The Soviet Union and NATO came perilously close to nuclear war after the latter executed a major war games exercise in Central Europe in 1983, according to newly released classified documents.
According to The Observer, papers obtained by Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), reveal a never-before-told Cold War-era tale of nuclear brinkmanship -- complete with double agents -- that one official said brought civilization closer to Armageddon than even the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The papers were reportedly obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the nuclear watchdog.
“These papers document a pivotal moment in modern history – the point at which an alarmed (Margaret) Thatcher government realized that the cold war had to be brought to an end and began the process of persuading its American allies likewise,” Burt reportedly said.
The papers cast a gimlet’s eye on Operation Able Archer – and the Soviet response to the NATO exercise.
The Observer summarizes the operation as having, “involved 40,000 U.S. and NATO troops moving across western Europe, coordinated by encrypted communications systems, (and) imagined a scenario in which Blue Forces (NATO) defended its allies after Orange Forces (Warsaw Pact countries) sent troops into Yugoslavia following political unrest.
“The Orange Forces had quickly followed this up with invasions of Finland, Norway and eventually Greece. As the conflict had intensified, a conventional war had escalated into one involving chemical and nuclear weapons.”
But the newly unclassified documents obtained by Burt show the Soviet Union likely mistook the NATO exercise as a prelude to war.
The Observer reports that the Kremlin responded to Able Archer by fitting a dozen aircraft in East Germany and Poland with nuclear weapons, putting 70 SS-20 missiles on heightened alert and dispatching nuclear missile submarines under the Arctic ice so as to avoid detection by NATO radar nets.
And it seems the British government only became aware of the Soviet response to the operation through intelligence furnished by former KGB double-agent and eventual Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky.
According to the The Observer, documents obtained by Burt include a till-now classified British Joint Intelligence Committee report penned shortly after Able Archer that concludes the following: “We cannot discount the possibility that at least some Soviet officials/officers may have misinterpreted Able Archer 83 and possibly other nuclear CPXs [command post exercises] as posing a real threat.”
And the then-cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, who briefed Thatcher on the Soviets’ response, reportedly added of the Soviet military activity, “ (it) took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the NATO exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring.”
Paul Dibb, a former Australian Joint Intelligence Organization director, said, “Able Archer could have triggered the ultimate unintended catastrophe, and with prompt nuclear strike capacities on both the U.S. and Soviet sides, orders of magnitude greater than in 1962."