Bottom Line: NATO expected to liberally use tactical nuclear weapons to slow the Soviet advance...
A RAND wargame several years ago on a potential Russian offensive into the Baltics brought talk of a “new Cold War” into sharp focus. The game made clear that NATO would struggle to prevent Russian forces from occupying the Baltics if it relied on the conventional forces now available.
These wargames have great value in demonstrating tactical and operational reality, which then informs broader strategic thinking. In this case, however, the headlines generated by the game have obscured more about the NATO-Russian relationship than they have revealed. In short, the NATO deterrent promise has never revolved around a commitment to defeat Soviet/Russian forces on NATO’s borders. Instead, NATO has backed its political commitment with the threat to broaden any conflict beyond the war that the Soviets wanted to fight. Today, as in 1949, NATO offers deterrence through the promise of escalation.
The Early Years
Let’s be utterly clear on this point; from the creation of NATO until the 1970s, Western military planners expected the Warsaw Pact to easily win a conventional war in Europe. Conventional warfighting plans by the major NATO powers often amounted, almost literally, to efforts to reach the English Channel just ahead of the tanks of the Red Army. NATO expected to liberally use tactical nuclear weapons to slow the Soviet advance, an action which would inevitably invite Soviet response (the Soviets also prepared for this dynamic).
The belief that NATO would lose a conventional conflict did nothing to contradict the notion that NATO could play a valuable role in deterring war. For one, NATO could certainly make things more difficult for the Soviet Union; overwhelming combined British-German-American forces would prove far more costly than defeating a West Germany that stood alone. Moreover, by triggering an expansion of the war NATO could create costs for the Soviets in other parts of the world. Overwhelming NATO superiority at sea and in long-range airpower would prove devastating for Soviet interests outside of Eurasia, even if the Soviets prevailed on the Central Front.