World War III
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World War III (WWIII, WW3 or the Third World War) is a hypothetical worldwide military conflict subsequent to World War II. Because of the development and use of nuclear weapons near the end of World War II and their subsequent acquisition and deployment by several countries, it is feared that a third world war could cause the end of human civilization and most or all human life on Earth. A common hypothesis is that a small number of people could survive such an Armageddon, possibly in deep underground blast shelters or away from Earth, such as on the Moon or Mars or in space vehicles. Another major concern is that biological warfare could cause a very large number of casualties, either intentionally or inadvertently by an accidental release of a biological agent, the unexpected mutation of an agent, or its adaptation to other species after use.
One of the first imagined scenarios, hypothesized shortly after or even during World War II, was a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, which emerged as superpowers following World War II. This has been widely used as a premise or plot device in books, films, television productions, and video games. A few writers have instead applied the term "World War III" to the Cold War, arguing that it met the definition of a world war even though there was no direct armed conflict between the superpowers.
World War I (1914–1918) was regarded at the time as the "war to end all wars," as it was believed there could never be another global conflict of such magnitude. World War II (1939–1945) proved that to be false, and with the advent of the Cold War in 1947 and the adoption of nuclear weapons, the possibility of a third global conflict became more plausible. The perceived threat then decreased with the end of the Cold War in 1991, when the United States became the sole global superpower. A third world war was anticipated and planned for by military and civil authorities in many countries. Scenarios ranged from conventional warfare to limited or total nuclear warfare, even leading to the destruction of civilization.
- 1 Homeland security and civil defense plans
- 2 Military plans
- 2.1 Plan Totality
- 2.2 Operation Unthinkable
- 2.3 Exercise Swarmer
- 2.4 Operation Dropshot
- 2.5 Exercises Grand Slam, Longstep, and Mainbrace
- 2.6 Exercise Totskoye
- 2.7 Desert Rock exercises
- 2.8 Operation Strikeback
- 2.9 Operation Deep Water
- 2.10 Operation Chrome Dome
- 2.11 Exercise Reforger
- 2.12 Seven Days to the River Rhine
- 2.13 France's Warning Shot
- 2.14 Exercise Square Leg
- 2.15 Exercise Able Archer
- 2.16 Strategic Defense Initiative
- 2.17 Operation Behemoth
- 2.18 Exercise Internal Look
- 2.19 Letters of last resort
- 2.20 NATO nuclear sharing
- 3 Historical close calls
- 4 World War III as past or present tense
- 5 Fiction
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
Homeland security and civil defense plans
Continuity of government
The Centre d'Opération des Forces Aériennes Stratégiques (COFAS) is a hardened command center for French nuclear forces at Taverny Air Base in Taverny, Val d'Oise. The alternate national command center is located at Mont Verdun near Lyon. The hardened headquarters of Force Océanique Stratégique (FOST), France's nuclear ballistic submarine fleet, was located at Houilles, Yvelines, until 2000.
As with the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation keeps its continuity of government information secret. However press speculation has focused on a few sites: Mount Yamantau has been the centre of much speculation. There has been major construction under the mountain from the 1960s and Russian officials refuse to discuss it.
Metro-2 is the informal name for a purported secret underground metro system which parallels the public Moscow Metro. The system was supposedly built, or at least started, during the time of Joseph Stalin and was codenamed D-6 by the KGB. There has been speculation that this secret metro may lead to COG sites inside Russia, given that in the event of nuclear war, an express subway system, being by nature deep underground, would be a far safer form of transportation for government and military officials than aircraft or surface vehicles, which would be vulnerable to blast waves and firestorms resulting from nuclear explosions. Additionally, the Soviet Union historically spent more of its nuclear budget on defenses than the United States (who put the bulk of their resources into submarines). The US military believed it was better to bluff with offense rather than defense, while the Soviets believed they could survive a nuclear war, and built the elaborate underground facilities that would be crucial using such a strategy.
Two destinations of this system are suggested to be the old KGB headquarters, now the FSB headquarters, at Lubyanka Square, and the second being regarded as an enormous underground leadership bunker adjacent to Moscow State University. Another alleged subterranean destination, apart from the aforementioned underground town at Ramenki/Moscow State University is Vnukovo-2 airport.
During the Cold War, the Klara skyddsrum ("Klara bunker") was built underneath Stockholm as one of several air-raid shelters built in Stockholm and other cities. The bunker is designed to accommodate two thirds of the government and between 8,000 and 12,000 civilians in the case of a military attack on Stockholm. It is designed as a very large, two-story oval, with multiple entrances. During peacetime, parts of it are used as a parking garage.
The primary British COG headquarters is at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. The Central Government War Headquarters was previously maintained in a quarry complex near Corsham, Wiltshire. The above-ground support facility was RAF Rudloe Manor. Service command centres are Northwood for the Royal Navy Trident SSBN force, and RAF High Wycombe for the Royal Air Force.
The Continuity of Operations Plan of the United States works by having alternate or airborne sites that 'mirror' the main peacetime sites, the alternate sites being always on call or on short notice to mobilize. For obvious reasons, information on COG sites is classified; this list reflects only what the press have managed to unearth over the years, and is by no means complete:
- Cheyenne Mountain Complex, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD): This is the permanent seat of NORAD. It was able to sustain nuclear attack up until the 1960s; more modern ICBMs could destroy it, but only with a direct hit.
- Mount Weather: Alternate for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); used temporarily for Members of Congress in September 2001; possible location of other executive-branch COG facilities.
- Raven Rock Mountain Complex: Alternate for National Military Command Center.
- Looking Glass plane: Alternate for United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).
- E-4B Nightwatch, also known as the Doomsday Plane: Alternate for National Command Authority, the Office of the Vice President of the United States, and the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
- Air Force One: Alternate for National Command Authority, the Office of the Vice President of the United States, and the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
- E-6 Mercury TACAMO planes: Alternate for USSTRATCOM. The TACAMO planes relay nuclear fire or ceasefire orders from the Nightwatch and Looking Glass planes to submarines and bombers through VLF frequencies. They can also take over for the Looking Glass plane if it is destroyed. One TACAMO plane is always over the Pacific Ocean and one over the Atlantic Ocean.
A number of countries have a national emergency alert system to notify the public of danger quickly if there is no time to pass the information through standard news media.
HANDEL was the code name for the United Kingdom's National Attack Warning System in the Cold War. It consisted of a small console consisting of two sets of microphones, lights, and gauges, to provide a backup if anything failed. If an enemy air strike was detected, a key in the left side of the console would be turned and two lights would come on. Then the operator would press and hold down a red button and send the message: "Attack warning RED! Attack warning RED!" to the police by the telephone carrier wave frequencies used for the speaking clock,[clarification needed] who would in turn activate the air attack sirens using the local telephone lines.
Emergency Alert System
The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a national warning system in the United States put into place on 1 January 1997, when it superseded the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which in turn superseded the CONELRAD System. The official EAS is designed to enable the President of the United States to speak publicly to the citizens of America within 10 minutes. The Emergency Alert System has the ability to use the Emergency Action Notification alert, in which the entire nation is alerted by the president. This alert is the most likely to be used in event of an incoming nuclear attack or mainland invasion.
In Canada, Alert Ready was launched on 31 March 2015, ahead of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, to become the country's emergency population warning system. Apart from warning of environmental or biohazardous threats, the system also promises to relay any emergency government message, civil unrest, or terrorist threats.
A number of countries have one or several national emergencies laws that are ready to come into place in the event that a third world war turns nuclear, or even in the case of a conventional war.
- Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (United Kingdom)
- State of Emergency in India
- National Security Presidential Directive 51 (United States)
- National Emergencies Act (United States 1976)
- Emergency Powers Act (Ireland 1939)
- German Emergency Acts (Germany 1968)
- Emergencies Act (Canada 1988)
Although at present the notion of a Third World War remains in the realm of fiction for most of the civilian populations of the world, military planners have been war gaming various scenarios, preparing for the worst, since the early days of the Cold War. Some of those plans are now out of date and have been partially or fully declassified:
The plan envisioned a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union with 20 to 30 atomic bombs. It earmarked 20 Soviet cities for obliteration in a first strike: Moscow, Gorki, Kuybyshev, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Saratov, Kazan, Leningrad, Baku, Tashkent, Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Magnitogorsk, Molotov, Tbilisi, Stalinsk, Grozny, Irkutsk, and Yaroslavl.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was concerned that, with the enormous size of Soviet forces deployed in Europe at the end of WWII and the unreliability of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, there was a serious threat to Western Europe. In April–May 1945, British Armed Forces developed Operation Unthinkable, thought to be the first scenario of the Third World War. Its primary goal was "to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire". The plan was rejected by the British Chiefs of Staff Committee as militarily unfeasible.
Exercise Swarmer (1950) involved training for an invasion of the continental United States by enemy forces with defending forces counterattacking the 'enemy incursion' via a massive airlift behind enemy lines. The counterattack involved establishing an airhead, involving over six hundred transport and fighter aircraft, and airdrops of over 3900 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and the 11th Airborne Division.
"Operation Dropshot" was the 1950s United States contingency plan for a possible nuclear and conventional war with the Soviet Union in the Western European and Asian theaters.
At the time the US nuclear arsenal was limited in size, based mostly in the United States, and depended on bombers for delivery. Dropshot included mission profiles that would have used 300 nuclear bombs and 29,000 high-explosive bombs on 200 targets in 100 cities and towns to wipe out 85% of the Soviet Union's industrial potential at a single stroke. Between 75 and 100 of the 300 nuclear weapons were targeted to destroy Soviet combat aircraft on the ground.
The scenario was devised prior to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was also devised before Robert McNamara and President Kennedy changed the US Nuclear War plan from the 'city killing' countervalue strike plan to "counterforce" (targeted more at military forces). Nuclear weapons at this time were not accurate enough to hit a naval base without destroying the city adjacent to it, so the aim in using them was to destroy the enemy industrial capacity in an effort to cripple their war economy.
Exercises Grand Slam, Longstep, and Mainbrace
In January 1950, the North Atlantic Council approved NATO's military strategy of containment. NATO military planning took on a renewed urgency following the outbreak of the Korean War in mid-1950, prompting NATO to establish a "force under a centralised command, adequate to deter aggression and to ensure the defence of Western Europe". Allied Command Europe was established under General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, US Army, on 2 April 1951. The Western Union Defence Organization had previously carried out Exercise Verity, a 1949 multilateral exercise involving naval air strikes and submarine attacks.
Exercise Mainbrace brought together 200 ships and over 50,000 personnel to practice the defence of Denmark and Norway from Russian attack in 1952. It was the first major NATO exercise. The exercise was jointly commanded by Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic Admiral Lynde D. McCormick, USN, and Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Matthew B. Ridgeway, US Army, during the Fall of 1952.
The US, UK, Canada, France, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Netherlands, and Belgium all participated.
Exercises Grand Slam and Longstep were naval exercises held in the Mediterranean Sea during 1952 to practice dislodging an enemy occupying force and amphibious assault. It involved over 170 warships and 700 aircraft under the overall command of Admiral Carney. The overall exercise commander, Admiral Carney summarized the accomplishments of Exercise Grand Slam by stating: "We have demonstrated that the senior commanders of all four powers can successfully take charge of a mixed task force and handle it effectively as a working unit."
The "Totskoye nuclear exercise" was a military exercise undertaken by the Soviet army in 1954 to explore defensive and offensive warfare during nuclear war. The exercise, under the code name "Snowball", involved an aerial detonation of an RDS-4 nuclear bomb as powerful as the two bombs used in the American nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The stated goal of the operation was military training for breaking through heavily fortified defensive lines of a military opponent using nuclear weapons. An army of 45,000 soldiers marched through the area around the epicenter soon after the nuclear blast. The exercise was conducted on 14 September 1954, under the command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov to the north of Totskoye village in Orenburg Oblast, Russia, in the South Ural Military District.
The test was designed as proof of a new Soviet military doctrine that a nuclear war could actually be won, and that the tactical usage of atomic bombs could support conventional warfare (contrary to Joseph Stalin's beliefs that they could only be used behind enemy lines–against cities or factories–but were useless on the battlefield). The exercise was also meant to "disprove" the opinions of then-current Soviet premier, Georgy Malenkov, that nuclear war could not be won by any of its participants.
Desert Rock exercises
"Desert Rock" was the code name of a series of exercises conducted by the US military in conjunction with atmospheric nuclear tests. They were carried out at the Nevada Proving Grounds between 1951 and 1957.
Their purpose was to train troops and gain knowledge of military maneuvers and operations on the nuclear battlefield. They included observer programs, tactical maneuvers, and damage effects tests.
This was a major NATO naval exercise held in 1957, simulating a response to an all-out Soviet attack on NATO. The exercise involved over 200 warships, 650 aircraft, and 75,000 personnel from the United States Navy, the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the French Navy, the Royal Netherlands Navy, and the Royal Norwegian Navy. As the largest peacetime naval operation up to that time, Operation Strikeback was characterized by military analyst Hanson W. Baldwin of The New York Times as "constituting the strongest striking fleet assembled since World War II".
Operation Deep Water
"Operation Deep Water" was a 1957 NATO naval exercise held in the Mediterranean Sea that simulated protecting the Dardanelles from a Soviet invasion. By controlling this bottleneck in a war situation, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet would be prevented from entering the Mediterranean. This exercise featured a simulated nuclear air strike in the Gallipoli area, reflecting NATO's nuclear umbrella policy to offset the Soviet Union's numerical superiority of ground forces in Europe. Operation Deep Water also involved the first units of the United States Marines Corps to participate in a helicopter-borne vertical envelopment/air assault operation during an overseas deployment.
Operation Deep Water opened with a simulated atomic air strike in the Gallipoli area on 25 September 1957 and culminated with the landing of 8,000 US Marines at Saros Gulf near Gallipoli, Turkey, from a 38-ship amphibious task force led by flagship USS Pocono, on 29 September 1957.
Operation Chrome Dome
"Operation Chrome Dome", initiated in 1960, was one of several United States Air Force Cold-War era airborne global alert duties or programs in which B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber aircraft armed with thermonuclear weapons were assigned targets in the Soviet Union on schedules guaranteeing that a substantial number of them were flying and fueled for their missions at any given time. Bombers loitered near locations just outside the Soviet Union to provide rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of nuclear war.
Exercise Reforger (from return of forces to Germany) was an annual exercise conducted, during the Cold War, by NATO. The exercise was intended to ensure that NATO had the ability to quickly deploy forces to West Germany in the event of a conflict with the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact outnumbered NATO throughout the Cold War in conventional forces, especially armor. Therefore, in the event of a Soviet invasion, in order not to resort to tactical nuclear strikes, NATO forces holding the line against a Warsaw Pact armored spearhead would have to be quickly resupplied and replaced. Most of this support would have come across the Atlantic from the US and Canada.
Reforger was not merely a show of force—in the event of a conflict, it would be the actual plan to strengthen the NATO presence in Europe. In that instance, it would have been referred to as Operation Reforger. Important components in Reforger included the Military Airlift Command, the Military Sealift Command, and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.
Seven Days to the River Rhine
Seven Days to the River Rhine was a top secret military simulation exercise developed in 1979 by the Warsaw Pact. It started with the assumption that NATO would launch a nuclear attack on the Vistula river valley in a first-strike scenario, which would result in as many as two million Polish civilian casualties. In response, a Soviet counter-strike would be carried out against West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, with Warsaw Pact forces invading West Germany and aiming to stop at the River Rhine by the seventh day. Other USSR plans stopped only upon reaching the French border on day nine. Individual Warsaw Pact states were only assigned their own subpart of the strategic picture; in this case, the Polish forces were only expected to go as far as Germany. The Seven Days to the Rhine plan envisioned that Poland and Germany would be largely destroyed by nuclear exchanges, and that large numbers of troops would die of radiation sickness. It was estimated that NATO would fire nuclear weapons behind the advancing Soviet lines to cut off their supply lines and thus blunt their advance. While this plan assumed that NATO would use nuclear weapons to push back any Warsaw Pact invasion, it did not include nuclear strikes on France or the United Kingdom. Newspapers speculated when this plan was declassified, that France and the UK were not to be hit in an effort to get them to withhold use of their own nuclear weapons.
France's Warning Shot
The French military were well aware from intelligence sources during the Cold War that some Soviet invasion plans called for stopping at the Rhine River, other plans stopping at the French border, and still others at the Pyrenees (the westernmost border of France). Since the French military judged that a full-scale invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies was unlikely to be stopped by conventional armaments, these short-range nuclear missiles were meant as a "final warning" (ultime avertissement in French) which would tell the aggressor that any further advances would trigger a nuclear armageddon upon its major cities and other important targets.
The idea was to fire a small yield nuclear missile at a low population area close to the advancing Soviet lines, to demonstrate that France was indeed willing to use its nuclear weapons. If this warning was not heeded, France reserved the right to use tactical nuclear weapons on the advancing Soviet troops (using Pluton or Hadès missiles, or Dassault Mirage IV jets using Air-Sol Moyenne Portée missiles) or to launch a full strategic nuclear attack on the USSR using their Redoutable-class submarine, thus destroying the USSR's ability to sustain war by destroying its war economy, manufacturing base and military bases. While this policy saw a lower profile with the end of the Cold War, President Chirac reasserted it in 2006. The French IRBM force has now been scrapped, but they retain an air and sea nuclear deterrent.
Exercise Square Leg
Exercise Square Leg was a UK civil defense exercise to plan for a full strategic nuclear attack on both military and civil targets. The plan called for evacuation of city dwellers into rural regions in Scotland, northern England and central Wales (East Anglia and the Welsh coast being definitive targets) upon warning that nuclear warfare was likely. The exercise was critiqued for being overly fatalistic, estimating Soviet weaponry to be in high yields in every strike, rather than the more likely mixed yields.
Exercise Able Archer
Exercise Able Archer was an annual exercise by the United States military in Europe that practiced command and control procedures, with emphasis on transition from solely conventional operations to chemical, nuclear, and conventional operations during a time of war.
"Able Archer 83" was a five-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) command post exercise starting on 7 November 1983, that spanned Western Europe, centered on the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) Headquarters in Casteau, north of the city of Mons. Able Archer exercises simulated a period of conflict escalation, culminating in a coordinated nuclear attack.
The realistic nature of the 1983 exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of strategic Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some members of the Soviet Politburo and military to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert. This "1983 war scare" is considered by many historians to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The threat of nuclear war ended with the conclusion of the exercise on 11 November.
Strategic Defense Initiative
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was proposed by US President Ronald Reagan on 23 March 1983. In the later part of his Presidency, numerous factors (which included watching the 1983 movie The Day After and hearing through a Soviet defector that Able Archer 83 almost triggered a Russian first strike) had turned Ronald Reagan against the concept of winnable nuclear war, and he begun to see nuclear weapons as more of a "wild card" than a strategic deterrent. Although he later believed in disarmament treaties slowly blunting the danger of nuclear weaponry by reducing their number and alert status, he also believed a technological solution might allow incoming ICBMs to be shot down, thus making the US invulnerable to a first strike. However the USSR saw the SDI concept as a major threat, since unilateral deployment of the system would allow the US to launch a massive first strike on the Soviet Union without any fear of retaliation.
The SDI concept was to use ground-based and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. The initiative focused on strategic defense rather than the prior strategic offense doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was set up in 1984 within the United States Department of Defense to oversee the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Operation Behemoth was a massive Soviet naval exercise in 1989 by the Russian Northern Fleet, which involved a feasibility test of a simultaneous launch of all 16 R-29RMU Sineva liquid-fueled missiles, which each carry four independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) from a Delta Class Submarine, an ability that would be deadly in a surprise nuclear first strike off an enemy coastline, cutting the warning time from 20–30 minutes as with ICBMs to perhaps 5 minutes or less. The initial launch attempt failed in exercise Behemoth 1. Two years later, exercise Behemoth 2 successfully launched all the missiles in less than 4 minutes.
Exercise Internal Look
This exercise was designed to quickly deploy forces assigned to the US Central Command to the Iranian border to halt a Soviet invasion of the Middle East. It has since been adapted to the post Cold War world in a number of ways from halting Russian intervention in the middle east to logistical feasibility studies for US action in Iran and Iraq.
Letters of last resort
The "letters of last resort" are four identically-worded handwritten letters issued by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the commanding officers of the four British ballistic missile submarines. They contain orders on what action to take in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government and has killed or incapacitated both the Prime Minister and the "second person" (normally a high-ranking member of the Cabinet) whom the Prime Minister has designated to make a decision on how to act in the event of the Prime Minister's death. In the event that the orders were to be carried out, the action taken could be the last official act of Her Majesty's Government.
The letters are stored inside two safes in the control room of each submarine. The UK submarines do not have the same code-locked PAL systems that the US nuclear forces use. Reports indicate that the detailed instructions in each set of letters differs depending on the Prime Minister, but the Navy advises the incoming head of government that he has three broad choices:
- Instruct the submarine Captain to conduct a massive retaliatory strike on the aggressor.
- Instruct the submarine Captain to place the submarine under Allied Command. This would involve sailing to the United States, Australia, New Zealand or some other UK ally, and placing the submarine at that country's disposal.
- Instruct the submarine Captain to use his own judgement.
The Prime Minister may choose any other option, or permutation of options, in his own absolute discretion. The contents of the letters are never revealed in the media, and so far they have all been destroyed unopened at the end of each Prime Minister's term.
NATO nuclear sharing
NATO operational plans for a third world war have involved NATO allies who do not have their own nuclear weapons, using nuclear weapons supplied by the United States as part of a general NATO war plan, under the direction of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander.
Of the three nuclear powers in NATO (France, the United Kingdom and the United States), only the United States has provided weapons for nuclear sharing. As of November 2009[update], Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey are still hosting US nuclear weapons as part of NATO's nuclear sharing policy. Canada hosted weapons until 1984, and Greece until 2001. The United Kingdom also received US tactical nuclear weapons such as nuclear artillery and Lance missiles until 1992, despite the UK being a nuclear weapons state in its own right; these were mainly deployed in Germany.
In peace time, the nuclear weapons stored in non-nuclear countries are guarded by US airmen though previously some artillery and missile systems were guarded by US Army soldiers; the codes required for detonating them are under American control. In case of war, the weapons are to be mounted on the participating countries' warplanes. The weapons are under custody and control of USAF Munitions Support Squadrons co-located on NATO main operating bases who work together with the host nation forces.
As of 2005[update], 180 tactical B61 nuclear bombs of the 480 US nuclear weapons believed to be deployed in Europe fall under the nuclear sharing arrangement. The weapons are stored within a vault in hardened aircraft shelters, using the USAF WS3 Weapon Storage and Security System. The delivery warplanes used are F-16s and Panavia Tornados.
Historical close calls
With the development of the arms race in the 1950s, an apocalyptic war between the United States and the Soviet Union was considered possible. Among the historical events considered potential triggers for a nuclear conflict were:
- 25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953
- The Korean War, a war between two factions trying to control the Korean Peninsula: a communist one supported by China and the USSR, and a capitalist one, supported by the UN and the United States. Many people believed that it would escalate into full-scale war between the three superpowers. CBS war correspondent Bill Downs wrote in 1951 that, "To my mind, the answer is: Yes, Korea is the beginning of World War III. The brilliant landings at Inchon and the cooperative efforts of the American armed forces with the United Nations Allies have won us a victory in Korea. But this is only the first battle in a major international struggle which now is engulfing the Far East and the entire world." He repeated this belief on ABC Evening News while reporting on the USS Pueblo incident in 1968.
- 15–28 October 1962
- The Cuban Missile Crisis: a confrontation on the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, in response to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, is considered as having been the closest to a nuclear exchange, which could have precipitated a Third World War. The crisis peaked on 27 October, when a U-2 was shot down over Cuba and another almost intercepted over Siberia, after Curtis LeMay (US Air Force Chief of Staff) had neglected to enforce Presidential orders to suspend all overflights, and a Soviet submarine nearly launched a nuclear-tipped torpedo in response to depth charges (with the launch being prevented by an officer named Vasili Arkhipov).
- 6–25 October 1973
- The Yom Kippur War, also known as the Ramadan War, or October War, began with Arab victories. Israel successfully counterattacked. Tensions grew between the US (which supported Israel) and the Soviet Union (which sided with the Arab states). American and Soviet naval forces came close to firing upon each other. Admiral Murphy of the US reckoned the chances of the Soviet squadron attempting a first strike against his fleet at 40 percent. The Pentagon moved Defcon status from 4 to 3. The superpowers had been pushed to the brink of war, but tensions eased with the ceasefire brought in under UNSC 399.
- 9 November 1979
- The United States made emergency retaliation preparations after NORAD saw on-screen indications that a full-scale Soviet attack had been launched. No attempt was made to use the "red telephone" hotline to clarify the situation with the USSR and it was not until early-warning radar systems confirmed no such launch had taken place that NORAD realized that a computer system test had caused the display errors. A senator inside the NORAD facility at the time described an atmosphere of absolute panic. A GAO investigation led to the construction of an off-site test facility to prevent similar mistakes.
- 26 September 1983
- A false alarm occurred on the Soviet nuclear early warning system, showing the launch of American Minuteman ICBMs from bases in the United States. A retaliatory attack was prevented by Stanislav Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, who realised the system had simply malfunctioned (which was borne out by later investigations).
- 2–11 November 1983
- During Able Archer 83, a ten-day NATO exercise simulating a period of conflict escalation that culminated in a DEFCON 1 nuclear strike, some members of the Soviet Politburo and armed forces treated the events as a ruse of war concealing a genuine first strike. In response, the military prepared for a coordinated counter-attack by readying nuclear forces and placing air units stationed in the Warsaw Pact states of East Germany and Poland under high alert. However, the state of Soviet preparation for retaliation ceased upon completion of the Able Archer exercises.
- 25 January 1995
- The Norwegian rocket incident occurred when the radar signature of a Black Brant XII research rocket being jointly launched by Norwegian and US scientists from Andøya Rocket Range was mistaken for a Trident SLBM launch by the Russian Federation's Olenegorsk early warning station. In response, President Boris Yeltsin was summoned and the Cheget nuclear briefcase was activated for the first and only time. However, the high command was soon able to determine that the rocket was not entering Russian airspace, and promptly aborted plans for combat readiness and retaliation. It was retrospectively determined that, while the rocket scientists had informed thirty states including Russia about the test launch, the information had not reached Russian radar technicians.
World War III as past or present tense
Norman Podhoretz has suggested that the Cold War can be identified as World War III because it was fought, although by proxy, on a global scale, involving the United States, NATO, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. Similarly, Eliot Cohen, the director of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, declared, in The Wall Street Journal, that he considers World War III to be history, writing: "The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multi-million-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map." On the 24 May 2011 edition of CNBC's Kudlow and Company, host Lawrence Kudlow, discussing a book by former deputy Under-Secretary of Defense Jed Babbin, accepted the view of the Cold War as World War III, adding, "World War IV is the terror war, and war with China would be World War V."
War on Terrorism
Some claim that the “War on Terrorism” is World War III, with the September 11 2001 attacks having been the 'Pearl Harbor' that dragged the United States into a terrorism fight. World War III remains in the realm of fiction for most of the civilian populations of the world.
On 1 February 2015, Iraq's Prime Minister declared that the War on ISIL was effectively "World War III", due to ISIL's declaration of a Worldwide Caliphate, its aims to conquer the world, and its success in spreading the conflict to multiple countries outside of the Levant region. Speaking of ISIL's destruction of pre-Islamic sites in the region, Syria's head of antiquities, Maamoun Abdul Karim, stated that "this is the entire world's battle." In his State of the Union Address on 12 January 2016, president Obama of the US countered: "as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence."
World War III is a common theme in fiction and art.
Many media concerning a Third World War portray the war as being fought with nuclear weapons, with some even portraying multiple major exchanges that result in anything from entire continents being wiped out (as in The Last Ship) to utter annihilation of the human race (as in On The Beach). However, some, such as The Third World War: The Untold Story and Red Storm Rising, portray a conventional war where the pressure by regional military commanders on the side losing at that time to use tactical nuclear weapons grows as the story goes on. With most WWIII fiction being written during the Cold War, when a US-Soviet conflict was seen as a very likely scenario, this tends to be the focus of most books and movies on the subject.
With the end of the Cold War, despite the public perception that such a war is now unlikely, the genre continues to grow. Some video games, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, are set in the midst of a world war between the United States and Russia after the latter frames a terrorist attack on the former. Other works, including the Fallout video game series and books like Invasion speculate about a future war between the US and China after the latter becomes a global superpower, others like Arc Light portray an unstable post-Cold War Russian Federation being the subject of a military coup, during which a series of accidents and misunderstandings trigger a nuclear strike by the Russians, with the US retaliating, and both nations locked in a war neither of them want.
As the Cold War was now over, the would-be conflict was occasionally visited as alternate history. In 1998, the German TV network ZDF and The Learning Channel in the United States collaborated on a mockumentary, Der Dritte Weltkrieg, set in a 1989-90 where a hard-line Soviet regime, having ousted Mikhail Gorbachev soon enough to suppress or preempt the Revolutions of 1989, launches a war which accidentally results in a full nuclear exchange; the film then rewinds to the point of divergence, Gorbachev's visit to East Berlin, and ends with a montage from the opening of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. In 2013, 50 years after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Military Channel aired What If?...Armageddon 1962, in which Kennedy is assassinated before becoming President, and two years later, Lyndon B. Johnson is unable to bring the Cuban Missile Crisis to a peaceful resolution.
The changed post-Cold War world and the changed perception of the likelihood of various threats have caused some Cold War stories to be re-imagined for the post-Cold War age. The Last Ship by William Brinkley has been adapted to a TV series of the same name, with the plot changed to a global pandemic rather than a nuclear exchange, whereas the 2012 remake of Red Dawn scraps the Soviet Union and its Cuban and Nicaraguan allies and is set in more contemporary times, having been rewritten to feature an ultranationalist Russia and an increasingly militant North Korea as the antagonistic invaders.
- Metro 2033 and Metro 2034, written by Dmitry Glukhovsky, depict a post-apocalyptic Russia following a violent nuclear exchange between all of the major countries in the world. Both books spawned video game counterparts.
- Red Army, by Ralph Peters, shows a Soviet invasion of Western Europe from an entirely Soviet perspective.
- Red Storm Rising, a World War III scenario covering a conventional Soviet invasion of Western Europe, by Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising has the Politburo vote for a declaration of war against NATO forces following an Islamic terrorist attack on a Soviet oil facility, which cripples Soviet oil production and threatens their economy.
- The Third World War, by Humphrey Hawksley, depicts a slow building crisis that culminates in a third world war involving nuclear and biological weapons.
- The Third World War: The Untold Story, by General Sir John Hackett, portrays a conventional Soviet invasion of Western Europe, including the behavior of the formally neutral Ireland and Sweden, and internal Soviet debates and thinking, and explores the pressure by regional military commanders to use nuclear weapons.
- Trinity's Child, by William Prochnau, portrays a sudden nuclear attack by the USSR upon the United States, followed by an eruption of global warfare.
- A Short History of the Future depicts a war between the forces supporting a more powerful version of the UN, such as Japan and the European Union, and the forces opposing its "interventions" in their affairs, such as the United States, China, and the Muslim nations.
- In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove depicts a Third World War occurring between the 1960s and 70s with Nazi Germany and Japan defeating the United States and Canada.
- Preview of the War We Do Not Want by Collier's magazine narrates a future World War III taking place between 1952 to 1955, ending with the dissolution of the USSR and a UN occupation of Russia. Notable writers and political figures contribute fictional accounts of the war's events.
- On the Beach is a 1959 film based on the book by Nevil Shute, about American survivors in Australia investigating the emergence of a mysterious morse code transmission in the ruins of San Diego, and the consequences of radioactive fallout
- Panic in Year Zero! is a 1962 film about a family, who was on vacation, witnessing a nuclear war in the mountains of California and attempting to return home.
- Fail-Safe is a 1964 film based on the Eugene Burdick-Harvey Wheeler best seller about a computer malfunction that leads a US bomber group to attack the Soviet Union, with the President and others trying to stop it. The same story appeared in the comedy Dr. Strangelove, released in the same year. In 2000, a TV remake of Fail Safe appeared on CBS TV.
- Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a 1964 political satire black comedy film that concerns an unhinged United States Air Force general who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It follows the President of the United States, his advisers (including Dr. Strangelove), the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer as they hopelessly try to prevent World War III by attempting to recall the bombers manned by fanatic crews trained to deliver their payload in the face of any adversity.
- Damnation Alley is a 1977 film loosely based on the 1967 novel of the same name about a group of former soldiers hoping to head to Albany, New York from an abandoned base in California. This film also explored the theory that nuclear war could tilt the earth's axis, resulting in mutated insects, deadly floods and solar flares.
- WarGames (1983) follows David Lightman, a young hacker who unwittingly accesses WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a United States military supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war. Lightman gets WOPR to run a nuclear war simulation, originally believing it to be a computer game. The simulation causes a national nuclear missile scare and nearly starts World War III.
- The Day After: a 1983 TV movie depicting a fictional nuclear exchange in response to a blockade of West Berlin. The film is set in Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, MO and deals with the aftermath of a hospital doctor who is trying to keep his hospital intact, an enlisted USAF airman who left his base, and a college student who takes refuge with a family in Lawrence.
- Threads is a 1984 TV movie depicting a fictional nuclear exchange in response to a US-Backed Coup in Iran and subsequent Soviet Occupation of Northern Iran. The film takes place in Sheffield and revolves around a couple, who is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, and their families who struggle to survive. The main protagonist, who is carrying the baby, flees to the countryside to raise it and as a result, dies from years of radiation sickness.
- Red Dawn is a 1984 film by John Milius, in which the Soviet Union, assisted by Cuban and Nicaraguan allies, invades the United States. The film was remade in 2012 with North Korea replacing Russia as the main invader (despite having the backing of an ultranationalist Russian government).
- Der Dritte Weltkrieg ("World War III") is a 1998 German-American mockumentary in which Soviet hard-liners depose Mikhail Gorbachev with the Iron Curtain intact, brutally suppress in Revolutions of 1989, and start a war which accidentally leads to a nuclear exhange; the film then rewinds to Gorbachev's October 1989 visit to East Berlin (the coup had been launched during his flight home) and ends with a montage of jubilant Berliners celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany's subsequent reunification.
- The Sum of All Fears is based on Tom Clancy's best-selling novel of the same name. Rather than Islamic terrorists, the script involves Neo-Nazis who wish to transform Europe into a fascist superstate.
- In Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, a Swedish-born Russian nuclear strategist plans to ignite a nuclear war between the United States and Russia in order to restore ecological balance to the planet.
- Adventure Time takes place 1000 years after "the great mushroom war" which is a nuclear war that wipes out almost the entire population.
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