Recently, the National Security Archive at George Washington University compiled a "sourcebook" of information marking the 30th anniversary of the "Able Archer 83" exercise, a NATO exercise that began on Nov. 7, 1983, and ended on Nov. 11. Much has been made of the Soviet reaction prior, during and after the exercise, which was a war game that simulated a NATO need to increase the DEFCON from the lowest level to the highest, indicating an imminent use of nuclear weapons.
The reaction to these documents continues to be an obsession with the Soviet response to the exercise. There were many inside the USSR that believed Able Archer to be a guise under which a real first strike would take place. The Soviets clearly reacted to Able Archer in a hostile way, preparing for war if necessary. However, this is not the real import of the tale.
The exercise began on Nov. 7, and by Nov. 8 it was determined that NATO forces, even if they employed chemical weapons, would fail to blunt a conventional Soviet invasion, so a limited nuclear strike would have to be approved against fixed pre-selected targets. It was again determined that this would not stop Soviet advances and further nuclear weapons were authorized.
There are multiple ways of looking at this: The first is to recoil in horror that the West would use nuclear weapons in response to a hypothetical conventional attack. The second, more reasoned response is to question why NATO conventional forces were so outmatched that NATO was forced to escalate to using WMD. This was caused by a strategic failure by the United States and her European allies to fund, train and equip a large enough conventional force to stop Soviet aggression.
Able Archer 83 did not occur in a vacuum. War games prior and after continued to illustrate the same Western weakness. It was the unwillingness of the U.S. Congress and others to properly study the lessons of history and prepare for war. Had the Soviets launched an invasion of Western Europe, a likelihood that could have occurred multiple times during the Cold War, NATO would have had to make one of two awful choices: It could have surrendered much of Europe to the Soviets or it could have escalated into nuclear conflict, hoping that the release of tactical and theater based nuclear weapons could somehow be contained. It was only due to President Reagan's forward thinking in the deployment of Pershing II missiles and increasing the capability of American conventional forces that the worst nightmare forestalled until the USSR fell.
However, the shadow of Able Archer 83 haunts us. We are currently making horrendous decisions concerning the funding, training and equipping of the American military. The foolishness of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester will place an ever larger burden on those forces and place greater reliance on America's WMD deterrence capability, a deterrence that only works if one is prepared to use it.
President Obama's proposed defense budget would cut six Air Force tactical fighter squadrons and one training squadron, purge eight brigade combat teams in the Army and withdraw nine ships from the Navy. These hard cuts do not take into account inadequate training and equipping of the existing military, which is becoming dangerously close to the hollow forces of the Carter years.
In layman's terms, the new Obama "strategy" envisions a supposed regional focus on the Asia-Pacific and a shift from a successful bipartisan consensus on a two-war capability to a "win-spoil" plan that maintains the capability to fight and win one regional war while spoiling the military aspirations in another. The Army will be reduced to 490,000 troops from 570,000 and the Marines to 175,000 from 202,000 over the next few years, while air and naval assets will be maintained in order to optimize operations in Asia-Pacific, primarily a maritime theater. The number of U.S. ground forces will drop to levels not seen since 1940, the Navy will drop to the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the Air Force will be the smallest in American history.
But Able Archer 83 reminds us that failure to plan for war causes war. Worse, it causes greater catastrophe in the lives of soldiers and civilians. This failure destabilizes international relations worldwide and makes a mockery of American foreign policy.
Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, former Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and author of "The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future," among other books.You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.