The Soviets unleashed Pyongyang early in the conflict, redirecting U.S. attention towards the Korean Peninsula. Washington had effective answers; it quickly undertook offensive anti-submarine operations in the Sea of Japan, decimating Soviet SSN and SSBN forces. Soviet surface ships also came under attack. Nevertheless, in a daring move the Soviets launched a successful amphibious assault against Hokkaido. Although the operation suffered heavy losses, it succeeded in establishing a beachhead in Japan (though this was later withdrawn under fire).
The United States took a more aggressive stance in the 1988 wargame. Instead of waiting for a Soviet attack, Washington immediately began air and unconventional offensives against installations in the Soviet Far East, designed to decimate Soviet air defenses and threaten the survival of military-industrial installations. For their part, the Soviets hoped that a reticent military stance and a diplomatic offensive could keep Japan out of the war. This gambit succeeded to a point, as the Japanese suspended active military cooperation with the United States. American pressure eventually forced Tokyo to yield, and the Soviet opened offensive operations against the archipelago. By this time, however, the U.S. Navy had devastated Soviet naval forces, confining the Pacific fleet to its bastion in the Sea of Okhotsk.
Late in the war, the Soviets gave Pyongyang the green light to invade South Korea. However, this operation backfired, as the North Koreans failed to make substantial progress against combined U.S. and South Korean forces. Moreover, the Soviet move confirmed the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and helped drive Beijing into a much more hostile disposition towards the Soviets.
Both the Soviets and the Americans had options in Asia. The strategic environment was far more fluid than in Europe, allowing a variety of different choices to disrupt and destabilize the opponent. This made the course of war far less predictable. At its (nonnuclear) worst, war could have raged across Asia on multiple fronts, from Korea to Japan to the Sino-Soviet border. At its best, the combatants might have observed an uneasy quiet, at least until it became necessary to outflank a stalemate in the West. But as was the case in Europe, everyone concerned is fortunate that tensions never led to open combat.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest , is author of The Battleship Book . He serves as a 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 , Information Dissemination and the Diplomat.
This first appeared in 2016.