The Third World War and Other Wars

The War of the Future in British Military Writing, 1945–1971

(last modified October 2007)

This study was completed in the summer of 2007 and is based on the analysis of a wide variety of British military journals and selected Ministry of Defence records from the end of World War II in 1945 to the conclusion of Britain’s almost complete retreat from overseas commitments and withdrawal of troops in 1971. This work is an integral part of a larger ongoing research project on the relationship between armed forces, war, and societies in the Cold War within the Research Unit: History and Theory of Violence that was begun in 2001. The project also discusses the relevance of conflict patterns like colonial/small/asymmetric war for Western armed forces in the modern era and thus, ultimately, the importance of such phenomena for an overall history of violence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The Cold War (1945–1989) had two faces. For the states of the Northern Hemisphere, it was an era of stable peace, overshadowed but also secured by the threat of nuclear annihilation. For the peoples of the Third World, it was neither stable nor peaceful. Collectively, they witnessed over 150 “hot” wars during this era. Many of these wars were bloody, protracted, and directly or indirectly a consequence of the bloc confrontation.
During the Cold War, the United Kingdom had a foot in both camps. In Europe, it was at the forefront of deterrence that saw to it that the bloc confrontation remained cold. The British Isles were considered NATO’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for a possible strategic air offensive against the Warsaw Pact states. With the British Army of the Rhine and the 2nd Tactical Air Force stationed in Germany, Britain made a significant contribution to the defense of Western Europe.
In the Third World, Britain was involved in more “hot” wars between 1945 and 1989 than any other country in the world. London was the heart of the world’s largest colonial empire (which after 1945 became, step by step, the Commonwealth). As such, it had a legal and/or moral obligation to contribute to the external and internal security of dependencies, former dependencies, and allies all over the world. The main threats to this security were—aside from the ethnic, social, and territorial conflicts so typical for the Third World—perceived or actual attempts at infiltration or subversion on the part of the Communist bloc states.

Politically, coping with the two faces of the Cold War was not a complex task. Both Communism and the Cold War were global threats and thus the response had to be global as well. The strategy foresaw containment of Communism; determined resistance, externally and domestically, against any threat of subversion or aggression; and raising standards of living so as to reduce the attraction of the Communist model. For the armed forces of Britain and the Empire-Commonwealth, however, the two faces were a considerable challenge: they resulted in a multitude of contradictory tasks.
1. The strategic nuclear forces were the backbone of deterrence, considered by all post-war British governments as the ultimate guarantee of national survival. The nuclear forces—first manned bombers, later land-based, and finally seaborne missiles—were permanently held in a high state of readiness. However, in keeping with their deterrent function, they were never actually used, and in fact they were quite useless for any other role than deterrence.
2. The Rhine Army and Royal Air Force Germany also had the primary task of deterring war. They achieved deterrence, however, by credibly demonstrating their readiness and ability to fight a Third World War. The confrontation with their potential enemy—the dreaded conventional forces of the eastern bloc—was to occur on the Northern German plain. Thus the British troops in Germany had to prepare for a fast-moving, highly intense, mechanized war of armored forces, backed up by tactical nuclear weapons.
3. As a consequence of the colonial past, internal security in (former) dependent territories was a core competence of Britain’s armed forces. Internal security called for infantry and occasionally armored cars; more importantly, it required time, patience, and an intimate knowledge of the local situation. Ideal were overseas garrisons with experienced troops, for here, people counted more than weapons.
4. “Hot” wars overseas (referred to by contemporaries as “limited wars”) comprised all sorts of conflicts that were neither internal security operations nor World War III but something in between. Limited war could mean defending Hong Kong against a hypothetical Chinese attack, invading Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956, or conducting a protracted counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya from 1948 to 1960. The tasks for the armed forces were as varied as the potential battlefields and the intensity of the potential conflicts. Limited war could call for a company or an army corps, employ Special Forces or tactical nuclear weapons, and the soldiers as well as their equipment had to be prepared for the jungle as well as for the desert, high mountains, or the polar circle.
5. In addition to this wide range of classic and modern military tasks, the situation was further complicated by the fact that the British armed forces perceived themselves as at the forefront of the political and ideological struggle of the Cold War. Therefore, they also had to be prepared for seemingly unsoldierly tasks like propaganda and psychological warfare against both the enemy without and the enemy within.

As a consequence of Britain’s social and economic development after 1945, the armed forces were forced to prepare for this wide range of tasks and contingencies with less and less means at their disposal. During the Cold War period, the portion of the United Kingdom’s Gross National Product spent on defense declined (except for a brief period of hectic rearmament during the Korean War from 1950–53). The total strength of the armed forces dropped from over 800,000 in the late 1940s to little more than 300,000 in the 1970s. Each successive round of defense budget cuts made the necessity to define the priorities of national defense more pressing. Thus the issue of the most accurate image of the next war (Kriegsbild) became ever more urgent—a reliable and accurate estimate of the likelihood, nature, shape, duration, and course of a future armed conflict that would define how to structure, arm, equip, and train the armed forces. Not only apparently simple questions depended on the accuracy of this assessment. Should the personal gear for a rifleman be suitable for tropical or arctic conditions? Was an armored car squadron more useful in Aden or in Bielefeld? The appropriate image of the next war also helped decide fundamental issues like the following: Did the country need new aircraft carriers costing hundreds of millions of pounds (and aircraft to match)? Or a strategic bomber base on an Indian Ocean island instead? Even the crucial question of regular versus conscript army was—at least for the British defense community—directly determined by the perceived nature of the next war.
The search for the most accurate image of future conflict was therefore anything but academic. It was of vital importance for the armed forces and for Britain’s defense policy, a sphere of politics that consumed between five and seven percent of the Gross National Product. Furthermore, it was a fundamental issue for the difficult relationship between society and the military during the Cold War. Armed forces could only justify their claim to a significant share of the country’s financial and personal resources if they could plausibly demonstrate that the conflict they were preparing for was relevant to society as a whole. Over the years, the military was forced to supply increasingly detailed justifications as to why that Britain’s national survival in the Cold War required tanks in Northern Germany, Special Forces on Borneo, cruisers in the Caribbean, and aircraft in Oman.