The Buzz

World War III in Europe: Imagine if the Soviet Union Invaded NATO? This Simulator Does.

From three decades distant, it is easy to forget that the late 1980s were the high point of the World War That Never Was. Both sides, oblivious to the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, had deployed the last cutting-edge technology of the era. Many of the weapons that would have clashed in the Fulda Gap or the north German plain, did go on to fight in Desert Storm, and could fight again in Ukraine or Poland: Abrams, Challenger, Leopard and T-80 tanks; Bradley and BMP infantry fighting vehicles; A-10 attack aircraft and AH-64 helicopters. The Cold War may have lapsed politically, but the hardware never left us.

God favors the side with the bigger battalions, says the old military proverb. The Soviet Union didn’t believe in God, but heaven knows, it did swear by the bigger battalions. So what if some of those numerous battalions had obsolete equipment, or soldiers and officers who didn’t speak the same language? As proclaimed by Stalin, himself a former Communist deity, “quantity has a quality all its own.”

While the Soviets worshiped quantity, NATO had a different theology. Their god was quality (the same as Hitler’s armies, the Soviets could rightly point out). According to NATO dogma, if the Soviets had invaded Western Europe during the Cold War, their superior numbers were supposed to be offset by superior Western flexibility and initiative. Quality was a jealous god that brooked no rivals. NATO’s alternatives were either to raise massive armies to match the Red Army, or have the Americans use nuclear weapons, which meant destroying Europe to save it.

Recommended: US Army's 5 Most Lethal Weapons of War

Had the Soviets invaded Western Europe, would David’s quality have defeated Goliath’s quantity? A plausible answer can be found in a computer game. Flashpoint CampaignsRed Storm is a tactical simulation of a hypothetical Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany in 1989.

Recommended: Russia's Armata Tank vs. America's M-1 Abrams - Who Wins?

From three decades distant, it is easy to forget that the late 1980s were the high point of the World War That Never Was. Both sides, oblivious to the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, had deployed the last cutting-edge technology of the era. Many of the weapons that would have clashed in the Fulda Gap or the north German plain, did go on to fight in Desert Storm, and could fight again in Ukraine or Poland: Abrams, Challenger, Leopard and T-80 tanks; Bradley and BMP infantry fighting vehicles; A-10 attack aircraft and AH-64 helicopters. The Cold War may have lapsed politically, but the hardware never left us.

Recommended: Who Swallows North Korea after it Collapses

Flashpoint Campaigns depicts this array of awesome war machines through numerous brigade- and division-sized scenarios involving U.S., British, West German, Dutch, French and Soviet forces. Here, the game begins to tackle quality versus quantity through different unit scales. Each maneuver unit in Flashpoint Campaigns is a platoon for NATO, but a company for Soviets. That means a NATO unit will roughly be one-third the size of its Soviet counterpart, which means it can absorb less damage. On the other hand, the size disparity illustrates the Red Army’s organizational clumsiness that forced it to maneuver in larger-sized formations.

Each NATO and Soviet unit is rated for a variety of attributes that affect its ability to move, fight and survive. The M-1 Abrams, for example, is rated for its frontal and flank armor, cannon and machine guns, laser rangefinder and thermal imaging system, composite armor plating, smoke discharger and laser warning receiver. Each of these systems provides various benefits for attack, defense and detection. The various specialist units of the modern battlefield have nifty capabilities: artillery fires barrages, reconnaissance units spot enemy units hidden in woods and villages, while fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters conduct strikes while trying to dodge antiaircraft weapons.

The mechanics of Flashpoint Campaigns are pretty simple: click on a unit and issue one of several basic commands, including Move Deliberately, Move Hasty (more vulnerable if they encounter opposition), Assault, Screen and Hold Position. The computer AI will execute the command, with decent competence, such as by moving over a road instead of cross-country. Fog of war plays a huge role: enemy units are invisible on the map until spotted, and even then, the fog is still hazy. It’s common in the game for units to come under fire, with their attackers only displayed as generic enemy icons, so you often don’t know exactly how many attackers are shooting at you. In fact, even the “plains” of northern Germany are dotted with woods, villages, fields and rivers that provide concealment. On the modern battlefield, what can be seen can be destroyed, so a nice patch of woods is often a better defense than thick armor plate.

But the real secret to how Flashpoint Campaigns simulates quantity versus quality is through command, control and communications, or C3. The game’s C3 mechanism is simple, smart and frustrating. Once a unit has been given an order, a certain amount of game time must elapse before it is given a new order. That interval is shorter for NATO than for the Soviets. For example: a U.S. Abrams tank platoon is ordered to advance down a road. That platoon will continue down the road for four minutes of game time, before the American player can order it to halt or redirect it to a new objective. For a Soviet tank company, a full 24 minutes of game time must elapse before new orders can be given. This means that even if the Soviets have achieved a breakthrough on one sector of the battlefield, nearly a half hour will elapse before additional units can be ordered to exploit it. In contrast, despite NATO being outnumbered, each unit can react more quickly, and thus accomplish more in a given period of time, than its Soviet counterpart.

In other words, Flashpoint Campaigns is Colonel John Boyd's famous OODA loop in game form, in which the side that has the quicker decision cycle will achieve victory. This is how Napoleon defeated his enemies. This is why the German army so often defeated the Red Army on the tactical level in World War II. And if hostilities erupt today between the United States and either China or Russia (both of whom seem to moving toward a Western-style command system), then the Pentagon certainly hopes that C3 will give American forces a battlefield multiplier.

However, Flashpoint Campaigns also demonstrates that while superior command and control is an asset, it is not a license to be stupid. A U.S. infantry battalion sent down the wrong road will need time for redirection down the right route. Less time will be needed than for a Soviet formation, but that’s cold comfort when you need that battalion immediately to stem a Soviet breakthrough.

More importantly, Flashpoint Campaigns demonstrates that command and control is a perishable commodity. For example, the game tracks “radio traffic.” The more orders that a player issues —and NATO will probably be more issuing more orders than the Soviets—the greater the chance that his headquarters units will be spotted, which may trigger an automatic artillery barrage on their location. Damaged headquarters, plus the effects of jamming, makes C3 a valuable but fragile asset.

Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm is a hypothetical history of a war that never happened. But it is also a forecast of what could happen. Armies around the world now spend vast sums on C3, from satellite communications networks to battlefield Internet. But however sophisticated the communications system, things will go wrong. As Clausewitz said, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.”

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

This first appeared in 2016. 

Image: Reuters.