Is The Fulda Gap Rhyming or Echoing?

Probable Axes of Attack of Warsaw Pact. Taken from Graham H. Turbiville, "Invasion in Europe--A Scenario," Army, November 1976, p. 19.

Probable Axes of Attack of Warsaw Pact. Taken from Graham H. Turbiville, “Invasion in Europe–A Scenario,” Army, November 1976, p. 19.

One of the great historical “what if’s” of recent memory was the imagined clash between the military forces of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in West Germany. This scenario – particularly a highly anticipated massive tank battle in the Fulda Gap on the north German plains – dominated the imaginations of U.S. military members, politicians, academics, strategic theorists, think tankers, and wargame nerds from the 1950s through the 1980s. Endless amounts of attention and effort were spent examining, debating, and thinking through a hypothetical war that seemed terribly real and imminent to so many at the time, but which also abruptly evaporated from the popular consciousness with the end of the Cold War in 1991. For many who came of age in the 1970s and 80s, however, merely mentioning the Fulda Gap evokes a collective nostalgic recollection of the prospect of a handful of plucky and resourceful NATO divisions battling it out with hordes of Soviet tank armies under the specter of global thermonuclear annihilation.

With this in mind, it has been rather fascinating to watch the unfolding debate over what is becoming an imagined clash between the military forces of the U.S.-led NATO and a resurgent Russia in Eastern Europe. Strategic analysts, doing what strategic analysts do, wargamed a hypothetical scenario involving a Russian invasion of the Baltic States and a NATO military intervention. The results of the wargame suggested that the current balance of forces highly favors the Russians.

So, what should we make of this? Well, the designers of the Baltic scenario wargame don’t want to scare anyone, but

It seems unlikely that Vladimir Putin intends to turn his guns on NATO any time soon. However, the consequences should he decide to do so are severe. Probably the best outcome — if the phrase has any meaning in this context — would be something like a new Cold War, with all the implications that bears. A war with Russia would be fraught with escalatory potential from the moment the first shot was fired; and generations born outside the shadow of nuclear Armageddon would suddenly be reintroduced to fears thought long dead and buried.

Wait, a new Cold War? Are you sure? Well, for some, the logic certainly points in a specific direction:

This means that the United States and its NATO allies need to be prepared for such an eventuality — and, better yet, prepared to such a degree that Moscow will recognize that pushing on the alliance will be too costly and risky to be worth trying. The U.S. defense budget request for next year (and accompanying commitments to further deployments in Europe), which is currently being used by the relevant House and Senate committees to inform their markups of the Fiscal Year 2017 defense authorization and appropriations bills, represents a major step forward in achieving this goal. It appropriately concentrates on the threat to U.S. and allied security posed by “great power” potential adversaries. It plusses up investments in key next-generation technologies in areas like space, unmanned systems, and cyber, while also preserving funding for the modernization of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. And it allocates $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative, while committing to reestablishing the permanent presence of an armored brigade combat team in Europe to strengthen the American posture there in the face of the most serious near-term threat to U.S. and allied interests — a resurgent and revisionist Russia.

For those of us old enough to remember, Baltic States is starting to sound an awful lot like Fulda Gap.

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About Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling. All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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