In November 1983, during a particularly tense period in the Cold War, Soviet observers spotted planes carrying what appeared to be warheads taxiing out of their NATO hangars. Shortly after, command centers for the NATO military alliance exchanged a flurry of communication, and, after receiving reports that their Soviet adversaries had used chemical weapons, the United States decided to intensify readiness to DEFCON 1—the highest of the nuclear threat categories, surpassing the DEFCON 2 alert declared at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis two decades prior. Concerned about a preemptive strike, Soviet forces prepared their nuclear weapons for launch.
There was just one problem. None of the NATO escalation was real—at least, not in the minds of the Western forces participating in the Able Archer 83 war game.
A variation of an annual military training exercise, the scenario started with a change in Soviet leadership, heightened proxy rivalries and the Soviets’ invasion of several European countries. Lasting five days, it culminated in NATO resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. Soviet intelligence watched the event with special interest, suspicious that the U.S. might carry out a nuclear strike under the guise of a drill. The realism of Able Archer was ironically effective: It was designed to simulate the start of a nuclear war, and many argue that it almost did.
“In response to this exercise, the Soviets readied their forces, including their nuclear forces, in a way that scared NATO decision makers eventually all the way up to President [Ronald] Reagan,” says Nate Jones, author of Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War and a senior fellow at the National Security Archive.
Perhaps most concerning is that the danger was largely unknown and overlooked, both during the exercise and throughout that precarious year, when changes in leadership and an acceleration in the nuclear arms race ratcheted up tensions between the two superpowers. A since-declassified 1990 report by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Review Board (PFIAB) concluded, “In 1983 we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”
Almost 40 years later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has evoked comparisons with the Cold War, particularly when it comes to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vaguely worded threats. At the onset of the war, Putin warned of “consequences you have never seen”—a declaration interpreted in some quarters as a nod to his country’s nuclear capabilities. More recently, U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement of new weapons for Ukraine elicited an admonition from Moscow about “unpredictable consequences.” Biden has declined to send American troops and cautioned that “direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III.”
“The Russians have made some allusions not rising to the level of explicit threats, but it’s very, very strongly implied,” says Edward Geist, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank. Though he doesn’t see a commensurate change in Russia’s actions or positioning of nuclear assets, Geist interprets the message being sent to NATO as “you don’t want to actually get directly involved in this because that could escalate to nuclear war. … It’s not worth the risk, so you should stay out and let us do what we want in Ukraine.”
By the fall of 1983, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had reached a point of mutually assured misunderstanding. Relations between the two nations were at a particularly low ebb in the decades-long Cold War, which had emerged out of the ashes of World War II. The elimination of a common enemy—Nazi Germany—allowed the victors to shift their focus to each other as rivals. Following America’s use of an atomic weapon against Japan in 1945 and the Soviet Union’s own nuclear test in 1949, the arms race began in full effect.
NATO, a security alliance established between the U.S. and Western European nations in 1949, was mirrored by the Warsaw Pact, a defense treaty signed by the Soviet Union and members of its Eastern Bloc. Two years after the Warsaw Pact’s formation in 1955, the Soviets launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, placing space on the playing field even as the rivalry continued to take shape on Earth through proxy wars in Asia. In the 1970s, a mood of détente prevailed as President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev reached a series of agreements aimed at arms control.
Early in the next decade, with new leadership on both sides, détente had evaporated. After taking office in 1981, Reagan matched his campaign rhetoric by initiating a doubling of the defense budget. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, who assumed power the following year, came to the job after heading the KGB, where he initiated Operation RYaN, whose name is an acronym describing a sudden nuclear attack. “The main objective of our intelligence service is not to miss the military preparations of the enemy … for a nuclear strike,” Andropov said in 1981.
Operation RYaN lent itself to confirmation bias, with many routine activities—such as official visits or blood drives—feeding fears of war. And when it came to looking for signs of imminent attack, Able Archer fit the bill.
On the American side, defense and intelligence officials “shared the long-held view that ‘the U.S. doesn’t do Pearl Harbors,’” writes historian Taylor Downing in 1983: Reagan, Andropov and a World on the Brink. The Americans therefore assumed the Soviets knew they had no intention of launching a preemptive nuclear attack. Early intelligence estimates after Able Archer dismissed apparent Soviet fears as a ploy to slow American defense buildup. As the PFIAB report noted, analysts “identified signs of emotional and paranoid Soviet behavior” yet saw “motives for trying to cleverly manipulate Western perceptions.”
It was a vicious circle. The Soviets refused to believe the Americans were bluffing; the Americans, meanwhile, suspected the Soviets were bluffing about not thinking the Americans were bluffing.
A series of inflammatory events that year paved the way for the fraught moments of Able Archer. In a March speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan characterized the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and decried those “who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority.”
Later that month, the president announced plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly dubbed “Star Wars”), which aimed to intercept incoming nuclear missiles from space. Reagan viewed it purely as a defensive measure, but the Soviet Union saw a shield that would enable the U.S. to take offensive action by reducing its fear of retaliation. Such protection would undermine the notion of mutually assured destruction, which was seen as a grim deterrent for starting a nuclear war.
American military planes and ships pressed at Soviet borders in so-called PSYOPS, or psychological operations—shows of force that further aggravated the Soviets. In the spring of 1983, the looming presence of these American warcraft prompted Andropov to adopt a policy of “shoot to kill” at any similar incursion.
On the night of September 1, the civilian airliner Korean Airlines 007 went off course on its flight from Anchorage to Seoul. The Soviets, mistaking the plane for a military aircraft, shot it down, killing all 269 people on board. Reagan called it a “massacre.”
Perhaps most alarming to the Soviets was NATO’s deployment of new intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles that could strike the U.S.S.R.—and Moscow itself—faster than previously possible. Though this operation took place in response to the Soviets’ development of similarly potent missiles in the late 1970s, Soviet leaders still saw the move as menacing. Just weeks before Able Archer, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov characterized the NATO missiles “as means for a first strike, the ‘decapitation strike,’” in a meeting with fellow Warsaw Pact officials, according to documents held by the National Security Archive. The threat posed by the missiles increased the argument for a launch on warning strategy, which made speed—and therefore a decrease in decision-making time—the linchpin of defense.
In June, during a private meeting with a former American emissary to Moscow, Andropov expressed fears of a conflagration far worse than the Second World War, in which the two nations had been allies. “This war may perhaps not occur through evil intent,” he said, “but could happen through miscalculation.”
Able Archer 83 was part of a constellation of recurring NATO exercises. But some elements—including the dummy warheads, the DEFCON status changes and communications patterns (including periods of speculation-inducing radio silence)—were unique to that year. Managed out of NATO’s headquarters in Brussels and involving components across Western Europe, the training simulated coordination across the alliance’s commands in response to aggression by the Warsaw Pact.
As the Able Archer scenario intensified, the head of the Soviet air forces ordered a state of readiness that “included preparations for immediate use of nuclear weapons,” according to later-declassified sources referenced in a memorandum by Lieutenant General Leonard Perroots, then the Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence in Europe. During the exercise, analysts concluded that at least one squadron “was loading a munitions configuration that they had never actually loaded before.” Perroots’ concerns were echoed by the PFIAB, which called the reaction of Soviet intelligence, including 36 surveillance flights, “unprecedented.”
At the time, Perroots chose to continue monitoring development and not escalate in kind. (His prudent inaction has drawn comparisons to Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who correctly interpreted a false alarm of nuclear attack that September.) In his memorandum, Perroots outlined a “potentially disastrous situation,” one that he found even more alarming after Oleg Gordievsky, a high-level KGB officer who served as a double agent for the British, revealed that the Soviet security agency believed Able Archer would serve as an ideal “cover” for an attack. After the exercise, with the benefit of hindsight, the PFIAB report called Perroots’ patience a “fortuitous, if ill-informed, decision.”
“We now know how nervous the [Soviet] leadership became, ... [putting] the entire [state] arsenal with its 11,000 warheads on to maximum combat alert,” writes Downing in his book. He describes a seriously ill Andropov conferring with military leaders at a clinic outside of Moscow as the exercise proceeded apace, capturing the essence of the problem that was at the crux of Able Archer and the “war scare” as a whole: “It was impossible for satellites to pick up any insight into the state of paranoia in the Soviet leadership.”
Though these men never publicly mentioned Able Archer by name, glimpses into their mindsets at the time are available. Days after Able Archer concluded, defense minister Ustinov wrote in the state-run Pravda newspaper that NATO’s exercises “are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from a real deployment of armed forces for aggression.”
Blind spots were plentiful on both sides. Robert Gates, then the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, told Downing that “we may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.” In retrospect, the “miscalculation” that Andropov had feared five months earlier seemed plausible.
Scholars still debate exactly how dangerous this juncture was. Simon Miles of Duke University has argued that the retrospective analysis of Able Archer is overblown, as evidenced by Soviet actions that fell short of their nuclear capabilities. Contemporary extrapolations based on what the Soviets did or did not do will always be impossible to fully prove or disprove.
Jones, who is also the Freedom of Information Act director for the Washington Post, notes that some information about the exercise remains inaccessible to the public; even portions of the 1990 PFIAB report are redacted. “I would say to the skeptics that the more that’s declassified, the more scary it looks,” he adds.
The precarious decline of U.S.-Soviet relations throughout those months left an impression on Reagan. Presented with a summary of recent Soviet actions that pointed to broader war preparations—including the bolstering of domestic civil defenses, the pattern of troop movements within the country and shifts from commercial to military use—the president called them “really scary.”
Reagan’s November 18, 1983, diary entry reflects a realization that these fears were genuine: “I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without in any way being soft on them we ought to tell then no one here has any intention of doing anything like that. What the h—l have they got that anyone would want.”
The ensuing years brought a reduction in tensions that led to the end of the Cold War. The shift in Reagan’s approach was complemented by the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Despite leading on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, the two men found avenues for cooperation in the later 1980s.
The Cold War is now three decades in the rearview mirror, and the invasion of Ukraine is a far cry from a fictional exercise. But while history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it does mutate—and once again, nuclear-tinged rhetoric is making headlines.
Geist considers the nuclear threat low risk at present but acknowledges that the mere specter of it still carries great influence. “It’s framing what is considered possible for basically all ... foreign governments, including our own,” he says. “The idea of direct intervention would be much more seriously considered against a non-nuclear power.”
Common to this or any other chapter of the post-World War II nuclear world is the fact that no nuclear threat, whether vague or explicit, comes without a degree of risk. As Jones point out, “The danger of brinksmanship”—a foreign policy practice that pushes parties to the edge of confrontation—“is it’s easier than we think for one side to fall into the brink.”