In November 1983, the USA and NATO ran an exercise which simulated a coordinated nuclear strike against the USSR, resulting in the biggest nuclear scare since the Cuban Missile Crisis 21 years earlier. Tensions between the superpowers meant that some Soviets actually believed the USA was secretly trying to cover a real nuclear first strike, causing them to ready their own nuclear forces while putting forces in East Germany on high alert. Luckily, the whole situation ended when the ten-day exercise ended, thus allowing the USSR to eventually destroy itself instead. But let's start at the beginning.
PSYOPS and Operation PЯH
Though the arms build-up during the Carter administration had done little to help relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, the build-up to the Able Archer scare started with the election of President Ronald Reagan, who was strongly in opposition of the ideals of socialism and communism, in January 1981. Two months later, the USA began running PSYOPS, or psychological operations, against the USSR. Secret naval operations would take place in which NATO vessels would sneak up on Soviet bases via Iceland and the Norwegian, Baltic and Barents seas, the sole purpose of which was simply to prove how close NATO ships could get if they wanted to. Meanwhile, US bombers would fly right up to the edge of Soviet airspace, testing the radar and causing the USSR to put troops on alert, before simply peeling off and flying back home again. The USSR found these operations pointless and quite irritating, and this probably served only to make the USSR more paranoid.
In May 1981, KGB chairman Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov announced fears that the USA was planning a secret all-out nuclear attack on the USSR. To counter this possibility, Andropov ordered Operation PЯH (Pакетнoе Ядеpнoе Hападение), which was an abbreviation of the words meaning 'Nuclear Missile Attack' in Russian and is referred to as Operation RYAN by the English-speaking world. With the aim of discovering the intent of an attack and preventing it, PЯH saw both the KGB and the GRU1 gathering a great deal of intelligence and monitoring key political figures who might be responsible for the initiation of a nuclear attack. This paranoia would later help lead the Russians to believe the USA was about to launch an attack, but as we will see it was only one of the contributing factors involved.
In March 1983, Reagan unveiled the Strategic Defence Initiative, often referred to as 'Star Wars' due to its then-futuristic nature. The plan involved the use of various ground-based and space-bourne systems to protect the USA from an all-out nuclear attack. Although Reagan thought the scheme to be a deterrent against nuclear war, Andropov, who had now become leader of the USSR, simply saw it as a move by the USA towards a one-sided situation. The situation was only made worse by the fact that, in response to the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, Pershing II missiles had recently been deployed in Western Europe, thus giving NATO the ability to hit the USSR with nuclear warheads in just six minutes. It is possible that both moves were made to facilitate a definitive first strike due to fears that NATO could no longer track the Soviet SSBNs2, which could pose a direct threat to the USA if they were to appear on the Eastern Seaboard. The USSR feared both the Star Wars program and the USA's new-found 'sudden strike' capability, both of which led to increased paranoia amongst those coordinating Operation PЯH.
As the PSYOPS campaign continued through into 1983, the Soviets got a little too paranoid. On 1 September, 1983, Korean Airlines Flight 007 from Anchorage, Alaska to Seoul, South Korea deviated from its flight plan into Soviet airspace. Soviet MiGs and Sukhois were scrambled and the plane was shot down, killing all 269 passengers along with the crew. The USSR claimed to have mistaken the flight for a military Boeing RC-135, as was being used by the US Air Force for electronic intelligence gathering on the same day. Reagan strongly condemned the incident and had the Federal Aviation Administration terminate Aeroflot Soviet Airline's licence to operate flights into and out of the USA. Meanwhile, the US ambassador to the United Nations presented a one-sided report to the UN Security Council, using only some of the evidence available to make the shooting look barbaric. The fact that the shooting was a mistake was beside the point, and the whole incident only served to make relations between the USA and the USSR worse.
On 25 October, 1983, the USA successfully invaded Grenada, a British Commonwealth country where the leader of the Marxist-Leninist government had recently been deposed by his deputy. The invasion went ahead despite opposition by Britain and Canada, with Margaret Thatcher personally writing to Ronald Reagan to express her concerns. The incident led to a sudden increase in encrypted communication between the UK and the USA just one week before Operation Able Archer, which was wrongly believed by the USSR to be a sign that NATO was consulting on how best to nuke the Soviet Union.
On 2 November, 1983, Operation Able Archer began. The plan involved simulating an actual release of nuclear missiles, which unfortunately meant that those Russian intelligence officers watching for signs of a nuclear war suddenly started to see technical personnel and engineers readying themselves for just that. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher and the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl took part in separate practice drills, though fortunately the USA had the sense to keep Ronald Reagan and Vice President George HW Bush out in the open, lest their actions be enough to fully convince the USSR that the end of the world was nigh.
Meanwhile, the militaries of various NATO countries started to follow a simulation of the LERTCONs all the way up to DEFCON 13, leading the KGB to mistakenly think that NATO was really about to attack. The USSR still remembered the events of World War II and were not about to stand back and watch a repeat of Operation Barbarossa. The use of previously-concealed communications methods and unique manoeuvres on the part of NATO forces led the KGB in Moscow to believe the whole thing was real, causing it to start communicating with all its residenturas4 in the Western world asking for any information on the impending nuclear strike. The USSR readied nuclear-capable aircraft in Poland and East Germany with a view to destroying the Pershing II missile silos in Western Europe before they could fire upon the Rodina and, according to Soviet doctrine, it is likely that the USSR also readied their missile silos. The war scare peaked just a week after the start of the operation, partially due to the fact that the USSR believed any nuclear strike would come within seven to ten days of the decision to initiate such a plan. The USSR spent the next couple of days waiting for annihilation, but it didn't come.
Then, just as quickly as it had started, Operation Able Archer ended. The USA only learned of the USSR's panic through double agent Oleg Gordievsky, who had watched the situation from the KGB residentura in London. Thanks to Reagan's policy of confrontation rather than rapprochement, the USSR made no comment on the matter, and evidence discovered since indicates that the Soviets were merely following their paranoia and would not have posed a threat to the Western world unless some nukes had actually been fired at them. In fact, the incident may have had a beneficial effect, as it helped Reagan see that confrontationism was not the right way to go about opposing the USSR - it just made a misunderstanding more likely to occur. Though the USA continued with its build-up of nuclear weapons, Able Archer was the last big scare of the Cold War, which finally ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though the exercise itself now languishes in obscurity, the lessons that were learnt from it might just have been vital in securing the continuing existence of the world as we know it.