September 11, 2017 by crew
We’re back, Beasts of War, for another look into the background and context of the Team Yankee wargame. With Battlegroup’s new campaign underway, the moment seemed right for Ben Collins (@benc) and myself to take a fresh look (and challenge some myths) about what a Third World War in 1980s Europe might’ve looked like.
In Part One we introduced the project and reviewed some of the background material on which the Team Yankee Wargame was initially based. In Part Two we looked at NATO and the Warsaw Pact as they actually stood in the mid-80s, reviewing the different national armies, equipment, and high-level organizations deployed in the theatre.
Now it’s time to “start shooting,” and review some theories of how World War III in Europe might have actually ignited and played out. What would “really” happen … and what wouldn’t?
How The War Starts
The Case Against NATO Striking First
During the 2015 Teak Yankee Boot Camp, we had a lot of fun imagining a NATO invasion of “Lloydoslavia” – a hypothetical Eastern European nation of bad window curtains and too many aubergines. Humour aside, however, the question remains … could NATO have really struck first? Almost certainly not, and here’s why.
When a country joins NATO, they subscribe to the NATO Charter. In particular, Articles IV and V of this charter say (very roughly) that decisions are made by all member states as a whole, and that an attack against any member state is considered an attack against all member states.
So if NATO wanted to strike first, even pre-emptively against an anticipated Warsaw Pact invasion, all member states would have to agree to it. That means days or weeks of conferences, debates, arguments … and no possibility of a surprise attack.
Another piece of “circumstantial evidence” is NATO planning. Records clearly show that NATO anticipated giving ground, trading land for time as their forces absorbed the shock of invading spearheads. This certainly never made West Germany happy, but given Warsaw Pact numerical superiority and “first strike” initiative, there was no choice.
So when we say NATO wasn’t going to hit first, we’re not making some kind of moral call or characterizing NATO as the automatic “good guys.” A whole spectrum of diplomatic, political, and military factors simply make a NATO first strike (at least on the ground) a very tough sell.
So assuming a Warsaw Pact first strike, how would such a war really start? It seems clear that one of the first theatres of combat wouldn’t be on a battlefield of hills, roads, and buildings, but of wavelengths … as the Warsaw Pact attempted to establish an early superiority in the arena of electronic warfare.
BenC Surveys The Invisible Battlefield
Electronic Warfare (EW) is the term given to operations in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), so think of radar, radio, infra-red, thermal imaging etc. In the context of land operations EW is used as an intelligence tool to build up a picture of what the enemy is doing and more importantly what he is going to do.
EW is also used offensively to attack the enemy command & control (C2) systems. The main target for EW are radio communications. The aim is to disrupt the enemy at a crucial time by jamming. Simply put, jamming is the process of putting more power to a receiver than the intended transmitter.
Jamming can take various forms and can include transmitting static, beeps and tones or music. The jamming doesn’t have to blot out communications entirely, only disrupt them and make the radio operators work twice as hard. To get a feel for how quickly that can get your temper up next time you play Team Yankee have some static playing at full blast from a stereo for the whole duration of the game.
The Soviets were quick to realise that the EMS represented an electronic battleground and they were determined to dominate that ground in any potential conflict with NATO. He who controls the EMS has the advantage, it’s like holding the high ground. EW units were included across the levels of the Soviet force structure and it is something they were very good at.
To give some sense of scale EW in the British Army has always been a specialised activity and there is a single EW regiment sized unit that does it. In the 3rd Shock Army, which would have faced the British troops in Germany, there were five EW battalions.
Look, the last thing I want to do here is run a “campaign battle report” on how this war would have gone. Far better writers than I have literally made their careers doing this. Plus, with the Battlefront “Red Thunder” campaign in full swing, Team Yankee players around the world are making their own campaign as we speak!
That said, there are some summary statements of predictions that can be made that outline in broad strikes the general conditions of an initial Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany.
First up, NATO would be on the back foot. Soviet numbers cannot be denied, and Soviet capabilities, doctrine, and training were a lot better than many people think. This is especially true for spearhead formations like GSFG – Group of Soviet Forces in Germany). Deep airstrike and airmobile landing operations could also be expected.
The expectation of NATO’s initial difficulties is also evident in NATO planning. Each corps had a designated “covering force area” – a forward zone that would basically be traded for time, bleeding the Soviets while NATO forces fell back. Special forces would be left in pre-staged bunkers, emerging behind the Soviets to attack rear areas.
Also, almost everyone agrees that the biggest Warsaw Pact advances would be made in the north. In places like Bavaria, Thuringia, and Hesse, the West Germans and Americans of CENTAG (Central Army Group) would hold much better due to huge deployments of expensive, high-tech US firepower and much more difficult terrain.
In the NORTHAG (Northern Army Group) sector, however, things are much tougher on NATO. The terrain is more open and flat, and many NATO corps just don’t have the budgets to field such immensely powerful combat units. Sir John Hackett has the Soviets reaching the Dutch border (in some places) on the third day of the war.
Breakthrough VS Containment
When a NATO-Soviet Pact war gets started on the ground, the first question on everyone’s mind is simply this: Do the Soviets score a breakthrough? Every other question, from whether NATO reserves can deployed in time (especially from the US), to whether the war goes nuclear, stem from this initial outcome.
A breakthrough is defined as a significant breach in the defender’s line. This breach must be large enough to allow follow-on formations (division size at least) to pass completely through and plunge uncontested into the defender’s rear areas. This includes dealing with defender’s reserves and defeating possible counterattacks.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds, no matter how big the attacker’s army is. This gap has to be ten or twenty miles wide, and needs at least one major transport artery to allow fast exploitation by the follow-on attacking force. This force must pass through the friendly regiments already in contact, which are doubtless in a state of damage and disarray.
Lastly, this corridor has to be kept open for support and reinforcement of the exploiting spearhead. This means defending the flanks of the penetration from NATO armoured and airmobile counterattack, and its protecting transport arteries and follow-on echelons from NATO airpower.
If an operational breakthrough can be achieved, however, the war is probably won for the Soviets. Once the line is split, flanking Soviet divisions can “roll up” the NATO line to the north and south, stabilizing and expanding the breakthrough corridor. Given the depth of West Germany, the Soviets are probably approaching the Rhine River.
So for NATO, the object here clearly is to prevent a breakthrough. Given the huge edge in Soviet conventional and chemical weapons, the last thing NATO wants to do (especially in the north) is stand and defend the West German border in an inflexible line. Hence the “covering force area” previously mentioned.
NATO goal will be to engage the Soviets, bloody them, and fall back, over and over. Grind down Soviet numbers with technological firepower, distance, and (if the opportunity arises) counterattack. This is tricky, though. Delay your retreat too long and your wings may collapse. Soviet airmobile may land behind you. Either way, you’re cut off.
The decision on when and where to counterattack is also dangerous. The first impulse will be to counterattack at the first opportunity. This is probably a grave mistake, as counterattacks that are too small or launched without mutual support or coordination are a waste of men and resources.
In any event, NATO has to maintain a deadly balance. Slow the invaders down long enough for reserves to arrive … but fall back fast enough so the line is never broken by overwhelming weight of Soviet combat power at a critical point.
The Question Of Alliance Unity
Another crucial question as the war develops into its second and third day with whether NATO or Warsaw Pact simply falls apart politically.
The Warsaw Pact COULD collapse under the shock and magnitude of a full-scale war. The late 1980s showed just how weak the USSR was economically and politically. And we’d already seen Polish unrest in the Solidarity movement. Would Polish, Rumanian, and Czechs march calmly into the (possibly nuclear) meat grinder?
NATO is not immune to such pressures. West Germany is a potential weak point. As their country is subjected to unbelievable devastation (including mass chemical holocaust), as NATO generals trade German town and cities for time, and as the roads jam with refugees, might they simply cry “enough” and demand that NATO forces leave?
A Very Short War
One thing is sure. This war would be shockingly short. Sir John Hackett gives it ten days. In Ralph Peters’ superlative novel “Red Army,” World War III lasts three days. Unlike World War II, where no one was ready at the outset, here’s a war for which EVERYONE had been gearing up … for forty years. Then all that firepower is released at once.
For a comparison, we can look at an example of when “Team Yankee firepower” really was unleashed … the 1991 Gulf War. In less than 100 hours, the Coalition allies effectively annihilated the 300,000-strong Iraqi Army, a combat-tested and heavily-fortified force rated at the time as the fourth-largest on earth.
Now imagine that Iraqi Army is just as well-equipped and motivated as the Coalition. Imagine it has 2 million men instead of 300,000. Imagine they have an air force three times the size as Coalition’s, a tactical nuclear option, and a chemical warfare capability unequalled on the planet. And imagine THEY hit US first.
The war still only lasts 100 hours. But those horrific losses are now on both sides.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this continued exploration into the “what-if” background and context of Team Yankee. As always, we welcome any feedback, questions, or comments you may have on the matter. This is a war that never was, after all, and all an exercise of hypothetical academics.
Are you participating in the “Red Thunder” Team Yankee campaign? What do you think of the situation in the campaign, and how is it lining up with the postulations presented in these articles? How is your faction doing, and what tips might you have for others ready to jump into Team Yankee?
If you liked this article and want to know more about the history behind Team Yankee, make sure to check out the Weekender Interview with oriskany below…
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"Now it’s time to “start shooting,” and review some theories of how World War III in Europe might have actually ignited and played out..."
"Are you participating in the “Red Thunder” Team Yankee campaign?"