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Able Archer 83: “Less frightening than many have claimed”?

April 4, 2017

The following was published in Survival: Global Politics and Strategy (Vol 59 No 2).

War Scare

Sir,

In ‘Able Archer 83: What Were the Soviets Thinking’ (Survival, vol. 58, no. 6, December 2016–January 2017, pp. 7–30), Gordon Barrass makes a compelling argument that Able Archer 83 provides ‘lessons on how to analyse and respond to situations of great tension, especially when the stakes are high’ (p. 24). The article, however, includes some factual inaccuracies that the recent declassification of documents can correct.

Firstly, Able Archer 83 was not held from 2–11 November, as Barrass writes. A contemporaneous US Air Force Seventh Division after-action report, released to the National Security Archive in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that Able Archer 83 did not actually begin until 7 November.1 The likely reason for this discrepancy is that the exercise scenario cited by Barrass included a backstory dating before NATO began practising its nuclear-release procedures.2 Soviet intelligence picked up, and reacted to, Able Archer 83 much more quickly than Barrass reports.

Secondly, and more significantly, recent research confirms that, contrary to what Barrass writes, there were in fact ‘troops on the ground’ (p. 17) during Able Archer 83 practising nuclear-release procedures near Ulm, Schwäbisch Gmünd and Heilbronn.3 Indeed, more than 50 NATO officers were trained weeks earlier to practise new nuclear-release procedures at the Allied Command Europe officers’ nuclear-weapons-release procedures course.4 It appears that the 1991 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board’s (PFIAB’s) admonition against describing the ‘Able Archer exercise simply as “a command and control” exercise, and thus, clearly nonthreatening to the Warsaw Pact’ was correct.5

Thirdly, it may also be important to examine whether Rainer Rupp, the East German spy credited with informing the Soviets that Able Archer 83 was not an actual strike, actually ‘attested to’ the absence of panic in Moscow (p. 19). In the same interview cited by Barrass, Rupp also states that he was told ‘the Russians are really scared’; in a 2015 interview he recounted that ‘the Soviets were completely convinced that “Able Archer” was the cover for a real nuclear strike’, though, of course, ‘the fear of a nuclear strike was unfounded’.6

Finally, Barrass makes the strong point that ‘the old rules of evidence still apply: we must give priority to what actors said at the time versus what they said later’ (p. 8). In this vein, recently declassified British Ministry of Defence documents provided to the Nuclear Information Service are stark. They show that by March 1984, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had reviewed the danger of Able Archer 83 and that at least some British intelligence officers observed ‘an unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 and other reports of alleged concern about a surprise NATO attack’.7 The danger described in these intelligence reports was enough to sway prime minister Margaret Thatcher to instruct her ministers to ‘consider what could be done to remove the danger that, by miscalculating Western intentions, the Soviet Union would over-react’. She also instructed the JIC to ‘urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack’.8

Barrass has authored a fine study on Able Archer 83 and its ramifications, but after my own study of the topic I disagree with his conclusion that ‘the events surrounding Able Archer were less frightening than many have claimed’ (pp. 23–4).9 As he acknowledges in endnote 50, many of the actions that the Soviets took to ready their arsenal for nuclear war remain redacted from the PFIAB report. The most comprehensive British JIC report on the episode also remains classified.10 As further secrets are revealed, we may find that the odds of nuclear war through miscalculation during Able Archer 83 were even more frightening than we now know.

-Nate Jones

Director of the Freedom of Project at the National Security Archive and editor of Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Wargame that Almost Triggered Nuclear War.

Reply from the Author

Sir,

I appreciate Mr Jones’s kind words about my article and, for my part, applaud his efforts to clarify the ‘war scare’. However, we have different perspectives on ‘the odds of nuclear war through miscalculation during Able Archer 83’. He still believes they may be ‘even more frightening than we now know’. I very much doubt that.

Mr Jones’s claim that troops were on the ground during Able Archer 83 is questionable. In part, this is because much writing and comment has confused NATO’s annual Autumn Forge field exercises with Able Archer, the command-post exercise that, every autumn, was held as the last exercise in the Autumn Forge series.

On the exact timing of Able Archer 83, I find the dates of 2–11 November to be the most helpful. The nuclear-release part of the exercise began on 7 November; the scenario of conflict started on 4 November, but 2 November was the date set by the Soviet General Staff for some Soviet forces to go onto a higher state of alert. Lower-level nuclear-training exercises, to check the skills of nuclear-force personnel under very strict security conditions, took place throughout the year. None of the cases cited by Mr Jones in his letter carry with them firm dates showing that they were in the time frame 2–11 November, let alone that of 7–11 November.

According to the PFIAB report, for example, Able Archer ‘incorporated live mobilization exercises’.11 The wording of this judgement shows that PFIAB had not researched this issue, but based its conclusions solely on being ‘told that some US aircraft practiced the nuclear warhead handling procedures, including taxiing out of hangars carrying realistic-looking dummy warheads’. No dates are given.

According to another source cited by Mr Jones in his book, a US Air Force master sergeant who participated in an exercise at platoon level, ‘Able Archer … was a full-blown Field Exercise … We actually deployed the “non-warload” [non-operational] systems to dispersal sites in the woods around Ulm, Schwäbisch Gmünd and Heilbronn. There were a number of simulated radio transmissions during the exercise that were “novel” … US troops took the missiles, erector-launchers, C2, and transload vehicles off the Combat Alert Sites and caserns at Neu-Ulm, Stuttgart and Waldheide.’12

Again, no date is given for this exercise, nor is it explained that the ‘missiles’ would have been Pershing 1As that could not reach the Soviet Union, let alone Moscow, since the first Pershing II missiles became operational only in December 1983, a month after Able Archer was held. Moreover, the fact that Pershing launchers would deploy to nearby dispersal sites and activate the communications sets to simulate the receipt of nuclear-release messages does not make Able Archer a field-training exercise. Able Archer 83 was not only about sending and receiving messages and testing the reliability of communications networks, but also a means for NATO’s SHAPE headquarters in Mons, Belgium, to check, down the chain of command, the readiness of nuclear-capable forces to execute their wartime missions, including dispersal and custodial-security procedures, and possibly the loading of dummy gravity bombs under the belly of fighter-bombers, but without actual flights.

The key point is that, for the Soviet General Staff and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), such activity would have been of little significance. If the US were to launch a surprise first strike against the Soviet Union it would not begin with strike aircraft or intercontinental ballistic missiles, but with Pershing IIs. And, as I remarked above, those missiles had not yet been deployed to West Germany, let alone readied for use.

Rainer Rupp, the top East German agent at NATO headquarters in Brussels, is quoted as saying that ‘the Soviets were completely convinced that “Able Archer” was the cover for a real nuclear strike’. That remark should be taken with a good pinch of salt. While there is no doubt that many Soviet people were scared, some even fearing the worst, those closest to the hard realities of nuclear war – Yuri Andropov, Dmitry Ustinov, the General Staff and the GRU – did not expect a first strike during Able Archer.

Mr Jones rightly draws attention to the assessments of the British Joint Intelligence Committee and Thatcher’s concerns, subjects that I studied closely when I was a member of the JIC. These two issues reflected, of course, the intelligence from Oleg Gordievsky and signals-intelligence intercepts, as well as British concern about the very tough line president Ronald Reagan was taking towards the Soviet Union. However, even if the ‘most comprehensive British JIC report on the danger of Able Archer’ were to be released, it would not produce new material to support Mr Jones’s case.

Finally, I doubt that important substance lies hidden beneath the redactions in the PFIAB report. Clearly, much of the redaction is to protect sensitive sources – be they intelligence agents, intercepts, satellite imagery or material from allied intelligence services. The wording of the report’s analysis and conclusions does not suggest to me that some daunting revelation was not taken into account in its judgements.

Gordon Barrass

1. Air Force Seventh Air Division, Ramstein Air Force Base, ‘Exercise Able Archer 83, SAC ADVON, After Action Report’, 1 December 1983, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB427/docs/7.%20Exercise%20Able%20Archer%2083%20After%20Action%20Report%201%20December%201983.pdf.

2. Correspondence with Former SHAPE historian Gregory Pedlow.

3. Nate Jones, Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War (New York: The New Press, 2016), p. 33.

4. ‘Program for ACE Officer’s Nuclear Weapons Release Procedures Course I-34-49, October 17-21, 1983’, NATO School, Oberammergau, Germany, held at the National Security Archive.

5. President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, ‘The Soviet “War Scare”’, 15 February 1990, p. 35, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb533-The-Able-Archer-War-Scare-Declassified-PFIAB-Report-Released/2012-0238-MR.pdf.

6. ‘Rainer Rupp About “Able Archer”, His Work in NATO Headquarters, the Syrian War and the Conflict with Russia’, Workers World, 19 September 2015, http://www.workers.org/2015/10/16/rainer-rupp-about-able-archer-his-work-in-nato-headquarters-the-syrian-war-and-the-conflict-with-russia.

7. UK Ministry of Defence, ‘Soviet Union: Concern About a Surprise Nuclear Attack’, 8 May 1984, https://nsarchive.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/document-9.pdf.

8. ‘Soviet Concern About a Surprise NATO Attack’, 10 Downing Street memo, 10 April 1984, https://nsarchive.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/document-7.pdf.

9. Nate Jones, Able Archer 83.

10. Nate Jones, ‘Why the Key Able Archer 83 Report Should Be Released Under UK FOIA’, National Security Archive, 18 November 2015, https://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/why-the-key-able-archer-83-report-should-be-released-under-uk-foia/.

11. President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, ‘The Soviet “War Scare”’, 15 February 1990, p. 35, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ ebb533-The-Able-Archer-WarScare-Declassified-PFIAB-ReportReleased/2012-0238-MR.pdf.

12. Nate Jones, Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War (New York: The New Press, 2016), p. 33, note 50.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 4, 2017 3:22 pm

    Nice exchange!

    Jason Saltoun-Ebin, Esq. http://www.thereaganfiles.com

    >

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