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I've recently been listening to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. A topic that comes up early on is the extreme changes that War itself went through between the 19th and 20th centuries.

The technological changes in just a few decades were massive, introducing machine guns, chemical weapons, and artillery that dwarfed any weaponry used in the past.

Many armies were slow to react to the new playing field. There had not been a major war between the Great Powers of Europe since the Napoleonic war. With these extreme advances in technology, once reliable strategies like Cavalry charges and arranging soldiers into Battlefield Drill Formations became obsolete.

Reinforced forts with machine guns and artillery were capable of slaughtering armies attempting traditional advances, and in turn artillery was developed capable of smashing these forts. Many armies suffered extreme losses before adapting to this change in the nature of combat.

I feel that we are in a somewhat analogous point in history. There has not been an all-out war between major world powers since WW2.

From what I'm aware, a vast majority of modern military strategy is focused around the concept of fighting an insurgency/guerilla style opponent. I know that individual nations, as well as organizations like NATO, conduct War Games to simulate large scale conflict scenarios of course. I'm not a military expert, but I feel that most would agree a "World War" scenario in our current world would more than likely result in nuclear war fairly quickly.

I am curious what large scale conflict between two major world powers in today's world would look like, with no nuclear weapons.

What does the attack/defense of a city look like between say, England and Germany? or The U.S. and China?

How would you attempt to secure a region against an opposing army with state-of-the-art modern technology?

EDIT: I think after reading some of the responses a few clarifications are necessary:

1.) I am NOT concerned with geo-political issues. Whether a war is or is not practical does not matter. The nations are at war. The practicality of certain strategies to win that war would be part of what I am interested in.

2.) In this hypothetical, a proxy war is NOT an option. I understand that in practicality a war like this between two major powers would more than likely not happen. This is a hypothetical. In this hypothetical, Country X has committed or is believed to have committed some atrocity on the people of Country Y. No allies are involved. The countries are at war, with the goal being to conquer the enemy's territory and destroy their ability to make war.

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    $\begingroup$ probably the same as now, as all powers know that if they bring out the nukes, they won't survive the reatliation $\endgroup$ – user20762 Nov 21 '19 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ Would be biological weapons approved? Are there some ethical limitations, or is it a total war? I mean, a large scale war isn't the same as a total war where the factions try to annihilate each other by all necessary means. $\endgroup$ – Roberto Nov 21 '19 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand how it is opinion-based. The prompt clearly states that the Earth is "exactly the same as our current Earth. The only difference is the complete absence of Nuclear Weapons." That's totally unambiguous. You argue that the current configuration is impossible without nuclear weapons, but this board discusses all sorts of thing that are literally physically impossible, within the constraints set by the prompts. $\endgroup$ – Zwuwdz Nov 21 '19 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ As I read the question now (didnt see it before the edit) it is no longer opinion-based. If you cut away the fluff what remains is the question "if nuclear war didnt start and 2 modern day armies went to war with each other, how would a city be sieged and taken". I think that an answer will have to deal with the fact that a city itself will be only a small part of an offensive. And with how urban combat can be a hellish nightmare even if you outnumber the opponent and have superior technology it'll be supply lines that are cut off to force a surrender. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Nov 21 '19 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Schrodinger'sStat Most profound apologies - there was no hostile intent. Your question is much better after the edit. You should consider reading up on the Laws of War, which govern exactly how a city full of noncombatants can (and cannot) be attacked and defended, and how doing either badly can open soldiers to war crime charges. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Nov 21 '19 at 19:24
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Probably one of the biggest changes would be time scales. During world war two a lot of the campaigns were fought over weeks or months like the Battle of Britain, Battle of France, Stalingrad and the battle of the Atlantic. During these campaigns there was time to build reinforcements in the form of planes ships and tanks to some extent at least.

With modern warfare the shear speed of action and the complexity of modern weapons will not allow such a situation to reoccur. A large scale modern conventional war might easily be fought over hours and days rather than weeks and months and with a prodigious expenditure of munitions and hardware. It is likely IMO that a modern war would exhaust one side’s ability to fight very rapidly.

The side which had an advantage might quickly overwhelm the opposition. Long, medium and short range missiles might well be fired off in huge numbers in the first few minutes or hours possibly leaving one side critically depleted in radar, tanks, planes, missiles or other hardware which would be difficult to replace quickly.

But one big factor would be practicality a war between England and Germany in 2019 does not seem credible and its outcome would depend on many other factors such as the stance of countries like France, Russia and the USA. Any land war would have to involve at least France and being a world war probably most of Europe, Russia and allies.

But how they would align is an open question and an important consideration. The prospect of any kind of sea or air borne invasion cross the English Channel (in either direction) is also not really credible as things stand because the capability simply is not present in sufficient quantity to be effective. Unless there was a massive build up and an unequal distribution of forces ahead of time.

Any remotely “realistic” scenario would involve increasing tensions, involvement of allies, military planning, procurement and positioning of suitable forces in the run up. Otherwise it would be a missile fest with air raids followed by stalemate.

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    $\begingroup$ Does it seem plausible that the war would turn into a grind as it goes on? Without a global supply chain, most countries couldn't keep up, say, the semiconductor industry required to make modern computerized weapons. I imagine we'd burn through the good stuff and then fall back to something like 60's-70's technology levels. Like, if all of Germany and the UK's F-35's got shot down, they probably would need to do some significant retooling to start making something on the level of even an F-16. $\endgroup$ – Zwuwdz Nov 21 '19 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ It all depends on the details of the scenario. With sufficient missiles and guided bombs available the infrastructure for things like semi-conductor, missile and plane manufacturing could well be devastated early on. Even an F16 requires significant technology in excess of WWII. Where will the jet engines come from? $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 21 '19 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ Timescales as far as I can see would still be on the months and weeks basis. There is a weird semi-paradox that attack is the best defense, but being the attacker is also the most costly in manpower and equipment. Attacks have to achieve local superiority, punch through the lines and then use that hole to attack support elements and supply lines or circle around and attack other parts of the line in the rear. Even so the planning, organization, execution and re-organization takes time, and blindly rushing into secondary and tertiary lines is a recipy for disaster. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Nov 21 '19 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ Accepting this because it's a good answer and also the only answer that actually attempts to answer the question instead of just stating "Would not happen". $\endgroup$ – Schrodinger'sStat Dec 23 '19 at 15:40
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Nothing would change. One of the mayor outcome in art of war due to WWII was (before the nuke) a discovery that small, well trained, able "platoons" are much more effective "per soldier" that scalable larger division made out of badly trained, not so moverable, very undefensable companies.
Of course, you still would have generals who would think that the best way to attack is by depleting enemy ammo "oh they have an MG with 500 bullets? Send 600 men the can't kill them all".

But the overall mindset is that there is no need to create artificial "front lines" when the goal is achievable much faster and simpler. You want to stop a factory from producing something? Send a small team to destroy the power source.
You don't need to send a thousand tanks to the enemy capital to hold it and kill their leader. Send 50 teams to assassinate the whole line of command, impose chosen puppet government with influenced voting and bam! You win a war without even declaring it and you have very small national outcry.

The proxy wars were fought the way they were not because both sides were afraid of nuclear escalation but form the fear that the opposite side has a countermeasure. Making the nuclear war obsolete while at the same time, having an openly declared war, could invade with very good trained groups. People realized that, even with nukes, war would then set on guerilla/insurgeny. So maybe just don't bother about additional step of nuke and just focus on guerilla. Faster, easier, cheaper. If your generals are not fixated on using classic warfare.

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  • $\begingroup$ You're not really answering my question here. I am asking what combat between two major powers would look like. I am not asking how global geo-political conflicts would change due to the absence of nuclear weapons. Assassinating leadership and imposing a puppet government does not seem like a viable strategy outside of a proxy war involving smaller powers. In a scenario where two major powers are directly at war, what would a major battle look like? $\endgroup$ – Schrodinger'sStat Nov 21 '19 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Schrodinger'sStat there would be no major battles. What for? To lost x amount of tanks? Y amount of infantry? For what? To still have guerilla war in cities? Because no one give a crap about acres of land. Borders are imaginary lines on map. They have no reflect in real life. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Nov 22 '19 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ KLY What for? Things like supply lines and infrastructure, protection of civilian populations, positioning of troops. Sieges of cities regularly occur in modern combat, but modern conflicts typically occur between a major power and a minor power, or two minor powers. I am curious what combat would look like between two powers with a similarly high level of combat capability. The idea that sieges wouldn't happen and that occupying territory doesn't matter does not seem very credible to me. $\endgroup$ – Schrodinger'sStat Dec 23 '19 at 21:18
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Like World War II, but with even more targeting of civilian production

If we handwave away nuclear weapons, what other innovations have we seen since the end of World War II? Jet engines, intercontinental rockets, long range submarines (can we have nuclear power without nuclear weapons?), stealth bombers, drones. A lot of technologies that increase the reach of conventional bombs.

In World War II, the USSR was able to survive by moving nearly all military production into the Urals and Asia where they couldn't be reached by German air power, and the United States' production was never seriously under threat, only the means of moving material to the theater of war. That would no longer be the case: even factories deep in the American heartland could be targeted by missiles. Assuming countries took measure to conceal factories or fortify them underground, the railroads, highways, and shipping needed to move production around could still be targeted.

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    $\begingroup$ Civilian targeting has the opposite effect. As all bombing campaigns and especially the Battle for Brittain showed it is not cost effective and gives the population the reasons to support the troops. During this battle Brittain might have surrendered, but with the bombing of English cities more and more civilians had lost loved one's or new people who had, and more and more they had reasons not to surrender to the people who did it. This bombing campaign also sapped resources from the Germans meant for finishing the RAF and gave the RAF time to rebuild and win the air-battle. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Nov 21 '19 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan point taken, I was mainly thinking about civilian production (factories), and edited the top line to reflect $\endgroup$ – TzeraFNX Nov 22 '19 at 16:30

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