British Documents Confirm UK Alerted US to Danger of Able Archer 83
British Ministry of Defence documents obtained by Peter Burt of the Nuclear Information Service confirm that British intelligence observed “an unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 and other reports of alleged concern about a surprise NATO attack.” This led senior British ministers and intelligence chiefs to “urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack.”
This information from the British Archives squares with a May 28, 1983 memo to the US Secretary of State, posted by the National Security Archive earlier this year, in which the Bureau of Intelligence and Research revealed that the US did not draft its Special National Intelligence Estimate on the War Scare until after it was made aware of “British concerns” of “Soviet military and political moves beginning with exercise Able Archer 83.”
The memo also revealed that the United States provided the original, top secret version of the SNIE to its British allies, but created a “sanitized” version –which removed all mentions of “Able Archer 83,” the very reason it was created– to provide to other NATO allies that participated in the NATO war game. As I write in “Countdown to Declassification,” the US classification system was used to restrict information about the increased risk or nuclear war from our NATO allies for two reasons. The first was to protect the UK’s double agent with the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky. The second, and more nefarious, was to ensure that NATO (specifically West Germany) would not waver in its decision to host the newly deployed US Pershing II nuclear missiles, which could reach Russia in 10 minutes –upsetting the previous nuclear strategic balance in Europe, and leading directly to hair trigger alerts, Operation RYaN, and the danger of Able Archer 83.
In an excellent article accompanying the posting of these documents, Burt reveals the existence of another comprehensive British report on Able Archer 83 that has not yet been released. The March 23, 1984, report, “JIC(84)(N)45 “Soviet Union: Concern About a Surprise NATO Attack,” reached “no firm conclusion,” but warned that “we cannot discount the possibility that at least some Soviet officials / officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and possibly other nuclear CPXs [command post exercises] as posing a real threat.” The information contained within this still-classified, JIC led Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong to advise Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the evidence available “shows the concern of the Soviet Union over a possible NATO surprise attack mounted under cover of exercises.” Mirroring a similar assessment by Director of the CIA William Casey, he argued that the Soviet response to Able Archer “does not appear to have formed part of the Soviet exercise programme … it took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, Central Europe, covered by the NATO exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring.”
This JIC report has similarities to a still-classified comprehensive 100-page US President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report on Able Archer which the National Security Archive is still fighting to get released.
The reports of possible Soviet miscalculation of Western nuclear intentions convinced Thatcher to attempt to compel the United States to “consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by mis-calculating Western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react [to Western war games],” and ordered British officials to “urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack”.
In response, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence drafted a joint paper for discussion with the Americans in May 1984 which proposed that “NATO should inform the Soviet Union on a routine basis of proposed NATO exercise activity involving nuclear play.”
“Whatever the reliability of the specific JIC assessment,” one official concluded, “its paper has served as a catalyst for consideration of the inherent advantages of agreeing some confidence building measures relating to nuclear command post exercises.” These concerns were likely discussed during Reagan’s June 5, 1984, meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other officials at 10 Downing Street.
British warnings may indeed have reached and affected one US official– Colin Powell, then serving as military assistant to the Secretary of Defense. In April of 1984 (before the Reagan and Thatcher’s meeting), he wrote a memo about another upcoming nuclear exercise, the US-Canadian military exercise Night Train 84, conducted from 5-13 April 1984. In it, Powell warned that, “Conduct of a worldwide nuclear exercise could show strength of purpose. On the other hand, it could be perceived as showing an intent for use of nuclear weapons. It could have the potential to affect US/USSR strategic arms reduction negotiations or bilateral US/USSR strategic arms reduction negotiations or bilateral US/USSR summit preparations should either of these be in progress.”
No analogous brief has been found for Able Archer 83.
Below are the documents originally posted by Peter Burt of the Nuclear Information Service.