So, let us go back in time to the year 1973, specifically around October of 1973; the time frame of the Yom Kippur War. In our timeline, the conflict almost became WWIII after the Soviets threatened to intervene on behalf of Egypt after the ceasefire began to break down. After the American Sixth Fleet was deployed and DEFCON 3 was called, Egypt backed down.

However, in this timeline, Egypt refuses to back down and on the 26th of October of 1973, the US Navy's Sixth Fleet and the Soviet Navy's 5th Operational Squadron face off in a naval battle 10 km off the coast of Crete after the Soviets ignore a warning shot and the Americans open fire, thinking the Soviets are preparing to attack. The 5th Operational Squadron retreats, but the Third World War has begun.

As a consequence, the Soviets deploy 10,000 troops to assist Egypt, and the Americans do the same with marines, and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. However, the Soviets prepare for a fictional military operation called Operation: Red Thunderstorm; a military invasion of Europe. Around the 5th of November (a reference to V for Vendetta, just to make a fun fact), the Soviets launch an amphibious assault on Narvik to catch NATO by surprise. Two days later, the Soviets begin their push into West Germany, take West Berlin and cross the Fulda Gap, the North German Plain and the Czechoslovakian-German border simultaneously, while fighting erupts in Korea, along with Turkey, the Balkans and (for a few days) Crimea.

Then on the 19th of November, NATO obliterates the Soviets with tactical nuclear weapons as they attempt to cross the Rhine River at around 9:15 AM EST. At around 11:23 AM EST, a NATO counterattack is obliterated by the Soviets also responding with tactical nuclear weapons. The next day, and one tactical nuclear exchange in Germany later, President Nixon orders a first strike against strategic locations in Eastern Europe and the USSR itself at around 10:17 AM EST, which is also the same time Britain, France and Israel launch their warheads. The Soviets then retaliate at around 10:18 AM EST. By 1:57 PM EST, the majority of the Northern Hemisphere is obliterated in nuclear fire and radiation, and the war ends with 459 million dead across the globe, and millions more injured.

The problem? Would the Warsaw Pact even get close to the Rhine River? If so, would NATO realistically be able to obliterate them or let Central Europe get overrun? Feel free to provide some answers.

EDIT: I want to tell you as a fun fact that I originally planned the body count to be 970 million, since I originally wanted to drag China into the war, but since they would not have time for that, that idea was scrapped.

Also, to clarify: the 459 million dead is those killed in the initial attacks. I still have yet to develop the aftermath, but I am going to guess billions are going to die afterwards.


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    $\begingroup$ I think thanks to Mutually Assured Destruction it would really have been more like: NATO uses tactical weapons @ 9:15, @ 9:20 Soviets launch all their ICB's, @9:24 NATO launches all of theirs. Every major population center in the northern hemisphere is reduced to radioactive rubble by 9:45 $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ It's more like NATO uses tactical weapons @ 9:15, Soviets nuke Europe at 9:20, and at 9:21 Soviets call the President on the Red Phone saying "Do you want to trade Los Angeles for Paris?" $\endgroup$
    – Eric Brown
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ Note that in late 1973 the USA was recovering from Vietnam and the Watergate scandal was unraveling. And Willy Brandt was chancellor of Germany. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ Why would the soviets launch its first assault on Narvik? The important stuff (at least in Europe) was always Central Europe, specially Germany. If you want to catch the NATO by surprise you attack them there at their strongest point, you do not warn them by attacking a secondary target. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ If the Cold War went hot it would be just a regular war, wouldn't it...? $\endgroup$
    – xDaizu
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 13:38

6 Answers 6


My aunt and uncle were both stationed in Germany for many years as part of the US force that was ready to face the Soviets coming through the Fulda Gap. In the words of my uncle (who spent most of his time there in Tanks) they were a "speed bump". There was no way on earth that they could have stopped the Soviets in a stand up fight. They just didn't have the numbers.

The USSR would have swarmed them with tactical missiles of various kinds (possibly including chemical and biological warheads) to soften them up while the mother of all dogfights eventually overwhelmed the vastly outnumbered NATO air force. Then, the real invasion would have begun. Every American tank would have been absurdly outnumbered.

Based on how we performed against Soviet tanks in 1991, an American force using 1980s weapons designed specifically for the Fulda gap scenario (like the Apache, A-10, and Abrams MBT) would have done surprisingly well against a vastly larger Soviet force. Unfortunately in 1973, these weapons were not yet available and the US military had not yet completely converted to the elite all-volunteer force that wiped the floor with Saddam Hussein's military. In 1973, we were still converting over from Vietnam era weapons, equipment, and a draftee army morale problem.

Given all of that, I am pretty confident that the Soviets would have easily been able to get to (and across) the Rhine. They had us beat in pretty much every single category from artillery range to airlift carrying capacity, missile payloads, you name it. Plus, they outnumbered us dramatically and the only backup the US force had were some VERY squishy European NATO allies with outdated equipment and little coordination.

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    $\begingroup$ SPI published a pretty decent tactical war game called Fulda Gap back in those days. SPI was a very good publisher and their games were well respected by military historians for their accuracy. If I recall the victory conditions for the game were something like "decisive victory for the NATO player" if they managed to keep the Warsaw pact player from completely overrunning the Rhine. $\endgroup$
    – Joel Brown
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ This. My college friend was an Army Tanker in the late 70s, and according to him, morale was crap, and while the US Patton tanks were superior to the T-54 and T-72 tanks one-on-one, the Soviets had so many more tanks that the general consensus was that the only thing keeping the Soviets from crossing the Rhine was that the Soviet ICBM arsenal wasn't quite large enough. $\endgroup$
    – Eric Brown
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ For all the play, the Soviets military may actually have been worse than it sounded. They supplied top of the line equipment to the Cubans in Angola and trained them. Those forces fought a much less prepared South Africa and more or less lost with SA retreating under international pressure multiple times. Their T-72s were obliterated in one of the largest tank battle post WW2 and probably one of the only even keeled ones (Abrams v. T-72 is probably not a great comparison) by a bunch of SA bmps with tank guns attached to them. Even if they crossed the Rhine, wouldn't the response destroy them? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ You do realise back then, the M1 Abrams was still not in active service, correct? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @FutureHistorian I'm pretty sure M1 v T72 was a reference to the Battle of 73 Easting in 91; which was the major tank battle of the first US-Iraq war. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 0:38

Probably not.

The place around Czechoslovakia borders was swarmed by nuclear mines, so if any attack would occur (and yes, there were plans for that), probably the Warszaw army would be stopped, but....Germany and Czechoslovakia would end as post-nuclear wasteland.

If you are interested, you can put this article into google translator, it is really informative about the thing. The problem is that this thing is attractive to Czech authors and not so much for english-speaking ones.

I will include here some pictures from article, so you at least get the idea what waited for soviet tanks in Germany...

Map of nuclear mines, density of them. Author: Jan Lakosil Map of nuclear mines, density of them per 100km2. Author: Jan Lakosil, taken from article above.

As you can see, any aproaching army would have serious troubles. In that times, nuclear weapons were the main thing to use. Those mines are told to be stronger than Hiroshima bombs. For us today it is kinda unbelievable, but that's it.

I will include some more articles, sadly also in Czech, but you can get some brief idea what was planned for soldiers on both sides...

Smallest nuclear hand-weapon to stop eastern soldiers

Military drill in Czechoslovakia, 1966, for "defending" of Warszaw pact - it was simulated 252 nuclear hits during the drill...THis article has nice 10 minutes video from drill, really cool to see, if you are interested.

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    $\begingroup$ Very interesting... a nuclear minefield. I didn't know about this. I do know that the USA had very complex command and control for any nuclear weapon. Do you know what the protocol was for authorizing setting this thing off? I find it hard to believe that any US President would actually use it, even if Soviet troops were on the move, unless the USSR had already fired off a nuke first! $\endgroup$
    – JBiggs
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ @JBiggs The article mentions that it is possible that nukes were in storehouses with other nukes under US control deeper in Germany, but I guess that if something occured, it would not be such a problem for even US president to use it. Well, if such an attack would happen, it was planned to use limited nuke strikes first, then rush with tanks, so probably those nuke mines would be used, too. You can also look at Caribean crisis, people were a lot of times just with hand on that button... I am glad nothing happend though:) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. I wonder how this affects the course of the war, though. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ I know that the autobiography of Colin Powell mentioned a time he was stationed there during the cold war. I believe I recall that their battle plan included making the Fulda Gap a no-go zone by bombarding it with nuclear artillery. Unfortunately, I can't recall the year. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ Well the "fashion" for going all-nuclear (in means of cannon nuclear shells, nuclear manpads, etc) was more in 50s and 60s, then a lot of those crazy things were dismissed in favor of only rockets, but I think 60s are still close enough for OPs scenario, and especially with alternate history you can shift things by few years with ease :) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 20:40

This question hinges on the timing; the year matters quite a lot. Warsaw Pact (Soviet) and NATO (American) strategy varied over time, but we have recently declassified evidence from both sides to inform our estimations. In 1979 the USSR had planned an operation rather bluntly named "Seven Days to the River Rhine" (declassified 2005 by Polish authorities). Come the 1960s Soviet strategy became focused on a nuclear blitzkrieg, in which they would deploy conventional forces with nuclear weapons.

In hindsight, it's not a realistic plan. Though they optimistically hoped to reach Lyon by day nine, most of their men would either be dead or struggling to survive given the fallout. It's also questionable whether Soviet soldiers would be that keen, given how obviously suicidal their missions would be.

Let's assume they survive the immediate tactical nuclear bombardment. They then somehow survive the nuclear minefields mentioned in another answer. Finally they make contact with NATO and survive. By now Poland and Germany are nuclear wastelands, and not only do they have to contend with radiation sickness and survive, but their supply lines will be utterly destroyed. Infrastructure going forwards and backwards will be ruined. They'll have to scavenge for food, fuel, ammunition, amongst the rubble; against angry locals. How will they be resupplied with men and materiel? How could an offensive possibly keep going after the first few hours?

There's a book called "Inside the Soviet Army", written by a Soviet army intelligence officer who defected to Britain in the 1980s. It goes into detail on the Red Army of the 60s and 70s. He'd also written "The Liberators" about the invasion of Czechoslovakia. From his perspective, the Red Army's junior soldiers and high command were convinced they could achieve victory. Their middle ranked officers were less sure; some doubted they could beat the Bundeswehr, never mind combined NATO forces.

This is owing to his view that since the end of the Second World War, Soviet military capacity had declined from a zenith, becoming corrupt to the point of uselessness. Entire divisions he said existed only on paper during peacetime, and there were widespread hardware shortages and problems with morale. There's even allegations that, in order to prevent a successful rebellion against Russian forces, Soviet engineers deliberately released subpar tanks and weapon systems to their Warsaw Pact allies, so Russian equipment would always beat them in a fight.

Nonetheless, Soviet land forces would have a numerical edge, and American didn't have much of a technological lead until the 1980s; by when Soviet technology lagged behind. Soviet planners hoped for a 5:1 numerical advantage in a European offensive. Whether that deployment was feasible is another question. It may not have mattered in the end with that many tactical nuclear weapons exploding in their general direction. However, the USA did have air superiority.

In 2015 the USA declassified an extensive report on nuclear strategy from 1959. The bottom line is this: by then, the USA's strategy was to knock out all potential sources of Soviet nuclear delivery (at this time, aircraft rather than missiles). This plan required over 3,000 atomic bombs to be dropped over 1,000 targets in the communist bloc; regardless of whether the nations were actually at war with the USA (China was suspect as the Sino-Soviet split hadn't happened yet).

Their intention was to commit to a first strike which would stop any nuclear weapons from arriving at the continental USA. This would likely obliterate every major city from East Berlin to Beijing in every communist nation along the way. If however this did not secure victory, the bombing campaign would be extended to wipe out all military-industrial capacity. At no point in either phase are civilian casualties or friendly fire considered relevant.

In conclusion, I shall quote British Air Commodore Peter Wykeham-Barnes, Chief of Staff of Allied Air Forces in Europe (1955). By '73 there were considerably more nuclear weapons about, and considerably less chance of anyone surviving long enough to achieve anything. Forget the Rhine, no one may survive the border crossing.

“in an all-out atomic war, there would be no winners and no losers and little left to asses,” he said. Any similar conflict would be “short and horrible.”

Someone leaked details to West Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper. According to the leaked info, targets in West Germany had borne the theoretical brunt of the exercise, with 268 of the 335 mock nuclear weapons detonating inside the country.

Exercise officials calculated 1.7 million dead.

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    $\begingroup$ In that last paragraph, that is actually what happened. South of the equator (thankfully), we are fine. Then again, 14,912 strategic nuclear weapons + 1,718 tactical weapons went off across the globe (I should add that in the post, now that I mention it), so good point. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ Also, NOTE: That timing, in my case at least, was in 1973. Specifically, around the time of the Yom Kippur War. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ @FutureHistorian It seems a bit weird to focus too much on the tactical feasibility given how Germany is then bristling with atomic artillery, missiles, mines. Conventional forces will just be melted. I mean, really, how long are those left going to last with the fallout and chaos? Did anyone have medicine or equipment to help them endure? Even if they somehow remain optimistic! Haha. I said timing is important because I'm not sure how fixed you are on the date exactly, you may change the idea later; I don't know. That's just the creative process sometimes. $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @inappropriateCode: Any german government would have quickly surrendered after the first atomic bombs detonated in Germany. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinSchröder Is this policy documented? How did it interact with NATO plans for reacting to nuclear war? $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 12:40

Soviet military art in that era was essentially WWII on steroids, using masses of troops at decisive points to overwhelm the enemy (supported with "Fire corridors" laid down by mass artillery). Soviet operational art included heavy use of deception, "radio electronic combat" and special forces to confuse their enemies as to where the decisive point was actually going to be, keeping the defenders unable to mass their forces and respond to the real decisive point.

While this is quite impressive on paper, the reality is that while Soviet officers were well schooled in operational art, their conscript soldiers were ill trained, undisciplined and often drunk, selling parts and supplies on the black market to make ends meet (as the logistical system was corrupt and stole their food and pay).

On a larger scale, Soviet logistics were hopelessly primitive, and entire divisions were treated as "fire and forget" rounds, thrown into battle until they ran out of fuel and ammunition, whereupon a second line division would pass through the shattered remains and continue the assault.

Given the shaky foundations, I suspect the Soviet military machine would score some impressive early victories as they crossed the Fula Gap, and then get bogged down as troops got lost (unable to read maps), or deserted to loot the fabulously wealthy (to them) West Germany or fell apart under timely thrusts by allied forces.

I also suspect that the real killer of the Soviet army would be a partisan force which would spring up behind the lines, as West German citizens and Nato soldiers separated from their units would band together and start picking off Soviet soldiers and units, destroying roads and bridges and otherwise attacking the logistical underpinnings of the Soviet Army.

While this is going on, the United States would be carrying out their WWII on Steroids plan: REFORGER.

Masses of American manpower and equipment would be moving across the Atlantic to Reinforce Germany (hence REFORGER), but perhaps more likely landing in England and sharing out in preparation to make amphibious landings across Europe or the Mediterranean. We would see phase two of the conflict where depleted Soviet forces, out of fuel and ammunition attempt to retreat while facing oncoming American forces, and being sandwiched by third line Soviet forces attempting to hold their gains or expand the conquered areas. Since the second and third line forces would be using older, stockpiled equipment (some literally dating to the Second World War), encounters between American forces and Third line Soviet forces would be rather one sided, and since the Americans know logistics, their forces would be capable of continuing the fight since they would have food, fuel and ammunition.

American Grand Strategy is largely Naval (since America has outlets to both major oceans), so the Soviets would also have to contend with the Pacific Fleet attacking and the Marines landing on the Soviet East coast. American Special Forces (Green Berets) would also be showing up in places like the Baltic States and Eastern Europe tormenting revolution against the Soviets as well.

The wild card would be areas where the Soviets had not entered, but which would be subjected to massive Soviet PSYOPS attacks aimed and mobilizing the local Communist sympathizers and terrorist cells (like the Red Army Faction) to operate in the rear of the American forces. How effective calling on Anti American sentiment or terrorists during a hot war (especially when the news of how the Soviet Army was behaving in the occupied areas was coming out) is questionable, but probably significant enough to keep a pretty substantial rear area security force in place.

The end result would be a massive "hot mess". The Soviets might actually reach the Rhine, but they would not be in any position to actually keep any gains they made, and indeed with the "Group Soviet Forces Germany" isolated and disintegrated beyond the inner German border and revolution burning across the former Warsaw Pact nations, they would probably suffer a morale and economic collapse. Western Europe would also be destroyed by the effects of combat, so a lose-lose situation all around.

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    $\begingroup$ @user431806 I find it VERY easy to believe that the USA would utterly trump the Soviets in terms of logistics. The deciding factor is that if the USSR had to choose between feeding Division 1 and moving Division 2 forward, they would always just let Division 1 starve. Build more vehicles and tanks and conscript more expendable cannon fodder has ALWAYS been the Soviet way in war. $\endgroup$
    – JBiggs
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ REFORGER. was actually very dependent on Iceland and the SOSUS line defending against Russian submarines. REFORGER in the 70' would be very shaky against the submarines and missile cruisers from the Northern fleet. $\endgroup$
    – Archlight
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ You talk about Soviet forces but you really forget that on the spike of attack, there would be Czechoslovak, East German, Polish and Hungarian forces. Most of assumptions about soviet forces are not really true for those. Czechoslovakia had a lot of soldiers itself and kind of well trained. Soviets had only one thing above that - they had all nukes in their own hands. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ Soviet logistics would be hampered by the deliberate mismatch between Soviet railway gauges and European ones: train shipments would have to be broken and cross loaded where the two rail systems meet. And while the Soviets may have used their industrial base to build overwhelming numbers of tanks, the Americans built overwhelming numbers of trucks to bring supplies to the front lines. Even in WWII, the US Lend Lease of tens of thousands of trucks to the USSR provided the Soviets with the logistical tools to win in the East. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ WARSAW PACT troops may have outperformed the Soviet conscripts in most areas, but they were also considered to be "unreliable" allies by the Soviets. Driving your attacking forces forward might not be the best plan overall, especially with Green Berets tormenting revolution in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland and Hungary. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 21:04

Able Archer ('83) was a pretty close call; while that's somewhat later than the question asks for it does give one a historical reference point. Earlier post-WWII conflicts in Hungary ('56) and Czechoslovakia ('68) are ominous enough points to extrapolate from.

I for one certainly wasn't looking forward to the 50% est survival rate of an Atlantic AirSea bridge for a live REFORGER-type operation in the early '80s. However, the Soviets were already embroiled in Afghanistan by then so that means planning and buildup in the late '70s + their winning proxy in Vietnam = they went south instead of west. Remember at that time Moscow still had the Baltic states and Poland, too. (But Able Archer must have "gone apesh-t" 'cause some of the top Soviet brass thought Reagan was really gonna do it but cooler heads prevailed)

I think KGB simply decided (correctly) that Western Europe wouldn't be worth it at that time. So they lost in Afghanistan, but got Crimea and Eastern Ukraine back. 'Smarter than the average Bear'

Thanks @Antoine for the cool Czech films - I love the parts with the fixed bayonets (AAAARRRGGHH! death scream here) and when the BRMD hatch pops open as they start fording a river. Just "like going into Wisconsin" - Stripes ;-)

  1. Unlikely (in the extreme) that a bit of a navy kerfuffle would escalate to WW3. 2. 10,000 troops deployed between Oct 26 & Nov 5??? I don't think so.
  2. MidEast conflict provoking an European war? Not likely.
  3. How would the Soviets get to the Rhine when their supply lines were decisively eliminated?
  4. Russia would be a smoking ruin, but what's the logic in the Soviets attacking Paris, for example, when the missiles are coming (mostly) from the USA (and its Navy)?
  5. From what little I've read, actual soviet missile power was much inferior to what many (both in the East and in the West) claimed it to be.
  6. From what little I've read, actual soviet air-power was much inferior to that in Germany and western Europe.
  7. Again, why would the Soviets launch a ground attack in Europe? Their non-nuclear ground forces were overwhelmingly superior to NATO's. NATO's only effective response would have to be nuclear. So, there'd have to be some reason to believe the NATO alliance wouldn't hold. Strategically, no US president would allow the USSR to take Germany. It would be suicide. Hey, I'm neither a military buff, nor a historian, so I could be totally off-base here... I'm just questioning the roots of the scenario you mention. MidEast causing European war is unlikely. Tactical nukes triggering strategic nukes is also, imho, unlikely.
  • $\begingroup$ Not my fault it almost happened in real life. Just look up "WWIII historical close calls". One of them being the Yom Kippur War. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2017 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ The world was on a hair trigger then, tactical nukes would certainly lead to strategic weapons. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ Soviet nuclear doctrine was any nuclear weapon used against them and they would retaliate with their full nuclear strategic force. "Any nuclear weapon" included tactical nuclear weapons. You are certainly right about the inferiority of Soviet military capability compared to the West's. A Soviet assault on Europe wouldn't have gone well for the Warsaw Pact. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 2:47

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