28 October 2008

Hackett Thirty Years On: An Analysis Of 'The Third World War'

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.
The Scenario

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.

Advantage NATO.

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.

Advantage NATO.

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.

No change.


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.

No change.

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.

No change.

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.

Advantage WP.

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.

Advantage WP.

Chicken "Kievs"

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.

Advantage NATO.

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.

Advantage WP.

Overall conclusions

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.


Anonymous said...

Part 1:

I agree with most of your analysis. However, I would say that, circa 1985:

The Soviets had very VERY few of the advanced air superiority fighters in the Su-27/MiG-29 class. Even in 2009 their numbers are somewhere between miniscule and negligible.

The US 9th Air Force, in peacetime stationed mainly up and down the US Eastern Seaboard, made a lot of plans and did a lot of training involving the assumption that, if the orders came down, the entire 9th Air Force could be on runways in Belgium and West Germany, fueled up, fully armed, and ready to start generating sorties in 48 hours or less.

Given the above two assumptions it seems unlikely that the Soviets could have had air superiority theater-wide. At a minimum air superiority would have been vigorously contested all the way up and down the front. It is possible that the Soviets could have, by prodigious expenditure of aircraft and pilots--bringing in reserve units with obsolescent aircraft, throwing them into the fight, and basically burning up entire fighter regiments like so many stacks of cordwood--they could have temporarily achieved air superiority in narrow regions of the front, possibly for periods of time of a day or less. Outside these zones, any attempted use of the Su-25 or any other close support or strike aircraft would have amounted to throwing them away--they'd not have lived long enough to reach FEBA. However much they overawed illiterate Afghan peasants, to Western interceptor pilots they were merely fat, slow, clumsy targets.

On the other hand, by 1985, the USSR had significant numbers of early T80 variants, including some of the T80U with laser rangefinder, hydraulically stabilized armament, and explosive reactive armor tiles, massed in armor units in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The T80, even without ERA tiles, was a very difficult tactical problem at the time. With the ammunition available at the time, only 120mm guns and the very latest, cutting-edge antitank guided missiles had any significant chance of damaging or destroying it through its frontal armor at any significant distance. The NATO standard 105mm gun was pretty harmless to it, barring a hit from the flanks or rear, an extremely lucky shot to the turret ring, or the depleted uranium APFSDS ammunition that was only available in tiny quantities to a few units at the time. Which means that only BAOR, with its 120mm-armed Chieftains, or that tiny handful of Bundeswehr units that had Leopard IIs in 1985 could have done much against armored formations spearheaded by T80s.

Anonymous said...

Part 2:

The presence of significant numbers of US and other antitank helicopter gunships, like Cobras with TOW II missiles and the then-new Apaches with Hellfires, might not have affected the situation as much as US doctrine hoped, given that air superiority would still have been very much undecided.

Lastly, speaking of rotary wing aviation, one other Warsaw Pact capability that was highly worrisome was never mentioned in the book, and is only rarely touched upon in other period material or even analysis at a distance of decades--even though the Soviets were demonstrating this capability in Afghanistan at the time for anyone who cared to look.

A common Soviet saying of the time was, "Rotor is to track as track is to boot." The Soviets had truly massive numbers of heavy-lift helicopters in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and equally massive numbers of airmobile-trained light infantry units--including the East Germans, the Poles, and the Czechs, they had five divisions' worth.

In Afghanistan the Soviets demonstrated that they had been observing the US in Vietnam quite closely, and had come away with a very firm grasp of airmobile tactics.

What if the Soviet generals, in addition to using the traditional Soviet "ink blot" tactics of massive battering-ram frontal assaults all the way up and down the line, had also made the decision to bring up vast numbers of reserve fighter/interceptor air units from the interior of the USSR, expended them ruthlessly to tear open a hole a hundred miles wide in NATO's air defenses in central West Germany, then airlifted these five divisions of light infantry directly into Bonn? I dare say it could have won the war for them in an afternoon.

Silent Hunter said...

What about the impact of Stingers on Soviet rotary-wing stuff?

As for the Su-27/MiG-29 class, those low numbers are arguably due to the collapse of the USSR.

Anonymous said...

Well, we ARE speaking of the August 1985 scenario from the book, yes? Very few of the Soviet advanced air superiority fighters were in service at the time.

As for the FIM-92 Stinger SAM specifically, the first production models were only delivered to units in 1981. Only four years later, I suspect that, even in West Germany, more US units than not were still using the old FIM-43 Redeye SAM that was introduced in 1964, a significantly less capable system.

And for other areas of West Germany, other NATO armies were as a rule rather less lavishly equipped with MANPADS and ATGMs compared to the US. BAOR was still fielding the old Shorts Blowpipe, if memory serves--which did not perform especially well in combat on those occasions when it was used--and I do not know whether the Danes or Belgians or West Germans had significant numbers of MANPADS in inventory at all that long ago; if they did, it was most likely a small handful of the obsolete Redeyes.

This is not to say that the hypothetical Soviet airmobile assault would not have suffered a certain degree of attrition on the way from Point A to Point B, but I suspect it might not have been sufficient to prevent them from achieving their objectives in Bonn.

Silent Hunter said...

Regarding your first point, I was merely saying there would be far more Su-27s and MiG-29s, including carrier versions today if the USSR hadn't collapsed in 1991.

Your thought on the airmobile thing is interesting though. Wouldn't the moving of PVO fighters have exposed the USSR too much in a nuclear exchange?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification.

There is that; on the other hand, the Soviet military always emphasized aggressiveness in its planning of offensive operations, and the Soviet leadership might have regarded this as an acceptable calculated risk, especially given that, in a nuclear exchange, most of the incoming warheads would have been delivered by ICBMs and SLBMs rather than manned bombers, against which jet interceptors could avail little in any event.

It seems at least plausible.

Anonymous said...

While this is a good breakdown of relative quality and quantities of equipment, this is lacking a discussion of the human factors--personnel and training.

Although Hackett discusses a return to conscription for the US, in reality the US military made a successful transition to an all volunteer force that continues to this day. A force of long-serving regulars results in members being better trained, in a higher state of readiness, and fewer disciplinary problems. Ask a retired officer or NCO who served in the 60s-80s and they would say the quality of personnel dramatically improved in the 80s, especially compared to the 70s.

The all-volunteer system is also a big advantage when you look at the problem of growing small-unit leaders. The US and British militaries are big on placing a lot of leadership on NCOs who start as the bottom as privates and earn their stripes. In the Soviet system, sergeants were conscripts who go to a special school, and because of that, command no special respect from their soldiers. The real power belonged to the conscripts who are in the last "class" before discharge. This tended to undermine unit discipline among the enlisted force structure, requiring junior officers to take a more hands on role in managing the platoon and company than in the US/British model.

With respect to training, US and British training was far superior. US had learned and incorporated lessons learned in Vietnam and developed training programs like National Training Center at Ft Irwin for the ground forces, as well as Red Flag and Top Gun for the Air Force and Navy, to provide realistic training for combat forces at the small unit and operational levels. Keep in mind the Vietnam experience created a reform mentality among the junior officers that created a focus on warfighting skills as opposed to bureaucratic imperatives. In comparison, the Soviet Union relied on a "scientific" approach to warfare based on applying nomogram-based rules derived from Great Patriotic War data that prescribed how to solve problems. They carried this approach into Afghanistan with disastrous results. They eventually learned from this, but I doubt if it would have been institutionalized by August 1985.

Then we should also discuss the importance of electronic warfare and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance,and Reconnaissance). The US placed great emphasis on electronic warfare (as learned in Vietnam against the SA-2) and practised in a realistic environment at GREEN FLAG exercises. Likewise, they developed specialized units such as the Wild Weasel units to defeat Soviet air defence systems, and practised to a very high standard. Training flight hours were multiple times those of their Soviet equivalents and at a higher realism. In addition, a lot of emphasis was placed on Air-Ground coordination, with operational procedures being worked out during exercises and operational testing.

With respect to ISR, investments in bringing back the U-2/TR-1 and deploying JTIDS enabled rapid collection, analysis, and dissemination of tactical intelligence. And the heavier deployment of networked computer resources (pre-internet) provided a tightened OODA loop compared to Soviet practise.