Able Archer: 30 Years On From Nuclear Near-Miss

SPARE A THOUGHT for the nuclear Armageddon that so nearly, yet inadvertently, destroyed civilisation 30 years ago; a routine military exercise at a time of heightened cold war tensions, this day in 1983, came dangerously close to triggering a colossal Soviet strike on the USA and Western Europe.

I thought it appropriate to note the 30-year anniversary of Operation Able Archer given its significance as a turning point in the Cold War, and representing as it did the time at which the world arguably came closer to devastating nuclear wipeout than at any other.

To some extent, the same issues are pertinent in the world today: thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, with a window of mere minutes for a nuclear-armed nation under apparent attack to assess the threat and strike back.

Then, as now, it represents the potential for miscalculation,with catastrophic consequences.

The world, obviously, has changed; yet in some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Russia — depending on who you listen to — is a nuclear threat, either due to rearmament and modification of its nuclear arsenal and a determination to reclaim the international strength and prestige of superpower status, or because of ageing and decrepit missile and control systems that are increasingly susceptible to malfunction or accidental launch.

The USA — on President Obama’s watch, at least — seems determined to realise further steep cuts in the number of strategic nuclear warheads that remain actively deployed on high alert. Yet there is little concrete evidence to suggest America’s moves in this area are reciprocated by Russia, and in any case, stories of demoralised US nuclear forces have also found their way into the international media over the past few years.

And of course, there are the “rising threats” posed by other nations and rogue states who have either acquired nuclear weapons capability or seek imminently to do so: India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, for instance, all deepen the complexity of the nuclear equation and add to the general instability posed by nuclear weapons in a multipolar world.

The point of this post isn’t to scare anyone, or even to make a case for or agin when it comes to the world’s nuclear armaments. Rather, at what is unquestionably a significant time in the modern history of the world, I seek merely to note, and to commemorate.

To this end, just a single reference: a very good documentary that aired on Channel 4 in the UK a few years ago, dealing specifically with Able Archer, but which also provides a fascinating glimpse into the international politics and threats of the day — particularly where nuclear weapons and the politics of the Cold War are concerned.

For those unfamiliar with the background and nature of the Operation Able Archer exercises, this article (although dating to 2007) should give a broad overview of what was involved and the international environment in which the exercises took place.

The thing that struck me most in reviewing Able Archer at the weekend wasn’t the near-miss the world had with a nuclear Armageddon in 1983; rather, it was the consideration that apparently restrained the USSR from launching an all-out attack: the memory of Russia’s ambush and invasion at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1941.

And whilst I have read extensively on Able Archer over the years (nuclear politics being a bit of a pet interest), it surprises me that fewer people know about it. Everyone knows of the weather satellite launch that confused a Russian radar crew in 1995 and saw then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin open his nuclear briefcase in readiness to retaliate against the strike that proved a false alarm, but relatively few people know about this.

I support the continuing deployment of a Western nuclear deterrent; as Margaret Thatcher once observed, you can no more “disinvent” nuclear weapons than you can “disinvent” dynamite, a reality that I believe really ought to be accorded greater consideration in the arms control and arms reduction politics of the present day.

And I note that 30 years on from the near-catastrophe of Able Archer, the present generation of world leaders is largely unrestrained by the atrocities of the second world war: certainly, we all know how that disastrous conflict played out, but the key international figures of 2013 are the children of those who witnessed it first-hand, whilst the WWII generation itself is, literally, dying — and their memories with them.

I hope readers enjoy the material I have linked to and, as ever, encourage those interested to seek additional reading and media on the innocuous, routine exercise that very nearly triggered a third world war 30 years ago today.