The Buzz

In 1983, Russia and America Almost Accidentally Started a Nuclear War

Soviet military forces also implemented steps to reduce their vulnerability to attack. At the same time, the rhetoric used by Soviet leaders became increasingly alarmist, with Nikolai Ogarkov, Chief of the General Staff, openly comparing the United States to Nazi Germany. Official Soviet media outlets frequently warned Soviet citizens that war might be imminent, and the general public appears to have believed these pronouncements.

The PFIAB assessment goes on to discuss Able Archer 83, a NATO exercise held from Nov. 7 to 11 simulating the release of nuclear weapons under wartime conditions. This exercise, and the Soviet reaction to it, has been one of the most studied aspects of the war scare. Much of this section of the report is redacted, but the portions that have been declassified indicate that at least some Soviet leaders were concerned that Able Archer 83 was a ruse to conceal preparations for an actual NATO attack.

During the exercise, KGB and GRU residencies abroad were tasked with searching for clues that an attack was imminent, and other Warsaw Pact countries significantly stepped up their intelligence collection as well.

The PFIAB report also notes that Warsaw Pact military activity reached unprecedented levels during Able Archer. “This fact, together with the timing of their response, strongly suggests to us that Soviet military leaders may have been seriously concerned that the U.S. would use Able Archer 83 as a cover for launching a real attack.” Naturally, no such attack took place, or was ever even contemplated, but the war scare persisted well into the next year before finally petering out in the fall of 1984.

The main shortcoming of the PFIAB report is that its discussion of U.S. actions that may have stimulated, or at least reinforced, Soviet fears is limited. Beginning in the early 1980s, U.S. military forces conducted a series of provocative exercises along the Soviet periphery that Moscow surely found alarming.

Often these took the form of sending U.S. bombers over the North Pole – the same route they would take if a war broke out – only to have them turn away just before entering Soviet airspace. The purpose of these exercises, which occurred at irregular intervals, was to keep the Soviets off guard as well as test their reactions. The United States also stepped up its use of aerial reconnaissance flights just outside Soviet airspace, probes that were meant to monitor Soviet military activity.

There was a naval component as well, one whose goal was “keeping the Soviets concerned with threats all around their periphery,” according to Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. In March 1981, Reagan authorized the Navy to conduct operations in waters near the Soviet Union where it had never gone before. That August, a fleet of 83 U.S. and allied ships sailed undetected into the Norwegian Sea, an area heavily patrolled by Soviet forces. Four ships from this task force broke off from the main group and sailed into the Barents Sea near the Kola Peninsula, the site of an extensive complex of Soviet military bases.

Two years later, the U.S. Navy carried out FLEETEX-83, its largest exercise in the Pacific since World War II. Centered around three carrier battle groups, the armada sailed within 450 miles of the Kamchatka Peninsula and Petropavlovsk, the only Soviet naval base with direct access to open seas.

According to Benjamin Fischer, former Chief Historian of the CIA, “U.S. muscle-flexing was almost certainly the cause of Kremlin concern in the first place.” Yet none of these operations are mentioned in the PFIAB report. Its authors note that their investigation “did not specifically match ‘blue force/red force’ activity or probe U.S. strategic deception programs underway at the time. We did, however, learn enough about them to realize such a review would be highly helpful to the study of the Soviet war scare.”

The reasons for this omission are unclear. At the time they were held, information about these exercises was tightly restricted, and in some cases they were authorized orally rather than in writing, leaving little in the way of documentation. As a result, the U.S. intelligence community was largely unaware of them while the war scare was unfolding. Evidently, knowledge of them still remained extremely limited by 1990 when the PFIAB assessment was written.

The report also makes no mention of the potential impact of statements made by U.S. officials that suggested a willingness to fight a nuclear war. During the 1980 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s eventual vice president, stated that the United States could prevail in a nuclear conflict as long as it ensured the survival of a portion of its population and industrial capacity. “That’s the way you can have a winner.”