The Buzz

World War III: How Russia and Its Allies Planned to Crush NATO

This combined northern force of eighteen combat divisions, plus artillery, air assault and special forces, would smash into the combined Danish, Dutch, West German, British and Belgian forces facing them. The battle would take place on the so-called North German Plain, a stretch of relatively flat, rolling country from the inner German border to the Low Countries. This was considered the quickest, most direct way to knock out the largest number of NATO countries.

Somewhere in the endless stream of combat vehicles headed west would be what was known as the Operational Maneuver Group, or OMG. Anywhere from two brigades to two divisions large, the OMG would be held in reserve until a breakthrough was achieved. Once committed, the OMG would lunge deep behind enemy lines, cutting off NATO forces as it did so.

In southern Germany, the spearhead would be the Soviet Eighth Guards Army and the First Guards Tank Army, totaling three tank divisions and three motor rifle divisions. The Soviet Central Group of Forces, based in Czechoslovakia, would add two tank and three motor rifle divisions; the Czechoslovak People’s Army would also add three tank and five motor rifle divisions. Czechoslovak forces were formidable in theory, but the Soviets likely still considered them politically suspect twenty years after the Prague Spring of 1968.

This southern force of nineteen divisions would enjoy the shortest route to the Rhine River, only 120 miles as the crow flies, but faced serious military and geographical obstacles. The ten West German and American divisions facing them were among the best-equipped in NATO, and the correlation of forces, to use a Soviet Army phrase, did not favor the attacker. The terrain was a mixture of hills, mountains and connecting valleys, all of which strongly favored the defender.

In the meantime, Soviet airborne and air assault forces would fan out and occupy key bridges, particularly over the Weser and Rhine Rivers. Seizing river crossings would be essential for maintaining the momentum of the ground offensive. Airfields, military headquarters and known alternate seats of government would also be targets. Soviet spetsnaz special forces would also target NATO tactical nuclear weapons, seeking to neutralize Pershing IIGround Launched Cruise Missiles and nuclear gravity bombs before they could be used.

At sea, the Soviet Navy would immediately go on the offensive. The Soviet Navy would, like the German Navy before it, try to sever the naval supply line from North America to Europe. The Soviet Navy would also immediately try to destroy American aircraft carriers, which with their airborne nuclear weapons were a wild card, capable of delivering nuclear strikes against a variety of targets over vast ranges.

The most important goal of the Soviet Navy would be to safeguard its ballistic missile submarines hiding in the Barents Sea bastion. Whether or not Moscow won or lost in the conventional realm, this would preserve a second-strike strategic capability against the United States. If the Americans were successful in wiping out Soviet boomers, that could embolden them to launch a nuclear first strike.

Warsaw Pact aviation was to be very busy. Assuming a short seven-day war, there would not be time to execute a proper air-defense suppression campaign. Much of NATO’s leadership would have been killed during the nuclear attacks, and as a result NATO air defenses would be disorganized. Pact air forces might simply press on without attempting to destroy NATO air defenses.

Assuming a no-notice war, most combat missions would be preplanned counter-air missions and air strikes against known airfields, army bases and NATO ground positions. Prepositioned stocks of U.S. Army equipment in Germany and the Netherlands would be particularly vulnerable, allowing the pact to knock out entire divisions without fighting them.

The Warsaw Pact plan makes clear two things. First, in a surprise attack, the most important forces are the ground forces. The quicker they can advance, the sooner they can overrun NATO—and that includes air bases and naval facilities. The faster they can force West Germany to surrender, the sooner the rest of NATO runs out of reasons to continue fighting—and the specter of all-out nuclear war recedes.

Second, NATO would have lost the war. NATO’s assumption that the war would gradually escalate to nuclear weapons would have been fatal against an adversary that planned to use them on Day One. The use of nukes in Western Europe would devolved the decision to employ them away from NATO as a collective body to heads of the United States, France and the UK. All three would be forced to use battlefield nukes to save their troops—and risk escalation that would devastate their homelands—or walk away from the rest of NATO.

While the World War III scenario in Europe was always unlikely, it was also the most dangerous. We now know that, instead of an escalation to nuclear war being a possibility, it was virtually guaranteed. The only question would have been to what extent—and whether or not human civilization would have survived it.