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.
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 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.
Dec 1978-Jan 1979
November 4, 1979
December 27, 1979
September 22, 1980
January 20, 1981
November 10, 1982
March 8, 1983
March 23, 1983
April 4, 1983
September 1, 1983
September 2-3, 1983
September 27, 1983
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
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
February 9, 1984
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: