The news account is fictional, of course, but there were times when it could have been all too real. For more than four decades, from 1945 to 1991, the world could have awakened on any day to read it, or something like it, on the front page of almost certainly had some boilerplate version of this report already written and ready just in The New York Times. The major news outlets case—filed, no doubt, under “World War III.”
The era was termed the Cold War, but the superpowers spent it planning feverishly for the “next war.” They devised doctrine and tactics for the imminent conflict, they designed ever more sophisticated weapons systems—tanks and aircraft above all—to fight its battles, and they war-gamed every possible scenario, a process aided by the incorporation of computers. With the world divided into two power blocs, and each side armed to the teeth and obsessed with the threat from the other, perhaps it was miraculous a general war did not break out. One could have at any time, triggered by anything from a coup in a minor ally to domestic unrest in the superpowers to a Middle East crisis—all of which the world had in abundance during the era.
With an aggressive Russia once more on the march, and with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stretched farther to the East, perhaps it is time to revisit the strategic discussion of those days. Let us consider a great war between the two adversaries on the “Central Front” in West Germany. What was the overall strategic situation? Who held the high cards? What was the probable course of the fighting? Most important, can we identify the likely winner? The world may well face such questions in the near future.
If war was a simple matter of materiel advantage, then the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies would have had the conflict won before a shot was fired. Numbers were NATO’s nightmare. According to U.S. figures from the mid- 1980s, the Soviets held a numerical advantage everywhere: 42,500 to 13,000 in tanks; 30,000 to 10,000 in artillery; 7,000 to 3,000 in tactical aircraft. More Soviet equipment translated into more divisions. Their forces stationed in Germany alone (the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, or GSFG) included 19 divisions: nine armored and 10 mechanized. Thirty more divisions stood ready in Eastern Europe (16 armored, 14 mechanized), plus another 65 divisions in European Russia. Add in 45 more divisions of Warsaw Pact allies, and the Soviets could toss an impressive total of 159 divisions—the vast majority of them armored or mechanized—into a new war in Europe. Countering these numbers was never easy, and NATO didn’t even try. By the 1980s there were only 16 divisions in the entire U.S. Army. Each was much larger than a Soviet division, but still that left a gigantic numerical deficit, even when adding in allied NATO forces. From the start NATO would have had to fight outnumbered and win.
Geography made the situation even worse. Soviet reinforcements could come by road or rail from the Eurasian landmass, especially the Baltic, Byelorussian, Carpathian, Odessa and Kiev military districts. American reinforcements (National Guard divisions, for example) would have to make a sea passage or airlift from the continental United States. The Army practiced it annually in its exercise REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany), but the verdict was mixed, and it was always clear the Soviet surface fleet, submarine fleet and air force had sufficient strength to make the crossing a serious contest.
Of course, war has never been about mere quantities. The more complex issue of quality was a comfort to the West, especially as the decades wore on and NATO gained a significant technological edge. By the 1980s the principal NATO battle tanks (the American M1 Abrams, the German Leopard 2 and the British Challenger 1) were more than a match for their Soviet T-72 or T-80 counterparts—more mobile, roomier and, with laser acquisition and targeting, far more accurate. In the air U.S. F-15 and F-16 fighters had outclassed the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat. Soviet aircraft generally lacked all-weather capability, carried smaller payloads, had shorter ranges and needed more maintenance than U.S. planes. And in terms of ground support, the American A-10 Thunderbolt was the dominant plane in the air, a tank-killer extraordinaire, with bombs, missiles and a Gatling gun that could fire up to 4,200 rounds per minute.
Of course, technology doesn’t win wars either; human beings do. Here, once again, NATO probably had an edge. The average Western soldier was better educated and better trained than his Soviet counterpart and had more scope for personal initiative. The Soviets still relied on a fierce discipline that discouraged individuals from making unilateral decisions and might have resulted in missed opportunities in combat. Furthermore, a Western soldier was fighting to defend a free society. On the eve of the Battle of Issus in 333 BC Alexander the Great addressed his troops and steeled their nerve for the coming tough fight: “Above all,” he is said to have reminded them, “we are free men, and they are slaves.” A similar benefit accrued to NATO. Whether it was enough to offset vastly superior numbers is a question that remained unanswered.
Beyond the number or quality of opposing forces, war is also a political act. Both sides in a NATO –Warsaw Pact conflict would fight as part of a coalition. The Soviets had imposed a higher degree of weapons and equipment standardization on their allies, and that was a positive, but there was also a great deal of tension between the Soviet Union and the satellite states of Eastern Europe—several of which had been crushed by Soviet arms at one time or another for trying to reform or liberalize their societies. A Polish or Czech soldier had little reason to fight hard for a Soviet-dominated Europe, even if his officers stayed loyal. Dissent among the subject populations, especially the Poles, however, was a serious threat to Soviet supply lines running to the front though Warsaw to Berlin
But the United States had its own political issue: France. No longer in NATO, and wielding its own nuclear arsenal— the force de frappe (“strike force”)—the French had gone their own way since the 1960s. It is difficult to imagine them staying out of a NATO–Warsaw Pact conflict, but their unusual status lent an aura of uncertainty to NATO planning. Moreover, NATO was an alliance of very different military organizations. There was a huge gap between the big three (the U.S. Army, the British Army of the Rhine and the West German Bundeswehr) and the smaller partners (the Dutch army, which was actually unionized; the Belgians, weak and underfunded; and the Greeks and Turks, whose own rivalry was a real bar to joint planning on NATO’s southern flank).
Numbers, quality and politics aside, the real issue for NATO was the map (see PP. 38–39) and the operational situation it generated. A Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany would find vast numerical superiority at the point of contact. The five Soviet armies within the GSFG (2nd Guards Tank, 3rd Shock and 8th Guards armies in the first “echelon,” 20th Guards and 1st Guards Tank armies in the second) formed the spearhead of the assault, assisted by the East German National People’s Army (the 3rd and 5th).
The size of this force allowed the Soviets to choose from a number of attractive options. The first and most obvious was a drive across the north German plain. Here was the flattest tank country, the most direct route to the Rhine and the best hope for a rapid Warsaw Pact victory. Defending it was NATO’s Northern Army Group (NORTHAG): the I Corps of the West German Bundeswehr, guarding the approaches to Hamburg, and the British I Corps, defending Hanover, with support from Belgian I Corps and Dutch I Corps. The United States was the backbone of NATO, but it had no main force units in this crucial region.
The second likely avenue of approach was the Fulda Gap in central Germany, where West Germany’s relatively flat north transitioned into its mountainous south. A Soviet thrust through Fulda posed a serious threat, as the gap led across West Germany’s narrow waist. Frankfurt was just over 60 miles from the border, and the Rhine a mere 25 miles beyond. Barring the way was NATO’s strongest force, the Central Army Group (CENTAG), comprising two U.S. corps flanked by two from West Germany (from north to south, III German Corps, V U.S., VII U.S. and II German). Defending the gap was the U.S. Army’s obsession for the entire Cold War period.
Finally, there was the Hof Gap, on the border between East Germany and Czechoslovakia. West Germany’s II Corps had a huge operational responsibility, including the defense of most of Bavaria and the approaches to Munich. A Soviet drive here, perhaps even passing through neutral and weak Austria, could catch NATO napping. Think of the Hof Gap as an “Ardennes gambit” in the style of Germany’s success of 1940, passing an armored force through forested terrain regarded as unsuitable for tanks. A great deal depended on how much of a gamble the Soviets were willing to take, and how well they blinded Western intelligence agencies beforehand.
None of the three sectors was a bargain for NATO, but the alliances’ own strategy made things worse. A mobile defense was the sensible posture to absorb the initial Soviet thrust by covering forces along the border and then giving ground slowly. When the Warsaw Pact’s momentum began to lag, NATO could go over to the counteroffensive. Unfortunately, mobile defense was a political nonstarter, since it meant abandoning much of West Germany. NATO instead publicly committed itself to a posture of forward defense. A forward defense, however, was vulnerable to penetration at one or more places, destruction of NATO forces at the border and a quick Soviet drive to the Rhine.
The issue of timing was therefore critical to both sides. A rapid, surprise blow from a standing start, with frontline Soviet units launching out of their garrisons, was one of NATO’s constant worries. Caught with its aircraft on the ground and its communications and supply in a state of confusion, NATO could easily slide into panic, a wave of fear increased by the presence of so many U.S. civilian family members in West Germany. Survival depended on the reception of large reinforcements from the United States, but in the case of a “bolt-out-of-the-blue” war, those reinforcements would be very far away, indeed. But if a sudden blow afforded the Warsaw Pact surprise, it would also violate long-standing Soviet doctrine of having multiple echelons in place from the start. A surprise blow would also require the Warsaw Pact to fight a war of improvisation, a type in which NATO held the advantages—that is, if it survived the first blow.
An attack after a long buildup, by contrast, would sacrifice surprise. Assuming both sides had fully mobilized, U.S. forces would already be in place in Europe. An extended prewar crisis might force the French to opt into the conflict before shooting started, a plus for NATO. A “long-fuse” scenario also would mean a fully mobilized Warsaw Pact, however, with its rear echelons already at the starting gate, and thus an immeasurably more destructive conflict.
In between these two poles of timing lay many potential scenarios. The most likely was a Warsaw Pact invasion launched by units already on maneuvers near the inner German border, or as part of the GSFG’s semiannual rotation of troops in November or May. A “maneuvers scenario” guaranteed local surprise for the pact and a favorable balance of forces, and NATO would probably walk into its share of walls as it desperately tried to shift from peace to war.
The list of what-ifs was nearly endless. Consider the possibilities for a more limited war. What might happen, for example, if Warsaw Pact marine and airborne forces launched an operation against the Danish island of Bornholm? Denmark was a founding member of NATO and one of the weakest militarily. The seizure of Bornholm would not be so much a physical threat as a moral one, a test of just how strong the U.S. commitment to Europe really was. American inaction, perhaps stimulated by WORLD WAR III FOR BORNHOLM? headlines in major U.S. dailies, would have meant the death of NATO. The same dynamic was true for a “Hamburg grab,” a sudden Warsaw Pact seizure of a single West German city, would NATO dare then to respond to the fait accompli. Would any U.S. president actually launch a thermonuclear war and risk national and global annihilation for Hamburg? Failure to do so meant Soviet domination of Western Europe.
In the end, two factors stand out as crucial to the outcome of World War III. First, NATO knew it could not expect to hold a Warsaw Pact offensive without the arrival of heavy U.S. reinforcements crossing the Atlantic. It never expected to do so and indeed was not designed to do so. The arrival (or nonarrival) of U.S. divisions was therefore crucial. Just as in World War II, this war would have had its own Battle of the Atlantic, waged on the sea, under the sea and in the air. The Soviets realized the importance of sea-lanes, and by the late 1970s, under the leadership of Admiral Sergey Gorshkov, they had built a vast blue-water navy to challenge U.S. naval dominance. The United States saw the danger and in the 1980s rebuilt and expanded its own fleet under Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.
The second factor was nuclear weapons, which despite mountains of studies from every conceivable angle remained absolutely unpredictable. Soviet doctrine, at least in published form, accepted their use from the outset of the fighting. After all, no one in a fight holds back his most powerful weapon when victory or defeat is in the balance. As one Soviet insider wrote, “It is stupid to start a fistfight if your opponent may use a knife. It is just as stupid to attack him with a knife if he may use an ax.” American planners took a different view, seeing a war that began with conventional weapons and then at some point “went nuclear.” A likely scenario was a battlefield defeat so bad that U.S. field commanders demanded authorization from the president to use tactical nuclear weapons. Once the first nuke entered play, however, all bets were off as to their limitations, and the course of the conflict from that point on—not to mention the future of the human race—can only be described as uncertain.
And the winner would have been…?
The answer would depend on when the war broke out and how ready NATO forces were by that date. An assault by a Soviet tank army would have been shock warfare at its most intense, and only steely nerved and well-drilled defenders could have opposed it. A war in the 1950s, with NATO little more than a tripwire, offered real possibilities for a U.S. policy of “massive retaliation” and thus nuclear Armageddon. A surprise blow in the 1970s against a U.S. Army in its post-Vietnam hollow years might well have worked, and once again might have confronted the United States with a choice of going nuclear or losing. But a war in the 1980s against a U.S. force bulked up with M1 tanks, M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and a dominant Air Force almost certainly would have meant defeat for the Soviets.
While the Warsaw Pact is history, NATO still matters. Over the past year the Russians have thrown off the doldrums resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under President Vladimir Putin they are reaching out for those lands that broke away in the post-Soviet era—Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Baltic republics and perhaps even beyond. U.S. policy in this period, a “strategic rebalancing” to Asia and the Pacific and hyping China as a potential adversary, has come at the worst possible time. Indeed, it has only seemed to embolden Putin.
Today, as in 1939, the key to peace may well be Poland. The country was once a vital member of the Soviet alliance and must be eyeing the events in Crimea and Ukraine with high anxiety. Today it is a member of NATO, and Article 5 of the NATO compact is clear: An attack or threat against one member state is an attack on them all. With peace once again standing on the razor’s edge, it may be time for the Pentagon to start dusting off those old REFORGER plans and thinking, once again, of the “next war” in Europe.
Rob Citino writes a regular column (Fire for Effect) for World War II magazine and is a visiting faculty member at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. For further reading he suggests The Third World War: The Untold Story, by General Sir John Hackett; Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy; and Team Yankee: A Novel of World War III, by Harold Coyle.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.