Able Archer 83

Able Archer 83

The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War

Edited by Nate Jones

The New Press, New York, 2016, 320 pages

Book Review published on: June 16, 2017

How close did the Soviet Union and the United States come to nuclear war in 1983? While thousands of American service members—this reviewer included—participated in NATO exercises in Europe, they knew about the tensions over the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles and the counterdeployment by the United States of Pershing 2 and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) on the territory of five NATO member states. What they did not realize was that the leadership in Moscow had become so fearful of a nuclear strike that they had established a special intelligence collection program to detect indications of one. Furthermore, the Soviets took military measures late in 1983 that indicated they believed a strike was coming. Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War offers a readable and illuminating account of this tense period of the Cold War, which is solidly grounded in primary sources and the secondary literature.

Able Archer 83 begins with a narrative and analysis of the context of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, when the leaders in Moscow—already alarmed at NATO’s decision to deploy Pershing 2 missiles and GLCMS—were grappling with President Ronald Reagan’s hostile rhetoric and supporting actions, such as increased spending on defense and a proposed national missile defense system. The author explains that among the Soviets’ responses was an intelligence operation to detect indicators of a nuclear attack (RYaN—from the Russian acronym for “nuclear missile attack”) from the United States or NATO. Nate Jones then ably describes the exercises NATO conducted in 1983 and the Soviets’ reaction to them, which included some posturing of forces that indicated Moscow feared that exercise Able Archer 83, a NATO nuclear command post exercise, might be the beginning of a real conflict.

The combination of this narrative with the second part of the book, a collection of thirteen declassified documents from the United States, Soviet Union, and British archives, is Able Archer 83’s strength and contribution to the debate over the likelihood of nuclear war in 1983. Jones, director of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Project at of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, is eminently qualified to edit this work, having been instrumental in the declassification of documents using the FOIA, including the key one in this study, a report on the U.S. intelligence community and Able Archer published in 1990 by the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He has done well assembling a collection of documents and providing a well-sourced narrative that places them in a broader strategic and historical context.

Able Archer 83 will not stand as the last word on whether the United States, NATO, and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war in 1983 (see, e.g., “Able Archer 83: What Were the Soviets Thinking?” in the December 2016/January 2017 edition of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy by the International Institute for Strategic Studies). Nonetheless, Jones has provided a valuable contribution to our understanding of an important episode of the Cold War, as well as food for thought about perception, misperception, and miscalculation in a dangerous world.

Book Review written by: Mark Wilcox, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas