The Night the World Almost Ended Able Archer 83: The Vicious Circle

It was a vicious circle. The Soviets refused to believe that the Americans were bluffing; in turn, the Americans suspected that the Soviets were bluffing, even if they did not believe the Americans were doing so.

How did a regular military rehearsal come dangerously close to causing a nuclear exchange?

These days, it’s hard to escape seeing at least one piece about war or military drills in the news. And that nothing here is entirely fresh or unknown—we’ll be back around fifty years earlier.

The world was unintentionally on the point of nuclear Armageddon in the fall of 1983.

There was a sudden possibility that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had been more of a tense standoff than actual conflict, may erupt into full-fledged combat.

This imagined disaster was based on a routine NATO military exercise known as Able Archer 83.

However, what was Able Archer 83?

Cold War Tensions

Much of the second half of the twentieth century was determined by the Cold War, a long period of geopolitical warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union. This conflict was marked by political squabbles, economic competition, military alliances, and a dangerous arms race.

The defeat of Nazi Germany enabled the winners to focus their attention on one another as competitors. The United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, and the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons in 1949, initiating the arms race.

By the early 1980s, the Cold War had become increasingly unstable. The 1970s détente, which included some diplomatic cooperation and a reduction in tensions, was followed by a severe downturn in USSR-US relations.

In response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the United States resolved to increase pressure on its Cold War adversary.

Following his inauguration in 1981, US President Ronald Reagan took a harsh stance towards the Soviet Union.

During his president, the military budget was significantly increased, the Strategic Defence Initiative missile defence system was created, and new nuclear intermediate-range missiles (Pershing II and land-based cruise missiles) were deployed in Europe.

Tensions rose in significant part due to the introduction of these new armament systems.

The Soviets were especially concerned about the Pershing II missiles, which could strike sites within the USSR in minutes, perhaps destroying the USSR’s ability to fight in the event of an unexpected invasion.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union-led military alliance in Eastern Europe, conducted regular military drills in this volatile environment to prepare for a possible fight.

Able Archer 83: A Military Drill

Between November 7 and 11, 1983, NATO conducted a command exercise known as Able Archer 83.

It was one of several NATO exercises known as Autumn Forge 83, which took place in the autumn of 1983.

The exercise’s purpose was to simulate a period of increasing hostility between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, culminating in a planned nuclear strike.

The exercise, led by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) at Casteau, Belgium, included all of Western Europe as well as some NATO member states.

The primary players included the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, West Germany, and other NATO countries.

Able Archer 83 is designed to look highly lifelike. It included participation from heads of state, radio silence, and a new, unique architecture for coded communication.

It simulated a nuclear-armed DEFCON 1 scenario, which is the maximum level of preparedness for a potential attack.

The planned exercise involves five stages:

  1. Alert
  2. Deployment
  3. Combat
  4. Nuclear war
  5. Aftermath

During the drill, NATO soldiers simulated switching from conventional to nuclear battle.

Panic in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union’s response to Able Archer 83 was based on a deep concern that NATO, led by the United States, would launch a surprise nuclear strike.

Increased hostility in the early 1980s, prompted by Reagan’s belligerent words, and the recent stationing of Pershing II missiles in Europe, capable of reaching Soviet territory in minutes, intensified this concern.

Operation RIaN (Raketno-Jadernoe Napadenie, or “nuclear missile attack”) was a massive intelligence-gathering operation aimed at identifying preparations for a nuclear first strike.

The Soviet leadership was so afraid about a surprise strike that they launched it. Agents stationed worldwide were tasked with keeping an eye on the individuals who would decide to launch a nuclear strike, the military and technical personnel who would carry out the attack, and the areas from which the attack would originate.

Initially, the Soviets believed Able Archer 83 to be a normal drill. However, as the exercise progressed and featured genuine elements such as additional coded messages, radio silence, and a simulated DEFCON 1 crisis, fear among the Soviet intelligence agency grew.

Soviet nuclear forces in East Germany and Poland were prepared for a counterattack, including nuclear-armed planes ready for immediate departure. Soviet military and intelligence organisations were placed on high alert.

It’s disputed to what extent the Soviet Union was on military alert, but the anxiety was palpable.

Nonetheless, despite the concerns, the Soviet leadership remained cautious. They did not want to start a nuclear war due to a misunderstanding.

They were keeping a close eye on things, looking for any new signs of escalation. The Soviet leadership withdrew its soldiers, and the current situation ended when Able Archer 83 was completed on time.


The Able Archer 83 incident had a considerable impact on Cold War dynamics, impacting both long-term approaches to arms control and war avoidance, as well as immediate military and diplomatic efforts.

Both parties acted quickly to diffuse the situation. The risks of misunderstanding and misinterpretation have risen to the forefront, particularly in the United States.

When it became evident that the Soviet Union feared a NATO first strike, military actions were altered, including the de-escalation of war games.

The episode influenced President Reagan’s language and outlook on the Soviet Union. Reagan also began to emphasise the importance of communicating and negotiating with the Soviet Union.

Able Archer 83’s near miss served as a reminder of the importance of arms control in preventing conflicts from escalating into full-fledged wars.

This paved the way for further negotiations on arms control treaties, culminating in the 1987 signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibited the two countries from using ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with a 500-ballistic-missile range on land.

The experience served as a harsh reminder of the inherent dangers of the nuclear arms race. This raised the prospect that, even if neither side intended it, misinterpretations and computations could accidently result in nuclear war.

Until the end of the Cold War, this information spurred the superpowers to be more vigilant and communicative.

Declassified Documents

The whole story of Able Archer 83 has slowly emerged, thanks in part to the gradual release of previously classified NATO and Warsaw Pact documents.

According to a British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) report from 1990, the Soviet Union saw the practice as a cover for a real strike. The US government declassified a detailed study on Able Archer in 2015, revealing that the incident was more deadly than previously assumed.

The severity of the Soviet retaliation to Able Archer 83 is a major point of debate.

According to some accounts, nuclear warheads were being loaded aboard aircraft in East Germany and Poland, indicating that the Soviet Union was indeed preparing for nuclear war.

Some argue that, despite their fears, the Soviets responded in a careful and cautious manner rather than panicking.

Instead of a Conclusion

The episode influenced both sides’ policy towards de-escalation and diplomacy, making it a watershed moment in the Cold War.

The experience served as a wake-up call for both countries, emphasising the dangers of misinterpretation and the potential for escalation in a nuclear-armed world.

Have we woken up?

This post was written by Mario Bekes