NATO Exercise Able Archer Spooks Soviets

Researching to write a book about the justification for the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapon Plant in Colorado has led me to many fascinating historical facts. A CIA report describes how the Soviets had implemented an intelligence collection system with the acronym name RYAN in 1981 to watch for US preparations for launching a surprise nuclear attack. NATO began a command post exercise codenamed Able Archer in 1983 that triggered significant concern in the Soviet Union. They were familiar with the exercise from previous years and noted with concern that high-level US officials usually not involved would participate. There would even be an appearance by President Reagan. Perhaps even more concerning was that there would be “…a practice drill that took NATO forces through a full-scale simulated release of nuclear weapons.”

Oleg Gordievsky was a KGB Colonel stationed in London and a double agent for British intelligence. He reported to the British that “…the KGB Center sent a flash cable to West European residencies advising them, incorrectly, that US forces in Europe had gone on alert and that troops at some bases were being mobilized.” There was speculation this (nonexistent) alert was a response to the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon, related to US Army maneuvers, “…or was the beginning of a countdown to a surprise nuclear attack.”

Gordievsky described the reaction in stark terms: “In the tense atmosphere generated by the crises and rhetoric of the past few months, the KGB concluded that American forces had been placed on alert–and might even have begun the countdown to war…. The world did not quite reach the edge of the nuclear abyss during Operation RYAN. But during ABLE ARCHER 83 it had, without realizing it, come frighteningly close–certainly closer than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.” [emphasis added]

The Able Archer story has been studied extensively by the US and Britain and journalists. A consistent conclusion is that the US. And Soviet Union came close to war as a result of the Soviet overreaction, and “…only Gordievsky’s timely warning to the West kept things from getting out of hand…” Gordievsky’s information was also “…an epiphany for President Reagan, convincing him that the Kremlin was fearful of a US surprise nuclear attack…”

Reading the reports about Able Archer and the reactions reminds me that the world was a dangerous place when the decision was made to build Rocky Flats. It continued to be a dangerous place until the Soviet Union dissolved.

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