and posted by the National Security Archive, www.nsarchive.org.
The climax of Able Archer 83 was on November 9, 1983 when NATO war gamers at Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe (SHAPE) realized they could not halt a simulated Soviet conventional advance and requested "initial limited use of nuclear weapons against pre-selected fixed targets." This limited strike was not enough, and on the morning of November 11, a "follow-on use of nuclear weapons was executed."
While NATO was practicing a drawn-out transition from conventional to nuclear war, Soviet leadership feared a decapitating first strike. The imminent European deployment of western Pershing II and cruise missiles which could reach the Soviet Union in ten minutes led Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov to warn in June of 1983 of the "the dangerous 'red line'" of nuclear war through "miscalculation" four times during his "first real meeting" with an envoy from the Reagan administration. A KGB report from May of 1982 describes the creation of the largest peace-time human intelligence gathering operation in history, Operation RYaN, in an attempt to "prevent the possible sudden outbreak of war by the enemy."
The American intelligence community did not initially perceive the risk of nuclear miscalculation that Able Archer 83 involved. Only "in response to British concerns" were intelligence reports drafted on the War Scare, the most ominous of which — from CIA Director William Casey to President Ronald Reagan and other cabinet officials — warned of "a dimension of genuineness" and "high military costs" to the Soviet actions. A summary of a still-classified retrospective 1991 intelligence report showed an "ominous list of indicators" pointing toward genuine Soviet fear of a Western first strike," which caused the Soviet military to ready its forces for a preemptive strike on the West. "If so," the report understated, "war scare a cause for concern."
Despite the dangerous ramifications of this possible nuclear miscalculation, the history of the Able Archer 83 war scare has remained largely unavailable to the public. This dearth of primary sources has even led critics — with some justification — to describe the study of the war scare as "an echo chamber of inadequate research and misguided analysis" and "circle reference dependency," with an overreliance upon "the same scanty evidence."
In an attempt to fill this "echo chamber," the National Security Archive has posted, the largest collection of documents about the incident available. These documents come from Freedom of Information Act releases by the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and the Department of State, research findings from American and British archives, as well as formerly classified Soviet Politburo and KGB files, interviews with ex-Soviet generals, and records from other former communist states.
Among the revelations in these documents are:
Although the National Security Archive has compiled and posted more than 1,000 pages of declassified documents on Able Archer 83, much more remains classified and unavailable to the public.
The continued classification of significant documents related to Able Archer 83, 30 years after the fact, is very difficult to defend. Documents that deal with this exercise — including the most comprehensive report ever written about it — contain information of interest not only to scholars of the Cold War, but also to all concerned about the danger of nuclear weapons. If, as some within the US intelligence community have claimed, there was an increased danger of nuclear war through miscalculation in 1983, the documents detailing the danger of Able Archer 83 could help government officials avert future nuclear standoffs and reduce the probability of accidental war. Revelations about the risk and possibility of nuclear miscalculation complicate the argument that nuclear deterrence has gifted humanity with a "long peace" and undermine the contention that the danger of worldwide nuclear war ended with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Soviet SS-20s and American Pershing IIs have been removed and retired, the Cold War has ended, and the Soviet Union no longer exists. After the fact, a fuller picture of the dangers of Able Archer 83 has emerged. But due to failures of the US declassification system, many more important documents about this potentially dangerous nuclear episode remain unavailable to the public, locked in secure facilities, under the rubric that their release "reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security." In fact, their declassification could help protect the United States and the rest of the world from the gravest of all security threats: nuclear war.