For ten days in November 1983, the world was closer to nuclear war than previously known.
This is what new documents opened by the US State Department reveal. They detail the extent of the crisis caused by a Western military exercise that the Soviets saw as the preparation for a real war.
The crisis itself was known, from reports of former spies on both sides and the work of researchers such as the American Nate Jones, of the National Security Archive Institute, at George Washington University (United States). .
The 380 new documents show that Moscow ordered at least one Sukhoi-17 fighter-bomber squadron in each of its regiments in former East Germany and Communist Poland to be armed with tactical nuclear bombs.
The planes were supposed to be on alert 24 hours a day, with a maximum reaction time of 30 minutes before reaching their targets in Western Europe.
More: It is only now known that, in a review of the facts done to address intelligence errors, the United States admitted that it had not noticed an unusual suspension of military flights across the Communist bloc for 7 out of 10 days of exercise.
The only logical assumption: the planes were on the ground in preparation for a real fight.
Until now, the mobilization of Soviet forces was known, but not that they were preparing for a nuclear war in the European theater, divided by the winners of World War II between the communist and capitalist blocs, which was likely to degenerate into an apocalyptic world war. conflict.
The crisis stems from a succession of misconceptions on both sides, American neglect and Soviet paranoia to come, and holds important lessons for a world in which new risks of conflict due to accidents or misunderstandings increase year by year.
Last December, for example, the Pentagon advised the US Navy to be more assertive in its encounters with Russian and Chinese rivals in disputed waters.
It’s at a time when Beijing and Washington are outsiders in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and soon after a near collision between Russian and American destroyers in the Pacific.
1983 condensed the greatest conflict dangers of the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. With the difference that the risks to the rest of the world were much greater, just like today.
Two years earlier, in 1981, the Soviets had experienced the stagnation of the end of the government of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). Under pressure, the Moscow summit launched Operation Rian, the Russian acronym for nuclear missile attack, the largest intelligence action in the entire Cold War.
His aim was to find signs in all enemy corners that the Americans would take the offensive and attack first. It was a mixture of historical fear, due to the Nazi betrayal that led to the 1941 invasion and the regime’s decadent paranoia.
With that, the nerves were at their end. The fiery rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, the American president he had taken over in 1981 and two years later, spoke in the Soviet Union of an “evil empire” to be destroyed, triggering an arms race.
New American missiles have been deployed in Europe, exposing Moscow to a devastating first strike without too much reaction time. The Soviets were targeting the entire European capital, but to reach Washington there would be a larger warning window.
A series of incidents escalated tensions. The new American missiles forced the Soviets to quit arms control negotiations.
In September, Moscow shot down a Korean Jumbo, mistaken for a spy plane. That same month, a computer error nearly ignited the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, and in October Washington invaded Grenada and toppled a left-wing government.
But the center of tension was the great European trench. NATO (Western Military Alliance) held three major military exercises in sequence, culminating in one in which the leaders of the countries themselves were involved, the Able Archer 83 (able archer, in English).
Annually, the simulation was scaled to consider the use of the new missiles in a transition from conventional shock, which would be lost by Westerners before the numerically superior forces of the Warsaw Pact, to tactical nuclear warfare.
According to known reports, the Americans did not perceive the risk from the other side, so much so that they did not recommend any reaction when the first signs of Soviet nervousness appeared.
“If I knew what I found out later, I wouldn’t be sure what advice to give,” said General Leonard Perroots, head of the US Air Force’s intelligence area in Europe at the time of the call. exercise, in one of the documents now declassified as secret.
Detailed reports from the Soviet side are still lacking. “The nature of the high-level talks in the Kremlin is largely unknown,” researcher Jones wrote in the Washington Post, where he coordinates requests for access to secret documents.
In any case, Able Archer ended on November 11 and tensions have dissipated. Some attribute this to improved side-by-side intelligence reporting, others to the Soviet political dismantling (three leaders died from 1982 to 1985), although this may have contributed to the tension.
And it is never too much to remember that former Western actor Reagan was horrified to watch “The Next Day”, a movie about nuclear war in the United States, in private session in full exercise on November 5th. Coincidence or not, his hawkish rhetoric calmed down a lot after that night.