Friday, 27 July 2012


As late as the year of my birth (1989) Europe was still poised to be the first battleground in the final showdown between capitalism and communism. There seems something bizarre about fully mechanized war raging across what we would recognise as essentially the Europe of today, a Europe of Motorways, shopping malls and suburban housing developments. It's fascinating to speculate what form this war would have taken; retreating armies setting fire to civilian petrol stations to deny the enemy valuable resources, tank battles raging across farms and parks, soviet parachutists descending on the Champs Elysee and perhaps even, in the latter stages, Parliament Square and the Northwood Naval Headquarters just down the road from me.

The armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other over a vast frontier from the Norwegian Arctic circle to Turkey’s black sea coast, and they both knew two very important facts. First, there could be no stopping the Warsaw Pact forces if they closed those two thousand mile wide pincers. They outnumbered NATO in every respect, able to mobilise millions of men and countless thousands of tanks and combat aircraft. Although there were hopes that NATO’s superior technology could stem the tide, it seemed inevitable that the sheer momentum of Warsaw pact armour would smash through. Secondly, NATO would attempt to counter this eventuality by using tactical nuclear weapons as a “force multiplier”, a brilliantly conceived, and rather brazen euphemism meaning that they would multiply the effect of the sparse men on the ground. In a way, the fact that both sides possessed tactical nuclear weapons made it both impossible to lose and impossible to win, as they functioned as a form of “get out of jail free card”. It would be far too tempting to let fly if the situation became desperate, with Soviet tanks rumbling inexorably towards the Brandenburg gate. The exhausted allied commander in the field, stretched to the limit of his mental resources, in command of trailer mounted missiles that could be deployed at very short notice, might have to make a split second decision to cut off an enemy offensive at the vital moment, without waiting for an order from the top of the command chain.

However, once that precedent had been breached, there would be no turning back. At the very least, the floodgates would be opened on the use of tactical weapons in all their variety, with nuclear torpedoes, depth charges, rockets, artillery shells and even landmines going off all over the shop. This in itself raises the issue that its kind of hard to run a conventional war with nuclear munitions mixed in- if a division of tanks could be erased by one landmine, or a massively valuable aircraft carrier battle group, equating to billions of dollars of hardware, sunk by a single torpedo or a bomb from a single aircraft, why not just get it over with and wipe out a few enemy cities? It seems highly unlikely that the Warsaw Pact forces would have gamely accepted NATO’s use of tactical weapons to make up for numerical inferiority without throwing something bigger back in return...

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