How Close are We to Nuclear War?

An F-35A Lighting II carrying a Test Assembly for a B61-12 tactical nuclear bomb sits on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus.

For the first time in many years, the threat of nuclear war has burst into public awareness. Many proclaim we are at a pinnacle of danger not seen since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and USSR faced off over Soviet nuclear missiles situated in Cuba.

Indeed, October 27 marked one of the most dangerous days in history. Off the coast of Cuba, a U.S. Navy destroyer was depth charging a Russian submarine to force it to surface. The officers in command of the sub, out of radio contact, believed war had already broken out and prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo. But Vasily Arkhipov, the commander of the sub flotilla of which the vessel was a part, overruled the officers and stopped the launch, almost certainly preventing World War III. For that, Arkhipov is known as “the man who saved the world.”

That was a moment of maximum danger. But, contrary to what Joe Biden recently stated, “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” there was another moment of peril in 1983 that is far less known. Daniel Ellsberg, who as a defense analyst advised the White House during the Cuban crisis, says it may have been even more dangerous. That was Able Archer 83, a NATO exercise that took place in the early days of November mimicking escalation to nuclear war in response to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

Able Archer was the tail end of a series of NATO exercises in which 19,000 U.S. troops were airlifted to Europe to conduct a simulated defense against the invasion. Able Archer went through steps from request for release of nuclear weapons to their delivery. It included B-52s sent to Europe, planes being loaded up with dummy nuclear bombs, and refueling exercises.

In this respect, it is remarkably similar to a NATO nuclear war exercise conducted over Europe from October 17-30, Steadfast Noon, in which dozens of planes from 14 nations conducted mock bombing runs. The U.S practiced sharing nuclear weapons with NATO partners using dummy bombs. At the same time, the U.S. announced speeded delivery of B61-12 bombs to Europe, an upgrade which increases accuracy. This is the so-called adjustable nuclear weapon, supposedly usable in a limited nuclear war, offering a range of explosive potentials from 0.3 to 50 kilotons. By comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. Meanwhile, the Russians were conducting their own nuclear exercises, Thunder 2022, from October 26-28, with launch of nuclear-capable missiles from land, sea and air.

The obvious contrast between now and 1983 is that, though the U.S. was then conducting a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, it was on the fringes of the then USSR. The Ukraine War is in Europe close to the Russian heartland, with fighting at a far greater level of intensity.

Could we be at an even greater level of danger now? The key issue that joins the present moment with 1983 is how each side perceives the intentions of the other. The crucial lesson of Able Archer is that misperception and miscommunication can cause a fatal error leading to a full nuclear exchange, especially at a time of heated rhetoric. Let us first look at 1983, then contrast and compare it with the present.

Expecting a first strike

Though I participated in the nuclear freeze global uprising against nuclear weapons in the 1980s, in recent decades I have mostly focused on the slower-moving apocalypse of climate disruption. But seeing the momentum build toward potential global holocaust, I undertook in recent months to survey the best literature on an event I had heard about for many years, 1983’s close call with nuclear war.

Fortunately, recent years have seen publication of several books that delve deeply into the crisis, what led up to it, and its aftermath: 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing; The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983 by Mark Ambinder, and Able Archer 83: The Secret NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War by Nate Jones. The latter contains many formerly secret documents wrested from the archives. From these I wrote a three-part series that starts here. I will briefly summarize the key points

First, it is key to know that then Soviet leader Yuri Andropov genuinely believed the U.S. planned a nuclear first strike on the USSR. Ronald Reagan’s white hot rhetoric fueled that perception. When Reagan became president, he proclaimed the end of détente and was to label the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and call for its system to be left “on the ash heap of history.”

In response, Andropov, still KGB chief in 1981, ordered RYaN, the Russian acronym for nuclear missile strike. Soviet intelligence across the world was instructed to track hundreds of first strike preparation indicators, from movements of military forces and political leaders to blood drives. Operatives responsive to their superiors tended to produce information that confirmed their fears.

The first strike advantage

Andropov’s anxieties were grounded in what the Soviets had learned during their own nuclear exercises. It is the most powerful argument for entirely ridding the world of nuclear weapons. In a nuclear war, the side that strikes first has overwhelming advantage. It can decapitate the enemy’s leadership and command and control systems, prospectively eliminating its ability to order a response, even as nuclear forces with which a counterstrike could be launched are destroyed.

Of course, a nuclear war of almost any scale would ignite fires sending a cloud of black soot into the stratosphere, shutting off sunlight and creating a nuclear winter that would crash agricultural production and kill billions. Any immediate advantage, if one were to be had, would turn into a pyrrhic victory, killing the “winners” as well as the losers. This fact known since 1983 unfortunately still has not entered the calculations of nuclear strategists.

Heightening the fears of Soviet leaders were plans to place cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe, which the Soviets believed could reach Moscow in a few minutes and accomplish a decapitation strike. This has come back today with Russian leaders expressing concerns over NATO missiles placed in Ukraine even closer to the Russian capital.

Reagan’s announcement of the Star Wars missile defense program in March 1983 two weeks after he made the Evil Empire speech heightened Soviet worries. They believed this would make response to a first strike even more difficult.

Inducing Soviet paranoia

The U.S. was doing nothing to reduce Soviet fears, conducting exercises near the borders of the USSR. A later declassified National Security Administration history said, “these actions were calculated to induce paranoia, and they did.” In August 1981, the U.S. Navy snuck a fleet into the Arctic north of the Kola Peninsula, the U-shaped bulge that juts out opposite of Scandinavia. Previously, the Navy had not gone farther than the northern tip of Norway.

The Navy again caught the Soviets off guard when in April 1983 it sent a fleet close to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the North Pacific. Even more alarming was an overflight of a Soviet naval training base by a plane from a fleet carrier. It was apparently the first U.S. overflight over Soviet territory with a warplane rather than reconnaissance aircraft. The U.S. was also conducting other flights close to Soviet borders to test their air defenses.

“These aggressions and vulnerabilities alarmed Soviet leadership to an extreme never seen during the Cold War,” writes Nate Jones. Andropov reacted by ordering Soviet aircraft to “shoot-to-kill” any plane that invaded national airspace. When Korean Air Lines flight 007 inadvertently wandered over the Soviet far east Sept. 1, 1983, it was mistaken for a spy plane that had crossed its flight path earlier. Following Andropov’s order, a Soviet fighter plane sent KAL 007 plummeting into the ocean, killing all 229 on board. That plunged relations between the west and the Soviet Union to perhaps the lowest level of the Cold War.

As Able Archer came closer, two events were misconstrued by the Soviets as war preparations. The Oct. 23 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon resulted in a global alert at U.S. military bases. Then on Oct. 25, the U.S. invaded Grenada to overthrow a leftist government. The country was a member of the British Commonwealth. That generated an increased level of encrypted traffic between the U.S. and U.K. Meanwhile, revised NATO nuclear command and control procedures were another prospective sign the west was ramping up to war.

The close brush with nuclear holocaust

The Soviets had an additional reason to worry. They conceived that if a surprise attack took place, it would happen on a national holiday when their guard was down. In this case, Able Archer took place during then celebration of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. So the Soviets took a range of steps to prepare.

+ The number of surveillance flights over Europe increased.

+ From Nov. 4-10, all Soviet aircraft except surveillance planes were grounded.

+ MIG-23 fighters were sitting on airstrips in East Germany and Czechoslovakia ready to take off in a moment.

+ Many Tupolev TU-22M bombers in East Germany were fueled and loaded with nuclear weapons, ready to take off in 15 minutes.

+ Air defense radars that usually ran only intermittently ran constantly.

+ Submarines were put out to sea.

+ Half of SS-20 mobile launchers were dispersed from their bases, while the usual portion was 10%.

In another one of those situations similar to that of Vasily Arkhipov, when one man’s actions may have saved the world, Lieutenant General Leonard Perroots, who ran the U.S. Air Force intelligence operation in Europe, picked up on many of these signs. But Perroots, who could not believe the Soviets were contemplating a strike, decided on gut instinct not to respond. Writes Jones, “Had Perroots mirrored the Soviets and escalated the situation, the War Scare could conceivably have become a war.” A later intelligence review found his decision “made in ignorance (was) fortuitous, if ill informed . . . “

On the evening of November 9, 1983, Andropov waited in the hospital room where he was being treated for the kidney failure that would soon kill him. Beside him a military aide held the briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes. In an apparently unprecedented move, General Staff Chief Nikolai Ogarkov was at the central command bunker, authorized to launch if Andropov was killed. But the night passed, and the sun rose to a world that was still there.

How close did we come? It took years to fully realize the danger. I tell the story of what some regard as the greatest intelligence failure in history in the third part of my series. The CIA and other officials thought the Soviets were exaggerating their fears to undermine U.S. missile placements in Europe. It took until 1990 for a full review to be done by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. To quote the board, Able Archer 83 “may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger . . . There is little doubt in our minds that the Soviets were genuinely worried . . . it appears that at least some Soviet forces were preparing to preempt or counterattack a NATO strike launched under the cover of Able Archer.”

Today’s war scare

This is what draws the contrast most sharply between Able Archer and the Cuban Crisis. In 1962, each side was aware they were in a crisis. In 1983, one side was preparing for war while the other side was oblivious. Today comes closer to Cuba in that each side is acutely tuned to the fact of crisis. But it has similarities to Able Archer in that each side is less than clear on the intentions of the other. U.S. and Western leaders are asserting a desperate Russia could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine as a last resort, and warning of devastating response. Meanwhile, Russian leaders raise fears about a false flag event in Ukraine with a radioactive dirty bomb, and say western countries may be colluding with Ukraine in the action. Russian media currents buzz with concerns about something worse, including use of an actual nuclear weapon.

At the same time, first strike fears are being raised. A Russian security journal, Vzglyad, with readership among high Russian officials, on Monday published a piece, “The U.S. has shown its readiness to launch a nuclear strike on Russia.” It posits that U.S. missile submarines operating close to Russia could conduct a successful first strike that would leave that nation unable to mount a significant response.

Each side may be raising the rhetorical heat for propaganda purposes, as the CIA believed the Russians were doing in 1983. But it is a mistake to dismiss the possibility that statements may reflect real fears that could become self-fulfilling prophecies. Particularly in a time when the Ukraine War seems to be in a pattern of tit-for-tat escalation.

False alarms

Consider what would happen if an early warning system gave a false reading that the other side had launched missiles. That occurred with the U.S. system on November 9, 1979, when a war game program mistakenly loaded into a NORAD computer indicated 1,400 missiles incoming, triggering a full nuclear alert, or on June 3, 1980, when a failed 46-cent computer chip set off another false alert. Those errors were fortunately caught in time.

We have to ask what would have happened if another of those Russians described as “the man who saved the world,” Stanislav Petrov, had not been in charge at the Soviet missile command center when on Sept. 27, 1983 a new satellite system indicated 5 U.S. missile launches. He had worked on the system, and thought it was probably a faulty reading, as it later proved to be. He also thought a first strike would be a larger volley. So Petrov decided not to report it to higher command. Who knows how a fearful Soviet leadership would have responded in the hair trigger environment in the wake of the KAL 007 shootdown, even as the NATO fall exercises leading to Able Archer were beginning to ramp up?

So to answer the question of how close we are to nuclear war, the most honest answer is, we don’t know. But the danger has clearly escalated. And the longer the war goes on, the greater the risk these scenarios may become reality. How do we stop this runaway train before it derails?

Putting nuclear on a separate track

It took months for U.S. and western leaders to realize the danger confronting the world in those early days of November, and years to fully analyze the intelligence failure. But even as the exercise was wrapping up, Ronald Reagan was starting to grasp the consequences of his own heated anti-Soviet rhetoric. On a presidential tour of Asia, National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane handed Reagan intelligence reports on the increased tempo of Soviet nuclear forces.

Jones reports that according to McFarlane, “The president read the reports and responded with ‘genuine anxiety’ and disbelief that his actions could have led to an armed attack.” Days later, he started to set up a group of high ranking officials “to help us in setting up some channels,” he wrote in his November 18 diary entry. Writes Jones, “McFarlane recounts that Able Archer had a ‘big influence’ on Reagan’s thinking.”

Reagan would subsequently begin to tone down his bellicose rhetoric, and on January 16 delivered a conciliatory speech on national television. By 1987, that would lead to the first nuclear arms control treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty negotiated with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and discussions to abolish all nuclear weapons which came heartbreakingly close. That treaty laid the groundwork for the START agreement signed in 1991 which limits each side’s deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550.

The INF Treaty was unfortunately cancelled by the Trump Administration in 2019. But START was re-upped in 2021 to run until 2026. Reportedly there are backchannel discussions regarding START going on between the U.S. and Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said, “. . . we note some sketchy signals from the U.S. administration, and personally Joe Biden, concerning the resumption of the START dialogue, but what is behind those signals remains to be seen.”

Finding a way to resume START negotiations even as the Ukraine War continues is, I believe, the key. The issues surrounding the war seem, for the moment, intractable. It is crucial to place the transcendent issue of nuclear weapons on a separate track. How the Ukraine War is resolved has deep implications for global geopolitics. Whether we control nuclear weapons has implications for whether humanity survives at all. Having the two sides sit down in a forum where they can have open and frank discussions reduces uncertainty about intentions, and eliminates potential misunderstandings such as those that almost triggered war in 1983. Recent contacts between the defense leaders of Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. are a hopeful step in that direction.

Dramatic arms reductions leading to abolition

Those discussions must put deep cuts in nuclear arsenals on the table, with a clear pathway toward what the nuclear nations promised when they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

The immediate goal should be for each side to reduce its deployed weapons from the current 1,550 to somewhere in the 300-500 range. That would still provide a deterrent, but make a successful first strike less likely. Importantly, the ICBMs should go first. They are the most vulnerable to first strike, where use-it-or-lose it is most imperative. The bombers should go next, situating the remaining arsenal on submarines, the most difficult to detect. Coming to agreement on the distance submarines operate from the other side’s shores would also be valuable, since close-in operations also raise first strike fears.

And, unlike START, a new treaty should outright eliminate the reserve arsenal. The U.S. now has around 2,000 warheads in bunkers that could readily be refitted on submarines, ICBMs and bombers. If START is not re-negotiated, that could happen quickly after the 2026 expiration. A new treaty should also set up a process that moves the U.S., Russia and smaller nuclear powers to abolition.

The need for a people’s movement

We should have no illusions that the leaders of the world will move to deep cuts in nuclear weapons and eventual abolition on their own. The military-industrial-congressional complex is going to perpetuate the current system as long as it can. It’s going to take intense public pressure and movement building.

The 1980s nuclear freeze movement set the stage for the INF and START treaties, which most likely would have never happened if it had not been for millions in the streets. It is going to take something similar again to move to the sane course of dramatic nuclear reductions and abolition. We are nowhere near that now, and it is our role as people concerned about our future and that of our children to build that movement. In reality, I believe we need a broader global survival movement that addresses the existential crises facing us, from climate disruption and general ecological breakdown, to great power competition and the threat of nuclear war.

It may seem unrealistic to consider such ambitious goals in the midst of the Ukraine War and conflicts between the U.S. and Russia. But, to quote I.F. Stone’s classic phrase, it is crackpot realism to believe that we can keep nuclear weapons without them eventually being used. The imperatives of use it or lose it and belief in the first strike advantage make that clear.

I recently interviewed a former U.S. Navy submarine captain, Tom Rogers, who handled nuclear weapons throughout his time on submarines, and now works for their abolition as part of the Ground Zero Center. Tom has been arrested blocking the gate at the Trident nuclear missile submarine base at Bangor, Washington at least 10 times. He told me, “It’s only a matter of time until by miscalculation or accident a nuclear weapon gets used. Because of the way the strategy is written, you don’t shoot just one nuclear weapon. You don’t see just three coming over the horizon. You see 3,000. The only way to prevent that carnage is to get rid of them.”

That should be our call to mobilize, to end nuclear weapons before they end us. As steep a climb as it is, we really have no other choice if we value human survival.

This is a slightly modified version of the talk I gave October 27 to Vasily Arkhipov Day: After 60 Years, The Nuclear Threat Returns: A Virtual Teach-In on the Current Nuclear Crisis, sponsored by the Hiroshima Nagasaki Peace Committee.

This originally appeared on Patrick Mazza’s Substack page, The Raven.