Wargame 1988: The Epic Clash That Never Was

Source: A modern Naval War College map exercise. Credit: RAND Corporation

Dive into the US Navy's complex exercise that was designed to predict the outcome of World War III.

For much of the Cold War, Western war games had taken roughly one of two courses. The first was to simulate a full-scale war between the Soviet Union and the United States, including an exchange of thermonuclear ICBMs. Think the movie Wargames here, “Shall we play a game?” These exercises were as much about the decision-making chain leading up to war as they were about simulating individual strikes themselves. Meanwhile, the other games were intended to be more conventional, simulating the tactical and operational strokes of an attack across the inter-German border.

These exercises tended to look more like the hit book Red Storm Rising, which itself was based off a series of wargames played by Tom Clancy and Larry Bond. Oh, to sit in on those sessions! The problem with these games was that they tended to end abruptly, as one side inevitably resorted to a nuclear exchange. As a result, the games were short, lasting a few days or a couple weeks at the longest, and ended with some form of and then we nuked each other.

A Virtual War Clash

Starting in 1984, the US Navy sponsored a series of wargames which aimed to explore the outbreak of war, its conduct through the short and medium term, as well as the eventual potential resolution to the conflict. Dubbed Wargame 1988, the year the game was set, this series of games combined strategic national decision making with on the ground operational details. Three sides were set up: Blue (NATO), Red (Warsaw Pact), and Green, which represented international institutions like the UN and the Papacy. Teams were given the initial political situation and a variety of initial responses based on current war plans. But from these prebuilt options, both Red and Blue players were in complete control over their alliance's global forces and conducted strategy as they saw fit with the idea of meeting certain goals. The most important of which was either to prevent, or at worst limit, the use of nuclear forces. Wargame 1988's main focus was to build a natural scenario that would remain mostly conventional while exploring the evolution of a war which lasted 30 days or more.

A modern Naval War College map exercise. Credit: RAND Corporation.
A modern Naval War College map exercise. Credit: RAND Corporation.

The premise of the wargame was that through 1988, the war in Afghanistan served as a key flashpoint that exacerbated tensions between the two powers. By October, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact were on the brink of war. NATO engaged in the largest ever REFORGER operation, reuniting American based servicemen with their prepositioned equipment in Germany. Unable to diplomatically resolve the crisis, and unwilling to give NATO more time to reinforce the central front, Red decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Germany on November 6th, hurling 27 Pact divisions across the German-German border. For game purposes, this was dubbed D-Day.

Red's objectives were simple: to capture West Germany, and to either reunite Germany or to sell it back to Blue at so high a cost that they would become undisputed masters of Europe. Blue, on the other hand, hoped to return to the status quo, preferably without the use of nuclear weapons. To do this, the Blue team hoped to tap the resources of NATO to hold the Pact as far East as possible and to hold as much German territory as possible.

The initial days of World War III played out much as they had in other scenarios, similar to Red Storm Rising. Along the German border, the Soviets shoved NATO forces back to the Wesser River before their offensive stalled out. Reinforcements from the second echelon of forces stationed in Poland was halted for over a week by NATO interdiction attacks, and NATO looked for ways to break out of the statement evolving in Germany. Their main breakout attempt came in Denmark, where a Marine Amphibious force landed along the Jutland peninsula and tried to cut off the Soviet armies. However, despite initial success in linking up with Danish forces, as well as destroying a Soviet counter landing at sea, Blue team was stopped along the Kiel Canal.

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Fighting World War III

At sea, the war was much more intense. Soviet Submarines quickly plunged into the Atlantic Ocean and attacked NATO shipping. While Blue Team was eventually successful in eliminating these subs, the cost was high. The convoy battles absorbed most of the ships stationed in the Atlantic and inflicted heavy damage on the transport fleets. By D+30, NATO forces in Europe were running short of many crucial supplies. In the Mediterranean, the Soviets were initially quite successful in the 'D-Day Shoot out,' destroying both French aircraft carriers and damaging the USS Eisenhower and the USS John F. Kennedy. However, these initially Red team successes were quickly reversed by the Blue counter-attack, which completely destroyed Soviet forces in the area. By D+30, NATO forces had cleared the Mediterranean, and Blue Team was planning operations against targets in the Black Sea.

A less serious reenactment of a Russian attack on an American position. Credit: Team Yankee
A less serious reenactment of a Russian attack on an American position. Credit: Team Yankee

From there the scenario pivoted. While the forces in Europe battled over territory, the Red and Blue teams were faced with a tough decision: how to end the war and achieve their objectives. Blue team planned a series of conventional air strikes, but for various reasons these strikes were ultimately canceled. Red team, on the other hand, made the decision to escalate the war by employing nuclear weapons against select targets. But unlike in other war games, where these attacks ultimately led to total nuclear war, Red team hoped to control escalation by only striking specific targets. These targets were the American Carrier Battle Groups operating in the North and Black Seas.

Red team's attacks each destroyed the American CBGs, and succeeded in demonstrating to Blue team Red's commitment to victory at any price. Their strategy of only targeting the carriers also paid off, because Blue team felt they were unable to respond in kind, as Russia possessed no major CBGs of their own, and their vital military centers were largely located in cities or along the ground front in Germany. However, further complicating matters, Blue Team launched a counterstroke in Germany that pushed the Warsaw Pact into East Germany.

Exhausted and afraid of further escalation, both sides agreed to come to the negotiating table and the scenario was resolved through a cease-fire. Both Blue team and Red team felt that the cease-fire agreement would only be temporary, neither having fully achieved their objectives. However, the war game had successfully demonstrated the feasibility of waging a conventional war, with limited nuclear strikes for weeks on end, and successfully bringing that war to a close without mutual destruction.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.