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How the world reached the brink of nuclear war not once but twice in 1983

Nuclear missile system of the era. Zack Frank

In the autumn of 1983, at the height of Cold War tensions, the world was only saved from nuclear disaster by the gut feelings of two soldiers during different incidents.

In the first incident, on September 26, a Soviet lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov saw that according to the early-warning system, the Americans had launched numerous missiles against the Russians. He suspected an error and ignored the warnings. His decision to breach protocol and not inform his superiors averted a panicked retaliation.

Lt Gen Leonard Perroots. wikimedia

The second incident is less well known. An American lieutenant general, Leonard Perroots, also chose to ignore warnings – this time that the Soviet Union had gone on high nuclear alert. Like Petrov, he did nothing, and once again may have prevented an accidental nuclear war.

This was the “Able Archer War Scare”, which occurred over ten days in the November of the same year. Recently declassified documents inform Able Archer 83, a new book by the Cold War historian Nate Jones which shows just how close the world came to disaster.

Two tribes

Superpower mutual suspicion was rife in the early 1980s. President Reagan’s notorious “Evil Empire” speech, combined with imminent plans to deploy the Pershing II missile system in Europe, which could destroy Moscow with 15 minutes warning, had made the Kremlin especially paranoid. Was the US preparing a first strike to win the Cold War? The USSR’s ageing and sickly premier, Yuri Andropov, certainly thought Reagan would have no qualms about it. “Reagan is unpredictable. You should expect anything from him,” he told Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassdor to the US, at the time.

Another reason the leadership feared a US first strike was Project RYaN, an intricate Soviet intelligence-gathering effort designed to detect preparations for a surprise nuclear attack. It was being kept busy by US aircraft testing Soviet air defence systems by flying towards USSR airspace as part of the PSYOPs (psychological military operations) programme.

The aircraft would deliberately provoke an alert and monitor the Soviet command and control responses, while demonstrating American strength and resolve at the same time. It was an example of the “Peace Through Strength” policy that was seen as vital by Reaganites to help the US emerge from its own perceived era of military weakness under President Carter.

But this US chest-beating led to a resurgence of intense mutual mistrust, with tragic consequences. On September 1 1983, Korean Air Lines flight 007 was shot down by a Russian fighter, killing all 269 passengers and crew. The Kremlin claimed the jet was an American spy plane deep in Russian territory.

Cleared for take-off: flight 007. Wikimedia

In this climate of extreme tension, NATO’s “Autumn Forge” war game season kicked off. NATO war games had been an annual occurrence, but the Soviets feared this particular edition might be cover for a surprise attack.

The final phase of the 1983 series, codenamed Able Archer 83, was different from previous years: dummy nuclear weapons, which looked like the real thing, were loaded on to planes. As many as 19,000 American troops were part of a radio-silent airlift to Europe over 170 flights. Military radio networks broadcast references to “nuclear strikes”.

This sent Project RYaN into overdrive and the Soviets went on high nuclear alert. Warsaw Pact non-essential military flights were cancelled; nuclear-capable aircraft were placed on alert; nuclear weapons were taken to their launch vehicles; and Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov descended into a command bunker outside Moscow to coordinate a possible response to a NATO strike.

Fresh light: new book.

There is a debate about the Kremlin’s intentions here. Were they genuinely afraid of an attack or simply trying to turn world opinion against the US to prevent Pershing II deployment? At the time, Reagan wondered if the Soviet panic was just “huffing and puffing”. In Able Archer 83, Nate Jones presents new documentary evidence to suggest the Kremlin’s fear was indeed genuine. It was only the decision by Lieutenant General Perroots, sitting in the Able Archer command post, not to respond to this extraordinary alert that avoided further escalation.

The book demonstrates how American leaders failed to appreciate the alarm that their actions might prompt in the Kremlin. In addition, Jones supplies fresh evidence for the argument that Reagan changed his mind on Soviet relations. By his second term, having been influenced by Able Archer and the other events of 1983, he chose to pursue peace far more vigorously than strength.

Why Able Archer matters

Intentions are as important as capabilities, and the Soviet leadership misread American intentions in the early 1980s. Agents informing Project RYaN reported “facts” without context or interpretation. KGB analysts in Moscow were actively looking to confirm a hypothesis, not to explore the situation rationally.

Likewise, American leaders misread Soviet perceptions. Even with Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric and 1983’s unusually realistic war game scenario, the American intelligence community could not conceive that the USSR took the threat of a first strike seriously.

The way that the events of 1983 influenced Reagan’s approach towards the Russians is as important as the economic pressure of Reagan’s Star Wars defence programme when it comes to explaining why the Cold War ended. As Reagan later wrote in his memoirs, he had come to recognise that “Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike”.

Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev discussing detente at the Rekyavik Summit in 1986. Wikimedia

Too often, intelligence agencies collect data and fit it into whichever threat hypothesis is in vogue. We should learn from Reagan’s 1983 insight and not wait for the brink of war: in the nuclear age, whatever an adversary’s political goals, we cannot afford to downplay their genuine fears about military posturing.

We have never yet returned to the awful global tensions of 1983, but the rivalries between the world’s three leading powers remain real enough. We need to ensure that we are never again left relying on the gut feelings of one or two soldiers to avoid stumbling into disaster.

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