Home / Articles / ABLE ARCHER at 35: Lessons of the 1983 War Scare
1983: The Year of Living Dangerously
In their seminal account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, political scientists Graham Allison and Phillip Zelikow summarize its effects on U.S.-Soviet relations: “Having peered over the edge of the nuclear precipice, both nations edged backwards toward détente. Never again was the risk of war between them as great as it was the last two weeks of October 1962.” The possibility of nuclear war over Cuba, which President John F. Kennedy assessed as “between 1 in 3 and even,” was the catalyst for détente. Both countries began to look for ways to manage or avert the periodic crises that had defined the Cold War to that point. But there is more to the story. While it is true that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the catalyst for a period of reduced tensions between the superpowers, it is also true that by the early 1980s, détente was dead, and relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had sunk to new and dangerous lows.
In some ways, the early 1980s were more dangerous than October 1962 because only one side understood the depths of the crisis. As Robert Gates, Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at the time, notes in his memoirs, this period was “one of the potentially most dangerous episodes of the Cold War,” during which the U.S. “may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known about it.” In 1981, shortly after Ronald Reagan took office, the Soviet leadership convinced itself that the U.S. was planning a surprise nuclear attack. KGB Chairman and future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov told Soviet Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin, “Reagan is unpredictable. You should expect anything from him.” To protect itself against such an attack from the “unpredictable” Reagan, the Soviet Union began a comprehensive effort to uncover signs that an attack was coming. The U.S., due to a combination of ignorance and trivialization of Soviet fears, took actions that fed these fears and made war by miscalculation more likely.
Recently discovered archival documents make clear that starting in 1981 the Soviet KGB’s “main objective” became “not to miss the military preparations of the enemy, its preparations for a nuclear strike, and not to miss the real risk of the outbreak of war.” In order not to be decapitated by a surprise nuclear attack, the KGB initiated Operation RYaN (Raketno-Yadernoye Napadenie, “nuclear missile attack”). Its objective was to find evidence of preparation for a U.S. nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union, which the Soviet Union intended to pre-empt with a nuclear strike of its own.
The deterioration in relations accelerated in November 1983, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conducted Exercise ABLE ARCHER. The exercise scenario culminated with a NATO nuclear strike in response to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Aside from the fact that the exercise simulated the attack the Soviet Union already believed the U.S planned, three things made the period around ABLE ARCHER exceptionally dangerous. First, the Soviet intelligence community was still traumatized by its failure to anticipate the German attack in June 1941 and was determined not to be taken by surprise again. Second, as Soviet Minister of Defense Dmitry Ustinov noted in an announcement in Pravda, NATO’s military exercises were “becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from a real deployment of armed forces for aggression.” Finally, unaware that the Soviet Union actually believed a U.S. attack was impending, the American government inadvertently took steps in the months prior to ABLE ARCHER that directly fed Soviet fears.
Archival documents show a Soviet response to ABLE ARCHER that was “unparalleled in scale.” Fearing that the long-anticipated attack was now imminent, the Soviet government transported nuclear weapons to delivery units, suspended all flight operations other than intelligence flights, and directed round-the-clock military preparedness during ABLE ARCHER. Soviet aircraft in Poland and East Germany went on “strip alert,” armed, fueled, and ready to take off with minimal notice. After ordering these steps, Chief of the Soviet General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov retired to a subterranean command bunker. In the end, ABLE ARCHER passed without incident. Although the Soviet Union continued Operation RYaN until 1991, Soviet fears eased after the fall of 1983, and the Cold War entered its final, less volatile stage.
Lessons of 1983
There are three important lessons to be drawn from the 1983 war scare. First, leadership matters—in both the White House and the Kremlin, the identity of leaders impacted outcomes in important ways. Next, confirmation bias and incentive structures that support it are a significant problem in intelligence work. Finally, the lack of strategic empathy—the ability to understand an adversary’s view of a situation—heightens the possibility of inadvertent war.
U.S. and Soviet Leadership
As the 1983 war scare approached its culminating point, represented by ABLE ARCHER in November, Ronald Reagan became concerned that Soviet rhetoric about the danger of a U.S. nuclear strike might be more than simple propaganda. This concern led him to make a decision that may well have prevented a grave Soviet miscalculation. Before that point, the backgrounds and personalities of both Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Yuri Andropov contributed to the intensity of the crisis.
Where his predecessors had seen the Cold War as a fact of life, Ronald Reagan came into office determined to transcend it. Resolved to confront Soviet advances in the developing world and strengthen U.S. nuclear forces, Reagan levelled fundamental critiques of both détente and arms control upon assuming the presidency. While this disturbed the Soviet leadership, two events in March 1983 seriously unbalanced them. The first was the speech in which Reagan labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire;” the second was the announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a spaced-based missile defense system. As Benjamin Fischer notes, “The ‘evil empire’ speech infuriated Kremlin leaders; SDI scared them.”
Western media lampooned Reagan’s idea of a space-based missile defense system, labeling it “Star Wars.” Soviet leaders were not so dismissive—their outsized fear of Western technological prowess led them to believe the U.S. was capable of developing such a system. Once deployed, SDI would allow the U.S. to carry out the first strike that the Kremlin believed it had already planned, and defeat any Soviet nuclear counterstrike. Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric, which only escalated after the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean airliner in September, convinced Kremlin leaders that the U.S. now had a president who might actually act on the imputed American desire to destroy the USSR.
By this time, Reagan was having second thoughts about his aggressive anti-Soviet stance. Thanks to intelligence passed on from the United Kingdom, Reagan became aware of Operation RYaN. Shocked that the Soviet leadership might actually believe the U.S. intended to launch a nuclear war, the President summoned Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to a secret meeting in his White House living quarters in an attempt to better understand Soviet fears. Later, Reagan declined to participate in ABLE ARCHER—the original scenario called for him to play a role—surmising that if the Soviets were indeed that concerned about the exercise, his participation would only exacerbate the situation. This decision almost certainly prevented Soviet fears from escalating further, and possibly prevented a Soviet miscalculation that might have had grave consequences.
The war scare of 1983 appears to have been an epiphany for Ronald Reagan. As he wrote in his memoirs, he was stunned to learn that “many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear missiles at them in a first strike.” A week after ABLE ARCHER ended, Reagan directed the formation of a group of Soviet experts in the National Security Council to look for ways to open a dialogue with the Soviet leadership to ease their fears of nuclear attack. This marked the beginning of a new approach to the issue of U.S.-Soviet relations, which also included several handwritten letters from Reagan to Andropov seeking to defuse tensions and build trust between them, all of which went unanswered.
Like Reagan, Andropov contributed to the heightened tensions in 1983. Unlike Reagan, Andropov had neither the inclination nor the energy to change his approach after the crisis had passed. A career KGB officer and former head of the agency, it was Andropov who initiated Operation RYaN. According to Dobrynin, Andropov was the first Soviet leader since Stalin who believed the U.S. might actually attack the Soviet Union. By the fall of 1983, Andropov was hospitalized for kidney failure, where he would stay until his death in February 1984. He was too ill—and in any case not predisposed—to respond to Reagan’s attempts at outreach after ABLE ARCHER. Significant improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations would have to wait for the death of Andropov’s hardline successor Konstantin Chernenko and the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985.
Confirmation Bias and Operation RYaN
The second major lesson that can be drawn from the 1983 war scare is that confirmation bias affected the Soviet view of U.S. intentions. Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to embrace information that confirms a previously existing view, while ignoring or rejecting information that casts doubt on it. Having convinced itself that the U.S. intended to launch a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union, the Soviet intelligence community then set out to find evidence that the attack was impending. Although some individual Soviet agents were skeptical of the idea that the U.S. was planning a nuclear first strike, they were nevertheless “driven to find evidence to support it, knowing that there were rewards for doing so and penalties for not doing so.” The institutional bias toward the idea that the U.S. planned a first strike and the incentive structure that arose around it affected both the intelligence Soviet agents collected and how that intelligence was interpreted at headquarters.
Two examples serve to demonstrate this point. First, in mid-October, the Soviet Union detected a spike in classified communication between London and Washington. Although they were able to monitor the volume of communication, the Soviets were unable to decode its content. Predisposed to the idea that the U.S. planned to attack the Soviet Union and aware that Washington might notify its closest ally when the attack would occur, Soviet analysts were suspicious that the spike in classified communication meant the attack was impending. In reality, the classified communication between London and Washington reflected British unhappiness over the invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth country, that the U.S. had undertaken without informing the United Kingdom in advance.
Next, during ABLE ARCHER, Soviet intelligence notified its residencies in Western Europe that U.S. military installations in Europe were on alert. In reality, U.S. bases had adopted heightened security measures due to the recent bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, but there was no general alert. While acknowledging that the “alert” could be related to Beirut, Moscow Center told its residencies to look for signs that it could be in preparation for the anticipated nuclear first strike.
Strategic Empathy and “Seeing the Other”
The final lesson from the 1983 war scare is the importance of strategic empathy, or the ability to understand a situation from an adversary’s perspective. Strategic empathy does not imply agreement or sympathy with an adversary, but simply the ability to see things through the adversary’s eyes. In contrast to Ronald Reagan, who demonstrated a genuine desire to understand whether the Soviet leadership actually feared an attack from the U.S., some parts of the American government wrote off reports of Soviet fears as propaganda or disinformation. Having dismissed Soviet fears as not genuine, the U.S. then took actions in the summer and fall of 1983 that fed those fears and raised the chances of inadvertent war.
The KGB resident in London, Oleg Gordievsky, was one of the most prized assets of British intelligence. In February 1983, the London rezidentura received a cable from KGB headquarters notifying it that Operation RYaN had acquired “an especial degree of urgency” and “particularly grave importance.” The cable further directed the rezidentura to mount a “continual watch” in order to provide warning at “a very early” stage of “any preparation by the adversary for a nuclear missile attack on the USSR.” Gordievsky found this cable so alarming that he took the exceptional risk of showing it to his MI-6 case officer. MI-6 then prepared a summary of the cable and passed it on to the CIA, where it was met with skepticism. The CIA doubted the veracity of Gordievsky’s report for two reasons. First, it was based on a single human source; and second, the CIA’s technical collection means did not reveal any signs of such fear.
Meanwhile, the U.S. intelligence community and other elements of the U.S. government were taking actions that directly fed Soviet fears of a nuclear strike. As Arnav Manchanda notes, the 1970s were a decade of strategic stability for the Soviet Union. Détente eased tensions with the U.S.; the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) induced stability in the U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance by eliminating the incentive to strike first in a crisis; and the 1975 Helsinki Final Act legitimized the borders of the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites. By the 1980s, all of these pillars of stability were crumbling.
First, the U.S. repudiated détente. From the U.S. perspective, Soviet adventurism in Africa and military intervention in Afghanistan fatally undermined the idea that the U.S. and the Soviet Union could peacefully coexist. But the Soviets prized the predictability and sense of equivalence that détente conferred and therefore saw its demise as ominous. Next, the U.S. and its Western allies used the Helsinki Final Act to pressure the Soviet Union on its human rights record. Initially ecstatic about Helsinki for the legitimacy it lent to their sphere of interest in Eastern Europe, Soviet leaders came to despise the agreement for its language on human rights, which they had considered inconsequential during the negotiating of the agreement.
Aside from these unwelcome changes to the geopolitical order, there were changes in U.S. doctrine and policy that directly fed Soviet fears. The early 1980s saw a shift in U.S. doctrine from an acceptance of MAD to a belief that nuclear war was survivable. Presidential Directive 59 in July 1980 directed the development of a more survivable system of nuclear command and control. National Security Decision Directive 13 of October 1981 envisioned the goal of prevailing in a protracted nuclear war of up to 180 days. And perhaps most ominously, the introduction of Single Integrated Operational Plan 6 in October 1983 envisioned the nuclear targeting of Soviet political-military command structures and mobile nuclear forces. The Soviet leadership recognized the targeting of their command and control and mobile forces as an explicit rejection of MAD and saw it as further evidence that the U.S. was planning a first strike. The goal of these changes to U.S. nuclear doctrine was to induce caution in the Soviet leadership by making nuclear war an unrealistic option. Instead, these changes provided an incentive for the Soviet Union to act massively and decisively early in a crisis. Despite retaining its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union increasingly shifted to a doctrine of pre-emption and began searching for indicators the U.S was planning an attack.
Finally, as noted previously, the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet rhetoric increased markedly after the shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983. The Soviet Union’s refusal to take responsibility for the death of the 269 passengers on board made it appear brutal and indifferent to the loss of life. However, unbeknownst much of the U.S. government, the U.S. military had been undertaking highly secret probes of Soviet air and maritime borders prior to the shoot-down. It is now clear that the Soviets believed they were tracking one of these flights, but their highly classified nature meant that even the U.S. intelligence officials tasked with assessing Soviet behavior were unaware of them. To them, KAL007 represented yet another instance of rampant Soviet aggression. As Robert Gates notes, in its reaction to the shoot-down, the “administration’s rhetoric outran the facts that were known to it.”
The tendency in the U.S. government to write off Soviet protestations as disinformation or propaganda raised the chance of inadvertent war in the fall of 1983. To be fair, the shrill Soviet rhetoric and tendency to see the most malign intentions in any Western action made it hard to separate genuine Soviet fears from those contrived simply to fit the Soviet narrative of an aggressive America bent on the destruction of the Soviet Union. But U.S. officials at the time often failed to understand what former UK Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe concluded based on the information received from Oleg Gordievsky: The Soviet leadership “really did believe the bulk of their own propaganda.”
Lessons for Today
The war scare of 1983, which culminated with ABLE ARCHER, represented the most dangerous period in the late Cold War. What made it so dangerous was that only the Soviet Union understood the depths of the crisis. Unaware or unwilling to believe that the Soviet leadership truly feared the U.S. was planning a surprise nuclear attack, U.S. political and military leaders inadvertently took steps that directly fed Soviet fears.
The war scare demonstrates that it matters who runs the White House and the Kremlin. Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric and strong anti-Communist stance played a large role in feeding the Kremlin’s paranoia about a U.S. nuclear strike. But when Reagan became aware of Soviet fears and understood how dangerous the situation had become, he fundamentally changed his approach. It also mattered that Yuri Andropov was the Soviet leader during the war scare. First, he had initiated Operation RYaN as leader of the KGB, and he brought his suspicions about U.S. intentions to the Kremlin with him. Next, Andropov’s long-term hospitalization meant that the military and the intelligence services, traditionally the most suspicious and anti-American organizations in the Soviet government, played an outsized role in decision making.
Next, organizations and leaders must be aware of the problem of confirmation bias and should be particularly wary of establishing incentive structures that support it. Rewarding individuals for producing intelligence that conforms to the preconceptions of policymakers is dangerous. Intelligence professionals should not fear for their careers if they tell the boss he is wrong. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, predicated on the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein still had an active weapons of mass destruction program, demonstrates that these issues remain.
Finally, lack of strategic empathy, or the ability to see through the eyes of the other, remains a problem in U.S.-Russian relations today, just as it was during the Cold War. U.S. policymakers who dismiss Russian protests of NATO enlargement make the same mistake as their predecessors who dismissed the idea that the Soviet Union feared a U.S. nuclear strike. Since contemporary U.S. leaders know that NATO harbors no aggressive intentions against Russia, they dismiss the Kremlin’s protestations as propaganda or disinformation, failing to understand that although NATO does not threaten Russia, Russia genuinely feels threatened by NATO. Russian leaders make the same mistake when they assume that the U.S. and its Western partners do not value human rights and the advance of democracy for their own sake, but instead cynically use these concepts to undermine Russian security.
As U.S.-Russian relations move from crisis to crisis today, the lessons of 1983 bear contemplation. Thirty-five years ago, the most dangerous period of the late Cold War passed without incident, and gave way to a period of improved relations that marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It seems far-fetched to hope for a fundamental transformation of relations between Washington and Moscow now. Instead, hoping to negotiate the next crisis as successfully as the two sides negotiated the “year of living dangerously” is perhaps the best we can do.
 Graham T. Allison and Phillip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, (New York, NY: Longman, 1999), p. 77.
 Len Scott, “Intelligence and the Risk of Nuclear War: Able Archer-83 Revisited,” Intelligence and National Security, 26:6, pp. 759-760.