If the Cold War Went Hot, the Skies of WW3 Would Look Like This

A pair of F-4C Phantoms in flight over Vietnam

The Cold War wasn’t really a “war,” but an intense era of conflict between Russia and the USA that lasted nearly 50 years.  Yet, there were several incidents that could have easily started an all out war between the 2 mega powers, arguably causing World War 3 based on political alliances as well.

There were at least five incidents which include a U-2 crossing the Soviet border in October 1962, a Soviet B-59 submarine lurking near a US blockage outside of Cuba, a computer glitch at NORAD in 1979, a false alarm in 1983 at a Soviet nuclear bunker, and the Able Archer Exercise in 1983, any of which could have triggered WW3.

Ignoring the use of nuclear weapons by both sides, which would have been catastrophic for the planet, what would have ensued next would have been a sky filled with electricity, fighter and bomber aircraft, and an aerial war and dogfighting like no one has seen before.

A Lockheed U-2S in flight
A Lockheed U-2S in flight

Whereas history is an objective fact, the joy of military history is that one can muse about what could have been. Even as terrible as such a conflict might have been. If the Cold War went hot in any of these incidents, this is what one could have expected to fill the skies of planet earth during this terrible conflict.

WW3 in the 1960’s

If the Cold War/WW3 was triggered by an event in the 1960’s, that air to air ballet would have taken place over the European skies with a flurry of Soviet flown Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) aircraft (MiG-17, 19, and possible 21) most likely facing off against F-100 Super Sabres and the “MiG killer” F-4C Phantoms.

MiG 17 in flight
MiG 17 in flight

These aircraft were no strangers to each other in Vietnam, actually facing off during the Vietnam War and both sides suffering losses, with each side claiming favorable kill ratios.  The MiGs onboard cannon offered a great early advantage, only to be overcome by the superior air to air (AIM) missiles used by the US.  The F-104 “Starfighter” could have made a cameo, just as it did in Vietnam, but would likely not have been used in aerial combat as it was in a deterrent to MiG interceptors in Vietnam.

Similarly to what actually happened in Vietnam, a “hot” Cold War would have erupted over the European skies and possible centralized over then divided Germany.  US/Allied forces would launch bomber escort aircraft from key strategic locations such as RAF Lakenheath (UK) as well as from the 39th Tactical Group in Turkey (Incirlik AB), with an ever increasing aircraft footprint in Spain.

A U.S. Air Force Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter (s/n 56-0761) in flight. Note that the aircraft is equipped with an in-flight refueling probe.
A U.S. Air Force Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter (s/n 56-0761) in flight. Note that the aircraft is equipped with an in-flight refueling probe.

Which served the US very well during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Given Moscow’s proximity to those strategic hubs operated mainly by the US, the Soviets would take their airpower as far west as possible, and US and Allied forces would have to get through a Soviet wall of airspace in current day Poland, Ukraine airspace filled with more than capable MiG aircraft.

WW3 in the 1980’s

In the later years of the Cold War, the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea would have been a military playground like no other, given the range and strike capability of aircraft in service at that time.  The Alaskan horizon would have been filled with F-14 Tomcats, F-15Cs, F-16s, and F/A-18’s versus an assortment of Soviet MiG/Sukhoi aircraft that would have rivaled a heavyweight boxing match.

Forget lions and tigers and bears when you have Eagles, Vipers, and Hornets versus Floggers, Foxbats, Flankers, and Flagons.  High speed bombers like the B1-B and F-117, along with fighter escorts, surely would have made it through to the Russian motherland to strike key targets, while Tupolev bombers may have reached American soil, certainly, a few Tu-160s would wreck European lands with its 89,000lb ordinance capacity including various Russian cruise missiles.

Tupolev Tu-160 in flight over Russia (May 2014)
Tupolev Tu-160 in flight over Russia (May 2014)

Read another story from us: MiG-19 – 1st Soviet Supersonic Fighter

The world would have never seen such an aerial display of force, one that would be something to marvel at and certainly a large chapter in the history books between 2 aeronautical juggernauts.  But that choreography of US-USSR fighter jets and dogfighting would come at a large cost with the amount of carnage on both sides, including body count and aircraft destruction.

While we’ll never know the outcome, this is likely a scenario Pentagon wargamers have played out over the decades. Meanwhile, students of history are left to hypothesize the air war that could have been but never was.

Benjamin Roy

Benjamin Roy is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE