When the Cold War Almost Went Nuclear

Soviet leaders once almost mistook an exercise for an attack. Could China have similar misperceptions?

Over the past two weeks, George Washington University’s National Security Archive group has begun to release some remarkably interesting archival documents on the war scare generated by the 1983 Able Archer exercises.  The Western exercises, which simulated a NATO-Warsaw Pact war, apparently convinced some in the Soviet Union that the Reagan administration was about to launch an actual conflict.

Like in the United States, the political and military elite of the Soviet Union disagreed on the likelihood of war, and on the predisposition of the new administration in Washington. Soviet hawks took the exercises as evidence of American aggression, focusing on the parallels between the German attack in 1941 and NATO preparations in 1983.  It didn’t help that US-Soviet relations were already at a low in the wake of the September 1983 shoot down of KAL 007.

According to Nate Jones, the editor of the series, the documents indicate that Able Archer included several non-routine elements that could have alarmed the Soviets (or at least given ammunition to the most hawkish elements in the Kremlin). These included a massive, silent air-lift of U.S. soldiers to Europe, the shuffling of headquarters command assignments, the practice of "new nuclear weapons release procedures," and various references to B-52 sorties as nuclear "strikes." It wasn’t entirely clear to the U.S. policymakers how the Soviets were interpreting the exercises; Robert Gates, among others, argued that the Russians were taking them very seriously indeed, while Reagan wondered whether " Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?"

The problem, of course, is that with aggressive, offensive doctrines that favor pre-emption, exercises can look a lot like preparation to attack. The lessons of Able Archer are obvious, but worth reiterating; other countries do not understand our behavior in the same way that we understand our behavior, and can draw alarming conclusions. While most of North Korea’s response to recent U.S.-ROK exercises is simply posturing, it is likely that some of the same dynamics operate; hawks in Pyongyang can point to elements of the exercise that look a lot like a pre-emptive attack, and tensions consequently rise. What seems absurd in Washington sounds less crazy in Moscow or Pyongyang.

Whatever AirSea Battle is, it appears to place great value on offensive action and on the disruption of enemy organizational cycles and procedures.  As many have argued, doctrines of this sort can lead to unstable political situations in which pre-emption and first action are highly valued. Even if accidental war does not result (after all, accidental wars remain rare), the political consequences of such doctrines can increase tensions and strengthen the most hawkish elements within all parties. The U.S. is unlikely to carry out anything quite approaching an Able Archer in the Pacific, but it’s still worth taking into account the implications of our own military preparations.