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National Security Archive Posts Able Archer 83 Sourcebook

The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook: “Today marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of Able Archer 83, a NATO exercise that utilized “new nuclear weapons release procedures” to simulate the transition from conventional to nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  Although US officials saw Able Archer 83 as a routine exercise, it resulted in an “unprecedented Soviet reaction” which US intelligence eventually inferred “was an expression of a genuine belief on the part of Soviet leaders that US was planning a nuclear first strike,” according to the largest collection of declassified documents on the 1983 War Scare compiled and posted by the National Security Archive. The climax of Able Archer 83 was on November 9, 1983 when NATO war gamers at Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe (SHAPE) realized they could not halt a simulated Soviet conventional advance and requested “initial limited use of nuclear weapons against pre-selected fixed targets.”  This limited strike was not enough, and on the morning of November 11, a “follow-on use of nuclear weapons was executed.” While NATO was practicing a drawn-out transition from conventional to nuclear war, Soviet leadership feared a decapitating first strike.  The imminent European deployment of western Pershing II and cruise missiles which could reach the Soviet Union in ten minutes led Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov to warn in June of 1983 of the “the dangerous ‘red line’” of nuclear war through “miscalculation” four times during his “first real meeting” with an envoy from the Reagan administration.  A KGB report from May of 1982 describes the creation of the largest peace-time human intelligence gathering operation in history, Operation RYaN, in an attempt to “prevent the possible sudden outbreak of war by the enemy.”

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