29 October 2015
-by Joshua Krause
For most people who grew up in the ’80s, the year 1983 probably doesn’t stand out in any particular way. At least, no more than any other year from that decade. As time goes on, however, and more information is released to the public, that year is beginning to take on a sinister tone. That’s because we’re starting to learn that in the latter half of that year, the United States and the Soviet Union came dangerously close to nuclear war on multiple occasions. These incidents were largely fueled by Soviet paranoia and, later, American ignorance; which without a doubt may be the most volatile combination on Earth.
It all started on September 1st, 1983, when a Soviet interceptor shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, which killed an American Congressman on board. Diplomatic relations took a turn for the worse between the two nations, and the Soviet military became more paranoid than they had ever been before.
These tensions were largely responsible for the atmosphere of tension that almost caused a nuclear war three weeks later. This incident became rather well known after the end of the Cold War, when it was revealed that a single officer with the Soviet Air Defense Forces prevented World War Three. A signal from a faulty detection system told the officer that the US had just launched a preemptive strike and, fortunately for the human race, he chose to ignore it. However, that wasn’t the only close call from that time period.
In November of that year, the United States started a massive military training exercise in Europe that was code-named Able Archer 83. The ten-day exercise involved 19,000 US troops from across the world and multiple NATO nations.
The point of the exercise was to train our forces on how to transition from a conventional war to a nuclear war, should they ever have to fight the Soviets. Now for the first time, declassified documents have been published by the National Security Archive (a non-government non-profit) which reveal that this training exercise nearly sparked World War Three.
According to the documents, the Soviets were already freaking out about the possibility of a preemptive strike by the US, after 600 Pershing missiles were fielded by NATO. It started out a mere theory, but eventually became conventional wisdom among KGB officials. Everyone believed that our government was preparing to destroy them without cause.
These fears were escalated by the shortcomings of their own defenses, which were falling behind America’s highly capable nuclear arsenal. They came to the conclusion that any first strike against them would completely obliterate their defenses, and leave them with nothing to retaliate with.
So once Able Archer began, they were already on a hair-trigger. Given the scale and the purpose of the operation (which was to train for a nuclear war) the Soviets were convinced that the whole training exercise was a ruse; an attempt to get our forces fully mobilized without raising any alarms. We were essentially simulating the worst fears of the Soviet intelligence community. Warsaw Pact militaries responded by pulling nukes from storage and sending them to delivery sites, as well as suspending most routine military flights so that these aircraft would be available for combat.
Despite these actions, the United States was completely clueless. Nobody in the chain of command, including the President, had any idea that the Soviets were losing their minds over our actions. In fact, the military was aware that the Soviets were on a higher state of alert, but didn’t think anything of it. No changes were made to our defense posture.
Our military completely dropped the ball and, ultimately, that’s what prevented war from breaking out. Since our military never thought anything was amiss, they never escalated a situation that they were completely unaware of. The training exercise came and went without anyone going to war.
So in a nutshell, our lack of knowledge led us to conduct a training exercise that almost provoked a nuclear war, and our lack of awareness prevented that war from occurring. It is by nothing less than dumb luck that we are still breathing today. Hopefully, the United States and Russia will look back on this incident and remember how close we came to the brink, before they conduct any more of their provocative training exercises in Eastern Europe.