The Buzz

NATO vs. Warsaw Pact: How the Ultimate Cold War Showdown Could Have Killed Millions

Guarding against these attacks and providing rear-area security were twelve brigade-sized units of West German reservists. Bonn also had three brigades of paratroops that could be quickly rushed to defend threatened areas. Air base security in NATO was very high, with the U.S. Air Force deploying large numbers of security troops at its many bases and the RAF Regiment guarding British airfields.

If conventional forces failed to stop a Warsaw Pact invasion, NATO had a wide variety of tactical nuclear weapons on hand, from nuclear depth charges to gravity bombs and the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile and Pershing II missiles. While the alliance certainly had enough nuclear weapons to stop a Soviet-led attack, using them would have started a cycle of nuclear retaliation and counter-retaliation difficult to stop. The use of tactical nuclear weapons would likely have begotten the use of strategic nuclear weapons . . . and the end of human civilization.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 to oppose Soviet expansionism in Western Europe. The end of the war saw the Soviet Union solidify its gains in Eastern Europe, garrisoning countries such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany. NATO was a direct response to the raising of what Winston Churchill deemed the “Iron Curtain.”

At the time, American and Western European planners felt that if war were to break out between West and Stalin’s Russia, it would quite logically take place in Europe. The reality of nuclear weapons, however, meant that the two sides avoided direct confrontation and instead fought a series of proxy wars worldwide. That having been said, for the Soviet Union an invasion of Western Europe carried the biggest risk—and the biggest reward.

NATO’s strategic mission was to prevent the destruction of the alliance by military force. Essential to that were four wartime goals: gaining air superiority, keeping sea lines of communication open to North America, maintaining the territorial integrity of West Germany and avoiding the use of nuclear weapons. Were NATO to lose any of these four, the war was as good as over.

In 1988, NATO’s plan for the defense of Western Europe was the doctrine of forward defense, in which Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces were stopped as far close to the inner German border as possible. A defense in depth—which experience on the Eastern Front in World War II had proved superior—would have imperiled virtually the entire West German population and forty years of postwar rebuilding.

NATO seemingly had no unified battle plan other than to “man the line” until Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces were exhausted—whereupon counterattacks could be executed to restore prewar borders. West German Army forces, inflexible at the strategic level, were allowed a level of flexibility at the tactical level. The United States devised AirLand Battle, a doctrine that stipulated ground and air units would work together to strike the enemy simultaneously, from the forward edge of the battle area to deep behind enemy lines.

At sea, the primary mission of NATO’s naval forces was to keep the sea lanes between North America and Europe open, in order to guarantee the flow of reinforcements from the United States and Canada. NATO patrol aircraft, ships and submarines would seek out Soviet submarines attempting to interdict supply convoys, trying to keep them north of an imaginary line connecting Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom.

In the Norwegian Sea, the U.S. Navy planned to surge two to three carrier battle groups, plus a battleship surface action group to attack Soviet air and naval bases of the Northern Fleet. This direct attack on the Soviet homeland was meant to divert enemy attention from the convoys, destroy air and naval facilities, and starve enemy units at sea of support. It would also, unofficially, isolate Soviet ballistic missile submarines from their land-based support, leaving them in a position to be hunted down.

NATO naval forces would bottle up Soviet, Polish and East German naval forces inside the Baltic Sea, and prevent a seaborne invasion of Denmark. West German naval forces would be on alert for Polish marine units attempting to execute a landing north of Hamburg.

In the air, NATO’s air fleets would be assigned to several roles. American F-15s and F-16s, British Tornado ADV, and German F-4 Phantom jets, among many others, would attempt to establish air superiority over the continent. Meanwhile, British and German Tornado IDS low-level strike bombers would fly counter-air missions, bombing Warsaw Pact airfields in East Germany and Poland. USAF F-111 fighter bombers and other alliance strike jets would perform interdiction missions, bombing bridges, headquarters, supply and other targets to slow the Warsaw Pact advance. Finally, American A-10 Warthogs, German Alpha Jets and Royal Air Force Harriers would be providing forward air support to beleaguered NATO ground troops.

Yet it was on the ground was where the war would have been decided. Everything supported the war on the ground—even the air war, for the ideal Soviet solution to NATO air superiority was to put a tank on every enemy airfield.

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