War Games During 1983 Almost Sparked Nuclear War

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher was alarmed by intelligence reports about the Soviet Union's reaction. Photograph: Jockel Fink/AP
Prime minister Margaret Thatcher was alarmed by intelligence reports about the Soviet Union’s reaction. Photograph: Jockel Fink/AP

It is a little known instance where Britain and the United States almost provoked Russia into starting a nuclear attack. Once classified documents that have been written during the middle of the Cold War, have been released stating as such.

Memos and briefing papers that were released under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed that Operation Able Archer was a war game exercise. This ‘game’ was conducted in November of 1983 by the United States and their allied NATO nations. These games were so realistic, the Russians believed that a nuclear strike on its territory was a possibility.

The Tory government transmitted the Russian’s reactions to the exercises back to Margaret Thatcher. She then urged Americans to ensure that such a grave mistake could never happen again. The campaigners who were against nuclear proliferation credited the change in how the UK and the US felt about the relationship with the Russians and began to thaw the relationship between the east and west.

Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service obtained the released documents. He discovered that the documents proved how dangerous the Cold War became for both sides.

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

“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.”

Operation Able Archer involved approximately 40,000 US and NATO troops moving across western Europe. This coordinated effort was encrypted by communication systems. The imaginary scenario plays out in which Blue forces (NATO) defends its allies after Orange forces (Warsaw Pact countries) sent troops to Yugoslavia due to political unrest. The Orange forces followed this up with invasions of Finland, Norway and Greece. When the conflict became more serious, the conventional war evolved into a war that used chemical and nuclear weaponry.

Many of the UK airbases that were involved in the exercise remain unknown. Some of the bases that are known include Greenham Common, Brize Norton, and Mildenhall. Paul Dibb, the former director of the Australian Joint Intelligence Organization, suggested that the 1983 war game proved to be more of a 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 .

Operation Able Archer took place during a state of elevated tension around the globe. In September 1983, the Russians shot down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 after it mistakenly flew into Russian airspace. This killed everyone on board, totaling to 269 deaths. Evidence suggest that the Russians believed the Korean plane was an American spy plane.

Earlier that same year, Ronald Reagan made a high profile speech which described the Russians being an evil empire and announced plans to build a “Star Wars” defensive strategy. The lack of trust between the US and the Russians were unparallelled and they were functioning with heightened caution.

A the war game continued, the Kremlin gave orders for a dozen planes located in Eastern Germany and Poland be equipped with nuclear weapons. Additionally, around 70 SS-20 missiles were placed on high alert. Russian submarines that carried nuclear ballistic missiles were sent under the Arctic ice to avoid detection. NATO and its allies believed that Russia was performing their own war games. They had no idea that the Russians were treating the exercise as a precursor of a nuclear strike against them.

A classified report written by the British Joint Intelligence Committee stated 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.” Cabinet Secretary during that time, Sir Robert Armstrong, told Thatcher the Russian response did not look like an ordinary exercise because it was taking “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 also told Thatcher that Moscow’s response “shows the concern of the Soviet Union over a possible Nato surprise attack mounted under cover of exercises”. Many of the intelligence briefings that were brought to Thatcher suggested some people in the Kremlin felt the Able Archer war game felt like a real threat. The formerly classified documents shows Thatcher was concerned 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”.

In response to the briefings, the documents show the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense drafted a joint report for discussion with the United States to propose that “NATO should inform [Russia] on a routine basis of proposed Nato exercise activity involving nuclear play”. Information from a JIC report was shared with Reagan, who met with a spy. He was swayed by the arguments that he pushed for a new detente between the US and Russia.Burk stressed that because the Cold War may have ended, it did not mean the risk has ended also.

“Even though the cold war ended more than 20 years ago, thousands of warheads are still actively deployed by the nuclear-armed states,” he said. “We continue to face unacceptably high risks and will continue to do so until we have taken steps to abolish these exceptionally dangerous weapons.”

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE