What would World War 3 actually look like?

Alexander Kislov
Humans will be far away from the front line, with machines taking over and fighting our battles for us. Meanwhile, the prospect of a devastating global nuclear war remains as high as ever.

The armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has aptly demonstrated what future warfare will look like, with its swarms of kamikaze drones constantly on their enemy’s tail. Their targets are tanks, anti-aircraft missile systems, various other weapons units and groups of soldiers. The entire process is streamed via video and uploaded online. 

It all takes place as if in a computer game, where each mission can be rehashed over and over to achieve better results. In fact, this has already become our new reality: man kills man without even looking him in the face. 


The proliferation of high-tech electronics and other cutting-edge technologies has had an immeasurable influence on the way we wage war. Conquering a country, installing a new regime - all of that is doable today, even without employing violence: it’s enough to activate the mechanism of a “color revolution” on social media and the people will go out onto the streets, demanding a power change. 

Similar hive-mind mechanisms can be employed on the battlefield. But there, they act first and foremost as a way to unify man and machine. At the annual ‘Amiya’ expo outside Moscow in August 2020, the Russian Ministry of Defense demonstrated for the first time a tablet-sized computer that acts as a modern command center for an entire artillery battery. Using encrypted channels, the miniature device links up to a central command system, receives maps of the terrain, reveals enemy positions and communicates with a whole array of field-based technologies. Meteorological complexes, ballistic stations - all of them ‘talk’ to the small tablet. The artillery commander only needs to use a stylus to point to the target on the touch screen and give the command to eliminate it. In the olden days, artillery operators would have to use a notepad, scribbling coordinates with a pencil. 

‘Tactical tablets’ come installed with all modern Russian tanks - the T-72B3, T-90MS and the T-14 ‘Armata’. They are also found in mobile artillery units - the ‘Msta-S’ and ‘Koalitsiya-SV’ and even aboard Russia’s bomber planes. The latter uses a system called SVP-24 ‘Gefest’. It links to a soldier on the ground, who keeps an eye on what’s going on in the sky. Similar to the artillery, tank and other operators, the soldier has a tablet. The difference is that he uses it not to receive - but to send instructions to the bomber. The screen tells him not only of the position of enemy units in the area, but also the weapons they’re carrying. Then it’s all a matter of - again - pressing a button, selecting the appropriate bomb for the task, sending the target’s coordinates and away we go. It is thanks to this system that the Russian SU-24 bombers were so effective in zeroing in on terrorist positions in Syria. 

Digital warfare is also about radio-electronic jamming of enemy systems. The Russian army boasts more than 18 versions of such systems: the ‘Krasukha’, ‘Borisoglebsk-2’, ‘Apurgit’, ‘Infauna’ and others. All of them are capable of both defending Russian equipment and soldiers from high-precision rockets and bombs and carry out attacks in ‘invisibility mode’. Meaning that all its users use radio comms and exchange data with machines in the field, while rendering enemy radar systems pointless in the process. The Krasukha system, for example, has been in use by the Russian Khmeimim Air Base in Syria since 2016. Not one enemy kamikaze drone has been able to get even close. 

An eye for an eye

Such dominance is, however, only possible in countering a technically inferior enemy. Nagorno-Karabakh is a case in point. The Azeri forces, armed with Turkish and Israeli drones were clearly superior to the lesser-equipped Armenian forces. 

But in case of a war between the powerful Moscow and Wasington, for example, in Syria, electronics and gadgets don’t really count. With both sides having access to field control systems and various robots, the conflict would quickly spiral into 20th-century classical ground warfare, using tanks and artillery, before an exchange in nuclear strikes begins. 

Americans themselves make this clear in ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ on NPR, published in February 2018. There, they outline clearly the methods they would use to counter Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. For such purposes, small-yield, 5-kiloton nuclear bombs would be used. While also employing ordinary tanks, artillery and tactical aviation, the aforementioned tactics would also prevent a local conflict from becoming a global one. For instance, by destroying an air carrier, or a strategically important or cultural object, before offering to sit down at the negotiating table and talk out a favorable peace deal. 

One of the signs of an unresolved non-nuclear conflict with a possibility of nuclear escalation may be the U.S. tactic of rolling out its armored brigade in Eastern Europe, as well as the delivery of F-16 Eurofighter and brand new F-35 Lightning squadrons to Poland and Finland.   

It’s not like Russia is taking all of that sitting down, either. In anticipation of a global conflict on its doorstep, Kaliningrad Region (the Russian semi-exclave in Western Europe) could get the tactical ‘Iskander-M’ complex, which uses 9M729 rockets. The area already contains Russian high-altitude MiG-31BM interceptors, which take the hypersonic ‘Kinzhal’ missiles. 

The fearsome and devastating Cold War-era cannons and mortars - the 203-mm 2S7M ‘Malka’ and the 240-mm mobile 2S4 ‘Tyulpan’ mortar - have been brought back from Russia’s reserves. In the past, they have been used to fire nuclear mines and it is those weapons that served to emphasize Soviet regional superiority on the border with Western Germany, putting on hold NATO plans of attacking the USSR.

Finally, President Vladimir Putin has signed off on Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy, which states in no uncertain terms that the Kremlin reserves the right to use nuclear weapons if serious threats to Russia bring about an escalation of tensions.

‘Dead Hand’

Despite that, there are no guarantees either player will hold back. Washginton recently backed out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which regulated the amount of equipment and manpower stationed on NATO’s borders with Russia. The same fate befell the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Now, the Americans can place their ‘Tomahawk’ cruise missiles in Poland and Romania. Russia, meanwhile, will threaten this deployment with its land attack ‘Kalibr’ 9M729 cruise missiles, stationed in Kaliningrad Region. 

There is, likewise, no more Treaty on Open Skies, which allowed Western and Russian militaries to perform aerial surveillance flights over the entire territory of the treaty’s signatories. 

The scariest part about all of this is that using ordinary arms by superpowers invariably leads to a spillover of local conflicts across borders. Put simply, they may result in a conflict where it’s impossible to defeat an enemy, without using much stronger weapons. Meanwhile, both sides of the Atlantic have more than enough devastating missiles for mutually assured destruction (MAD). But the interesting part is that they are all robotized, as well. 

At the latest meeting between Russia’s defense command and the military-industrial complex in mid-November 2020 in Sochi, Putin announced the near-completion of a state-of-the-art heavily defended nuclear force command center. The facility ups the ante in terms of the capability to analyze the situation in the field and more resistant to radio interference in the area of accurately relaying commands to use force, delivered between the various command centers and units stationed in the field, even if one sustains a nuclear attack. 

The West has likened the announcement to the Cold War-era ‘Perimeter’ system, also known as ‘Dead Hand’. It exists in case there’s a communication break between a head of state and the country’s strategic missile arsenal. In the event of this happening, the task will be taken over by artificial intelligence. The computer will launch rockets stationed across Russia’s territory using set coordinates.   

Warfare is being continuously digitized. The human element is being pushed further and further to the sidelines, taking on the role of spectator. The machines are taking over calculations, while the outcome of the battle often depends on land-based and airborne robots. Meanwhile, the prospect of conflict spillover leading to a global nuclear war annihilating all life on Earth remains dangerously high. 


The article was authored by the editor of an independent military publication 

If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.

Read more

This website uses cookies. Click here to find out more.

Accept cookies