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Thirty years ago: the nuclear crisis which frightened Thatcher and Reagan into ending the Cold War
It has been described as "one of the most dangerous episodes of the Cold War" – possibly the closest the planet has ever come to a nuclear war, and even more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Thirty years ago this week the Soviet Union and the United States stood on the brink of nuclear war, when paranoid Soviet leaders, terrified that a NATO military exercise codenamed Able Archer 83 was a cover for a surprise nuclear attack on the Warsaw Pact, placed their own nuclear forces on alert ready to respond.
However, previously secret archive documents obtained by Nuclear Information Service under the Freedom of Information Act (available to download at the bottom of this article) reveal that, rather than climaxing in a nuclear Armageddon, the moment became a turning point for Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, pushing worried ministers to rethink their relationship with the Soviet Union and begin a gradual thaw which helped bring about the end of the Cold War.
A secret intelligence report about the exercise expressing alarm over “an unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 and other reports of alleged concern about a surprise NATO attack” persuaded Margaret Thatcher to consider what steps were necessary to remove the danger that, “by mis-calculating Western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react”. At a meeting of senior ministers and intelligence chiefs she ordered officials to “urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack”.
Intelligence about Soviet fears of a surprise nuclear attack is believed to have come largely from Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky who, together with Thatcher, helped to persuade US President Ronald Reagan to adopt a less confrontational approach to relations with the Soviet Union. Gordievsky's information led officials in the Ministry of Defence to conclude that “at least some” Soviet officials and officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and similar exercises “as posing a real threat”.
Able Archer 83 was a large scale NATO nuclear command and control exercise which took place over 7 – 11 November 1983. It was the climax of the alliance's 'Autumn Forge' series of war games which began in August involving 40,000 troops.
The exercise took place in the aftermath of the shooting down of a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 aircraft after it had mistakenly strayed into Soviet airspace on 1 September 1983. All 269 passengers on board flight KAL-007 were killed, and tensions between the superpowers were high after US leaders had accused the Soviets of a deliberate act of mass murder. There is evidence to suggest that the aircraft had been mistaken for an American RC-135 spy plane which had been in the area earlier.
Over the previous two years US and NATO had conducted large-scale force deployments and had aggressively probed defences in sensitive areas in seas and the air close to the Soviet Union. Deployment of Cruise and Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe was imminent, increasing the nuclear firepower available to NATO for rapid deployment against the USSR.
In March US President Ronald Reagan had delivered a high profile speech in Orlando, Florida, in which he described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”. Two weeks later he announced on national television that the USA was launching the Strategic Defense Initiative – a programme to develop a defensive shield in space to provide protection against a nuclear missile attack. In response the terminally ill Soviet President Yuri Andropov – a former KGB chief – accused Reagan of “inventing new plans on how to unleash a nuclear war … with the hope of winning it” and “putting the entire world in jeopardy”.
Against this threatening backdrop, the Able Archer exercise was planned to be a realistic test of NATO's nuclear command arrangements. The exercise adopted a life-like format involving officials and leaders at the highest levels and a simulated escalation of a nuclear alert through all phases from normal readiness to imminent launch of a nuclear attack.
A total of 40,000 US and NATO troops were moved across Western Europe in the build-up to Able Archer, including 16,044 US troops airlifted overseas in 170 missions. Communications were encrypted and missions were conducted in radio silence.
More ominously, military commanders practiced the procedures they would have to follow to authorize and conduct nuclear strikes, shifting their headquarters as the game escalated toward chemical and nuclear warfare. In communications, B-52 bomber sorties were several times referred to as "strikes" and the exercise coincided with an increased alert status at US military bases. The war games were an exact match with Soviet intelligence's assessment of the indicators which would signal preparations by the USA and its allies for a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
KGB officers in NATO countries had been instructed to obtain information on communications for preparing and waging a nuclear war. Soviet surveillance in Europe reported the movements they observed during Autumn Forge and Able Archer, which were interpreted by KGB as a deception (maskirovka) to conceal a real alert and the beginning of the countdown to a nuclear attack.
Such was the alarm in the Kremlin that a dozen Soviet aircraft based in East Germany and Poland were armed with nuclear weapons and placed on raised alert and an unidentiﬁed number of SS-19 nuclear armed missiles were brought to combat readiness. About 70 SS-20 missiles were placed on heightened alert and moved to preselected ﬁring positions around Eastern Europe, and Soviet Northern Fleet submarines carrying nuclear ballistic missiles went under the Arctic ice to avoid detection. On the ﬁrst day of the exercise, the head of the Soviet General Staff transferred his command centre to an underground bunker and elevated the alert level across the Soviet Union.
Moscow eventually realised that NATO had not been readying itself for nuclear war when the Able Archer exercise wound down. Fortunately, Soviet leaders did not ultimately decide to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the West, suggesting that although they were worried about the possibility of a NATO nuclear attack and were ready to undertake a preventative strike, they eventually decided that Able Archer was not a cover for a surprise attack.
Documents and intelligence assessments telling the full story of Moscow's reaction to the November 1983 war games have not yet been released from Russian government archives. However, in the months after the exercise the Soviet Union engaged in a high level of military activity, including launch exercises for SS-20 nuclear missiles, forward deployment of nuclear-armed submarines, and training and exercises for survival of a nuclear attack. Distrust and fears of a surprise NATO attack remained until Mikhail Gorbachev took over leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985.
Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was the CIA's deputy director for intelligence during the Able Archer scare, believed that the situation was serious. Writing in his memoirs, he concluded, "After going through the experience at the time, then through the postmortems, and now through the documents, I don't think the Soviets were crying wolf. They may not have believed a NATO attack was imminent in November 1983, but they did seem to believe that the situation was very dangerous”.
Heavily redacted documents released by the Ministry of Defence in response to a Freedom of Information Act request (available for download below) leave no doubt that British intelligence was aware of Soviet concerns about NATO's nuclear exercises.
The documents, all of which have a security classification of 'Secret' or higher, give the views of defence officials on how to interpret intelligence about the Soviet reaction to Able Archer in response to a report by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) entitled 'Soviet Union: Concern About a Surprise NATO Attack' dated 23 March 1984 – a report which remains secret and has yet to be released publicly.
The JIC report “brought together evidence which was not necessarily related, and represents a compromise”. However, according to one official: “Although the JIC reached no firm conclusion, 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 Sir Robert Armstrong advised Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the evidence available “shows the concern of the Soviet Union over a possible NATO surprise attack mounted under cover of exercises”. He pointed out that the Soviet response to Able Archer “does not appear to have formed part of the Soviet exercise programme ... it took 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”.
The JIC report was discussed by the Prime Minister, senior Cabinet colleagues, and intelligence chiefs at a meeting on 10 April 1984. Despite dilemmas in interpreting the intelligence available, the meeting concluded that although there had been some differences of view in the JIC on the weight to be put on the Soviet reaction, the committee “stood by its conclusions” that there had been “an unusual nature of the Soviet reaction to Able Archer”.
The Prime Minister told the meeting that the government should “consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by mis-calculating Western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react”, and ordered officials to “urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack”.
In response, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence drafted a joint paper for discussion with the Americans at a Ministerial meeting in May which proposed that “NATO should inform the Soviet Union on a routine basis of proposed NATO exercise activity involving nuclear play”.
“Whatever the reliability of the specific JIC assessment”, one official concluded, “its paper has served as a catalyst for consideration of the inherent advantages of agreeing some confidence building measures relating to nuclear command post exercises”.
Much of knowledge available to British intelligence about the Soviet response to Able Archer was derived from human intelligence operations – documents and information collected by spies, particularly Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB colonel and London bureau chief who defected to the British in the 1970s. Gordievsky described the Soviet reaction to the war games in stark terms, writing:
“In the tense atmosphere generated by the crises and rhetoric of the past few months, the KGB concluded that American forces had been placed on alert - and might even have begun the countdown to war.... The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss during Operation RYAN [the Soviet operation to obtain intelligence on a surprise nuclear attack]. But during ABLE ARCHER 83 it had, without realizing it, come frighteningly close - certainly closer than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962”.
Information from the British JIC report and Gordievsky's debriefings was shared with the Americans, and Margaret Thatcher herself apparently delivered the chilling message to President Reagan, hoping to convince him to moderate his rhetoric and actions.
Gordievsky's analysis was an epiphany for President Reagan – who met the spy personally - convincing him that the Kremlin indeed was fearful of a US surprise nuclear attack. It helped persuade Reagan that the time had come for a new relationship with the Soviets and of the need to begin a process of détente.
Last month Paul Dibb, a former Australian Deputy Secretary of Defence and Director of the Australian Joint Intelligence Organisation , wrote a special report on the 1983 nuclear war scare for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He described the Able Archer exercise as “one of the most dangerous episodes of the Cold War” at the “moment of maximum stress” in the US-Soviet relationship.
Dibb claims that Able Archer posed an even greater threat of nuclear war than the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Cuba was undoubtedly an intense crisis over very high stakes, but both sides knew they were in a crisis situation and they each had broadly the same facts at their disposal”, he writes. “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 in1962”.
“I visited both Washington and Moscow twice in 1983, and not only were tensions high in each capital but there was a real sense of war fever being whipped up in Moscow”.
Dibb concludes: “That such a situation could come about after three decades of Cold War, with all the elaborate mechanisms that had been hammered out over the years, is sobering.
“The serious message to be taken from this paper is that we shouldn’t be complacent when it comes to contemplating the risk of nuclear weapons being used one day”.
A fully referenced version of this blog article is available to download at the bottom of this page.
The Able Archer 83 exercise scenario
The Able Archer 83 exercise scenario gives an insight into how NATO war planners believed World War Three could begin.
The scenario outlines a confrontation between 'Blue forces' (NATO) and 'Orange forces' (the Warsaw Pact) which begins after new, hard-line Orange leadership become resentful of increasing Blue political influence, particularly in the Persian Gulf. Following political unrest in Yugoslavia Orange troops move in, followed by invasions of Finland and Norway, and eventually Greece and central Europe. Blue defends its allies and conventional war escalates with the use of chemical weapons by Orange. After Orange gains further advances, Blue commanders request “initial first use of nuclear weapons against fixed targets in Orange satellite countries." However, "Blue's use of nuclear weapons did not stop Orange's aggression" and "a follow-on use of nuclear weapons was executed on the morning of 11 November." At that point the exercise ended.
Forces based at US airfields in the UK were mobilised in response to the crisis, and in response Orange attacks on British airfields “disrupted B-52 and KC-135 operations as well as destroying some aircraft". On the final day of the exercise eight KC-135 Stratotankers in the UK were "launched for survival" in anticipation of an Orange nuclear attack. Numerous UK airbases, including bases at Fairford, Mildenhall, Greenham Common, Brize Norton, Scampton, Cottesmore, and Bedford were mentioned in the exercise debriefing note.
Summaries of redacted documents released under the Freedom of Information Act
All documents are available to download below.
Note from Ministry of Defence official dated 20 March 1984.
Refers to the third draft of the JIC report reference JIC(84)(N)45 and notes that the paper has been returned for action twice by the JIC. Requests further comments from within MoD.
Note from the Assistant Under Secretary of Defence Staff dated 21 March 1984: 'JIC paper on Soviet Union concern about a surprise NATO attack'
Notes that the scope of the JIC paper has widened during its preparation from discussing reactions to Exercise Able Archer to Soviet Union concern about a surprise NATO attack. Raises two policy issues for consideration:
- The issue of perceived Soviet reactions and concerns about Western intentions which is “clearly extremely important: The inference to be drawn from the evidence will need, evidently, careful consideration”.
- The implications for NATO exercises which is also “extremely important”. The author sees “some merit in discussing with Allies the possibility that NATO should inform the Soviet Union on a routine basis of proposed NATO exercise activity involving nuclear play, as a useful confidence building measure”.
Asks “how should one evaluate overall the military evidence to support the view that there are signs of heightened concern in the Soviet Union about the West's nuclear strike intentions?”
Loose minute dated 21 March 1984 from Defence Policy Secretariat (Nuclear) Team 2 with comments on the draft JIC paper.
Annex to paper dated 28 March 1984 from Defence Policy Secretariat (Nuclear) proposing amendments to a note by the Deputy Under Secretary (Policy) to the Secretary of State.
Undated note from Defence Secretariat 17 with comments on the draft JIC paper.
Expresses concerns that the paper relies primarily on [content redacted]. Suggests modifications to the paper to suggest that information “may reflect concern in the Soviet Union that the West might initiate a nuclear war and that this might be done through a surprise attack under cover of an exercise” and says “We have [redacted] of heightened concern in the Soviet Union although some of the Warsaw Pact reaction to Able Archer may represent the takeup of limited and low key precautions against a surprise attack”.
Draft minute from Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong (undated): 'Soviet Union: Concern about a Surprise NATO Attack'
Refers to a meeting scheduled to take place on 4 April 1984 to discuss “action which might be taken with the United States on the evidence of Soviet concern about recent military exercises” set out in the JIC paper, and suggests that the Prime Minister may wish to see further information before the meeting. Evidence available “shows the concern of the Soviet Union over a possible NATO surprise attack mounted under cover of exercises”. Observes that the Soviet response to Able Archer “does not appear to have formed part of the Soviet exercise programme ...[redacted]... it took 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”.
Memo from the Private Secretary, 10 Downing Street, 10 April 1984: 'Soviet concern about a surprise NATO attack'
Refers to a meeting on 10 April 1984 attended by the Prime Minister, the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Robert Armstrong, 'C', and one other person to discuss what action should be taken about the conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee report. The Prime Minister had said that: “We should consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by mis-calculating Western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react”.
There had been some differences of view in the JIC on the weight to be put on the Soviet reaction, but the committee “stood by its conclusions” and that there had been “an unusual nature of the Soviet reaction to Able Archer”.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary said that taking account of the evidence, including weighing the possibility of a Soviet disinformation campaign, the conclusions of the JIC report must be accepted and it was desirable to discuss them with the US Government.
It was agreed that officials should meet urgently to discuss the possibility of an approach to the United States. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary would discuss concerns at two forthcoming meetings in May and the British Ambassador in Washington would go over the ground beforehand with the State Department in preparation.
“There was a more general need to continue and perhaps intensify HMG's efforts to promote an atmosphere of greater confidence between East and West”, and a series of Ministerial visits with Warsaw Pact countries and a programme of contacts with Soviet politicians was discussed.
Undated note from the Deputy Under Secretary (Policy) at the Ministry of Defence: 'Soviet Union: concern about a surprise NATO attack'.
The note advises on the line the Secretary of State for Defence might take at the meeting on 4 April 1984 to discuss the JIC report. It says that “Heightened Soviet concern about the possibility of a surprise NATO attack would of course be a very proper cause of concern for Western governments. But it is I think necessary to consider the strength of evidence and the implications of possible NATO reactions carefully. The report brought together evidence which was not necessarily related, and represents a compromise”. But “These reservations notwithstanding, we clearly need to guard against any possibility of Soviet misinterpretation, however slight the evidence. I would therefore wholly endorse the final sentence of the conclusions of the paper which proposes further “close examination of the degree and scope of Warsaw Pact reactions to NATO nuclear exercises”. The Prime Minister however wish to consider whether any further steps need to be taken to allay possible Soviet concerns”.
The report points out that military exercise activity is “crucial not only to the effectiveness of our political and military command structures, but also to the credibility of deterrence”. One possibility “which might go some way to allaying possible Soviet concern, and which is compatible both with deterrence and with the Western position on confidence building measures” is that “NATO should inform the Soviet Union on a routine basis of proposed NATO exercise activity involving nuclear play”.
Among the lines to take which the Secretary of State might wish to consider in discussion are the points that exercise activity is a vital element of deterrence, but “nonetheless we must view with unease and evidence, [redacted], of heightened Soviet concern”, and that there may be considerable merit in discussing “the possibility that NATO should inform the Soviet Union on a routine basis of proposed NATO exercise activity involving nuclear play, as a useful confidence building measure.”
Paper date stamped 8 May 1984 by Ministry of Defence Intelligence Staff: 'Soviet Union: Concern about a surprise NATO attack'
This paper considers options for minimising the risk of Soviet misinterpretation of NATO command post exercises, particularly nuclear ones and was prepared “in the context of an unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 and other reports of alleged concern about a surprise NATO attack”. It examines the advantages and disadvantages of prior notification of nuclear command post exercises (CPXs) as a confidence building measure. The paper states that: “Although the JIC reached no firm conclusion, we cannot discount the possibility that at least some Soviet officials / officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and possibly other nuclear CPXs as posing a real threat”
Notification measures already exist for reducing the possibility of misinterpretation of test ICBM launches under SALT II arrangements and “there seems no inherent reason why similar procedures could not be devised which extended to certain nuclear CPXs as well”. Super-power CPXs should form the centrepiece of any notification procedure, supplemented perhaps on the West's side with notification of NATO-wide exercises involving a substantial American nuclear role. An ad-hoc forum, based on special contact between the US and the USSR seems the most practical way of achieving this and would be unlikely to cause problems within NATO. The report concludes that recommendations in the US 'Scowcroft Report' by the President's Commission on Strategic Forces for bilateral exchange of information between US and Soviet defence officials about steps which could be misconstrued as indications of an attack should be “acted upon as soon as possible”.
Memo from the Deputy Under Secretary (Policy) to the Permanent Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence dated 4 May 1984: 'Soviet concern about a surprise NATO attack'
The memo notes the earlier meeting to discuss the JIC report and that “the Prime Minister said that officials should urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack”. Preliminary discussions had been held on “the unusual Soviet reactions to Able Archer 83”. The discussion now needed to be put on a more political level. “Whatever the reliability of the specific JIC assessment, its paper has served as a catalyst for consideration of the inherent advantages of agreeing some confidence building measures relating to nuclear command post exercises”. FCO and MoD had therefore agreed a paper setting out a number of themes as a basis for more detailed discussion with the Americans. The memo requests the Secretary of State's agreement for the paper to go forward to the Americans for detailed discussion in mid-May before a Ministerial meeting at the end of the month.
Document numbering is as assigned by the Ministry of Defence in releasing the papers to Nuclear Information Service.
Information in the documents has been withheld from release under the following sections of the Freedom of Information Act:
Section 23: Information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters
Section 24: National Security
Section 26: Defence of the British Isles
Section 27: International relations
Section 40: Personal information
The Ministry of Defence informed us that after conducting a search they had not been able to locate a copy of the Joint Intelligence Committee report reference JIC(84)(N)45 'Soviet Union: Concern About a Surprise NATO Attack' dated 23 March 1984 which is referred to in these documents.
Nuclear Information Service is currently pursuing a further request for information with the Cabinet Office for additional government documents relating to exercise Able Archer 83, including the Joint Intelligence Committee report.
In May 2013 US researcher Nate Jones, a historian at the National Security Archive, published a collection of more than 50 documents about Able Archer and the 1983 nuclear war scare, totalling more than 1,000 pages and mainly derived from US government archives. Much of the information in this article is drawn from these documents and we gratefully acknowledge this source.
Download the documents released by the Ministry of Defence here: