Able Archer ’83, or, how the Cold War almost ended in catastrophe

As the West descends into a period of chaos, internal divisions worsened from outside make the consensus about the supposed “triumph” of democracy over communism look like a shopworn story. Consequently, the focus of our collective nostalgia rolls backwards a few more years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to another story, carrying another hidden message from the past to inform our time today.

US troops in exercise in Europe in 1983

The memory of democracy’s victory over Communism was always overblown. It wasn’t a cymbal-crashing finale to a decades-long struggle as much as a pause, followed by dissolution, followed by an era of murky possibility and edgeless consensus. For people my age, the world of our youth ended and transformed in mere months. After all, the scaffolding of Western society was constructed to lean against the alternate vision of global society emanating from the East. 

Then one day The Other, on the far side of the Iron Curtain, was gone. For those people, the former Soviets citizens, the sense of dislocation and dismay was total. We’re still paying the price for the Soviet Union’s failure today.

Now that the fable of the ‘triumph of the US over the Soviet Union’ no longer offers a credible understanding of history, there is a certain itch to relive the final, tense years before the end the Cold War. Increasingly, what had been a footnote of the time looms ever larger in historians’ eyes.

This was the moment, in 1983, when NATO inadvertently gave the impression to the paranoid and geriatric leaders of the Soviet Union, that the West was about to launch a surprise nuclear attack.

With each passing year, this moment, nearly undetected at the time, appears to be a pivot point in history.

Able Archer ’83 is the subject of Marc Ambinder’s book, The Brink, an account of the exercise of 1983, when a telegraphed special weapons segment of a major NATO exercise was mistaken by Soviet leadership as the opening stages of a US initiated nuclear war.

Able Archer also forms the fictionalized plot in of the mini-series Deutschland 83, a spy drama that derives power in part from the nostalgia for a bygone world order. These works aren’t the only rumination on the late Cold War. There are The Americans. For real eye-witness accounts, check out some of the interviews in the Cold War Conversations, (start with British rocker Mark Reeder’s remarkable story), or, to get the big picture: the History of the Cold War Podcast – which details the prologue to today’s geopolitical confrontation.

In Ambinder’s book, he spends considerable time setting up the drama in discussing how the command and control of the US nuclear response had essentially been corroded by the passage of time, the development of new weapons technology, shifts in strategy and realism for what a confrontation might entail.

These sorts of adjustments in expectations helped shape the immediate training expectations for what had become a routine readiness exercises for US and NATO troops in Western Europe, known as Reforger. The annual exercise demonstrated how proceduralized the defense of the West from Soviet Russia had become.

However, as archives released have since revealed, these exercises had “multiple non-routine elements” compared to previous years. These included a 170-flight, radio-silent airlift of 19,000 soldiers to Europe, and the shifting of commands and “the practice of ‘new nuclear weapons release procedures’.”

Although Ambinder leans heavily on the detail of America’s nuclear attack leadership succession issues, his book shines in the vignettes he paints of the both the leaders of the time, as well as the cast of others carrying out orders.

One of the most finely drawn characters is, of course, Ronald Reagan, reliant (perhaps overly) on the opinions of adviser/friends, yet fully conscious of his goal of reducing nuclear tensions. Ambinder’s observation on Reagan’s religious worldview are particularly insightful for understanding the zeitgeist of that time’s nuclear geopolitics.

If the world faced a potential apocalypse, the leader of the free world’s mission was by definition, messianic. Reagan’s embrace of the Strategic Defense Initiative – known as Star Wars – fanned the flames of Soviet paranoia by altering the calculus of mutually assured destruction, the threat of mutual destruction which had helped keep the peace between the US and the USSR.

Reagan and SDI

Part of the story Ambinder tells, is how Reagan changes, from the fierce anti-communist with contempt for Soviet ideology to a leader who sees the need to put the world on safer nuclear footing.

His Russian counterpart for much of the book, Yuri Andropov is a paranoid, geriatric product of the Soviet spy world. The Soviet regime was methodically searching for signs of RYaN (Raketno-Yadernoye Napadenie), a surprise nuclear attack. The Soviet Union’s intelligence apparatus ordered constant updates on the number of cars after hours at UK government facilities, or the relative levels of blood donation stocks.

Suspicious of Western plans for attack, Andropov demands ceaseless intelligence, while dismissing the expert analysis which could explain that the “signs” in the West for war preparations were only routine activity.

It’s a good reminder of how, in those final years of the Cold War, the East-West competition both very real and routinized. (Not at all like the fluid situation today) All it took was for something to appear to be out of balance – the amount of blood donated in the UK, the number of office lights left on in the evening in Westminster – to contribute to one side expecting a surprise attack from the other.

In the case of Able Archer 83, NATO intentions were wildly misread, and NATO didn’t learn until later how close it came to confrontation.

The inclusion of B-52s by the US Air Force in the exercise, signaled a strategic dimension to the West’s war games. As an air tanker planner of the 8th Air Force observed, people assumed “that if the B-52s were there, they’d have a strategic nuclear purpose, and not a conventional purpose.”

Ambinder writes: “[The air tanker planner] did not know at the time what the Soviets knew, but he made sure to note in an after-action report that the word ‘strike’ – associated with B-52s and nuclear operations – was used far too frequently over the radios and had to be quickly corrected.”

There were other misunderstandings. In the lead up to the exercise, the Soviets accidentally shot down a Korean commercial airliner that had flown off course. Russian forces were on alert for American ship and plane movements where they had been active near its coast.

At some level, the backstory to Able Archer, the large, annual exercises, reads like the work of power projection in the age of an industrial military.

One wonders how the same event would unfold today, in the age of information military, and if, as US Senator Mark Warner has observed recently, “from a national security standpoint, we may be investing in the best 20th century military money can buy, and we ought to be thinking a lot of the conflict of the 21st century is going to be in cyber and misinformation and disinformation.”

Unlike the pop-culture cliffhanger of Deutschland 83, The Brink is not really a nostalgic read, even if nostalgia may help generate interest in the story.

Able Archer also provides the backstory to Deutschland 83.

The Brink is a about the mechanics, personalities and judgments of a moment in Cold War history when events could have gone in a radically more dangerous direction. Its focus is wide-ranging: the specific advisers on Reagan’s ear, the Soviet intelligence officer in the UK embassy who first gave word of how radically different Moscow was viewing the exercises, or the story of the 26-year-old commander of a nuclear missile base in West Germany…

The Soviets had managed to break the codes needed for communications around tactical missile launches, but couldn’t validate them. The US missile commander faced the prospect of spoofed messages urging him to “prepare for nuclear release.” More terrifying, it was clear to the American that because of the placement of the communications equipment relative to the base, the Soviet spies “trying to sabotage the American nukes were right there with him, within maybe a mile of his nuclear warheads, watching them, as he scanned the dark German night for them.”

That’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of a 26-year-old, and it highlights the seriousness about East-West politics for the public that has been absent until the 2016 US election and its aftermath.

Some of the vignettes have even more poignancy today, including the story of the little old lady on Red Square who tells a visiting American with a genuine smile. “Ah, you’ve seen our military parade, so now you see that we want peace?”  She was serious. This is the Russian mentality toward force and peace.

Able Archer was the last in a series of NATO exercises that year: NSArchives.

Ambinder tells the story of World War Three averted in some well-chosen word-pictures, of people and places of the time. NATO military exercises, Russian response, the dance of East-West Cold War diplomacy, even the annual parades of US troops returning to Germany for exercise. All of it was like the workings of a clock. A coil turned just so. And if something was miscalibrated, (a jet flyby, an unannounced missile launch), it could set in motion another series of responses (naval ships patrol, a diplomatic démarche).

Sometimes Ambinder leaves the reader wishing for a little more narrative connection between the disparate parts, especially across the arc of the book from beginning to end. Yet, The Brink portrays with some fidelity the great machine that the Cold War had evolved into. Everything in the service to the logic of a geopolitical struggle turned ever slowly in the background.

So slowly that for us children of the period, it was itself the status quo and not one more period of change in a succession of them. This statis is how the Cold War is remembered. In reality, the Cold War wasn’t so much like clockwork, but an ongoing effort to show force to make a point, but show enough restraint not to cause catastrophe.

Perhaps for that reason, the nostalgic eye turns back toward the good old days of 1983, when the world was divided, consensus is remembered as uniting each side [but didn’t really], and as long as the big risk did not grow bigger – and a lot of effort was spend to prevent that outcome – an imperfect order prevailed.

The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983 by Marc Ambinder, Simon & Schuster.

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