In 1978, General Sir John Hackett, along with some other high-level former military officers and diplomats, authored a best-selling book called The Third World War: August 1985, an account of a fictional World War Three between NATO and the USSR.
Written in the style of a history book done two years after the war, it is considered one of the classics of that particular sub-genre of military fiction, along with Tom Clancy and Larry Bond's Red Storm Rising.
Four years later, The Third World War: The Untold Story was published, revising the story to take into account major political changes
Although I am but a mere minnow to the mighty military mind that was Sir John Hackett, I felt, having recently read the book- and with the 25th anniversary of Exercise Able Archer 83 approaching, it might be interesting to muse on how said scenario would have played out in the light of what we know now.
Be advised that this article contains major spoilers for the two books. If you don't want to be spoiled, stop reading now.
In late July 1985, the Soviet Union, facing a loss of control in East Germany and Poland, invades Slovenia in order to stop the break up of Yugoslavia. There it comes into contact with US forces and, despite an attempt at a news blackout, footage of the fighting is broadcast.
On the morning of 4 August, Warsaw Pact forces invade West Germany, Norway, Austria and Italy.
After 11 days in which chemical weapons but not nuclear ones are used, NATO manages to stop the Soviet advance near Krefeld and starts moving them back. This only really occurs because of a crash rearmament program in which merchant ship hulls become escort carriers, UK civil defence improves considerably and money is saved by not creating Channel Four (you may snigger at that last one).
The Soviet leadership (well some of it) decide to try and force a negotiated peace by launching a single nuclear missile at the British city of Birmingham. The US and UK respond by firing four back at Minsk in the Byelorussian SSR, the result of that being the collapse of the Soviet Union in a violent manner.
There's also a war in Southern Africa, won by the apartheid regime. China invades Vietnam, the US bombs Cuba after misinterpreting an intercepted message but does not invade.
Revision of the scenario- ground rules
I'm going to keep the basics of the scenario the same for this. I'm assuming that the Soviet leadership was somewhat more invasion-minded than Andropov, Chernenko et. al appear to be (that said, the whole thing was a massive miscalculation on Moscow's part- most wars are miscalculations on someone's part). I also assume, as per the second book, that Reagan only serves a single term before being replaced by another Republican that isn't George Bush Sr.
I'm going to mainly explore the impacts of the post-1982 military technological developments that Hackett didn't know about and what we now know about the military capabilites of the two sides.
I'll take it each side at a time.
Hackett's team wrote their second book in 1982, just before the Falklands War occurred, with its resultant impact on military strategy and ideas. We'll assume the war happened, more or less as it actually occurred.
The Vulcan and a nice bit of propaganda
One of the most famous actions of the 1982 Falklands War were the BLACK BUCK raids, where RAF Vulcans, with a lot of tanker support, conducted the longest distance air strikes to that point in history against the Falkland Islands from Ascension Islands.
Considering the political impact that had on the Argentines at the time, I wouldn't be surprised if the British decided to do something similar against a target in the USSR, using the bomber Vulcans that would not have been retired in these circumstances. I'd go for Anadyr (major Soviet air base in the Far East), using a version of the Blue Steel missile modified for conventional use.
The US could provide some of the tanker support- as well as fighter support. This will be a tougher job than Port Stanley, that's for sure.
Definite advantage NATO.
Harriers and the use thereof
The Falklands War demonstrated the strong capability of the Harrier jump jet in air-to-air combat, where its lack of speed is not really an issue.
The Harrier force might have been used in the UK for point defence stuff, making the task of the Soviets harder there.
The F-117 Nighthawk
The Stealth "Fighter" (of course it wasn't) was of course designed for use in a war in Europe.
It was more or less in service in the real world by 1985, albeit not publicly announced. The F-117 would have been used for some in-depth strikes, possibly the strike against the Polish rail junctions via Sweden and also others.
There would have been losses- the Soviets might have filled the sky with flak and SAMs, downing a few of the F-117s.
The Tomahawk family
The scenario has ground-launched and submarine-launched cruise missiles limited in 1984, so while they would have played a role, it would not have been that much. While TLAMs are useful against hardened, fixed targets, it's harder against a tank column.
There is no way this could have been anything close to operational in 1985, no matter how much money was thrown at it. There is no way the attack on Birmingham could have been prevented- for a start, it took several minutes for NATO to realise what was going on.
The B-1B Lancer
This was starting to enter service in 1986. Assuming a rush on the programme, it would have been present, but in very limited numbers (about 25 or so, I'd guess). SACEUR would have kept them in the US for nuclear use, not releasing them at all.
The Warsaw Pact
We know now that the Warsaw Pact technology was somewhat less capable than the NATO estimates at the time (although the T-72 is still a very capable tank and the poor performance of Iraqi examples, being downgraded export ones with poorly trained crews, should not be taken as a guide to wider performance), although they still had the advantage of numbers to a fair degree.
However, there are certain platforms and changes that might have put the balance back to the Soviets a fair bit.
We're going to need some better "Fencers"
Hackett's team, not by their own fault, seem to have overestimated the range of the Su-24 "Fencer" and been wrong as to its intended use. The Su-24 would have been used in a battlefield support role, making the West Germany operations both harder and easier for NATO. Harder in that there's more troop support for the WP forces. Easier in that the UK bases don't get as much damage.
Net advantage to NATO.
Bringing Not So Sexy "Backfire"?
Hackett's team might have overestimated the range of the Tu-22M "Backfire" (they used a lower figure than the accepted estimate at the time, but one that some sources today claim, including Tupolev IIRC).
With the Su-24 doing battlefield duties and the Tu-16 somewhat antiquated, the "Backfire" would have got medium-range striking duties against the UK.
Less available striking forces mean less damage to the UK bases. Less range means less damage to the CAVALRY convoy.
What about the refuelling probes, I hear you ask? Sticking the probes back on the Tu-22M would have been done by the Soviets pretty quickly, arguably a year or two before the war (they'd make a propaganda reason for it) to get the crews proficient.
The Soviet tanker force, however, was rather poor and would have been attacked in large numbers (probably by F-15s or Tornado ADVs rushed into service).
Advantage NATO, but only a slim one, because of...
Su-27 and MiG-29
Both of these aircraft were in late stage development in RL 1985 and would have been rushed into service. Both are very capable fourth-generation fighters, which would have caused problems for everything bar the F-14, F-15 and F-16. I don't know the precise date that the helmet-mounted sight entered Soviet service, but if it's here at the time, the MiG-29 has a decisive advantage in a close-range fight with an F-16.
"Backfire" escort would have been a big role for them.
The "German Machine" in Germany
I don't think Hackett mentions the Su-25 "Frogfoot" in the second book (I've returned it to the library now), but it would have helped the Soviets a fair bit in the ground battle, even if it was not as good as the A-10.
We now know that the "Kiev" class of aviation cruisers was designed for anti-submarine work near the Soviet Union, not for open ocean battles. We also know that the Yak-38 "Forger" was spectacularly poor.
The seven-or-so carriers available in this scenario would have been in the process of returning to friendly waters when the war began- but it depends on their locations as to their effect.
The loss to the Soviets from their poor carriers (the Tbilisi, to use the first name of the Admiral Kuznetsov, would not have been ready for another year or two at least, nor Ulyanovsk) is somewhat negated, but not much, from problems that the US carrier force hearding for the Arctic might have faced had the war lasted long enough for it to get there.
The Yak-141 "Freestyle" arrives too late for this scenario.
To the "Victor III", the spoils
There's always a but in these scenarios- it comes in the form of the Schuhka and Schuhka-B classes, aka the "Victor III" and the "Akula".
These two new classes, thanks to a Soviet mole in the US Navy (John Walker), were considerably quiter than their predecessors. ASW people would have had major problems with them- especially the CAVALRY convoy.
All things considered, I'd say that the war would have been about the same length and still produced the same result.
SACEUR probably would have needed to release the B-52s anyway, although it might have been a day or two later than 15 August.
The rest of the scenario, including the Soviet decision to use an ICBM, would have occured around about the same time frame.
May we thank the Lord that Hackett's ideas were never tested for real and a Third World War did not occur.
I believe this is the longest post I've ever done on this blog by some margin. Your thoughts are welcome.
Edit- with thanks to Full Monty at the Armchair General Forums, for the F-117A suggestion.