General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: Or, How to Think about a Future War with Russia Today


In the vast majority of cases, scenarios of future war have rarely come to pass as originally envisioned. At least two inter-related reasons can account for this. First, due to the incredibly large number of variables to consider – geopolitical, technical, human, etc. – it is simply impossible to calculate how they will interact with each other, especially if projecting forward by months, years or decades. The second reason has to do with distinguishing between ‘future war’ and the ‘future battlefield’. Regrettably, far too many scenarios and models, whether developed by military organizations, political scientists, or fiction writers, tend to focus their attention on the battlefield and the clash of armies, navies, air forces, and especially their weapons systems.  By contrast, the broader context of the war – the reasons why hostilities erupted, the political and military objectives, the limits placed on military action, and so on – are given much less serious attention, often because they are viewed by the script-writers as a distraction from the main activity that occurs on the battlefield.

During the Cold War, thinking about a NATO-Warsaw Pact conventional clash in Europe required more attention to be placed on the political context because of the risks of nuclear escalation. More recently, scenarios of a possible NATO (or to be more precise – ‘coalition of willing NATO members’) clash with Russia over the Baltic States have similarly been required to account for the nuclear issue. Regrettably, a number of key weaknesses are observable in many of the assumptions underpinning such scenarios.  This blog post will examine a selection of these weaknesses, focusing on General Sir John Hackett’s 1978 book The Third World War, comparing it with several other texts from the Cold War, and then bringing the problem up-to-date with a discussion of some recent scenarios dealing with the Baltic States.

Hackett’s work has been selected because it is often considered the benchmark text by which other fictional accounts of a future war are assessed in relation to, such as Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and General Sir Richard Shirreff’s 2017: War with Russia. The book was an unexpected publishing triumph, with some 3 million copies sold and translated into 10 languages.  Prime Minister James Callaghan presented President Jimmy Carter with a copy in 1979, and President Ronald Reagan named it as one of his top three books in 1983. Fortunately, the early manuscripts and correspondence related to The Third World War are available at King’s College London’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, and can be examined to identify how and why the scenario evolved during the more than year-long drafting process, which it did in significant ways.

Although the book is often referred to as being authored by Hackett, in actual fact, he only wrote a small portion.  Instead, his main role was providing the general concept for the scenario, as well as organizing and editing the more detailed chapters that were written by a group of former British senior officers from each of the services, a deputy editor of the Economist, a former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as well as the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Directing Staff (DS) at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham.

The published version describes a war lasting from 4-22 August 1985 that begins with a Warsaw Pact attack on NATO utilizing conventional and chemical weapons, evolves into a barely successful defence and counterattack by NATO, is then followed by a limited nuclear exchange that wipes out Birmingham and Minsk, and concludes with the dissolution of the Soviet ‘empire’. It is important to note that the scenario is a global one – across the continents, on the ground, in the sea, in the air, and in space – although the main action takes place in Europe. Hackett deliberately chose this version of the scenario to demonstrate that a successful defence against the Warsaw Pact could be mounted by NATO – provided of course the Alliance invested heavily in new military equipment and increased its frontline manpower.

However, Hackett’s earlier attempt at writing a scenario had the Warsaw Pact advancing to the French border in as little as 4 days leading to the occupation of West Germany, a D-day style NATO counterattack two years later, followed by a Soviet collapse. After distributing drafts of this early version, he was told by several retired US and West German generals that if it was published it would undermine public confidence in NATO. A year earlier, in 1976, Belgian Brigadier General Robert Close published a controversial book, Europe Without Defense? 48 hours That Could Change the Face of the World, involving a scenario in which the Warsaw Pact launches a surprise attack and advances to the Rhine in two days. Fearing the prospect of undermining NATO, Hackett developed more optimistic scenarios, including the one that was eventually published.  Interestingly, the end state of a Soviet collapse remained consistent throughout all of the versions, even ones in which no nuclear weapons were used.

In terms of the realism of Hackett’s scenario, as well as several similar works, at least six key aspects should be critically examined:

The Decision for War Initiation. In most of these scenarios, this aspect of the conflict is treated in a superficial way, with very little discussion about the rationality and cost-benefit calculus of the Soviet/Russian leadership, and what they would hope to gain, especially given the costs of war and risks of nuclear escalation. In Hackett’s scenario the decision to attack NATO is not one based on a Soviet desire for world conquest, but rather it is motivated by fears of the elite that the future ‘correlation of forces’ does not favour the Kremlin and that projected internal weakness will eventually lead to a state collapse. Therefore, war against NATO is ultimately seen as a way of re-establishing order internally. This motivation is also apparent in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Shirreff’s account of Putin’s decision to attack the Baltic States.

The Timing of War Initiation. Unlike Close’s surprise attack from a standing-start, Hackett chose to begin his war on 4 August because, as in 1914, he viewed a period of mobilization as almost certain to precede the start of hostilities.  Indeed, the Warsaw Pact attack is preceded by a combination of diplomacy, propaganda, subversion and sabotage – ‘hybrid war’ in today’s parlance. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO forces have sufficient lead time to alert the covering forces along the inner German border, disperse aircraft, and mobilize their reserves to be able to mount an adequate defence. Many of the NATO scenarios from the period assumed 48 hours of early warning – the minimum period which was deemed necessary for NATO forces to begin mobilization and deploy to the forward defensive positions. On the other hand, there was some debate whether a longer lead time prior to war worked for or against NATO given that the Soviet Union could probably more quickly mobilize and deploy more divisions from inside the USSR. Curiously, in the 2014-2015 US Army-sponsored RAND wargames of a Russian attack on Estonia and Latvia, there is an early warning period of one week – by happy coincidence, roughly the amount of time needed by the US Army to deploy its troops to the region. In reality, one wonders if NATO would have one day of warning, much less one week.

Geographic Objectives and Limitations. The stop-line for a Warsaw Pact attack was also a hotly contested issue. Hackett insisted that the idea of a Soviet invasion that would only stop at the Channel ports, probably died with Stalin. Instead, the Warsaw Pact attack through West Germany was supposed to stop at the French border to avoid French intervention. Close’s scenario also limits the Warsaw Pact advance to the Rhine.  Nevertheless, whereas Close limits his scenario to West Germany-only, Hackett’s scenario encompasses attacks not only in West Germany and the Low Countries, but also on NATO’s northern and southern flanks, as well air attacks on Britain. Oddly, though Hackett has the Soviets invade neutral Austria on their way to Italy (in most scenarios the Soviets violate Austrian neutrality to attack NATO forces in southern Germany), they choose to avoid attacking Switzerland, no doubt wisely. More recent scenarios have Russia attacking one, two, or all three of the Baltic States, but none have them invading Poland. Not only is the stop-line of the invading forces a crucial consideration, but so too is the stop-line for the counter-attacking NATO forces. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO chooses not to cross into Warsaw Pact territory to reunite Germany and liberate Eastern Europe. Similarly, whether NATO would choose to attack Kaliningrad is a contested subject in the more recent scenarios, and there seems little inclination to expand attacks elsewhere inside Russia.

Deciding to Cross the Nuclear Threshold. In The Third World War there are several points when decisions must be made about using nuclear weapons. On the NATO side, SACEUR and SACLANT are pressed by subordinate commanders to authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Soviet ground and naval forces. This they refuse to do fearing Soviet escalation. On the Soviet side, the decision to drop a one-megaton nuclear warhead on Birmingham is taken only after Soviet forces begin to lose the conventional battle. In response, the US and UK decide on an instant ‘limited’ nuclear attack on Minsk (in earlier drafts Ukraine and the city of Tomsk). Just as the Soviet leadership are considering further escalation, a coup occurs in Moscow and the war ends. In the BBC’s February 2016 programme ‘Inside the War Room’, a limited nuclear attack by Russian forces (albeit Russian officials deny they authorized it) on British and American ships in the Baltic leads to a ‘like-for-like’ US-only retaliation. The programme ends with British decision-makers contemplating whether to authorize a full-scale nuclear retaliation should Britain be attacked. By a slim majority, they decide against this.

Nuclear Targeting. Assuming nuclear weapons are used in these scenarios, what sort of weapons are used and against what targets? Hackett’s original conception of possible nuclear use was to be limited to naval targets or for use in space. For reasons that remain unclear, more than half-way through the book’s drafting Hackett chose to include a nuclear aspect to the scenario in which a one-megaton warhead was to be used against Birmingham (most likely the idea and details for this section of the book derived from the then still-classified 1961 study prepared for the MoD’s Chief Scientific Adviser Solly Zuckerman about the effects of a one-megaton nuclear attack on Birmingham). At the time of The Third World War’s publication, many critics argued that the single Soviet attack was unrealistic. In Hackett’s description of Soviet decision-making, there is no serious consideration given to Soviet use against NATO battlefield targets, and the Soviets quite deliberately choose not to attack London, much less any US targets, fearing much greater retaliation.

War Termination. Writing an ending to a third world war is almost as difficult, if not more so, than writing the beginning.  In the scenarios discussed here, unlike in much of the nuclear fiction genre, the war does not end in global Armageddon. In both Hackett’s and Clancy’s scenarios, the war ends with a coup in the Kremlin. For Hackett, this occurs after nuclear use but before further escalation. For Clancy, the coup occurs to prevent nuclear use in the first place. In Close’s 48-hour scenario, NATO is defeated before it can even come to a decision about nuclear escalation. In some scenarios, the war ends in days or weeks. In others, initial defeat does not lead to surrender or acceptance of the status quo, but rather hostilities continue until such time as the initial lost territory is recovered. One feature that is pretty much a constant in all of these scenarios is that as the war is taking place, so too are diplomatic negotiations. Unlike in the conventional-only World War II, ‘unconditional surrender’ is not an option to end the potentially nuclear World War III.

Hackett’s The Third World War, like many of the fictional scenarios dealing with future wars, can be quite useful as a tool to help think through the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own defence posture, as well as those of allies and adversaries, and how these might interact in the event of an international crisis or war. Ideally they provide the reader with a genuinely futuristic perspective that is not simply the last war projected into the future, though ultimately any scenario cannot entirely escape the past and present. That being said, scenarios are rarely neutral. It is essential to be aware of the conscious agendas and the unconscious assumptions underpinning them. For instance, all too often, scenarios are written around a predetermined end state.  Therefore, the starting point for any critique should begin with a study of the author before it proceeds to the content. As for the content, to assess the realism of any future war scenario, one must make the conceptual distinction between ‘wars’ and ‘battlefields’, not treating the latter in isolation of the former. It is quite easy to project how one weapon system might fare against another, but taken out of a broader strategic context, such a projection is practically meaningless (apart from its marketing value), or worse, misleading.  In this sense, even if less entertaining or exciting, the degree of realism of the political aspects of the scenario, particularly policymakers’ rationality and cost-benefit calculus, and the key decisions that are taken about going to war, the objectives being sought, the limits placed on military action, and the willingness to incur the risks of escalation, should receive more critical attention than the purely battlefield dimensions of the future conflict.

Image: M-60A3 near Giessen in West Germany, 1985: the year of Hackett’s scenario from The Third World War, via wikimedia commons

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