Images from NATO Exercise Able Archer 83.
The period of 1982-1984 marked the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Cold War hysteria reached its peak. Tensions were on a knife-edge. The international situation almost devolved into complete nuclear war, when in autumn of 1983, NATO forces conducted a massive nuclear-release exercise named Able Archer 83. Over 19,000 US troops were airlifted to Europe in the lead-up to the exercise.
As with Able Archer exercises from previous years, the purpose of the exercise was to simulate a period of conflict escalation, culminating in a simulated DEFCON 1 coordinated nuclear attack. Coordinated from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) headquarters in Casteau, Belgium, it involved NATO forces throughout Western Europe, beginning on November 7, 1983, and lasting for five days.
The 1983 exercise introduced several new elements not seen in previous years, including a new, unique format of coded communication, radio silences, and the participation of heads of government. This increase in realism, combined with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some members of the Soviet Politburo and military to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike.
The Soviets immediately feared an impending nuclear attack and according to a CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate — caused “Soviet air units in Germany and Poland [to assume] high alert status with readying of nuclear strike forces.”
The crisis only deescalated with the end of Able Archer 83 on November 11.