The Cold War: Who would’ve won in a battle of conventional forces?

Many people think that if there was going to be a true World War 3, it would’ve happened in the early times of the Cold War, when tensions between two industrial super giants were at there highest. Not surprisingly, many people are glad WWIII never happened then, because the result would probably have been a nuclear apocalypse. Thinking back, though, if we were to take atomic weapons out of the equation, how would events have turned out different? If driven to war, would the east or the west have won?

      How did NATO forces stack up against the Communist’s? Could Kennedy have held Cuba (now that I think about it, without nukes, he might not have needed to)?  Could Khrushchev have taken all of Berlin?  Would fighting have spilled over to the states?  Who had better armor, men and planes? 

      I’m aware it’s impossible to predict these scenario’s with any accuracy.  Nuclear weapons were an integral part of the Cold War militaries, and the armies had been produced and trained with this in mind.  We can’t simply will it away, because we don’t know what would’ve happened if the money, man-power and material spent on nuclear projects had been put towards conventional arms.  Also, there are too many variables.  We may be able to get the precise numbers of soldiers, but we can only guess at the rate reinforcement, the outcomes of individual battles, and the tactical blunders and foul weather these men would’ve faced.

      It’s still interesting to speculate, though.

Some musings:
From my understanding, the Soviet Union had superior conventional weaponry. The US navy, however, had a slight edge on things. Then there’s the fact that both nations are probably near impossible to invade. We’ve all learned from history what happens when you invade Russia, and the U.S. > how do you invade a nation where every citizen could be given a gun on nearly a moments notice that’s way far away from Europe (presumably the center of the fighting). Then there’s sustaining oil supplies. Byebye ANWAR, not to mention Alaska/Siberia would probably be a big battleground for said oil. The middle east would be a tricky front. Turkey would need serious U.S bolstering to keep oil flowing from that region. There’s also naval issues with the Black Sea/bosphorus.

It is true that both nations are hard to invade, but there are specific reasons for this. When the U.S fought the Brits in the American revolution, the U.S had massive support from the French, and English had insanely long supply lines and military interests in other places. In 1812, the Brits invaded the states, scattered the initial resistance, and burnt the white house among other things. The English then, again, had to deal with thousand mile long supply lines, and some serious blunders (the Battle of New Orleans, I believe. Don’t quote me on any of this, I’m working from memory). It would be hard for any pre-industrial revolution country to carry on a war against an organized and well armed opponent that was so far away.

Russia is different matter. The 2 most notorious generals, Hitler and Napoleon, failed subjugating the mother-land because their armies were decimated by the Russian winter. If these attackers could of got their supply lines and timing straight, I’m sure the U.S and Russia would’ve been much easier to conquer.

Every civilian having a gun would not necessarily prevent an invasion. It would make things much more difficult (look at American operations in Vietnam and Somalia) but if you brought enough tanks, artillery and heavy bombers along, you’d crush the civilian resistance.

Interesting question, especially when you consider, as you note, that both countries planned for nuclear combat (whatever that is).

Much of US Army doctrine of the period (right up into the 80’s) seemed centered around small, dispersed, fairly independent units which could not be taken out by nuclear attack short of total annihilation of a theatre of battle.

Even setting that aside, the other issue is: are we removing chemical and biological warfare from the equation? Soviet Union troops were alleged to have been much better prepared for chemical weapons (offensively and defensively) than the US. And I suspect the USSR biological warfare machine was probably in a better position than that of the US and NATO.

I don’t think people realize how integral the nuclear defense option was to the US since the US believed it faced an inevitable chemical attack which it really wasn’t prepared to handle.

I guess you should specify how your WWIII starts. Who initiates it? Where and how?

Of course, from the US perspective, the commonly talked about threat was massive invasion of Europe by the USSR and Co. If that were the case, the US and NATO troops probably would would be in a purely defensive mode from day one due to the firepower of the USSR. The Warsaw Pact nations supposedly had an absolutely tremendous advantage in numbers of tanks and artillery pieces. It would be a race to see who got to the French Atlantic coast first, the Russian regulars or the American reinforcements.

On the other hand, if the US initiated it… Nah, the USSR would see the US coming, and would likely preemptively strike.

Not sure anyone really had the capability to project power directly to the US 48. (Thanks Mahan.)

The oil analysis is certainly pertinent, and really makes you realize that everyone would have to pick sides very quickly had the Cold War become hot.

Let’s not give too much credit to Hitler. I’m not sure he was such a great general. Rommel and other, perhaps.

IMHO: You can “crush” military resistance with tanks, artillery and heavy bombers, but it is impossible to “crush” a determined and armed civilian resistance without destroying any benefit of gaining control of the conquored lands.

Having a determined and armed citizenry defending their homeland from an aggressor makes political victory unatainable. In that situation, the “conquoring” invador may achieve temporary victory, but the victory will only be over the ground directly underneath every imported tank. As soon as a tank moves on, the “conquorer” would lose control of that ground. Long supply lines, mounting daily casualties, and fading determination on the home front would eventually lead to withdrawal.

Then again, if you sole purpose would be to destoy the war-making and power-projecting ability of the other nation, as opposed to holding the conquored lands, well, I guess you can do that with tanks, etc.

I think your question mostly hinges upon the “when.”

In 1945, the U.S. (and Allies, perhaps? Rearm the Germans IAW Gen. Patton’s theory?) was better poised to fight a conventional war right up to the gates of Moscow, and you can be rest assured with people like Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and such that we wouldn’t be overextending ourselves to be amputated by the notorious Russian winter (well, Gen. Patton, maybe). Russia had no fleet to speak of, and with the Pacific Fleet and all of their Marines driving from the West across Siberia, I think a conventional war against Russia was winnable immediately post-WW II.

Moving up into the 1960s, things begin to get fuzzy. Without the nuclaer deterent, would the U.S.A. have cut their conventional forces so drastically? I think not; something has to take up the slack of the missing nuclear arsenal, and chemical and bio weapons were still crude (by later standards, anyway).

But maintaining a large conventional force in a democracy in peacetime has always been tough; our state of readiness since the 80’s has been generally high, but we’ve been substituting quality for quantity, and that also has its disadvantages, as we’ve seen in our “New World Order” trying to play GloboCop (and whether we should or shouldn’t be doing that is a separate debate in and of itself).

Technology will only get you so far; it may win you the battle, but you still have to occupy/hold the ground to ensure pacification. Pure grunt work, and if there’s partisan activity, messy grunt work. It requires lots of warm bodies coupled with the political commitment to “go the distance.”

By now we’ve introduced so many variables that even conjecture becomes vague to the point of being meaningless. By the 1970s in our hypothetical alternate universe, it’s anything goes. If chemical/bio weaponry advances at pace (probably faster; w/o nukes, the research imperatives for weapons of mass distruction would advance chem/bio tech. ahead of our own development, IMHO) the strategic situation may not look altogether that much different from what we know today.

All-in-all, our techno-superiority was well suited to defensive warfare of continental Europe; an offensive force needs numbers simply for attrition and strategic and tactical flexibility. As your enemy’s lines contract, troop density (and thus firepower) increases.

As far as the USSR invading the USA: fugedaboutit. Red Dawn scenarios aside, if the USSR ever presented an immenent invasion threat, the American public would get an abrupt and hard lesson about Citizen Militias (I’m willing to bet our Nat’l Guard would treble in size and quality), w/ America looking something like Israel or Switzerland. The economic disruption that that would cause would have all of the Wall Street types howling for peace at any price, political consequences be damned (I’m counting on the typical short-term make-a-quick-dollar mentality of Wall Street Capitalists to hold true across the board).

Otherwise, our hypothetical Naval Fleets would make our real world fleets look chintzy by comparison.

While it’s true that the Warsaw Pact had much larger conventional forces, it’s not clear that it would have mattered. In the last two big battles between Eastern and Western weaponry, (Israel 1973, Iraq 1990), the eastern weaponry was decimated. The Russian air force may not have been able to stand up to the NATO forces. And we’ve all seen what happens once one side gains air supremacy.

That Iraq '90 comparison of western-vs-russian equipment is NOT a fair cold-war comparison. That was '90s M1A1(HA)s vs. '70s T-55s, T64s, and a handfull of T-72s (The US’s M1A1 force outnumbered all of Iraq’s T-72s, and was somewhere around 1/2 to 2/3 of all of Iraq’s tanks. I could dig up a cite for that if needed, will just have to look a bit :> ). Plus the vastly overwhelming air and naval supperiority. Desert Storm caused a lot of myths and misunderstandings of modern or cold-war millitary tech (Most notably the “push-button warfare” myth).

I don’t think the Golan heights is too fair of a comparison, either, but probably closer. I don’t know as much about that encounter, though. However, I have doubts that the eastern gear was quite on-par with Israel’s gear, and in any case, it sounds like the attacking force had little artillery supporting the attack. A charging attack through only two very narrow choke-points with NO initial artillery support is pure suicide. And even in that case, the brigade(?) defending the golan heights was almost decimated in the fighting.

In a standard cold-war scenario minus any NBC weapons, it’s a tough call. The western forces generally had slightly better tech and training, while the russian forces had a vast supperiority in numbers. Individual soldiers were just about the same, with the western units having slightly better rifles but commonly with slightly less-capable AT weapons. And the russians had a supperiority in soldiers. Fortunatly for all cold-war scenarios, the focus was on a russian offensive, and in that case, soldiers are much better by-the-numbers for defence than offense.

For tanks, it’s about the same. Western tanks were bigger and tougher, with a higher crew survivability and better training, but were also slower, poorer for manuvering in muddy or unstable terrain, and much larger. They were built for defence. Russian tanks, like the T-72 and T-80, were designed from the begining for offence. Smaller, cheaper, and in much higher numbers, while still having armor quite close to their equivelant-era western tanks. They were faster, and handled poor terrain much better than western tanks, and were designed for quick fording of rivers durring an offence. Their guns were slightly less potent and shorter ranged than the western guns, thanks to deficiencies in their ammo quality controll in the factories, but were supplemented by cannon-launched missiles with ranges that exceeded the maximum range for western cannons (Up to 5.5km, while western guns of the time had fire-controll limiters to only allow shots up to 4km, though a good gunner could adjust his fire for shots beyond that, with significant loss of accuracy). And russia had significantly more tanks than NATO, again. Roughly, 3 T-80s on the offence would be the equivelent of 1 M1 (Or other western tank) on the defence. In an open-field battle, the numbers quickly approach 1:1. A T-80U-M1 is a nasty match for an M1A1(HA), despite the constant declarations of the Abrams’s invincibility.

As for artillery… The russians strongly believed in artillery (“Artillery is the god of war.”). Their artillery vastly outnumbered western artillery, so the western doctrine was to give very little artillery support directly to the units in the field durring the begining of a russian offensive, and instead use their better tech and range to conduct counter-battery fire to disrupt and/or neutralize the russian artillery.

Aircraft are about the same. Western forces had generally better tech (Though the MiG-25 or -29, and the SU-27 were incredibly nasty birds, quite on-par with western craft, the US seemed to have better support tech), while the russians had more aircraft. Same for helos. Russian helos tended to be less refined compared to western designs, but still quite potent (And some of them rivaled the best western designs of the time). To top it off, russian forces were a great believer in air mobility, beyond that of western forces. They even had light tanks (BMD) designed to be dropped by air and immediatly combat effective the moment they hit the ground.

And there’s air-defence. Russia had lots of air defence integrated in its individual millitary units, giving each unit fairly effective integrated air defence. Western doctrine specialized in a few theater-based air defences (Such as the patriot) and some protection for high-value targets, but relied almost exclusively on air supperiority for air defence.

If it’s a russian-offensive, like standard cold-war expectations, it’d be a very bitter fight, and could go either way. For the battlefield, it depends on how quick (And how long!) the US can ship units in to reinforce the NATO forces. Without the US’s continued aid, it’s most likely that the russian forces would win. Continued US aid would push it further toward the middle, but it’d be too hard to determine who would win in that case. Very close, I’d think. However, all things being even, and given just a straight conventional conflict with no external influences (Appart from the US and other allied nations’ involvement), the russian forces would probably at least take Germany. From there, it depends on how quick they can extend their supply lines, but with their strong belief in air mobility, I’d imagine that wouldn’t be too hard. My money would be on russia taking continental europe, MAYBE the british isles, and then hitting a dead-end. After a fight like that, I don’t see any way they could push their way across the atlantic and into the US, not to mention the fact that they’d have no -reason- to do so. With it being such a close call, though, I find it unlikely that russia would -want- to start an offensive like this.

For a western offensive, I don’t see any way of NATO/western forces winning. Too many russian units, all in defensive possitions, with the attacking force using units designed more for defensive warfare. Western forces would probably make significant ground advance at first, just because they can concentrate on a smaller group of land than the russian defences would be in, but the russian forces could pick at them while withdrawing faster than they can advance, and eventually tire them out and wear them down. Once that’s happened, the invaders are once again spread out and weakened, much like in the past, with long supply lines, and russia still holding most of its power base. Bye-bye invading forces, and russian soldiers could advance with much ligher resistance through europe again.

In 1945, you can be rest assured with people like Zhukov, Vassilevsky, Rokossovsky, Konev and such, that the Soviet Army would steamroll through any opposing military force. Any single one of the generals above had more operational expirience than Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley combined. What should we compare battle of Bulge to? Kursk?Stalingrad?Battle of Moscow? Operation Bagration alone was on the scale far greater than the entire D-Day. Soviet Army was unstoppable in 1945, pure and simple. It would overwhelm any enemy with massive artillery firepower, slashing tank attacks, and 4 years of expirience fighintg the best army in the world.

The fact that guns are readily available is also helped by the ability (historically) of the U.S. to act decentralized. I believe it is still the case that if a state was cut off from Washington it could act much more effectively as an independant unit than, say, an administrative province of England cut off from London. The fact that our government is structured in a federal structure, with each state still having a sort of military (nat’l guard), and probably the ability to augment those forces with citizen soldiers, would make it even harder to conquer the US. The decentralization also extends to economic decentralization also IMO.

Here’s a better concern: of course its one thing that everyone has guns, but can you supply them sufficient ammunition?

i’m putting my money on China. if they all came at us (or them) with sharp sticks, we would run out of bullets before we could slow them down, and they would over-run us!

I remember reading an article in Time Magazine back in the early 1980s that described Pentagon simulations involving a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. If I remember correctly, every single scenario compelled the NATO forces to dip into the tactical nukes sooner or later.

That bodes ill for the prospects of a conventional war in Europe in the 1980s, Tom Clancy be damned.


An excellent bit of theory on your part, but I feel compelled to nitpick your comparison of the T-80 to the M1A1. The T-80 has vastly inferior accuracy, so much so that it relies on a tube launched anti-tank missile for long range engagements. It’s armor is mostly reactive plating which provides little defense against sabot rounds fired by the M1A1. The Chrobham armor of the M1A1 and the accuracy of its main gun means it can destroy a T-80 nearly 3000 meters out while a T-80 must close to 1500 meters before it has any chance of pentrating the frontal armor of the M1A1.

Another thing to remember is that Soviet weapons were notorious for poor maintenence. Yes, during WWII you had to keep the tanks working. But during peacetime tanks were left to rot, ammunition is old, you have no fuel anyway, the soldiers supposedly in your platoon are actually working on the farms nearby. Much of the Soviet numerical advantage in tanks was a mirage. Yes those tanks existed, but they were unfit for service. And remember the Russians have a long history of Maskirova…it was part of their doctrine to keep those worthless tanks on the lists. How can an American spy satellite tell whether a tank is operational or a rusted out shell?

The other thing to remember is the quality of the troops. Your average Soviet soldier was a conscript, and essentailly treated as a slave. I imagine they would have done OK fighting defensively…after all it is your but on the line. But how are they going to do in an offensive operation? In 1945 they would have done excellently. But what about in 1960?

I think the Soviet generals would realize that a massive conventional attack on Europe would be incredibly risky, since so much of their soldiers and equipment were unreliable. Or rather, reliable for some purposes but not for others. A tank with busted treads and no fuel can still be a defensive pillbox, and conscripts can fight on the defensive. But you can’t expect them to march triumphantly through the Fulda Gap.

timothy98765: I’m basing my guesstimates off of a few assumptions, ones I’d think were fairly implicit. If not, I’ll lay it out in B&W:

  1. In 1945, the U.S./Allies/NATO analogues are provoked by Stalin into driving from Germany to Moscow. I most assuredly did not underestimate Russia’s military leadership; I counted upon Stalin’s political ineptitude in dealing with foreign powers.

By '45, Stalin had learned the hard way to leave his Generals alone to build the Army and fight them. But Russia had lost some 20 million people in WW II, and were a long way from home. Indeed, they faced problems similar to Hitler (and Napolean, for that matter) in the reverse. They also had no love for Stalin, victory hysteria aside.

If Stalin started a war with the US/Allies, I think it’d be even money on whether the Russian forces in western Europe would fight us or join us, especially if we made it clear we were fighting Stalin, not Communism, or the Russian peoples. I would also put even money on popular support from Central Europe (Lithuania, Ukraine, etc.,).

I’m basing my guesstimates of US/Allied victory on Air Superiority coming from both East and West (PacFlt basing out of Japan, China and possibly Korea). The Pacific Theater Forces could take Siberia with some effort, as historical revisionist keep insisting that Japan would have surrendered w/o having nukes dropped on them, so I’m agreeing with them and allowing for that. That leaves the massive amphib forces and carrier fleets intact w/o having had to hammer Japan into submission w/ an actual invasion of the mainland.

As has already been pointed out, and I agree, when you rule the skies, the ground quickly follows. Patton was arguably the ultimate offensive-oriented miltary commander in WW II, certainly in the top 3. He would certainly know to hit the Russian forces close to his supply lines, and let the Air Corps cut the Russian’s supply lines, mousetrapping them in Western Europe to defeat them in detail on his turf and terms.

Marshall, Ike, Bradley, Clark, MacArthur, Montgomery, hell!, pick-a-general, even a Russian one, all would know that. Why do you think the Russians were so nervous, being in Western Europe, so far away from Mother Russia and her war factories in 1945?

  1. W/O expensive nuclear arsenals to develop/build/maintain, funds for conventional forces are more abundant. W/O a nuclear arsenal to develop/build/maintain, the US/Allies/NATO probably would not have gutted their conventional forces the way our history show they did (think of the state of the US Armed Forces circa 1950).

The US/Allies/NATO knew that in the nuclear age, conventional forces were vulnerable to nuclear attack, both ours and theirs. As we were geared towards defending Europe from Soviet invasion in our timeline, with a hefty nuclear arsenal to back us up, the emphasis was never put upon fighting attritional 1:1 warfare. We built a 1:3 force (our 1/their 3) with nuclear weapons to back up/thin the Red Horde. A defensive force.

  1. The US/Allies/NATO would never launch an offensive war of conquest. In spite of our Cold War rhetoric out of the Kremlin, I seriously doubt that the Politburo ever worried about a military offensive into Mother Russia. They were concerned about political conquest. The “Domino Theory” cuts both ways, if you take my meaning.

As such, we probably would still have built a defensive force in our alternate non-nuclear universe, and with a bit more emphasis put upon numerical parity (remember, “no nukes! no nukes!”)

This is all I have time for now, but I’ll close in saying that in no way did I ever underestimate Russia’s miltary capacity circa 1945: their ground forces and military leadership were certainly up to the task. Their Air Corps was not. Ours was. It would be game, set and match for the US/Allies in 1945 against Russia in less than a year based upon Air Superiority alone.

Assuming sufficient provocation from Stalin to propel the US/Allies into a war against the Russians, of course. Which the OP fairly assumes.

Depends on which models and ammos you are comparing. If you take a mid-80s M1A1 against a mid-80s T-80BV, the difference seems nowhere near as marked. Before the advent of the M829A1 and its depleted uranium core, the M1 had only marginally better hitting power than the T80 (Less than 10% between the 3BM42 and M829). As for accuracy and armor, that also depends on the model of tank. If you compare the M1A1(HA) and the T-80U (Both of which emerged in or around '90 and were the current top-end tanks for the US and russia, respectively), the differences were quite small. The T-80U had slightly less armor (Again, about 10%). Both had quite capable fire controll systems (Though personally I don’t think the M1 reached its full potential untill the A2-SEP and the two-axis sight, instead of the one-axis sight that seemed to do a lot to impair the move-and-shoot and quick shoot ability), and I don’t see how the T-80 can be judged as vastly inferrior unless you’re comparing first-make T-80s to M1A2-SEPs that outdate it by over a decade. With current ammunition, the effective range of the T-80U’s cannon was a mere 200 meters shorter than the M1A1(HA)'s, and its cannon-launched AT-11 carry its range beyond that of the M1, as I mentioned before, and were quite capable of killing the M1 with a hit to any facing but the front (Not that it mattered, at around 5 kilometers, the M1 couldn’t penetrate an equivelant-era T80 from the front, either). And to top it all off, it’s a smaller target, especially the turret. Hull-down, the T80 shows about half as much as an Abrams (Or just about any other western tank).

And if you were to compare the slightly older M1A1 and T-80BV, which comprised a much larger portion of the forces at the time, the T-80BV’s armor was actually mostly supperior. The ERA attatchments were in addition to existing armor, not in place of, and with its much smaller volume, the T-80 tanks could get a greater degree of protection from less armor weight than an M1 could.

The Abrams is a better tank year-for-year, but not by a whole lot.

Most of this is from various tank crewmen, mostly Abrams crews, though I’m sure some of it could be found on the standard sites, like or the like.

Wow. My first thread’s really taken off. I feel so loved.

il Topo: You’re right, but I had a ‘total war’ scenario in mind, where the invaders would completely destroy any country they couldn’t occupy, so as to ruin their ‘war-making and power-projecting ability’.

I never really considered biological and chemical weapons. I suppose if it’s a battle between truly conventional forces, then anything NBC would be a no-go, but I’m reluctant to castrate the NATO and Warsaw Pact militaries anymore than I already have.

I think Lemur866 brings up a very important point. How much of the Soviet military was fit to take on the West? They may have been in poor shape during most of the Cold War, but if that war turned hot, I would think those rusted tanks and farm boy soldiers could have been repaired and revitalized fairly easily.

From what you guys have said, I gather that any military conflict would eventually mire down into a bloody stalemate. I also gather that the U.S was unwilling to and incapable of mounting a successful assault against the Reds, so the question becomes: would the Communists have been able to rout the U.S/NATO forces in Europe during the early 60’s? For those who have already theorized on this matter, what do you think would’ve happened, after the war, if they failed, or succeeded?

Hard Q. as noted above Nukes were the center piece of US planning for the European WarIII tactically and equipment wise. If there were no such thing as nukes obviously the US would have had more men and equipment in forward positions. But based on what WAS there w/o Nukes, in mid1960’s, I believe that the USSR would reach the Channel, probably within 6-8 weeks.

Would England in the 60’s have allowed herself to be an aircraft carrier for the USAF to bomb the Soviets in France Germany and in the East? Could they sustain that politically?

My WAG is that if the Soviets let Britain be free and went for a Finlandization of Scandinavia, the U.S. would live with that.

I was a staff officer with the air defense artillery command in Western Europe in the late 60s and early 70s (Yes, friends, a chair borne commando). At that time the running joke was that we had people in the gut of the Fulda Gap to make sure that the first Soviet shell killed an American. This was so that the Germans would not think that we were going to leave them in the learch when the balloon went up.

At that time the French had pulled back behind the Rhine. The British forces in North Germany were pretty well depleted to police Northern Ireland. US Army Europe was getting only troops and equipment that was not needed in Vietnam. Most of our troops were kids looking for a few months in Europe while they waited for their release date after a combat tour in Asia. Our tactical doctrine was to meet any Soviet/Warsaw Pack attack at the border, but we all knew that the best we could do was to slow up the advance to the Rhine and that the whole thing was going to go nuclear in very short order.

Nuclear weapons, big or small were the only chance the West had of turning back a really determined attack across the inter German border. My own guess is that any massing of East Block troops would be met with a preemptive nuclear strike on the staging areas. As a practical matter, once the first nuclear warhead went off there was nothing left to do but kiss your butt goodbye. In short, any conventional war in Europe would have lasted for about 15 minutes, just long enough to scramble a fighter-bomber carrying a tactical N-bomb.