Author Brian J. Morra

Historical Background

The Able Archers

The year 1983 was the most dangerous in human history.  I realize this statement flies in the face of conventional wisdom.   Many would point to one of the years during the World War II period.  Others would assert that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the event that brought the world the closest to Armageddon, thereby assigning 1962 pride of place.

No one denies that the Cuban crisis was exceptionally dangerous.  Nonetheless, there are key differences between the 1962 and 1983 cases that tilt the verdict in the direction of 1983.  The first difference relates to the relative state of bilateral communications and public awareness of events.  The second concerns the lethality of the nuclear arsenals possessed by the United States and the Soviet Union at the time of the respective crises.

In 1962, Washington and Moscow were talking to each other, both through official and unofficial channels.   The world was aware of the crisis because the United States government made it public, in the form of televised presidential addresses and through American action at the United Nations Security Council.  President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were in frequent communication with each other.  Indeed, President Kennedy opened an informal channel with Moscow through his brother Robert F. Kennedy, the US Attorney General, when he felt the formal channel was inadequate.   The American public was kept informed by its government and the news media.  In addition, the American public was aware of the military preparations that took place out in the open for a possible invasion of Cuba and for defense of the homeland.  The public was relatively well informed throughout the crisis and rightfully on edge.

There was no such public knowledge of the 1983 crisis.  While the United States ensured that the world knew about the Soviet shootdown of Korean Airlines flight 007 on 1 September, the public and most of the United States’ military were unaware of how close we came to a shooting war as a result.  The shootdown took the already frayed US-Soviet relationship to the breaking point.  Official communications between Moscow and Washington essentially ceased.  The Soviet foreign minister and his US counterpart were not meeting or talking.  Later in September, no one in the United States (not even in the Intelligence Community) was aware of a potential nuclear missile exchange with the USSR on 27 September 1983.  Early on the morning of the 27th, Moscow’s National Missile Defense Center mistakenly thought the United States had launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) toward the Soviet Union.  Had the USSR ‘retaliated’ to a phantom American nuclear attack, the world would have plunged into global nuclear war.

In November 1983, NATO conducted the largest nuclear war exercise in its history—Able Archer 83. It was designed to practice nuclear command, control, and weapons release procedures for a new generation of nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles being deployed to Europe.  The Soviets interpreted the exercise as preparation for a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union and reacted by placing their theater and strategic nuclear forces on an unprecedented level of alert.  The United States and its allies did not understand the degree of Soviet preparation for nuclear war until years later.  The West was unaware that the dying leader of the Soviet Union kept the nuclear ‘football’ by his bedside during the Able Archer crisis, so that he might authorize release of Soviet nuclear weapons at any moment.

The almost complete lack of communication between Moscow and Washington meant that the potential for catastrophic miscalculation was enormous.  And, of course, the Western public was blissfully ignorant of these events as they unfolded.  In 1983, the two nuclear superpowers were like blindfolded boxers careening toward a death match and almost no one realized it.

The other major difference is that the size and capabilities of nuclear forces in 1983 dwarfed those of 1962.  Had both sides’ nuclear arsenals been fully employed in 1983, nuclear Armageddon would have resulted.  It’s likely humans would have been driven to extinction – if not immediately, then in the ensuing years.  As grave as the stakes were in 1962, they were far greater in 1983.

The Able Archers is a novel that focuses on the real events of 1983.  Its two first-person narrators, a young American Air Force Intelligence officer and a more senior Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) officer, take the reader on a roller coaster ride through that fateful year as seen through their eyes.

What follows is a timeline of key events from the end of the Vietnam War through the Able Archer 83 crisis.  The proxy wars in Southeast Asia and the Soviet War in Afghanistan set the stage for the nuclear tensions of the early 1980s.  When one examines the record from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, it’s remarkable how many dangerous events occurred.

Historical Timeline

April 30, 1975

The fall of Saigon, Vietnam, and the triumph of Communist North Vietnam, ending the longest proxy war between the Communist bloc and the West. 


The Communist Khmer Rouge regime takes control of Cambodia and conducts the worst genocide since World War II—popularly known as the ‘Killing Fields’.

December 2, 1975

The Communist Pathet Lao seize control of Laos, the final ‘domino’ to fall in Southeast Asia, proving the utility of the much-maligned ‘domino theory’.

March 1976

The Soviet Union deploys SS-20 nuclear missiles to bases in the western USSR, upsetting the delicate nuclear balance in Europe. The United States and NATO agree in 1979 to pursue a two-track approach with Moscow—(1) theater nuclear arms control talks and (2) the deployment of Pershing II missiles and Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) to counter the SS-20 threat.

Soviet SS-20 on transporter-erector-launcher

Dec 1978-Jan 1979

A now-unified Communist Vietnam’s armed forces invade Cambodia and drive the Communist Khmer Rouge from power. The surviving Khmer Rouge diehards flee to bastions in the Thai-Cambodian border region.

Feb-Mar 1979

The little-known Sino-Vietnamese War is waged. It begins when massive Chinese forces invade northern Vietnam (partly to punish Vietnam for ousting its Cambodian client regime—the genocidal Khmer Rouge), resulting in tens of thousands of dead on both sides. The war ends in stalemate, although both sides claim victory. The poor performance of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army leads to major military reforms and eventual modernization of Beijing’s armed forces.

November 4, 1979

Militants supported by the Iranian Islamic government seize the US Embassy complex and imprison its staff in Tehran.

December 27, 1979

Soviet KGB and GRU Special Forces occupy vital government, military, and media facilities in Kabul, Afghanistan.  They kill the Afghan leader and ‘liberate’ the capital city.  The Soviets’ 40th Army later occupies major cities and airfields throughout Afghanistan, kicking off one of the largest proxy wars of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States.  The Soviet invasion signals the end of the period of ‘détente’ between East and West that had begun earlier in the decade.  The Soviet War in Afghanistan ends in February 1989 but war in Afghanistan does not.  The ensuing civil war eventually brings the Taliban to power in Kabul.

May 1980

The largest Soviet intelligence program in history, ‘Project RYaN’, is launched by KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov. Project RYaN is designed to find indications of a NATO nuclear first-strike attack plan. It reflects the corrosive paranoia spreading throughout the top Soviet leadership about NATO’s nuclear posture and intentions.

September 22, 1980

Iraq invades Iran, initiating a war that will kill untold numbers of civilians and military troops. The war ends on 20 August 1988.

January 20, 1981

Ronald Reagan is inaugurated as US president. US hostages in Iran are released and the period of détente between East and West ends. Reagan strikes a much more confrontational tone in relations with Moscow than his recent predecessors. He remains committed to the European deployment of Pershing II missiles and GLCMs, in line with the agreement made by President Carter and NATO.
American Pershing II test launch

November 10, 1982

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev dies. He is succeeded by the far more belligerent Yuri Andropov, who had been Chairman of the KGB prior to assuming ultimate power. Operation ‘RYaN’ was the brainchild of Andropov. The imminent deployment of American Pershing II missiles and GLCMs to Europe is evidence—to Andropov—that Operation ‘RYaN’ needs to be amplified.

March 8, 1983

President Reagan delivers his ‘evil empire’ speech, in which he calls the Soviet Union the ‘focus of evil in the modern world’. Reagan rejects the notion that the United States and the USSR are equally to blame for the global nuclear stand-off. He asserts that the rivalry is a contest between good and evil.

March 23, 1983

Ronald Reagan tells a national television audience of the existence of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a program designed to defend the US and its allies against nuclear attack. Western critics deride the program as a fanciful ‘Star Wars’ pet project. The Soviets react with something approaching horror at the notion that the Americans could make Moscow’s nuclear arsenal irrelevant. Unlike Reagan’s Western critics, Moscow believes the United States can, in fact, build such a system.
US President Ronald Reagan

April 4, 1983

In April 1983, the US Navy is nearing the conclusion of a massive maritime exercise in the Sea of Okhotsk when US Navy fighter aircraft over-fly Soviet military facilities in the Kurile Islands. The Soviets fail to respond to the airspace violation and many officers in the Far Eastern Air Defense Forces are purged, triggering an unprecedentedly aggressive air defense posture in the Far East that lasts through September 1983.

September 1, 1983

A Soviet Air Defense Su-15 fighter shoots down Korean Air Lines flight 007, killing 269 civilians. This event precipitates a global crisis that both sides seek to use to their advantage. Tensions remain high for the rest of the fall of 1983. Normal lines of communication between Moscow and Washington break down in a torrent of acrimonious accusations. The leaders aren’t talking to each other, in marked contrast to the formal and informal communications that existed during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Soviet Air Defense Su-15 fighter

September 2-3, 1983

Lieutenant General Charles Donnelly, commander of US Forces in Japan, de-escalates at least two situations that nearly cause direct combat between the United States and the USSR. The immediate crisis passes without a shooting war, but East and West are bitterly divided over the incident and each side blames the other.
US Air Force Lieutenant General Charles L. Donnelly, Jr. (pictured here as a full general)

September 27, 1983

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov helps prevent a general nuclear war amongst the Soviet Union, the United States, and NATO, by correctly assessing that a presumed American ICBM attack is actually a series of false alarms, erroneously generated by Soviet missile warning satellites. Petrov’s heroics are kept secret by the Soviets and the fact of the satellite false alarms and Petrov’s role in averting a global existential disaster are not revealed outside the USSR until 1998. The United States government is unaware of the event until Petrov’s former boss’ memoir is translated into English shortly before the turn of the century.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov (pictured here as a major)

October 23, 1983

The US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, is bombed by Hezbollah—with Iranian and Syrian support—killing 241 US and 58 French military personnel.

October 25-29, 1983

The US military invasion of Grenada overthrows the Cuba-backed Communist regime and provokes outrage in Moscow. The invasion also strains relations between Washington and London since Grenada is a British Commonwealth nation.

November 1-11, 1983

The Able Archer 83 exercise is conducted by NATO—a massive nuclear war drill that Moscow assumes to be the culmination of its fears of a NATO nuclear first-strike attack—the same fears that prompted the KGB to initiate Project ‘RYaN’ in 1980.

November 7-8, 1983

Brigadier General Lenny Perroots convinces the NATO leadership not to respond in kind to unprecedented Soviet preparations for general nuclear war in the wake of Able Archer 83, thus de-escalating an ominous drift toward war.
US Air Force Brigadier General Leonard Perroots (pictured here as a Lieutenant General)

November 1983

The first US Air Force Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles are deployed to RAF Greenham Common in England. The deployment confirms to Moscow that NATO is determined to modernize its nuclear forces in response to the perceived threat of Soviet SS-20 missiles.

February 9, 1984

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov dies, and with his death the leading proponent for Project ‘RYaN’ passes from the scene. The nuclear posture of both sides gradually relaxes over the subsequent months.
Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov

Summer 1984

The Able Archer scare and Director of Central Intelligence William Casey’s personal assessment of it have a profound effect on President Reagan’s views on the potential for a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Reagan confides to his diary that he had no idea the Soviets believed the West might launch a nuclear first strike. Many historians believe that Reagan’s commitment to nuclear arms control in his second term was influenced greatly by the 1983 crisis. Reagan’s new perspective leads to arms control talks later in the decade with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Learn More

For those who want to learn more about the 1983 crises, I recommend the following works of non-fiction:

Able Archer 83, by Nate Jones. This book contains the first major compilation of declassified Able Archer material from the National Security Archive.

The Brink—President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983, by Marc Ambinder

1983—Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, by Taylor Downing

The Target is Destroyed, by Seymour Hersh. This book, by the famous (or infamous to some) investigative reporter, suffers from Hersh’s left-leaning political spin and contains some irrelevant gossip. That said, it is a largely accurate account of the major facts surrounding the KAL 007 shootdown.

The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre. This book contains an excellent recounting of KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky’s role in Project RYaN, and his warnings to the British Secret Intelligence Service about the Soviets’ nuclear paranoia.

And the following website resources:

Cold War Museum

Intelligence Community News

Mitchell Institute

National Security Archive

Second Line of Defense