World War III

World War III

World War III (WWIII, WW3 or the Third World War) is a hypothetical worldwide conflict following World War II. The most common scenario, an imagined nuclear war between the superpowers, the United States of America and Russia, is widely used as a premise or plot device in books, films, television productions, and video games. However, some writers have applied the term instead 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 as the "war to end all wars" and 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 (1945–1991) and the use of nuclear weapons, the likelihood of a third global conflict became more accepted. It was anticipated and planned for by military and civil authorities in many countries. Scenarios ranged from conventional warfare, to limited or total nuclear warfare leading to the destruction of civilization.


  • Homeland security and civil defence plans 1
    • Continuity of government 1.1
      • United States 1.1.1
      • Russian Federation 1.1.2
      • United Kingdom 1.1.3
      • France 1.1.4
      • Sweden 1.1.5
    • Emergency communications 1.2
      • HANDEL 1.2.1
      • Emergency Alert System 1.2.2
    • Emergency laws 1.3
  • Military plans 2
    • Seven Days to the River Rhine 2.1
    • Operation Chrome Dome 2.2
    • Operation Unthinkable 2.3
    • Operation Behemoth 2.4
    • Operation Strikeback 2.5
    • Operation Deep Water 2.6
    • Plan Totality 2.7
    • Exercise Square Leg 2.8
    • Exercise Swarmer 2.9
    • Exercise Internal Look 2.10
    • Exercise Reforger 2.11
    • Exercise Totskoye 2.12
    • Exercises Grand Slam, Longstep, and Mainbrace 2.13
    • NATO nuclear sharing 2.14
    • Exercise Able Archer 2.15
    • Desert Rock exercises 2.16
    • Letters of last resort 2.17
    • France's Warning Shot 2.18
    • Strategic Defense Initiative 2.19
  • Historical close calls 3
  • World War III as past or present tense 4
  • Fiction 5
    • Books 5.1
    • Movies 5.2
    • Video games 5.3
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8

Homeland security and civil defence plans

FEMA-estimated primary counterforce targets for Soviet ICBMs. The resulting fall-out is indicated, with the darkest zones considered "lethal."[1]

Continuity of government

Given the likelihood that any third world war could escalate to (or even begin with) a nuclear exchange, from the early days of the cold war it has been considered vital that countries which are potential targets for nuclear attack have a continuity of government (COG) plan in place, to ensure an orderly and clear line of succession in the event the head of state or government is killed in an attack.

United States

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 activate, if a situation arises where they are needed. For obvious reasons, information on COG sites is classified, the below list is only what the press have managed to unearth over the years, and is by no means complete:

Russian Federation

Map of the Metro-2 system as supposed by the United States military intelligence in 1991.[2]

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 Russians 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.[2] Another alleged subterranean destination, apart from the aforementioned underground town at Ramenki/Moscow State University is Vnukovo-2 airport.[3] Despite official Russian state ambiguity, it is speculated that many of the Moscow bunkers are linked by an underground railway line.

United Kingdom

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 Centre d'Opération des Forces Aériennes Stratégiques (COFAS) is a hardened command centre 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 SSBN fleet, is at Houilles, Yvelines.


Cutaway sketch of the complete Klara Skyddsrum Shelter, Sweden.
1 T-Centre Metro Station.
2 Drottninggatan ("Queen Street") entrance.
3 Vasagatan entrance.
4 Car ramp.
5 Powerhouse and machine room.
6 Shelters.
7 Elevator.

During the Cold War, the Klara skyddsrum ("Complete shelter" or "Klara bunker") was built underneath Stockholm. 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 peace time, parts of it are used as a parking garage.

Emergency communications

Many 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 UK'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 back-up if anything failed. If an enemy air strike was detected, a key on the left hand 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, 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.

Emergency laws

Most 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.

Military plans

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:

Seven Days to the River Rhine

A Warsaw Pact invasion would have come via three main paths through Germany

Seven Days to the River Rhine was a top secret military simulation exercise developed in 1979 by the Warsaw Pact. It planned for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, 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. 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. The plan envisioned Warsaw Pact troops marching over the nuclear wastelands of Germany, the USSR getting the maximum use out of them before they died of radiation sickness. 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.

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.

Operation Unthinkable

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.[4] Its primary goal was "to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire".[5] The plan was rejected by the British Chiefs of Staff Committee as militarily unfeasible.

Operation Behemoth

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.

Operation Strikeback

This was a major NATO naval exercise held in 1952, 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".[6]

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.[7]

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.
Carrier strike groups will be central players in any major Third World War, although their effectiveness against ballistic missile threats is much debated in military circles. Previous plans for WWIII such as Operation Deep Water and Operation Strikeback have given carrier groups a central role.

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.[8][9][10][11]

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 take the steam out of their war economy.

Plan Totality

"Plan Totality" was a nuclear plan established by US General Dwight D. Eisenhower on the direction of President Harry S. Truman after the end of Potsdam Conference.

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.[12]

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 Swarmer

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.[7] The counterattack involved establishing an airhead, involving over six hundred transport and fighter aircraft,[13] and airdrops of over 3900 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and the 11th Airborne Division.[14]

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.

Exercise Reforger

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.
If activated, Operation Reforger would have largely consisted of convoys like this one from Operation Earnest Will in 1987, though much larger. While troops could easily fly across the Atlantic, the heavy equipment and armor reinforcements would have to come by sea.

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.

Exercise Totskoye

The "Totskoye nuclear exercise" was a Totskoye village in Orenburg Oblast, Russia, in the South Ural Military District.[17]

The test was designed as proof of a new Soviet nuclear war could not be won by any of its participants.

Exercises Grand Slam, Longstep, and Mainbrace

In January 1950, the 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 USSR called the exercises "war-like acts" by NATO, with particular reference to the participation of Norway and Denmark, while the USSR was preparing for its own military manoeuvres in the Soviet Zone.[21][22]

NATO nuclear sharing

NATO operational plans for a third world war have involved NATO allies who do not have their own nuclear weapons, using US nuclear weapons 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, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey are still hosting US nuclear weapons as part of NATO's nuclear sharing policy.[23][24] Canada hosted weapons until 1984,[25] and Greece until 2001.[23][26] 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.[23]

As of 2005, 180 tactical B61 nuclear bombs of the 480 US nuclear weapons believed to be deployed in Europe fall under the nuclear sharing arrangement.[27] 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.[28]

Exercise Able Archer

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky, who later told the west how close the Able Archer 83 exercise had brought the Soviets to ordering a First Strike.

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 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.[29]

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.[29][30][31][32] In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert.[33][34] 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.[35] The threat of nuclear war ended with the conclusion of the exercise on 11 November.[36][37]

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 manoeuvres and operations on the nuclear battlefield. They included observer programs, tactical manoeuvres, and damage effects tests.

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 or Australia 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 they so far have all been destroyed unopened at the end of each Prime Minister's term.

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.

Strategic Defense Initiative

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was proposed by US President Ronald Reagan on 23 March 1983,.[38] 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 United States Department of Defense to oversee the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Historical close calls

A US Navy HSS-1 Seabat helicopter hovers over Soviet submarine B-59, forced to the surface by US Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba. B-59 had a nuclear torpedo on board, three officer keys were required to use it. Only one dissent prevented the submarine from attacking the US fleet nearby, a spark that would certainly have led to a third world war. (October 28–29, 1962)

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."[39] He repeated this belief on ABC Evening News while reporting on the USS Pueblo incident in 1968.[40]
  • 15–28 October 1962: The Cuban missile crisis, a confrontation on the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, is often 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.[41] The superpowers had been pushed to the brink of war.[42][43]
  • 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).[44][45]
  • 25 January 1995: The Norwegian rocket incident occurs when the radar signature of a Black Brant XII research rocket being jointly launched by Norwegian and US scientists from Andøya Rocket Range is 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.[46][47]

World War III as past or present tense

The idea of World War III being either past or present tense is a divisive issue among followers of current events. Norman Podhoretz has suggested that the Cold War can be identified as World War III[48] 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."[49]

But this view of the Cold War as World War III is not universally shared. Other people, who disagree with both Podhoretz and Cohen, have claimed that the world has changed, that war has changed, and thus that World War III will not be a conventional or even nuclear war, as had been imagined in the Cold War.

Some claim that the "War on Terrorism" is World War III, with the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City on Tuesday, 11 September 2001 having been the 'Pearl Harbor' that dragged the United States into a terrorism fight, as the UK and Israel were already fighting, in a similar way to World War II.

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."[50]


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, depicting a post-apocalyptic Russia following a violent nuclear exchange between all of the major countries in the world. The former book spawned a video game counterpart; the latter did not.
  • Red Army, by Ralph Peters, showing a Soviet invasion of Western Europe from an entirely Soviet perspective. The only World War III novel where there is no Western victory (excluding Hackett's alternate ending).
  • NATO forces following an Islamic terrorist attack on a Soviet oil facility, which cripples Soviet oil production and threatens their economy.
  • The Sum of All Fears, where Islamic terrorists plan to ignite a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • The Third World War, by Humphrey Hawksley, which 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, which 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.
  • Tom Clancy's EndWar, based on the video game of the same name.
  • Trinity's Child, by William Prochnau, which portrays a sudden nuclear attack by the USSR upon the United States, followed by an eruption of global warfare. This book was highly acclaimed and is considered a "must-read" by readers of the genre.


  • Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, where 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.
  • Red Dawn, a 1984 film by John Milius, where the Soviet Union, assisted by Cuban and Nicaraguan allies, invades the United States.
  • Red Dawn (2012 film) is a remake of the 1984 film, set in the 21st century where an increasingly militant North Korea invades and occupies America, with the support of an ultranationalist Russia. The original draft involved China as the aggressor, but was altered in order to maintain access to the Chinese box office.
  • The Sum of All Fears (film), based on Tom Clancy's best-selling novel of the same name. Rather than Islamic terrorists, the script involved neo-Nazis who wish to transform Europe into a fascist superstate.

Video games

  • Battlefield 2, a 2005 video game set in a (then-futuristic) 2007 where the United States, European Union, and (to some extent) Russia are at war against China and the newly formed Middle Eastern Coalition.
  • Battlefield 3, which loosely follows the plot of The Sum of All Fears, where Iranian terrorists plan to detonate nuclear devices in both Paris, France and New York City in order to spark a war between the US and Russia.
  • Battlefield 4, set six years after the events of the previous game in 2020, the game's plot involves a rogue Chinese admiral who plans to subjugate the country under his rule and ally with Russia in the ongoing war with the United States. The multiplayer has a three-way war between the three factions.
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where an ultranationalist Russia invades and declares war upon the United States following a false flag terrorist attack in a Russian airport. Although not a third world war in its own right, the war precipitates a larger conflict as shown in the sequel.
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, where the Russo-American War of the previous game expands throughout Europe after a series of chemical attacks on all European capitals and major cities.
  • Fallout, set in a post-apocalyptic world in the aftermath of a Sino-American war and eventual nuclear exchange.
  • Frontlines: Fuel of War, set in a dystopian 2024 where the last remaining oil reserves in the world are been contested over between the Western Coalition, consisting of NATO and their closest allies, and the Red Star Alliance, consisting of Russia, China, and their allies.
  • Half-Life 2, a dystopian society where an alien empire called Combine overpowers Earth's combined military in a 7-hour war, during which 6 billion humans die, and the alien invaders annex Earth.
  • Homefront, a 2011 video game based on the original Red Dawn, where Kim Jong-un successfully reunites the Koreas and transforms them into a technologically advanced superpower that is able to invade an already-weakened United States. The ending credits for the game foretell a possible intervention by the European Union. Much like the 2012 remake of Red Dawn, the enemy was originally planned to be China.
  • Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, based on the novels by Dmitry Glukhovsky. As seen in a trailer for Last Light, it appears that the war broke out due to a nuclear exchange between two unidentified Middle Eastern countries and eventually consumed the globe.
  • Tom Clancy's EndWar, set in 2020, four years after a nuclear holocaust in the Middle East, where a third world war breaks out between the United States, Russia, and a newly federated Europe.
  • World in Conflict and its expansion, Soviet Assault, feature an alternate 1989 where, instead of collapsing due to internal and economic failures, the Soviet Union pursues a course of war among the United States and NATO to remain intact.

See also


  1. ^ Continental US Fallout Pattern for Prevailing Winds (FEMA-196/September 1990)
  2. ^ a b  
  3. ^ "Global Security. Secrets 'Metro'-Style Source Cited on 'Nuclear Bunkers,' Subway Links Claim Moscow Kuranty in Russian No. 17, 30 Apr-6 May 97 p 11". 
  4. ^ (English) Jonathan Walker (2013). Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War.  
  5. ^ British War Cabinet,  
  6. ^  
  7. ^ a b Time Inc (1957-10-07). LIFE. Time Inc. p. 56. 
  8. ^ "Emergency Call".  
  9. ^ "All Ashore".  
  10. ^ S. Filshtinsky (1957). "NATO Autumn Manoeuvres". International Affairs (Minneapolis-Moscow, USA-Russia) 11 (3): 96–97. Retrieved 2011-09-22. 
  11. ^ "Pocono".  
  12. ^ Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod, "To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon's Secret War Plans", Boston, South End Press, 1987, pp. 30-31.
  13. ^ Newsweek, Volume 35, Issues 14-26.
  14. ^ Hagerman 1997, p. 379.
  15. ^ Totskyoe exercise. Measures of safety (Russian) by Sergei Markov
  16. ^ Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), an official newspaper of Russian Ministry of Defense, and Literaturnaya Gazeta
  17. ^ "Fifty five years ago Zhokov tested nuclear weapons on people (Russian) This link provides old video records of the actual nuclear exercise." (in Russian). 2009-09-20. Retrieved 2011-03-05. 
  18. ^ Lord Ismay. "Chapter 3 - The Pace Quickens". NATO the first five years 1949-1954.  
  19. ^ "Chapter 4 - The Pace Quickens". NATO the first five years 1949-1954.  
  20. ^  
  21. ^ Time, 29 September 1952
  22. ^ "NATO Ships Enter Baltic Sea" - Sydney Morning Herald, p. 2
  23. ^ a b c Malcolm Chalmers and Simon Lunn (March 2010), NATO’s Tactical Nuclear Dilemma,  
  24. ^ (2009-04-10)Foreign Minister Wants US Nukes out of GermanyDer Spiegel:
  25. ^ John Clearwater (1998), Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada's Cold War Arsenal, Dundurn Press Ltd,  
  26. ^  
  27. ^  
  28. ^ Hans M. Kristensen (5 October 2007). "U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe After the Cold War". Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved 10 August 2013. 
  29. ^ a b Benjamin B. Fischer (2007-03-17). "A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare".  
  30. ^ Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions, 85–7.
  31. ^ Beth Fischer, Reagan Reversal, 123, 131.
  32. ^ Pry, War Scare, 37–9.
  33. ^ Oberdorfer, A New Era, 66.
  34. ^ SNIE 11–10–84 "Implications of Recent Soviet Military-Political Activities" Central Intelligence Agency, 18 May 1984.
  35. ^  
  36. ^ Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions, 87–8.
  37. ^ Pry, War Scare, 43–4.
  38. ^ Federation of American Scientists. Missile Defense Milestones. Accessed 10 March 2006.
  39. ^ Downs, Bill (March 1951). "World War III in Asia?". See Magazine. 
  40. ^ Downs, Bill (25 January 1968). "The USS Pueblo incident". ABC Evening News with Bob Young. ABC Evening News. Retrieved 8 November 2013. 
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^ Hoffman, David (10 February 1999). "I Had A Funny Feeling in My Gut". Washington Post. 
  45. ^ Shane, Scott. "Cold War's Riskiest Moment". Baltimore Sun, 31 August 2003 (article reprinted as The Nuclear War That Almost Happened in 1983). 
  46. ^ "January 25, 1995--The Norwegian Rocket Incident". United States European Command. 23 January 2012. Archived from the original on 21 September 2012. 
  47. ^ Hoffman, David (15 March 1998). "Cold-War Doctrines Refuse to Die". Washington Post Foreign Service. 
  48. ^ World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to WinNorman Podhoretz:
  49. ^ World War III? | – Canada – Features. Retrieved on 26 December 2011.
  50. ^ Right-wing media divided: Is U.S. now in World War III, IV, or V? | Media Matters for America. (14 July 2006). Retrieved on 26 December 2011.

Further reading

  • Langford, David (1981). War in 2080 : the future of military technology. London: Sphere Books.  
  • Pamidi, G.G. (2012). Possibility of a nuclear war in Asia : an Indian perspective. New Delhi: United Service Institution of India : Vij Books India.