A Conventionally Fought WW3?

If the Warsaw Pact had fought a conventional war in Western Europe against NATO forces, who would have had the advantage? And would the use of chemical and nuclear weapons have been inevitable?

Probably doesn’t belong in GQ since there is no factual answer. Reported to mods for moving to correct forum.


Since this is speculative, let’s move it to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

From NATO Strategy Documents http://www.nato.int/docu/stratdoc/eng/a691208a.pdf

from a document from 1969.

So it seems NATO wanted to reach/ensure conventional parity and was concerned about the time required to bring its forces to bear. Given the Warsaw Pact was working with a logistics chain that didn’t require forces crossing an ocean it seems obvious that a serious conventional war with a rapid breakthrough by the Warsaw pact would’ve seen NATO use nuclear weapons.

I always thought that NATO planned to trade space for time until reinforcements arrived. Germany is a fairly big country, so it makes sense.

I wouldn’t want to say who would have won, but I will note that the Soviets had some fairly serious disadvantages to go along with their advantages. For one, the political officers.

Also, their organization gave no room whatsoever for initiative, which means that they would have been slow to respond to unexpected developments. (“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”)

Third, their lack of training relative to most Western military standards. Semi-trained conscripts just don’t perform at the same level as highly-trained volunteers.

I think that nuclear weapons would be inevitable from France. They were independent enough, and vulnerable enough, that they would not have listened had the Anglophone powers tried to dissuade them from being overpowered by the Soviet bloc. After they blew their wad, that’s another story, because France alone did not have enough nukes to totally destroy Russia. It would have been a more even battle at that point, because if France did not launch, they would have been completely overpowered by the Soviet bloc within weeks.

Tough fight. I suspect both sides would find their Air Forces pretty much eliminated in the first week, if they last that long. NATO might retain limited stealth capacity, but neither side is going to achieve Desert Storm-style complete control of the air war. The Warsaw force really needs to push all the way through to France before NATO can bring in enough reinforcements to stop them. The NATO force needs to dig in, and slow the Red advance as much as possible, trading ground for time. With limited use of tactical nukes, I think NATO can shut it down cold, but as noted, once that genie is out of the bottle, all bets are off. Without nukes, I still think the NATO force could buy enough time for reinforcements to arrive, but the cost would be extreme.

The U.S. Navy will be critical…possibly even decisive in such a conflict. They’ve got to defend against the Soviet submarines to protect shipping lanes, and protect the carriers as long as possible.

It depends greatly upon the year in the Cold War; I’d give very heavy odds in favor of the Warsaw Pact in a conventional war from the 1950s up until around 1980 where I’d still give odds in favor of the Warsaw Pact but not by a terribly large margin. However, I don’t believe it would be possible to prevent the war from going nuclear. Historian Gwynne Dyer made an excellent 7 part documentary for Canadian television called War in 1983; part 5 entitled Keeping the Old Game Alive dealt with just this issue. The entire documentary appears to be available on youtube, this is the link to the last segment of part 5. From part of his summation:

Regardless of any grand strategy of NATO, I don’t see any country with nukes refraining from using them to prevent themselves from being conquered, or to strike back at their conquerors if they can’t prevent it.

Agree with most of this. In the companion book to Dyer’s “War”, he quotes from assorted NATO officers regarding a wargame they were fighting, simulating just your OP. IIRC, the officers on the NATO team asked for nuclear release within either 36 or 72 hours. I have very little faith that a ‘tactical’ nuclear war would stay that way.

I think it really does depend on which year you’re talking about. I am not sure the USA/BAOR could stop a Red Army from shoving its way to Biscay in '46, particularly if Stalin played down the brinksmanship and let the Western Allies proceed with demobilization. IMHO, it really depended on how many atomic weapons the U.S. could make and were willing to use over Germany and France.

Later, in the 1980s onward period, the modernization of the USA in both material and doctrine was really starting to make big strides. While it’s easy to point to improved weapons such as the Abrams MBT, Bradley IFV, and F-15; I’d point instead to improved training methods and institutions such as NTC as the big equalizer. Still think things would have gone nuclear, but I think the USA would have had a much better showing of it, than they would have in the 1970s.

I wonder what the consensus is in the professional military simulation community?

To support the comment about Dyer, I used to know people who trained at the staff college in Kingston, Ontario. According to every source I had, every simulation of full scale conventional warfare in Europe they ever tried ended up with one side or the other asking to use nuclear weapons in a matter of a few game days. IIRC the record for the longest period of timne before one side pulled out nukes was 7 days, or maybe it was 9; it was less than 10, I’m pretty sure.

NATO’s open and very public stance was to use nuclear weapons if they felt it needed to stop a conventional attack. The West never had any intention of limiting themselves to conventional options.

Another question: Was there another really plausible Evil Empire invasion scenario other than the Fulda Gap?

I remember reading Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War book in junior high (~1988, pre-Berlin Wall collapse). Strictly conventional, but it climaxes with just two nuclear exchanges, the collapsing Soviet regime nukes Birmingham, England, NATO responds by nuking Minsk in payback, the Soviet state then completely collapses and surrenders. It was part of social studies class and I seem to remember it being regarded as the most well regarded piece of speculative fiction at the time. 2 contained nuclear exchanges seems rather too neat though.

I found an article that supports my points about training and organization.


(About half-way down.)

In addition, during part of the time, the US Army pre-positioned equipment in Europe. In other words, reinforcements would have simply been flown over to Europe, and quickly been ready to fight.

I now think that NATO would have won a conventional war, although it may possibly have been a close-run thing.

All true, but you are overlooking a few things. US forces were never the majority of NATO forces slated for Central Europe; the Bundeshwehr alone maintained a standing force the size of or slightly greater than what the US Army was supposed to be once REFORGER (REturn of FORces to GERmany) was complete and the troops mated up with their pre-positioned equipment. This was supposed to take 10 days to complete under peacetime conditions and using the entire US civil air fleet; unless there was prolonged escalation this would take longer under war conditions. This would result in every heavy division in the active US Army aside from the 24th Inf (Mech) which was slated as the RDF heavy division being in Europe, but not the National Guard divisions. However, only 10 of the 18 divisions in the US Army were heavy divisions, so only 9 would be ready and in Europe at the end of REFORGER. The National Guard divisions would take a great deal longer to mobilize and be considered fit for battle. Additionally, as a result of the Total Force Policy the National Guard was integrated into active duty formations; some divisions had one of their 3 brigades as NG, some brigades one of their battalions. If Desert Storm was anything to go by this wouldn’t have worked all too well at the time. None of the three NG ‘roundout’ maneuver brigades assigned to active duty US divisions sent to Desert Storm were ready to deploy to the desert by the time the shooting started in mid January 1991 despite being alerted and mobilized in November 1990. The US Army substituted in their place active duty brigades assigned from divisions not sent to the gulf.

Additionally, I think you’re underestimating just how heavily outnumbered NATO was going to be. It’s all academic though; as I said I don’t think it was going to be possible to prevent the war from going nuclear.

Red Storm Rising (Tom Clancy, 1986) is a novel examining a NATO/Warsaw Pact conventional conflict that raises a number of issues (some of which were shown to be accurate in later conflicts). It is a pretty good read (well, I liked it, and would happily re-read it).

Clancy does suggest a close stalemate, though (as I recall), with air superiority eventually going to NATO, but sea and land sort of tipped the other way. The Russians are hamstrung with a supply issue, though (the precipitating factor is an oil shortage, not a spoiler as it is explicit to the reader from the start).

The conflict is resolved before recourse to Tactical Nuclear Weapons, but they are considered.


I read it in a college political science course, and it was considered laughably optimistic.

As far as the OP – I think it depends very much on when the war happens. Until the 70’s, a nuclear defense was integral to NATO strategy. I don’t think the West could have overcome a conventional Soviet invasion without a nuclear response.

Then came the late 70s and 80s and the rise of cruise missiles and theater ballistic tactical nukes. And it began to dawn on the population of Europe that, should there be a war that involved nuking invading Soviet forces, there was a very good chance that West Germany and maybe a big chunk of France would be turned into a parking lot. That, and at the same time the Reagan and Thatcher governments began a massive buildup of both nuclear and conventional forces. And the 80s was also the time when the Soviet military began seriously bleeding itself in Afghanistan, and their whole economy began to fall apart.

So, OP, is this a war in 1955, or 1985? It would make a huge difference in how things played out.

This book actually inspired two books set in that scenario.

Most famous is Harold Coyles Team Yankee which tells the ground war from the perspective of a US tank officer.

Much less known is Chieftains by Robert Forrest-Webb which is the exact same story from the view of a British tank officer with the entertaining twist that the author didn’t share Hackets optimism about a limited exchange being possible and things escalates to a full blown nuclear exchange. Everybody dies

A similar thread from last month: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=656998