What would happen in a lengthy non-nuclear WW3?

Its commonly assumed (probably correctly) that in any classical Cold War NATO Vs Warsaw Pact style conflict even if the conflict started off using conventional forces that it would quickly go nuclear.

Even if the conflict remained conventional within a matter of weeks both sides would most likely exhaust their weapons-systems and ammunition. My question is, what happens at that point? Assuming a ceasefire isn’t called and the combatants intend to fight on?

As the poster below asked in a different thread:

I recall reading that during the American B-52 raids over Vietnam questions were raised as to their continued validity, as losses of one or two bombers per raid were simply unsustainable, and I believe the entire US fleet of such bombers is around 100 aircraft. And B-52’s are very much not the most advanced aircraft in the US arsenal.

In a full-scale war such aircraft would be quickly used up, it would take time, effort and expense both to build replacements and train crews to use them.

So, what happens? Do the combatants divert resources to cheaper and easier to produce weapons systems, do they have such fallback designs readily at hand or would they have to be created from scratch? Is that even feasible?

Assume its a classic West Vs East, US and allies Vs Russia and allies conflict.

Tanks in advance! :smiley:

Such a conflict is completely unrealistic…suppose the USA decided to declare war on China. The NYSE would crash, interest rates would hit double digits, and an oil embargo (against the USA) would be announced. It would be a replay of the UK and France going to war with Egypt (Suez, 1957).
The USA would wind up humiliated and bankrupt.
And the Arkansas congressional delegation would complain that WALMART couldn’t get stuff from China.

I’m not sure why you think a large scale conventional war would only last a few weeks. I’m pretty sure NATO has enough men and ammunition to last for many months, if not years, of fighting, assuming a conflict last that long.

Since nukes have only been used once during wartime, and the Japanese weren’t in any position to defend their territory from the air, it’s unclear how effective a nuclear strike might be against sophisticated anti-missle and anti-aircraft defenses.

If one side runs out of equipment and/or ammo, then that side loses and the other wins.

If both sides run out of equipment and/or ammo, then both sides continue fighting with less ammo and equipment that they had earlier.

There have been a few modern wars between small nations where new equipment has become rare once the war has continued for a while. What usually happens is that the remaining scraps are kept back to be used as silver bullets.

It would be a lot like the Summer/Autumn of 1914. The armies maul each other to a standstill. Then they spend the next 18 months rebuilding for renewed operations or there is a ceasefire.

One assumes that after all the big, expensive toys are broken, the fighting continues using the cheaper, more easily produced toys and older toys that were mothballed. In a situation like that, the advantage swings to the USSR. They would have the advantage in numbers and they squirreled away mountains of obsolete stuff from WWII. Their habit of never throwing away weapons is why they are a primary source of WWII weapons and parts today.

I believe that its fairly commonly accepted that with the destructive capabilities and ammunition/supply of contemporay weaponary (late Cold War for example) both sides would use up their immediately available war-making capabilities very quickly.

I’ve done a google search but have been unable to come up with an article I read a couple of years back where it was revealed that in the late 1970’s the United Kingdom had the ability to sustain conventional fighting capability for two weeks maximum and possibly a shorter period.

There were similar beliefs before World War One as well, that the world was too interconnected economically and otherwise for a large scale conflict to take place as all potential combatants had too much to lose. It still happened.

That said, I don’t think such a conflict is likely in this day and age either, but its still possible, we don’t know how things may play out in the future.

I thought that may be a possibility myself, both sides dig in place until they have replaced enough warstocks to continue fighting.

That would be interesting, it would be a tough decision when to use the surviving ‘silver bullet’ advanced weapon systems that could not be easily replaced.

It’s a bit outdated now but read Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy for a good no nuke look at a possible WWIII.

And you’d be wrong. Part of the “peace dividends” of the fall of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the East Bloc was dismantling a goodly portion of the weapon depot and distribution infrastructure, as there was no longer a need to maintain large stockpiles of conventional weapons, which is a large peacetime expense with little apparent benefit. The policy since that time as been on more focused, so-called “surgical” operations. During Gulf War I, less than 100,000 tons of conventional munitions were expended, much of this the most modern weapons in inventory, while Vietnam-era ordnance was being demiled and incenerated. And of course, the US military presence in Europe is much reduced, so whatever stockpiles do exist would require transportation and staging, which is non-trivial. Comparisons to the Gulf War and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan should recognize that all of those efforts–while large in any absolute sense–are dwarfed by the levels of troops and weapons production in WWII.

However, the real weak point for both sides is petroleum. The Soviets have never maintained large stockpiles of refined fuel despite having massive reserves of raw petroleum due to production problems, and while the United States does maintain a significant “strategic reserve” this is used as an economic buffer which would be quite costly to expend in war, and of course, would have to be shipped across the Atlantic to support a European land war A modern army is almost exclusively mechanized in its advanced elements, and thus dependant on the ready availability of gasoline, diesel, and fuel oil.

Rick mentioned Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, and while the book has a few problems, authorities on warfare including the Army War College agreed that it was fairly indicative of what a European land war would look like in the 1980s. (Most of the strategic movements in the book were based upon wargaming simulations, so Clancy didn’t just pull the scenario out of the air.) Of course, some of the technology was wrong (the description of the F-19 “Stealth Fighter”, though Clancy was correct that it was really designed as a tactical bomber and close air support craft rather than a fighter) and the book did not cover the occasionally mentioned conflict in the Gulf, but many of the elements, such as the vulnerability of carrier air groups and supply convoys in the Atlantic were very realistic.

As for NATO, while it has served as an increasingly strong military alliance, actual post-Cold War NATO operations have shown the weaknesses in coordinated military effort between member nations and the shortfalls in attempted commonality of weapons and communications systems. Most of the member nations of NATO have taken their “peace dividend” military reduction efforts even futher than the United States and would last only a short time in a conventional land war. Essentially, the end of the Cold War and the ever-present (if perhaps overstated) threat of expansion of the Warsaw Pact removed the impetus to maintain large standing military forces in Europe.

There are no “sophisticated anti-missile…defenses” when it comes to ICBMs. The Soviet A-135 system, which serves only to protect the Moskva Oblast, is really the only dedicated operational system capable of shooting down multiple reentry vehicles from an ICBM. The US Ground Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD) has failed numerous integrated flight tests, and it extremely limited in capability. The US had previously fielded the very effective (and very expensive) Safeguard system to protect the Minuteman complex near Grand Forks, ND, but it was only operational for a few months and was exclusively a point defense system. Protection of the United States and Western Europe from a concerted ballistic missile attack is well and beyond the current defensive capabilities.

Theater defense systems such as Aegis and PAC-3 are more capable, but these are for protecting fleets and encampments, and could still be overwhelmed by sufficient volume of attack. In addition, Russia has both supersonic sea-skimming cruise missiles and supercavitating torpedoes that many experts believe would be essentially unstoppable with existing anti-aircraft and anti-torpedo defense systems and countermeasures. The only really plausible defense against a nuclear attack is not to be at Ground Zero when it occurs.


Likewise this, written about seven years before its hypothetical conflict:

I’ve read both of those, thanks :slight_smile: (and the latters expanded edition, ‘The Untold Story’, which is worth picking up)

I would also recommend ‘Chieftans’ by Bob Forest-Webb, which mostly follows a tank crew in an imagined conventional Cold War conflict.

(though it does go nuclear at the end in an absolutely chilling scene)


I have an interest in this subject and love those sorts of books!