Key point: Billions might have died.
Even before the guns fell silent in Europe in 1945, it became apparent to American and British planners that the Soviet Union would hold a massive advantage in land power along the Central front. In the early post-war years, Western planners hoped that nuclear weapons would keep the Soviets at bay. As the USSR’s own missile and nuclear programs accelerated, however, it became apparent that NATO (which came into existence in 1949) would need to come to some understanding of how to fight Warsaw Pact forces.
The Nuclear Option
During the 1950s and 1960s, NATO and the Warsaw Pact agreed about two things regarding combat on the Central front. First, Warsaw Pact forces would quickly overrun NATO forces, achieving rates of advance across Western Europe that exceeded even those of World War II. Second, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would make plentiful use of tactical nuclear weapons, both to break up enemy formations and also to pave the way for advancing forces.
Both of these assumptions began to break down in the early 1970s. On the first, the increasing strength of NATO land forces (especially American and German) suggested that Western armies might have something more to hope for than reaching the English Channel ahead of the Russians. Second, both sides became skeptical that conflict would necessarily result in the use of tactical nukes.
The Rise and Fall of Active Defense
The Yom Kippur War saw the first extensive use of precision-guided munitions in combat between conventional armies. The results were devastating; the Israelis, Egyptians, and Syrians all lost vehicles at far beyond the expected rate. Egyptian use of anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles in Suez proved particularly troubling to the IDF.
Although the Israelis eventually encircled the Egyptians, the conflict seemed to demonstrate that the balance of military technology had shifted to favor the tactical defense. Over the next few years, the U.S. Army heavily revised its doctrine into what became known as “Active Defense.” Active Defense envisioned funneling Soviet armored spearheads into semi-stationary blocking positions, where increasingly lethal precision-guided munitions would tear them to pieces.
It’s not entirely fair to characterize Active Defense as an attrition strategy, because it certainly included elements of maneuver (aspects of it recalled the development of elastic defenses on the Western Front in 1916 and 1917). However, many in the Army hated the perceived passivity of Active Defense. It promised to take advantage of the latest in military technology, but left the initiative wholly in the hands of the Soviets. The next iteration of Army doctrine, AirLand Battle, sought to restore maneuver to the battlefield.
The Rise of AirLand Battle
First published in 1982, and further developed in 1986, AirLand Battle hearkened back to the “deep battle” concepts developed in cooperation between Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Deep Battle envisioned a simultaneous set of attacks deep inside an enemy position, using long-range artillery, airstrikes, and paratroopers. These attacks would disrupt the opponent, allowing the successful exploitation of a breakthrough.
AirLand Battle expected NATO forces to counter-attack Soviet armored spearheads almost immediately as they achieved initial breakthrough. The counter-attacks would throw the Soviets off-balance, and limit the extent to which they could penetrate into the vitals of NATO defenses. AirLand Battle expected to take advantage of NATO’s decentralized control structure and flexible command-and-control arrangements by giving local commanders a great deal of latitude; what mattered was disrupting the Soviet offensive, rather than a larger operational goal associated with some territorial target.
While much of AirLand Battle hearkened back to the classic traditions of mobile armored warfare, it also included elements that looked forward to the next Military-Technical Revolution, or Revolution in Military Affairs. As NATO forces were carrying out counter-offensive operations, AirLand Battle envisioned waves of attacks deep behind Warsaw Pact lines, targeting logistical and communications hubs. These attacks, using precision-guided munitions at stand-off ranges, would disrupt the guts of the Soviet offensive.
And indeed, AirLand Battle and Active Defense were not as far apart as is commonly believed. Both represented an effort to come to grip with changes in military technology, and both adopted many of the same tactical fixes to those problems (including the increased use of PGMs, better infantry-armor cooperation, improved surveillance, and well-developed command and control arrangements). AirLand Battle grappled with the insights that made Active Defense possible, and turned those insights in an offensive direction.
AirLand Battle was Army doctrine, not joint doctrine, but it arrived at a nearly unique moment in the history of Air Force-Army relations. The Vietnam War had scorched both services, but it had also accompanied a generational shift in the Air Force. The bomber generals who had ruled the USAF since World War II gave way to the fighter generals, who were much more interested in the tactical aspects of warfighting.
Consequently, the Air Force was more than willing to play a strong supporting role in both Active Defense and AirLand Battle. The Army and Air Force developed complex arrangements for managing the battlespace beyond the front, with the Army responsible for areas close to the front and the Air Force for the deeper echelons. The strategic bombers of the Air Force would remain on call if the conflict went nuclear, and would also assist in the war at sea.
In the end, this would result in a disrupted, disjointed Soviet offensive that might gain territory, but could not destroy the ability of NATO to fight. Further NATO counter-offensives would then separate any remaining Soviet spearheads, and potentially attack directly into the Warsaw Pact, where it was hoped the Soviet satellite governments would collapse.
On the maritime side, in the late 1970s and early 1980s the U.S. Navy came to the conclusion that the Soviet Navy intended to focus primarily on defense of its strategic strike capabilities (protecting the boomers in their bastions) rather than on assaulting trans-Atlantic lines of communication. Consequently, the Navy developed its own set of offensive schemes, designed to accomplish two goals in a general war. First, U.S. surface and sub-surface forces would actively threaten Soviet bastions, forcing the Soviets to commit resources to their defense, and hopefully making the Kremlin paranoid enough to give peace a chance (but not so paranoid that they decided to launch the missiles).
Second, U.S. carrier and amphibious forces would undertake operations along the Soviet flanks intended to disrupt and distract from the Central front. Efforts to seize territory in the Arctic, the Pacific, or the Black Sea would amount to distractionary raids, but would nevertheless represent a way of leveraging NATO naval superiority and giving the Russians new problems to deal with.
Last but not least, NATO had missile options if the conflict went nuclear. The combination of the Pershing II ballistic missile and the Tomahawk ground-launched cruise missile meant that the United States could deliver tactical nuclear strikes all along the depth of the Warsaw Pact position (and indeed, deep into the Soviet Union) before the Soviets had any idea of what was going on. While both the Americans and the Soviets had, by the 1980s, come to the conclusion that a general war could remain conventional, the prospect of an escalation that would decapitate the Soviet government and debilitate the Red Army in no time flat deeply disconcerted the Russians.
Given how the Cold War ended, and given how well NATO forces performed in Desert Storm in 1991, a kind of background assumption has taken hold that NATO could have stopped a Warsaw Pact advance in the 1980s. It’s interesting, however, that soldiers and analysts at the time had little confidence of this. It’s hardly obvious that NATO forces could have won; the Warsaw Pact had massive material advantages, and a well-conceived planning apparatus that welded all of the alliance partners (that is, Soviet satellites) into a cohesive whole. Fortunately, the Soviet Union decided to fade away instead of burn out, and we never learned whether NATO’s plan for defeating a Communist invasion would have worked.
Robert Farley senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls. This article first appeared several years ago.