‘Able Archer’ and leadership psychology


in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Psychology, Security

If you have any interest in nuclear weapons or security and you have never heard of the 1983 NATO exercise called ‘Able Archer’ you should read today’s featured Wikipedia article.

One fascinating thing it demonstrates is the amazing willingness of leaders to assume that their enemies will see actions as benign that, if they had been taken by those same enemies, would be seen as very aggressive. Case in point: the issues America is raising about Iranian intervention in Iraq. If Iran was involved in a major war on America’s doorstep, you can bet that there would be American intervention. This is not to assert any kind of moral equivalency, but simply to state the appallingly obvious.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

. February 12, 2007 at 4:00 pm

Regarding Iran, ‘intervention’ is one thing. Providing ‘Explosively Formed Penetrators’ perhaps something quite different.

Anon February 12, 2007 at 5:15 pm

No 10 backs US claim over Iran arms

Press Association
Monday February 12, 2007 12:58 PM

Downing Street has backed American claims that Iran was involved in arming Iraqi insurgents with powerful roadside weaponry used against allied forces.

Prime Minister Tony Blair had first warned in October 2005 of concerns over improvised explosive device technology and weaponry coming from Iran, said the premier’s official spokesman.

R.K. February 13, 2007 at 4:10 pm

Able Archer seems to demonstrate the kinds of risks inherent to deterrence – your enemy must really believe that you would actually attack, so you need to do everything possible to develop and maintain the appearance of that willingness.

Of course, they should have thought a bit harder about what consequences this specific operation could have had.

Milan June 15, 2007 at 11:35 pm

In 1965, Peter Watkins produced a fictional documentary called The War Game in which the aftermath of thermo-nuclear attacks in Britain was depicted. The BBC declared that it was “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” and was not aired until 1985. Watch it here

. January 16, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Nuclear war: the safety paradox

In the second of a series of articles, Geoff Brumfiel looks at whether certain nuclear-weapons technology should be shared.

“There are two types of bomb safety device: those that stop a bomb from going off accidentally; and those that stop it from going off without proper authorization. Mechanisms for accident-proofing a bomb range from simple housekeeping (keep the explosive triggers entirely separate from the nuclear cores) to sophisticated design requirements such as ‘one-point safety’. In a one-point-safe design, a nuclear explosion will not occur even if one of the various chemical explosive charges in the trigger goes off. This is quite a hard trick to master: before a 1992 voluntary test moratorium, the United States conducted 32 nuclear tests to establish one-point safety on each of its weapons.

Ensuring proper authorization is the role of what America calls a Permissive Action Link, or PAL. PALs are devices that keep the explosive systems of a bomb or warhead isolated from the outside world unless they are unlocked with a specific code: no code, no explosion. If the incorrect code is entered a set number of times, the PAL will disable the weapon, sometimes with a small explosive charge. After that, the weapon will need extensive servicing before it can be returned to readiness.

Precisely what safety systems various nuclear states have is not open knowledge (the British television news programme Newsnight recently caused a stir when it revealed that Britain lacks a PAL system). But their limited system experience and short testing history make it almost certain that any safety systems fielded by new nuclear nations will not be as sophisticated as American ones, says Geoffrey Forden, a physicist and arms-control analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Pakistan, for example, is believed to keep its weapons safe through disassembly, keeping the nuclear cores and triggering explosives in separate locations. But little is known about how the separation is maintained, or how the assembly and arming processes are controlled.”

. November 3, 2013 at 10:00 am

Chilling new evidence that Britain and America came close to provoking the Soviet Union into launching a nuclear attack has emerged in former classified documents written at the height of the cold war.

Cabinet memos and briefing papers released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a major war games exercise, Operation Able Art, conducted in November 1983 by the US and its Nato allies was so realistic it made the Russians believe that a nuclear strike on its territory was a real possibility.

When intelligence filtered back to the Tory government on the Russians’ reaction to the exercise, the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, ordered her officials to lobby the Americans to make sure that such a mistake could never happen again. Anti-nuclear proliferation campaigners have credited the move with changing how the UK and the US thought about their relationship with the Soviet Union and beginning a thaw in relations between east and west.

The papers were obtained by Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), an organisation that campaigns against nuclear proliferation, who said that the documents showed just how risky the cold war became for both sides.

“These papers document a pivotal moment in modern history – the point at which an alarmed Thatcher government realised that the cold war had to be brought to an end and began the process of persuading its American allies likewise,” he said.

“The Cold War is sometimes described as a stable ‘balance of power’ between east and west, but the Able Archer story shows that it was in fact a shockingly dangerous period when the world came to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on more than one occasion.”

Able Archer, which involved 40,000 US and Nato troops moving across western Europe, co-ordinated by encrypted communications systems, 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.

. November 3, 2013 at 10:01 am

As Able Archer commenced, the Kremlin gave instructions for a dozen aircraft in East Germany and Poland to be fitted with nuclear weapons. In addition, around 70 SS-20 missiles were placed on heightened alert, while Soviet submarines carrying nuclear ballistic missiles were sent under the Arctic ice so that they could avoid detection.

Nato and its allies initially thought the Soviet response was the USSR’s own form of war-gaming. However, the classified documents obtained by the NIS reveal just how close the Russians came to treating the exercise as the prelude for a nuclear strike against them.

A classified British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) report written shortly afterwards recorded the observation from one official that “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.” The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because 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”.

anon March 23, 2015 at 11:47 am
Milan January 27, 2018 at 11:34 pm

“One fascinating thing it demonstrates is the amazing willingness of leaders to assume that their enemies will see actions as benign that, if they had been taken by those same enemies, would be seen as very aggressive.”

Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner describes this phenomenon chillingly, particularly in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis. His account also highlights how unintended acts are taken as signals during crises, how signals are misinterpreted and come in the wrong order, and how nuclear crises may only be properly understood decades later after a lot of declassifications and interviews with those present.

. November 12, 2018 at 1:08 pm

The Soviet Side of the 1983 War Scare

Politburo Member Warned that NATO Exercise Could Have Masked a First Strike

Soviet Documents Include 1981 KGB Orders and 1984 Military Analysis of Able Archer 83

. February 19, 2021 at 3:15 am

Most U.S. officers viewed Able Archer as a typical war game, nothing that would throw Soviet officers into a panic. But Perroots saw that, in fact, it was something different. It was a lot bigger than most of these games, involving a fleet of cargo transport planes flying 19,000 soldiers in 170 sorties from the United States to bases in Europe. And it was more realistic as well. The cargo planes maintained radio silence. B-52 bomber crews taxied their planes to their runways and loaded them with dummy bombs that looked remarkably real. The Strategic Air Command raised its nuclear alert levels to the highest level. The Soviets were monitoring all of this, of course, as they generally did and as the U.S. commanders knew they would. But they reacted in ways that they never had before—in ways similar to how they might have acted if the U.S. were gearing up for a real attack—including, as we now know, loading nuclear bombs on aircraft in Eastern Europe.


Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: