Key point: While both the Americans and the Soviets had, by the 1980s, come to the conclusion that a general war could remain conventional, it would far from certain.
Even before the guns fell silent in Europe in 1945, it became apparent to American and British planners that the Soviet Union would hold a massive advantage in land power along the Central front. In the early post-war years, Western planners hoped that nuclear weapons would keep the Soviets at bay. As the USSR’s own missile and nuclear programs accelerated, however, it became apparent that NATO (which came into existence in 1949) would need to come to some understanding of how to fight Warsaw Pact forces.
The Nuclear Option
During the 1950s and 1960s, NATO and the Warsaw Pact agreed about two things regarding combat on the Central front. First, Warsaw Pact forces would quickly overrun NATO forces, achieving rates of advance across Western Europe that exceeded even those of World War II. Second, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would make plentiful use of tactical nuclear weapons, both to break up enemy formations and also to pave the way for advancing forces.
Both of these assumptions began to break down in the early 1970s. On the first, the increasing strength of NATO land forces (especially American and German) suggested that Western armies might have something more to hope for than reaching the English Channel ahead of the Russians. Second, both sides became skeptical that conflict would necessarily result in the use of tactical nukes.
The Rise and Fall of Active Defense
The Yom Kippur War saw the first extensive use of precision-guided munitions in combat between conventional armies. The results were devastating; the Israelis, Egyptians, and Syrians all lost vehicles at far beyond the expected rate. Egyptian use of anti-tank missiles and surface-to-air missiles in Suez proved particularly troubling to the IDF.