How World War III Starts: 5 'Sparks' That Could Set the World Ablaze

What might spark such a war, and how would it escalate into a global conflict? Here are five potential scenarios: none likely, but all possible.

The United States is bound by treaty to defend Japan.  If a conflict between China and Japan erupts, the United States may find it difficult to avoid entanglement. In context of any kind of sustained combat between Japanese and Chinese forces (not to mention an aggressive Chinese effort to land on the islands), the United States would almost certainly become involved. Given the likelihood that such intervention would prove decisive, China might feel compelled to pre-empt U.S. intervention by an attack on American military installations across the region. This would trigger a broader U.S. response, and throw the entire Asia-Pacific into chaos.

South China Sea


The United States has already had a number of uncomfortable confrontations with Chinese naval and air units in the South China Sea. If an operator lost his or her cool, dreadful consequences could ensue. Similarly, as the United States steps up its involvement with Vietnam and the Philippines, it could become entangled in Chinese military operations against either country.


A U.S.-China war would be bad enough, but depending on the context and course of the conflict, both Japan and India might feel the need to intervene in some fashion. Russia would likely stay out, except insofar as it used its defense-industry to keep the Chinese military operating. War would result in a clash between the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy on one side, and the PLA’s anti-access, area denial systems on the other.  Nuclear escalation could happen either accidentally (one side misinterprets a missile launch or targeting decision), or on purpose (China feels the need to staunch the bleeding if its Great Wall at Sea crumbles).



Russia continues to view the political allegiance of the Kiev government as a critical national security interest. If it cannot command that allegiance, then Moscow can take steps to destabilize and weaken the country. Thus far, the United States and NATO have limited their exposure, supporting the right of the Kiev government to resist Russia, but not providing it much in the way of means to do so. The situation is rife with opportunities for miscalculation, and a mistake on either side could produce a militarized confrontation.


Much depends on how NATO countries decide to respond to Russian moves in Ukraine.  If Russia became sufficiently certain of NATO intervention, then it could take steps to pre-empt NATO mobilization.  Any attack, or serious threat of attack, against a NATO country could then trigger a NATO response, which could involve attacks into Russian territory. The Kaliningrad enclave could provide a key flashpoint for escalation, as military forces within the enclave are simultaneously threatening and vulnerable.  And if Russia believes that it cannot prevail with conventional force (a possibility), Moscow could consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Parting Thoughts

In the Cold War, we felt that we had a certain sense of what World War III would look like.  Either the Warsaw Pact would invade NATO along the central front in Germany, or one of the two superpower would launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack designed to disarm the other. In either case, the consequences would be dramatic, and nearly immediate.

We now lack such terrifying clarity. War could break out in a number of places, drawing in combatants in unpredictable ways. Combatants very rarely start a global war on purpose; the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations need to be vigilant about the threat of crisis escalation.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as an Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Fifth Fleet