To Stop The Soviet Union, America Was Willing To Kill Millions
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Here's what to keep in mind: It is hardly obvious that the NATO forces could have won. The Warsaw Pact had massive material advantages and a well-thought-out planning apparatus that welded all the allies (ie Soviet satellites) together in a coherent whole. Fortunately, the Soviet Union decided to go away instead of burn out, and we never knew if NATO's plan to defeat a communist invasion would have worked.
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Even before arms fell silent in Europe in 1945, American and British planners realized that the Soviet Union would have 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. However, as the USSR's missile and nuclear programs accelerated, it became clear that NATO (which was launched in 1949) needed some understanding of how to combat the Warsaw Pact armed forces.
The nuclear option
In the 1950s and 1960s, NATO and the Warsaw Pact agreed on two things related to the struggle on the central front. First, the Warsaw Pact forces would quickly outnumber NATO forces and make progress across Western Europe that even surpassed that of World War II. Second, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would use abundant tactical nuclear weapons to both break up hostile formations and pave the way for advancing forces.
Both assumptions began to collapse in the early 1970s. First, the increasing strength of NATO land forces (particularly the American and German) indicated that western armies may have more to hope than to reach the English Channel before the Russians. Second, both sides became skeptical that conflicts would inevitably lead to the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Rise and fall of active defense
During the Yom Kippur War, precision guided ammunition was used for the first time in combat between conventional armies. The results were devastating; The Israelis, Egyptians and Syrians lost all vehicles well above the expected rate. The use of anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles in Suez in Egypt was particularly worrying for the IDF.
Although the Israelis eventually circled the Egyptians, the conflict appeared to show that the balance of military technology had shifted in favor of tactical defense. Over the next few years, the US Army revised its doctrine heavily into what became known as "active defense". Active Defense planned to move Soviet armored tips into semi-stationary blocking positions, where increasingly lethal precision-guided ammunition would tear them to pieces.
It is not entirely fair to characterize active defense as a wear strategy, since it certainly contained maneuver elements (aspects of which were reminiscent of 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 use the latest military technology, but left the initiative entirely to the Soviets. The next iteration of the Army doctrine, AirLand Battle, tried to restore the maneuver on the battlefield.
The rise of the AirLand battle
AirLand Battle was first released in 1982 and further developed in 1986. The "Deep Battle" concepts developed in the 1920s and 1930s in cooperation between Weimar and the Soviet Union were used. Deep Battle envisaged a simultaneous series of attacks deep in an enemy position, using artillery, air strikes and long-range paratroopers. These attacks would disrupt the enemy and allow a breakthrough to be successfully exploited.
AirLand Battle expected the NATO forces to attack the Soviet armored spearheads almost immediately when they made their first breakthrough. The counterattacks would upset the Soviets and limit the extent to which they could penetrate the livelihoods of NATO defense. AirLand Battle is expected to take advantage of NATO's decentralized control structure and flexible command and control arrangements by giving local commanders a lot of leeway. What mattered was the disruption of the Soviet offensive and not a major operational goal linked to a territorial goal.
While much of AirLand Battle relied on the classic traditions of mobile tank warfare, it also contained elements that were looking forward to the next military-technical revolution or revolution in military affairs. While NATO forces were carrying out counter-offensive operations, AirLand Battle imagined waves of attack deep behind the Warsaw Pact lines that targeted logistics and communication centers. These attacks with precision-guided ammunition at a distance would disturb the courage of the Soviet offensive.
In fact, AirLand Battle and Active Defense weren't as far apart as is commonly believed. Both were an attempt to deal with the changes in military technology, and both adopted many of the same tactical solutions to these problems (including increased use of PGMs, better infantry-armament collaboration, improved surveillance and one good) developed leadership and control agreements). AirLand Battle explored the insights that enabled Active Defense and took these insights in an offensive direction.
AirLand Battle was an army doctrine, not a common doctrine, but it reached an almost unique moment in the history of the relationship between the air force and the army. The Vietnam War had scorched both services, but also accompanied a generation change 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 warfare.
As a result, 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 battlefield outside the front, with the Army responsible for areas near the front and the Air Force for the lower levels. The Air Force's strategic bombers would remain on call if the conflict became nuclear and would also help in naval warfare.
In the end, this would lead to a disrupted, disjointed Soviet offensive that could win territory but could not destroy NATO's fighting ability. Further NATO counter-offensives would then separate all remaining Soviet spearheads and possibly attack directly in the Warsaw Pact, where it was hoped that the Soviet satellite governments would collapse.
On the maritime side, the U.S. Navy concluded in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the Soviet Navy wanted to focus primarily on defending its strategic strike capabilities (protecting the boomers in their bastions) rather than attacking the transatlantic lines of the Communication. As a result, the Navy developed its own offensive plans to achieve two goals in a general war. First, U.S. surface and underground forces would actively threaten the Soviet bastions, force the Soviets to provide resources for their defense, and hopefully make the Kremlin paranoid enough to give peace a chance (but not so paranoid that they decided to to fire the missiles). .
Second, U.S. carriers and amphibious forces would operate along the Soviet flanks to disrupt and distract the central front. Efforts to conquer Arctic, Pacific, or Black Sea territory would be distracting raids, but would still be a way to take advantage of the superiority of the NATO Navy and create new problems for the Russians.
Last but not least, NATO had missile options when the conflict became nuclear. The combination of the Pershing II ballistic missile and the Tomahawk ground-based cruise missile meant that the United States could conduct tactical nuclear strikes along the entire depth of the Warsaw Pact (and even deep into the Soviet Union) before the Soviets had any idea what was going on. While both the Americans and the Soviets had come to the conclusion in the 1980s that a general war could remain conventional, the prospect of an escalation that would behead the Soviet government and weaken the Red Army in the shortest possible time worried the Russians .
Given the end of the Cold War and the good performance of NATO forces in the Desert Storm in 1991, some sort of background assumption has prevailed that NATO could have stopped the Warsaw Pact advance in the 1980s. It is interesting, however, that soldiers and analysts had little trust at that time. It is hardly obvious that the NATO forces could have won. The Warsaw Pact had massive material advantages and a well-thought-out planning apparatus that welded all the allies (ie Soviet satellites) together in a coherent whole. Fortunately, the Soviet Union decided to go away instead of burn out, and we never knew if NATO's plan to defeat a communist invasion would have worked.
Robert Farley lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter: @drfarls.
This first appeared in 2015 and will be republished due to the interest of the readers.
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