Because the Kremlin has just revealed that it was ready to put its nuclear arsenal on high alert one year ago if the crisis around Crimea escalated, it makes sense to be reminded that nuclear weapons may be used and they are somewhat harmful.
As children, our generation was trained to be hysterically afraid of the nuclear war. Such a war would have to be blamed on the evil imperialists, the official story went, but of course, our camp of peace had to prepare an appropriate response, too. The global nuclear war was almost as popular a cataclysmic scenario as the "global warming" was in recent years.
I must say that even many of the anti-communist teachers we were happy to have were very afraid of the huge nuclear arsenals. One of the popular myths was that there were enough nuclear bombs in the world to break the globe into two comparably large bodies. At the basic school, I wasn't able to construct a clear order-of-magnitude calculation showing that it was nonsense – I clearly became able to construct similar arguments (and/or I only became familiar with the numbers needed as input) only many years later.
Would such nuclear confrontations lead to the end of the world? I think that the truth is somewhere in between. The cataclysmic prophesies were exaggerated but the damages would be far worse than those we know from the worst conventional wars. There is actually a lot of extra space between the Second World War and destruction of life on Earth!
In 2011, we were reminded about some war plans of the Warsaw Pact from years 1960-1964. Stalin was an evil man but the plans for a nuclear war between the two blocs became much more dramatic after his death and I think that they peaked sometime in the 1960s.
As the map above indicates, the Czechoslovak People's Army had a bold goal to conquer something like 1/3 of the West German territory in the first 8 days, and continue into France. The Czech army historians tell us that it was a rather ludicrous plan because even if we managed to break the West German defense – and a quadruple excess of power was probably needed for that and we didn't have it – it would become almost impossible to supply material to the troops through the destroyed German territory and the Czechoslovak army would probably cease to exist rather soon.
Also, it was expected that the large cities would be nuked. So there were plans to comprehensively evacuate something like 10 largest cities in Czechoslovakia – without this evacuation, the loss of the Czechoslovak population was estimated to be 10% within a day or two.
At the same moment, we should never be sure about the outcome. The Czechoslovak People's Army was supposed be supported by the Eighth Guards Army of the USSR which was among the victors of the Battle of Stalingrad as well as the Donbass strategic offensive operation (in 1943, not in 2014).
Yesterday, Technet.cz revealed some more interesting details – some of which could have made our victory more likely.
In 1964, the overall Warsaw Pact's strategy of the war was changed. They planned 41 nuclear blasts crippling the NATO facilities in West Germany and only after this significant reduction of strength, the Czechoslovak army was scheduled to invade and conquer its 1/3 of the West German territory. It's ambitious and optimistic – but one can't quite exclude that it could work.
On the other hand, all the clever defenses on the NATO side were largely ignored by this socialist war planning. These acts could completely change what the war looks like. The main new "NATO ace" we were told in the yesterday's article were the nuclear land mines that NATO was supposed to plant all over the West German territory on the border with East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
Look at this map. The legend explains that the shading indicates the number of groups of nuclear land mine basements per 100 squared kilometers. Each group contained about 3-6 basements.
The nuclear blasts performed by these nuclear land mines would create craters of diameter 100-400 meters and new mountains with slopes around 45 degrees which would greatly complicate the supplies for the Czechoslovak troops deeply in the German territory, and the arrival of other troops and weaponry. These blasts wouldn't end life in Germany. However, their impact would still be horrifying.
Many nice places in the Šumava Mountains (the Bohemian+Bavarian Forest) would be contaminated. There were lots of small towns and villages around the land mines. It would probably be impossible to evacuate them in time, so tens of thousands of German folks would be sacrificed.
The Czechoslovakia army "knew something" about these nuclear land mines and soldiers were actually trained to deactivate them and do similar things, using "training dummy nuclear land mines" (see the main components of those, another pic, diagram, one more). See an actual photograph from such a training during which a nuclear blast occurred.
This is what the wells for conventional Czechoslovak land mines look like. The assumption is that the German nuclear counterparts were similar; see also an approximate diagram. Here is a map of their supposed approximate locations. A special map shows the situation near Grafenau-Freyung. The nuclear land mines near Freyung were particularly close to highly populated areas.
The Czechoslovak army believed there were four such places near Bischofsreut, Bavaria. It wouldn't be pleasant for the troops from České Žleby to fight there.
The results would be dirty and mostly unpredictable
While one shouldn't believe in religiously fatal fairy-tales about the end of the life on Earth, such a conflict would be extremely dirty and its results would be largely unpredictable. Despite all the differences, both sides in the Cold War had sufficiently strong survival instincts to avoid the confrontation.
It seems that these days, too many people – both in the U.S. and Russia (and perhaps in other NATO countries) – are not afraid of such a conflict at all. I am terrified by their lack of fear. I think that if they are able to place their silly and childish anti-Russian or anti-Putin sentiments above the intent to avoid a nuclear confrontation that was planned 50 years ago, is still being planned, but can never be planned "reliably", they are close cousins of the suicide attackers in Al-Qaeda and similar organizations.
Such people shouldn't be top politicians or generals. They should be stored in psychiatric asylums because these threats are real and horrific.