NATO vs WP, 1970s

Gents, looking at the thread of people posting their memories of their service way back when, and thumbing through my copy of Isby’s Weapons and Tactics of the Red Army, I’ve decided to finally ask the question: if the Soviets had attacked west in the 1970s or even early 80s, could NATO have stopped them without going nuclear?

I realized there are countless variables such as if Soviets had cut the maritime lifeline and closed the Atlantic, gone chemical etc. But with what we now know about Soviet command and control, the performance of their weapons, our Doctrine versus their Doctrine and tactics, what do you guys think? You guys that were serving way back then. Would NATO have held them?

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Good book about this time.

Hmmm. While I was in Germany in the mid-80’s, we believed ourselves to be speed bumps - to slow the massive Sov army long enough for the nucs to be launched. But when the USSR fell, we found out they couldn’t even feed their troops, and their equipment had a lot of holes in it. I strongly suspect one of the reasons they never got in a shooting match with us is that their leaders knew they were a paper tiger. Putin’s people thought differently before Ukraine and had to find out the hard way that their equipment was a mess, their troops and officers corrupt and their tactics unsuited to modern warfare.

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I got there in January 1980, and we certainly believed that we could stop them. It would be costly, but we could do it. The big question was always - would it go nuclear?

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Hello JPTRR,

I felt as though we could and would stop them. My concern was not nukes, chem/bio, etc. it was politicians placing restrictions on our ability to fight and military personnel making their dependents their priority.


NATO’s plan was always to use nuclear weapons - albeit hopefully at the tactical level; this probably does reflect considerable wishful thinking. What was a bit of a shocker was when we discovered post 1989 that Sov/Warsaw Pact plans envisaged a massive nuclear strike from the start.

I have to take issue a little with Lee’s assertion (above) that their kit was lacking. From the late 70s to the end of the Soviet bloc, there were qualitative improvements in most of their arsenal. General Zaitsev - Commander GSFG 1980-85 - in particular accelerated the introduction of very capable equipments and also made doctrinal and organisational advancements such as establishing Operational Manoeuvre Groups.

The military liaison missions in East Germany continuously observed and reported on all of this and NATO had every right to be worried, as indeed, it was. GSFG (later WGF) was a very capable organisation; they were well equipped, undertook rigorous training, well led (within the confining strictures of the Communist system) and I suspect would have ultimately prevailed. I think NATO would not have made it easy for them, but would, as I say, go nuclear quite soon.

GSFG/WGF was a very different beast to today’s Russian Army.

The exercises I was involved in at Army Group level normally went “nuclear” after around 5-6 days. That of course, was within the exercise scenarios, but these documents were carefully drafted, and drew on lots of experience and hard-won intelligence.

I do recall, even though on exercise, the shudder that ran down my spine upon hearing over the speakers “SACEUR has authorised nuclear release”, let alone the chilling reports from the constituent Corps Commanders once nuclear warfare was underway.

I personally, doubt the massive nuclear strike scenario; I cannot see the Soviets wishing to occupy irradiated ground; there would be scant advantage in them so doing. I could see that massive chemical strikes would be used (probably with non-persistent agents), but again, as we all know, fighting ability in NBC conditions is hard to maintain.

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As I have mentioned in other threads, with Active Edge, and Reforger and with what was in place like BAOR, US EUR Comd, W, Germany, France. And our doctrine and combined multi national TRG … Short answer … Yes, but costly.

Brian, I believe you’re right when you say that the Russian Army of today is a different beast than the GSFG, but I also believe there is some truth to what Lee had said but maybe with regards to follow on forces not their frontline troops. I recall in Germany in numerous occasions that my fellow soldiers and I always commented ( during alerts mostly lol), that we were speed bumps waiting for units from the states to get to Germany. We had a healthy respect for them, never really heard any of the usual American overconfidence or bragging; that was strangest of all lol. Guys took this very serious.
I also always question how committed the other Warsaw Pact countries would have been in all this. Would some choose not to fight ? Was that possible?

Roger all of that; I often pondered how East Germans would react when up against their West German countrymen, although of course, perhaps one shouldn’t overlook the generational indoctrination the East Germans had endured.

I must admit I was astonished at the events of 1989. I thought the East Germans would have no compunction whatsoever in opening fire on their own people. How wrong I was.


We came close to finding out during the Polish crisis in 1981. I spent a couple of days sitting in a vehicle in full kit waiting for the order to roll (we were stood down when the Polish army took over the government, averting the risk of a Russian invasion). For what it’s worth, I assumed our assigned destination in Europe would probably be nuked before we got there.

I got to admit I only vaguely remember the Polish crisis in 1981. I forgot about it until a journalist who was special forces at the time mentioned that he was briefed in on a plan to HALO drop into Poland or farther east had the Soviets invaded.

Men, it’s very interesting. I’m really enjoying reading what you’re writing.

Although nothing to do with a win or lose scenario, I remember at the time I was out there, and even now a little bit, a sense of impending trepidation whenever we deployed on exercise to our battle positions.
Our active pre-planned battle position was on the home bank of the River Weser, just north of Hamelin.

We would get up there, move into position tactically, get sorted out and wait in crew positions … and wait … and wait and wait for the friendly lead elements to reach the the Weser doing a withdrawal in contact and cross it…
You always saw a flicker of movement first, then the Arty units , then infantry would come screaming across, then the tanks and then it was a free for all with German units and any stragglers coming across and lastly the recce CVRTs would be last across and move through us … we all knew then the next thing would be incoming arty rounds and if we survived that, the tanks would be coming along with FGA and probably localised Chemical attacks … it sent a shiver down my back when I sat in the loaders side or Comd seat… and still does a little bit.

I recall there was a lot of brainstorming about whether some Warsaw Pact countries would not join the attack, and what the Soviets would have done had they not. I recall thinking it would obviously be a good thing if they did not, for a variety of reasons. First, less targets for us to have to shoot at, and second the Soviets would have either had to divert their forces to put down the rebellious governments, or realize that they’d be fighting on their own and perhaps stop. Then there was also the hope that some of the WP countries might actually turn on the soviets, i.e, Hungary getting revenge for 1956 and Czeckoslovakia getting revenge for 1968.

Although Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising was fictional,I was totally fascinated.It was well written and really seemed believable.Any comments about the way that novel proceded and if it was close to reality.

That’s exactly what I was thinking Fred. Especially given as an example, Poland’s history with Russia. And many other countries in Eastern Europe.

When you look at how quickly that the whole house of cards collapsed in 1989, one does have to ponder how strong those sentiments were east of the Iron Curtain ten years earlier. Not to mention the Soviet leadership’s willingness to use force to suppress such activities. Brezhnev had already shown no qualms about such full scale invasion interventions in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan in the decade after he assumed power.

Just got to wonder what would happen to the Soviet Army in Germany pushing towards the English Channel if Poland and Czechoslovakia and/or Hungary decided they didn’t want to play anymore or even better, decided to attack the Soviet flanks. Especially if they coordinated their efforts.