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The 1983 Military Drill That Nearly Sparked Nuclear War With the Soviets

Fearful that the Able Archer 83 exercise was a cover for a NATO nuclear strike, the U.S.S.R. readied its own weapons for launch

Smithsonian, Francine Uenuma, History CorrespondentApril 27, 2022  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 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.”   https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-1983-military-drill-that-nearly-sparked-nuclear-war-with-the-soviets-180979980/

April 28, 2022 - Posted by | incidents, weapons and war

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