NATO Never Really Believed It Could Stop Soviet March Into Western Europe

The Nuclear Option

During the 1950s and 1960s, NATO and the Warsaw Pact agreed about two things regarding combat on the Central front. First, Warsaw Pact forces would quickly overrun NATO forces, achieving rates of advance across Western Europe that exceeded even those of World War II. Second, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would make plentiful use of tactical nuclear weapons, both to break up enemy formations and also to pave the way for advancing forces.

Both of these assumptions began to break down in the early 1970s. On the first, the increasing strength of NATO land forces (especially American and German) suggested that Western armies might have something more to hope for than reaching the English Channel ahead of the Russians. Second, both sides became skeptical that conflict would necessarily result in the use of tactical nukes.

The Rise and Fall of Active Defense

The Yom Kippur War saw the first extensive use of precision-guided munitions in combat between conventional armies. The results were devastating; the Israelis, Egyptians, and Syrians all lost vehicles at far beyond the expected rate. Egyptian use of anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles in Suez proved particularly troubling to the IDF.

Although the Israelis eventually encircled the Egyptians, the conflict seemed to demonstrate that the balance of military technology had shifted to favor the tactical defense. Over the next few years, the U.S. Army heavily revised its doctrine into what became known as “Active Defense.” Active Defense envisioned funneling Soviet armored spearheads into semi-stationary blocking positions, where increasingly lethal precision-guided munitions would tear them to pieces.

It’s not entirely fair to characterize Active Defense as an attrition strategy, because it certainly included elements of maneuver (aspects of it recalled 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 take advantage of the latest in military technology, but left the initiative wholly in the hands of the Soviets. The next iteration of Army doctrine, AirLand Battle, sought to restore maneuver to the battlefield.

The Rise of AirLand Battle

First published in 1982, and further developed in 1986, AirLand Battle hearkened back to the “deep battle” concepts developed in cooperation between Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Deep Battle envisioned a simultaneous set of attacks deep inside an enemy position, using long-range artillery, airstrikes, and paratroopers. These attacks would disrupt the opponent, allowing the successful exploitation of a breakthrough.

AirLand Battle expected NATO forces to counter-attack Soviet armored spearheads almost immediately as they achieved initial breakthrough. The counter-attacks would throw the Soviets off-balance, and limit the extent to which they could penetrate into the vitals of NATO defenses. AirLand Battle expected to take advantage of NATO’s decentralized control structure and flexible command-and-control arrangements by giving local commanders a great deal of latitude; what mattered was disrupting the Soviet offensive, rather than a larger operational goal associated with some territorial target.

While much of AirLand Battle hearkened back to the classic traditions of mobile armored warfare, it also included elements that looked forward to the next Military-Technical Revolution, or Revolution in Military Affairs. As NATO forces were carrying out counter-offensive operations, AirLand Battle envisioned waves of attacks deep behind Warsaw Pact lines, targeting logistical and communications hubs. These attacks, using precision-guided munitions at stand-off ranges, would disrupt the guts of the Soviet offensive.

And indeed, AirLand Battle and Active Defense were not as far apart as is commonly believed. Both represented an effort to come to grip with changes in military technology, and both adopted many of the same tactical fixes to those problems (including the increased use of PGMs, better infantry-armor cooperation, improved surveillance, and well-developed command and control arrangements). AirLand Battle grappled with the insights that made Active Defense possible, and turned those insights in an offensive direction.

AirLand Battle was Army doctrine, not joint doctrine, but it arrived at a nearly unique moment in the history of Air Force-Army relations. The Vietnam War had scorched both services, but it had also accompanied a generational shift 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 warfighting.

Consequently, 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 battlespace beyond the front, with the Army responsible for areas close to the front and the Air Force for the deeper echelons. The strategic bombers of the Air Force would remain on call if the conflict went nuclear, and would also assist in the war at sea.

Leave a comment