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Why the Future of History Still Matters

‘The only serious threat to regional security, including the existence and sovereignty of Estonia and other Baltic Sea states, emanates from Russia.’

Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service Annual Report, March 2019, p.2.

Conflict between East and West is nothing new, but a century has passed since the West committed albeit limited forces to fight the fledgling Red Army in Murmansk. The last war between east and west, the Cold War, came to an end in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The very real tensions felt during the Cold War had been considered a thing of the past but if this was the case, why would an open-source intelligence report from a NATO member, Estonia, be unequivocal about the threat still posed by Russia? Why would the British Chief of the General Staff claim that Russia posed a greater threat to national security than ISIS? The ‘what if’ scenario of a war with Russia is unthinkable, the consequences of such a conflict all too imaginable.

Yet in 1978, these events were brought to life in General Sir John Hackett’s Third World War, a ‘historical account of future events’ of 1985 When a Soviet incursion into Yugoslavia is followed a week later with an all-out attack by Warsaw Pact forces against NATO using both conventional forces and chemical weapons. Eventual stalemate on the battlefield allows Hackett to engineer a rather convenient NATO ‘victory’ involving a limited release of nuclear weapons followed closely by military and civil unrest that unpick the seams of the Warsaw Pact and ultimately a ceasefire.

Why read Hackett’s historical fiction?

Notwithstanding the fact that it sold an estimated three million copies, mention of Hackett’s Third World War to today’s generation of service personnel registers barely a flicker of recognition which is perfectly understandable. Yet these are the individuals who, after 15-plus years of counterinsurgency and air policing are having to wrestle with the concept of near-peer or peer-peer conflict. The aim of this paper is not to review Hackett’s work per se but to explore a number of themes that feature in his fictional account of near-future war with the Soviet Union that remain as relevant today as when they were first written, namely technology, readiness and resilience.

Before we look at some of those issues raised by Hackett, let us get the elephant in the room out of the way first. The Third World War is a work of fiction and over 40 years old. So why bother reading it? First and foremost, Hackett’s book is a good read; over 28 short and digestible chapters you are the ill-fated commander of a Sheridan tank or can eavesdrop into discussions on the air defence of Great Britain. The swirling narrative of battles that stretch from the North Atlantic to the plains of West Germany is both compelling and at the same time disturbing; disturbing in that they tell of a type of a visceral conflict that the West has not contemplated now for several decades but one that is coming back into sharp focus.

There are two other factors in its favour that make Hackett’s peer into the future more appealing than it may first appear.  Firstly, Third World War is not an isolated piece of ‘what if?’. It sits within a well-established genre of near future conflict that includes titles such as Chesney’s 1871 novella ‘The Battle of Dorking’ (an invasion of Britain by a German-speaking nation), HG Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’, and the more recent ‘Ghost Fleet’ from J.P. Singer and Lewis’ ‘2020 Commission Report’ detailing the nuclear attack on America by North Korea.1

Secondly, there is the author. Hackett served in the British Army for over 30 years, was wounded at Arnhem whist in command of 4 Parachute Brigade, became Commander 7th Armoured Division in 1956 and 10 years later was appointed Commander British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). Being ‘an army man’ of course does not bestow Hackett with any form of foresight or ability to predict the future. In October 1939, Captain Jimmy Kennedy (Royal Artillery) penned the immortal lines ‘We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line’; eight months later the British Expeditionary Force was being evacuated from France.  But Third World War is not the work of one man; the full title refers to Hackett as the author with a reference to ‘some others’ and its worth dwelling on who these ‘others’ were. Air  Chief Marshal Sir John Barrowclough (Vice Chief of Defence Staff), Sir Bernard Burrows (British Ambassador to NATO), Brigadier Kenneth Hunt (Deputy Director International Institute of Strategic Studies), Vice-Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch (Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland), Norman Macrae (Deputy Chief Editor, The Economist) and Major-General John Strawson (COS UK Land Forces). Not exactly a random collection of shadow writers. In his study of the book’s origins, Michaels describes the work as setting ‘the benchmark by which other future war scenarios continue to be judged’.2

Whilst still Commander BAOR, Hackett wrote a controversial letter to The Times criticizing the British Government’s apparent lack of concern over the strength of NATO forces in Europe.

His concern for the underinvestment in defence spending manifested itself in 1975 with the publication of Third World War. By setting the conflict in 1985, Hackett’s premise was that by the time his war had begun, the West had done ‘just enough’ to bolster its defences.

Despite Hackett’s fixation on conflict in Europe, as Freedman points out, the ‘war’ of 1985 does not come about by design but by coincidence and miscalculation; something Britain’s current military leadership would recognise and accept.3 In the Chief of the General Staff’s (CGS) first interview since taking up post, he echoed his words at the June 2018 Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Land Warfare Conference when he told the Daily Telegraph that Russia was now ‘indisputably a greater threat to the security of Britain and her allies than Islamist extremist group’.4 His predecessor in post, Lieutenant General Carter made much of Russia’s military capability as well as NATO’s need to commit to their Eastern flank. Neither were promoting conflict with Russia; Carter in particular was keen to stress the greatest danger lay with miscalculation or sub-Article V activity designed to undermine NATO credibility.5. The ‘grey zone’ eluded to in these speeches is being contested and Hackett’s inadvertent road to war still appears viable.      

Some things have moved on….

In terms of the Third World War’s longevity, several aspects have not stood the test of time. One of these aspects is technology which has clearly moved on. Today’s reader will also spot the omission of hybrid or cyber warfare – factors raised by CGS at his RUSI speech in January 2018.6 In Hackett’s defence, he does use the cutting-edge technology of its day. The use of electronic warfare is writ large across the air, land and sea domains and there is even a brief chapter covering the ‘War in Inner Space’. A stand-off missile battle also ensues in the Third World War but in a somewhat restrained manner largely using first generation weapons. The Tomahawk cruise missile does make an appearance as an emerging technology, but it is the navies and air forces of the Warsaw Pact that hold the advantage in this area. The book also pre-dates our current understanding of anti-area access denial (A2AD) but the NATO and Warsaw Pact SAM belts, as well as the UK’s Integrated Air Defence System play an important role in degrading opposing air forces; A2AD is nothing new.

Just as NATO has always relied on technology to defeat Soviet mass, it has also had to buy the time and space to mobilize its forces and to protect and assure the large-scale reinforcement across the Atlantic. Rather fortuitously, Hackett gives NATO ample time to prepare for war. Is our thinking and planning clear enough in 2019 to know when to apply a military response of this scale?   

In July 2018, NATO took significant steps to strengthen its readiness. They established a Joint Force Command for the Atlantic as well as a Joint Support and Enabling Command, based in Germany. Both aimed to ensure freedom of operation and the rapid movement of troops and equipment. The EU’s 2017 Military Mobility initiative also seeks to create the conditions for ‘a smooth, efficient and effective movement of military personnel and assets across and beyond the EU’. Whether the NATO and EU initiatives are complementary has yet to be seen but the interaction of these 2 organisations raises a moot point; in 1985 the Warsaw Pact encountered a resolute NATO. Forty years later, NATO no longer stands alone in European Defence. In 2015, seven NATO members joined forces with Sweden and Finland to form the Joint Expeditionary Force which is designed to complement NATO and support allies, such as the US, France, and Germany. In 2018, 10 nations also agreed to form the European Intervention Initiative, an organisation which purports to be ‘a flexible and non-binding forum of European states that are able, and willing, to engage their military forces when and where necessary in order to protect European security interests ’. The primacy of NATO appears to be being challenged and this at a time when the spending commitments of many of its nations have attracted criticism from the President of its largest and most powerful member.

…Some things haven’t

NATO’s second Readiness Initiative of 2018 was the Four Thirties: 30 air squadrons, 30 ships and 30 combat battalions, all to be available to fight within 30 days. Readiness costs, and to those who served during the Cold War, this commitment to generate high readiness forces is somewhat of an anathema. The author served for 2 years on the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force Land AMF(L); a very high readiness formation trained and equipped to fight on NATO’s flanks at the very outset of war. In addition to AMF(L), NATO’s northern flank could also expect reinforcements from the UK/Dutch Amphibious Force, the Canadian Air-Sea Transportable Brigade Group as well as the United States’ Norway Air-Land Marine Expedition Brigade. Today, NATO’s steps to assure readiness are centred on its rather sparse yet well-meaning Enhanced Forward Presence. The very fact that NATO is having to put ‘new’ structures into place to assure readiness reflects the position it finds itself in.

Resilience is another theme of Hackett’s work that is worthy of discussion in a twenty first century setting, particularly in areas where the UK Armed Forces locker appears to be rather on the empty side. There is the ability to survive and fight for prolonged periods whilst under chemical attack. The level of training for a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environment as well as the individual protection equipment is second to none. Yet the lack of collective protection means there is a gaping hole in the second and third lines of survivability in a persistent chemical environment. Hackett also places significant emphasis on the value of ground-based air defences (GBAD) to blunt Soviet aircraft and aviation as RAF Regiment Rapiers down Soviet aircraft as they attack RAF airbases in the UK. Today, GBAD dedicated to the air defence of Great Britain is no more; the medium-ranged Bloodhounds have long gone, and the remaining Rapiers are fielded by the Royal Artillery in Europe as well as the Falkland Islands. Airfields remain viable and vulnerable targets.

Resilience is also a factor for the RAF, and in particular its combat air assets. Hackett puts the losses suffered by aircraft conducting close air support missions at 50%; the figure is one of conjecture but the ability of air forces to take casualties, reconfigure themselves and remain combat effective is well made. Alongside losses, Hackett also cites battle damage and fatigue as contributing towards the erosion in NATO’s air capability. It is noticeable that the author allows the aircrew their rest. Hackett offers no such luxury to the groundcrew who at the time the novel was written, certainly for the RAF, would be present in sufficient strength to provide first and second line maintenance as well as a vital battle damage repair capability. In 1985, it was Hackett’s view is that the RAF was hard pressed to keep write-offs to a minimum and to return aircraft to the skies. The aircraft being damaged and repaired in Hackett’s war are third generation machines; they do not fly with very low observability flight surfaces and are not subject to contractor logistic support (CLS) regimes. CLS may win applause for its peacetime efficiency and value for money but it has yet to be tested in this type of conflict.

Weapon stocks

Another aspect of resilience that deserves closer examination is that of weapon stocks. In September 2011, when the RAF was conducting kinetic operations over Libya and Afghanistan, the RUSI claimed that stocks of the latest version of the Brimstone missile had reached single figures and this, coupled with a stock of weapons that were in Afghanistan but could not be used due a lack of servicing meant that the UK’s complex weapon supply chain was under severe pressure. In response, the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Dalton said the RAF had moved on from the ‘old days’ when they stockpiled weapons. New ways of contracting would assured access to ‘enough stock to meet what we think are the planning requirements in the early stages, and then we maintain a relationship with industry such that we can re-order weapons as required.’ In this instance, doing things differently and doing things better may have perilously close to mission failure. As other nations join the precision procession, let us hope that those supply pipelines are sufficiently robust to avoid single digit numbers in the future.

One thread of the December 2018 Modernising Defence Programme was to make the UK’s armed forces more lethal and within this it was announced that weapon stockpiles would be increased. The corresponding injection of just under £2 billion into Defence clearly goes some way to increasing resilience in this area but of course that big dollop of financial jam has to be spread across other equipment programmes and budgets and increasing a weapon stockpile is not a one-off event; it requires a long term commitment.  Any enhancement to stocks is likely to focus on the procurement of complex precision weapons where low yield and accuracy are paramount. When fighting ‘wars amongst the people’ this is quite right and proper. Hackett’s war, in contrast, is one of firepower where many weapon systems, such a cluster munitions and landmines, are used in large numbers to destroy or disrupt Warsaw Pact armoured formations. Signatories of the 1997 Ottawa Treaty agreed to remove these weapons from their armouries; America and Russia are not signatories, but most NATO members are. The ability to degrade and delay armoured formations with scatterable munitions or to channel them with minefields or indeed deny enemy airfield operations with time and motion sensitive bomblets is something that the West will have to do without.

The defence reviews of the 1990s that educed equipment and personnel numbers continued until 2010. A period of decline that was in part halted with SDSR 2015. As Ashcroft and Oakeshott argue, the MOD has recently shifted its focus away from numbers to concentrate on capability, but even this neat piece of military footwork cannot hide all the gaps.7. At a 2018 Defence Committee hearing, CDS listed a number of capability shortfalls that were worthy of investment: the air force being able to fight in contested air space and to operate from properly protected air bases, for the land environment it was air defence and to need re-capitalise some of the armoured fleets. These are capabilities that are writ large in Hackett’s 40 year old work of fiction. So, a work of fiction and a work of its time.

Cover photo is the Red Army October Revolution celebration in 1983. Courtesy of Thomas Hedden.

Phil Clare

Phil Clare is a former RAF Logistics Officer. He has over 30 years experience of single and joint service environments, as well as operational experience that spans Op GRANBY to HERRICK.



  1. As an aside, the war in Europe portrayed by Hackett formed the background to Harold Coyle’s highly successful 1987 novel of tactical ground combat, Team Yankee.
  2. Jeffrey H. Michaels, Revisiting General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, British Journal for Military History Vol 3, No 1 (2016).
  3. Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War A History. Penguin 2017, p.p.94-98.
  4. Interview with Major General Mark Carlton-Smith CBE ADC, Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2018.
  5. Dynamic Security Threats and the British Army, Lieutenant General Nick Carter CGS, RUSI 22 January 2018.
  6. Dynamic Security Threats, Carter, January 2018.
  7. M. Ashcroft and I. Oakeshott, White Flag, Biteback Publishing, 2018, p.8.

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