War game that almost sparked Armageddon: Deep in a Nato bunker, Western forces rehearsed their nuclear response to a Soviet invasion. But the panicking Russians thought it was the real thing

The Salisbury chemical attack and the Syrian air strikes have left East-West relations in the worst state for several decades. In a riveting new book, historian TAYLOR DOWNING recounts earlier moments when the world skidded towards disaster. Today — in the final part of his series — he shows how, in 1983, the Soviets became convinced that a routine Nato exercise was an imminent attack.


At the peak of the heightened tension between the Soviet Union and the West, in November 1983 Nato — the West’s military alliance — began an elaborate war game it codenamed Able Archer. It was an annual communications exercise to practise command-and-control procedures that would be used in the event of war with the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact nations.


It did not require simulated fighting or even the deployment of tanks or armoured vehicles to their battle stations. It was a rehearsal of how decisions would be made and commands issued in the event of a fast-moving war.


Able Archer was played out deep inside a bunker known as the ‘nuclear vault’ near the Belgian city of Mons, south-west of Brussels. There, war gamers invented a lively but credible scenario in which the Soviets invade Finland and Norway, and pour tanks into West Germany which rapidly overpower Nato forces.


As usual with such exercises, all this was routinely monitored by eavesdrop Soviet intelligence. Except that this time, what they heard and how they interpreted it sparked such alarm in Moscow that they nearly engulfed the world in a nuclear Armageddon.


The Soviet commanders knew they had their own contingency plans to attack the West under the cover of a similar military exercise. They now suspected the West was doing the same.


The Nato players running the war game decided they were losing the conventional war and must escalate the conflict. They went to the extreme military alert status known as DefCon1 — the use of nuclear weapons.


Initially, just a few tactical nuclear missiles were ‘fired’ at Soviet tank regiments. But when this failed to stop the ‘onslaught’ and the Warsaw Pact responded by wi out Nato command bases, the war gamers requested from their political masters authorisation for a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.


In America, President Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as ‘the evil empire’, while on Russian TV the U.S. was portrayed as a warmonger bent on world domination and Reagan was regularly described as a ‘reckless criminal’ and even compared to Hitler.


A leading Politburo member told his fellow countrymen: ‘Comrades, the international situation is white hot.’ Air raid drills were held in factories. Thousands of Soviet missile sites were routinely on alert, ready to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against Washington DC and other major U.S. cities at any sign that the West was about to make a pre-emptive first strike.


Fearing that if they waited any longer it would be too late to respond, they put the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal with its 11,000 warheads — each of which had the destructive capacity of roughly 40 Hiroshima bombs — onto the maxmum state of combat alert.


In the U.S., only the President can authorise the use of nuclear weapons. A top military aide who has gone through the most rigorous security vetting is never more than a few steps from the President, carrying the ‘nuclear football’, a briefcase hand-cuffed to his arm that contains the codes for launching nuclear weapons.


The situation — perhaps even the Cold War as a whole — had reached its most dangerous point. If the Soviets, straining at the leash that November day in 1983, had launched their nuclear weapons, Armageddon would have followed.


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