The US Pershing II Missile.
The announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative added to a tense 1983. The year ended with the Soviet Union walking out of the Geneva arms control talks as cruise missiles were introduced into Britain and Germany, and an enormous row over the shooting down of a Korean airliner by Soviet air defences. We now know that the KGB had all but convinced itself that NATO was about to launch a pre-emptive strike. A NATO exercise of November 1983, ABELARCHER- 83, simulated raising the alert level of US nuclear forces and was at one point to have involved all top American policy-makers. This started to appear in Moscow as a possible cover for the real thing. The Russians raised the alert level of their forces. Washington realized that matters might be getting out of hand and began to send more reassuring signals.
Exercise Able Archer 83
Indeed, a KGB telegram of February 17 described one likely scenario as such:
In view of the fact that the measures involved in State Orange [a nuclear attack within 36 hours] have to be carried out with the utmost secrecy (under the guise of maneuvers, training etc) in the shortest possible time, without disclosing the content of operational plans, it is highly probable that the battle alarm system may be used to prepare a surprise RYAN [nuclear attack] in peacetime.
February 17, 1983 KGB Permanent Operational Assignment assigned its agents to monitor several possible indicators of a nuclear attack. These included actions by "A cadre of people associated with preparing and implementing decision about RYAN, and also a group of people, including service and technical personnel ... those working in the operating services of installations connected with processing and implementing the decision about RYAN, and communication staff involved in the operation and interaction of these installations."
Because Able Archer 83 simulated an actual release, it is likely that the service and technical personnel mentioned in the memo were active in the exercise. More conspicuously, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl participated (though not concurrently) in the nuclear drill. United States President Reagan, Vice President George H. W. Bush, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were also intended to participate. Robert McFarlane, who had assumed the position of National Security Advisor just two weeks earlier, realized the implications of such participation early in the exercise's planning and rejected it.
Another illusory indicator likely noticed by Soviet analysts was an influx of ciphered communications between the United Kingdom and the United States. Soviet intelligence was informed that "so-called nuclear consultations in NATO are probably one of the stages of immediate preparation by the adversary for RYAN". To the Soviet analysts, this burst of secret communications between the United States and the UK one month before the beginning of Able Archer may have appeared to be this "consultation". In reality, the burst of communication regarded the US invasion of Grenada on October 25, 1983, which caused a great deal of diplomatic traffic as the sovereign of the island was Elizabeth II.
A further startling aspect reported by KGB agents regarded the NATO communications used during the exercise. According to the Moscow Centre's February 17, 1983 memo,
It [is] of the highest importance to keep a watch on the functioning of communications networks and systems since through them information is passed about the adversary's intentions and, above all, about his plans to use nuclear weapons and practical implementation of these. In addition, changes in the method of operating communications systems and the level of manning may in themselves indicate the state of preparation for RYAN.
Soviet Intelligence appeared to substantiate these suspicions by reporting that NATO was indeed using unique, never-before-seen procedures as well as message formats more sophisticated than previous exercises that possibly indicated the proximity of nuclear attack.
Finally, during Able Archer 83 NATO forces simulated a move through all alert phases, from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1. While these phases were simulated, alarmist KGB agents mistakenly reported them as actual. According to Soviet intelligence, NATO doctrine stated, "Operational readiness No. 1 is declared when there are obvious indications of preparation to begin military operations. It is considered that war is inevitable and may start at any moment."
Upon learning that US nuclear activity mirrored its hypothesized first strike activity, the Moscow Centre sent its residencies a flash telegram on November 8 or 9 (Oleg Gordievsky cannot recall which), incorrectly reporting an alert on American bases and frantically asking for further information regarding an American first strike. The alert precisely coincided with the seven- to ten-day period estimated between NATO's preliminary decision and an actual strike. This was the peak of the war scare.
The Soviet Union, believing its only chance of surviving a NATO strike was to preempt it, readied its nuclear arsenal. The CIA reported activity in the Baltic Military District, in Czechoslovakia, and it determined that nuclear-capable aircraft in Poland and East Germany were placed "on high alert status with readying of nuclear strike forces". Former CIA analyst Peter Vincent Pry goes further, saying he suspects that the aircraft were merely the tip of the iceberg. He hypothesizes that—in accordance with Soviet military procedure and history—ICBM silos, easily readied and difficult for the United States to detect, were also prepared for a launch.
Soviet fears of the attack ended as the Able Archer exercise finished on November 11. Upon learning of the Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 by way of the double agent Oleg Gordievsky, a British SIS asset, President Reagan commented, "I don't see how they could believe that—but it’s something to think about."
A scenario released by NATO details the hypothetical lead-up to the Able Archer exercise, which was used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington D.C. and the Ministry of Defense in London. Dr. Gregory Pedlow, a SHAPE historian explains the war game:
"The exercise scenario began with Orange (the hypothetical opponent) opening hostilities in all regions of ACE on 4 November (three days before the start of the exercise) and Blue (NATO) declaring a general alert. Orange initiated the use of chemical weapons on 6 November and by the end of that day had used such weapons throughout ACE. All of these events had taken place prior to the start of the exercise and were simply part of the written scenario. There had thus been three days of fighting and a deteriorating situation prior to the start of the exercise. This was desired because — as previously stated — the purpose of the exercise was to test procedures for transitioning from conventional to nuclear operations. As a result of Orange advance, its persistent use of chemical weapons, and its clear intentions to rapidly commit second echelon forces, SACEUR requested political guidance on the use of nuclear weapons early on Day 1 of the exercise (7 November 1983)..."