Apocalypse AvertedBreaking News
tags: Cold War, nuclear weapons, Operation Able Archer
Newly declassified documents reveal that in November 1983, at the height of Cold War tensions, the United States and the Soviet Union came closer to nuclear war than historians—and even many officials at the time—have known until now.
The revelations aren’t mere details of history; they also hold relevant lessons for how leaders should think and act in ongoing crises in hot spots around the world today.
The documents, released this week by the State Department historian’s office, focus on a massive military training exercise known as Able Archer, in which NATO simulated the transition from conventional to nuclear conflict in the event of a war in Europe.
It turned out, top Soviet leaders thought that the war game was real—that the U.S. and NATO really were about to launch a nuclear first strike against the USSR—and top Soviet military commanders took steps to retaliate.
In one of those steps, the new documents reveal, the commander of the Soviet 4th Army Air Forces in Eastern Europe ordered all of his units to make “preparations for the immediate use of nuclear weapons.” As part of that order, crewmen loaded actual nuclear bombs onto several combat planes.
Much about the Able Archer war game was first made public just six years ago, when, after more than a decade of legal battles, the National Security Archive, a private research organization, obtained a lengthy, extremely classified U.S. intelligence report detailing exactly what NATO forces did, and how Soviet commanders responded, during the exercise.
But the fact that the Soviets armed their aircraft with nuclear bombs—a discovery based on U.S. and British intelligence intercepts of Soviet communications at the time—has not been declassified until now. The new fact elevates to a higher level the danger that the world briefly faced, even though—unlike with other nuclear near misses, such as the Cuban missile crisis—almost nobody knew it at the time.
The Able Archer crisis might not have been a near miss—it might easily have escalated to a shooting war—had it not been for a single American officer, Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, the intelligence chief for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, who saw the Soviet moves, interpreted them correctly, and stopped what might otherwise have been a deadly escalation.
Most U.S. officers viewed Able Archer as a typical war game, nothing that would throw Soviet officers into a panic. But Perroots saw that, in fact, it was something different. It was a lot bigger than most of these games, involving a fleet of cargo transport planes flying 19,000 soldiers in 170 sorties from the United States to bases in Europe. And it was more realistic as well. The cargo planes maintained radio silence. B-52 bomber crews taxied their planes to their runways and loaded them with dummy bombs that looked remarkably real. The Strategic Air Command raised its nuclear alert levels to the highest level. The Soviets were monitoring all of this, of course, as they generally did and as the U.S. commanders knew they would. But they reacted in ways that they never had before—in ways similar to how they might have acted if the U.S. were gearing up for a real attack—including, as we now know, loading nuclear bombs on aircraft in Eastern Europe.
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