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How a NATO Military Exercise Freaked Out Russia (And Nearly Started a Nuclear War)

How a NATO Military Exercise Freaked Out Russia (And Nearly Started a Nuclear War)

The story of Able Archer. 

Moscow’s reaction to the outrage further hurt Soviet credibility. At first, Moscow refused even to admit that a shootdown had taken place. Then they conceded only that an “incident” had occurred. When the Kremlin finally admitted that one of its planes had shot down an aircraft, it was insisted that the plane was on a reconnaissance mission and that blowing it out of the sky was completely justified. Osipovich himself was never reprimanded for shooting down the civilian airliner; in fact, he was awarded a salary bonus of 200 rubles.

Able Archer and Grenada

On September 29, nearly a month after the KAL 007 tragedy, Andropov issued an official declaration to the Soviet people, stating that as long as Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office there could be no chance of negotiating with the United States. According to the general secretary, the United States was embarking on “a militarist course that represents a serious threat to peace.” Angry rhetoric between the United States and the USSR was nothing new, but never before had the leader of either superpower declared that he would not negotiate with the other.

On October 25, international tensions were ratcheted up further when the United States launched an invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada. The official purpose was to rescue 250 American students at St. George’s School of Medicine who were caught in the middle of a power struggle between two communist factions. It took little more than 48 hours for the American invasion force to overwhelm the 1,200-man Peoples’ Revolutionary Army and a 780-man Cuban contingent. The fighting, while brief, was fierce, with the Americans suffering 134 casualties to 500 Grenadan and Cuban losses. The invasion was the largest American military operation since Vietnam and the first time that a communist nation had been invaded since North Korea.

The invasion seemed to confirm in Andropov’s mind what he had most feared. He saw in Grenada an example of the American president’s willingness to use force. A week after the landings in Grenada, NATO commenced a 10-day exercise codenamed Able Archer 83. It involved most of Western Europe and was directed from Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) at Casteau, Belgium. Able Archer was a complex simulation of a hypothetical war with the Warsaw Pact that included a series of fictional military exercises escalating to the launch of nuclear weapons.

As Able Archer commenced, NATO vehicles rumbled throughout the West German countryside sending simulated radio reports about Soviet and East German forces crossing the border and invading the Federal Republic. SHAPE received these reports and relayed them to the various situation rooms, where NATO leaders analyzed and considered their reactions.

While Able Archer went through imaginary alert stages for the next several days, the center issued to its agents a checklist of specific events that would indicate that a nuclear attack was imminent. NATO leaders surmised that it would take 7 to 10 days for the United States to fully prepare for a nuclear war from the time such a decision was made. Five days into the Able Archer exercise, Moscow appeared to believe that actual preparations were being made for such a war.

The Soviets Prepare to Strike

On November 9, the seventh day of Able Archer, Western intelligence reported that pilots of the Soviet 4th Air Army had been placed on alert at their air bases in East Germany and Poland. The warplanes included Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer” precision-strike bombers capable of delivering tactical nuclear weapons. Their two-man crews sat ready in their cockpits, waiting for the order to stand down or the order to take off and proceed to their designated targets in Western Europe. NATO intelligence also reported the movement of the Soviet Red Banner Fleet from its bases in the Baltic and the North Sea. Information was coming in that the Soviets were preparing their most powerful weapons, their 300 ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) for immediate launch on Andropov’s order. The general secretary sent messages to his counterparts in the Warsaw Pact warning them of the high probability of war breaking out and ordered Soviet ballistic submarines at sea to go into firing positions off the coast of the United States.

As these reports filtered in to Western intelligence agencies, there initially was little alarm. Analysts and experts who examined the information simply could not believe that the Soviets seriously thought that NATO was preparing a nuclear first strike. At this point, the West did not have any real clue just how dangerous the situation had become. It would take the warnings of a double agent to finally get the West suitably alarmed.

Oleg Gordievsky came from a family of spies. His brother had joined the KGB in 1957, and his father had served in the KGB’s Stalinist predecessor, the NKVD. Gordievsky himself had joined in 1962. By 1983, he was a KGB colonel, serving in London as the resident delegate to the KGB mission, the highest ranking KGB officer in the United Kingdom. His decision to work for the other side came from his thorough disillusionment with Soviet communism. In 1974, while serving in the KGB mission in Copenhagen, Denmark, he started to actively cooperate with Great Britain’s MI6.

Gordievsky understood the depth of suspicion, paranoia, and downright panic that was seizing the Kremlin. As he received directives from Moscow about the imminence of a nuclear attack, he did not hesitate to inform his British handlers. “When I told the British,” he later recalled, “they simply could not believe that the Soviet leadership was so stupid and narrow-minded as to believe in something so impossible.” It was not until Gordievsky passed along the directives he had received that the British really started to pay attention. Copies of these directives made it into the hands of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who forwarded the documents to the Central Intelligence Agency.

At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the documents landed on the desk of the agency’s mercurial director, William Casey, who personally delivered the documents to the White House, where they were first glimpsed by Reagan’s National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane. At first, McFarlane was skeptical, but the urgent reports by Gordievsky, Britain’s highest-placed spy in the KGB, were enough to finally convince him. McFarlane took the problem to the president.

Defusing the Crisis

A flurry of diplomatic cables flashed from Washington to Moscow, giving repeated and wholehearted assurances that Able Archer was simply an exercise. Reagan sent presidential adviser Brent Scowcroft to the Soviet capital to give further assurances, face to face, on behalf of the president that the United States would never launch a surprise attack on the USSR. The effort was not enough to convince Andropov of Reagan’s good intentions, but it was enough for him to watch and wait. Throughout the rest of the Able Archer exercise, Soviet forces stayed on alert, braced and ready to move at a moment’s notice. Only when the exercise finally concluded on November 11 did the Soviet Union give the order for its strategic forces to stand down.

In the end, simple human reasoning overcame the ideology and overheated rhetoric of the age. The deep mistrust and animosity between the two sides were not enough to trump the staggering price that would have been paid for acting upon them. Nuclear winter was averted—for the time being at least—but the chill had come uncomfortably close.

This article by Todd Avery Raffensperger originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons