Revealed: How NATO Planned to Win World War Three in Europe
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.
Technologically, NATO ground forces had an edge, and the decade was a period where many combat systems were introduced that are still in service today. In 1988, the Europe-based U.S. Seventh Army was several years into fielding its “Big Five” combat systems: the M1 Abrams tank, M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, UH-60 Blackhawk transport and Patriot air defense missile, which would greatly upgrade the Army’s ability to fight AirLand Battle. West Germany had begun deploying its second generation tank, the Leopard II, also being deployed by the Netherlands, and had the Marder infantry combat vehicle. At the same time, the introduction of the Challenger tank and Warrior infantry fighting vehicle reinvigorated the British Army of the Rhine’s combat formations.
NORTHAG, or Northern Army Group, was assigned to the north half of West Germany. NORTHAG was committed to defending the North German Plain, a stretch of relatively flat, rolling country from the inner German border to the Netherlands and Belgium. The terrain clearly favored the attacker. NORTHAG also had the added pressure of protecting the shortest route to the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of West Germany, the West German capital of Bonn, and the shortest routes to Antwerp and Rotterdam, two major ports that played an essential role in flowing reinforcements to NATO.