7 November, 2013 — National Security Archive
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.s of carnage, including the August 2010 massacre of 72 migrants travelers in San Fernando and the discovery, the following year, of graves containing the remains of hundreds more.
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