The Next War - NATO Defense Strategy

I played The Next War as NATO player for many times since 1980.

"Operation Attila" campaign is my first attempt on the Warsaw Pact side, and I must say it opened my eyes on the numerous weak points of the Soviet war machine and on several errors I think I've always made as NATO.

Some uneasy facts NATO must take into account

  1. Warsaw Pact WILL break through your line of accurately placed single brigades, no matter how good you think it is.
  2. Warsaw Pact WILL break through your line of powerful divisions, encircling them and leaving you without troops to fill the holes.
  3. Warsaw Pact WILL advance deeply into West Germany
  4. NATO air force WILL NOT make the difference in ground combat, except maybe in a couple of lucky situation where WP has few anti-air assets

Ok, so what should NATO do?

NATO chances to effectively resist depend on three points:
  1. Survive The Initial Shock
  2. Hit Where It Really Hurts
  3. Apply the Airland Battle Doctrine

1. Survive the Initial Shock

A campaign in "The Next War" has two completely different phases:
  • Phase 1 - the Soviet Juggernaut (Turn 1-3)
    WP is automatically supplied, NATO planes are useful only for slowing down movement and destroying airports
  • Phase 2 - the Socialist Inefficiency (Turn 4-End)
    WP supply needs Front Supply Heads, railroads and bridges. NATO planes interdict supply, bombard supply depots (FSH displacement) and destroy key bridges. WP troops must fight with limited ammo and fuel.
So, NATO must survive Phase 1, minimizing ground and air losses. 

The first step toward this goal is dropping  the "Forward Defense" plan.

"Forward Defense" has been the official NATO strategy during most of the cold war, primarily because it wasn't a good idea telling the Germans "in case of war, most of your country will be probably invaded by Communist forces."

Actually, if you read carefully above, that's exactly what is going to happen. The only real difference you can make is in the number of NATO brigades lost when (not if) Soviet forces will reach the Weser river.

What NATO should avoid is a front line battle, trying instead to focus on few key strategic points and keeping a "mobile battlefield", where there will be opportunities for local counterattacks aiming at the weak communication lines and not-so-willing satellite nations of Warsaw Pact.

2. Hit Where It Really Hurts

Despite the evident superiority on the ground, Warsaw Pact has several weak points that can be exploited, often with devastating effects:
  1. Supply system - major rivers
  2. Supply system - Front Supply Heads
  3. Supply system - key bridges
  4. Repair capacity
  5. City fights

1. Supply System - major rivers

One very important condition for supply is it cannot cross unbridged major rivers.

This means that in NORTHAG and SOUTHAG areas WP must secure one or more of the highlighted areas, depending on its planned axis of advance, otherwise its divisions will simply have to stop.

Major River Crossing along WP axis of advance

So, when NATO player must choose where to hold at all costs, he should choose one of those points.

Of course, WP could choose CENTAG for its main trust, where there are almost no major rivers. I've never seen it happens, probably for the following reasons:

  1. The strongest NATO forces are there, with a lot of artillery, helicopters and support units
  2. Too few victory points to take

2. Supply System - Front Supply Heads

After the first 3 turns of "automatic supply" (more on this later) WP supply system relies on Front Supply Heads.

WP must bring its Front Supply Heads forward, otherwise its supply chain will not work and the offensive will stop. And the movement capacity of a Front Supply Head is normally a whooping 4 movement points.

Here's where NATO air superiority can really be decisive.

Each successful air-to-ground attack on a Front Supply Heads will move it backward 5 hexes. Don't limit to a single attack, but force them to move back 10 or even 15 hexes with multiple attacks.

If Front Supply Heads are not able to move close enough to the front line, WP supply system will simply stop working.

3. Supply System - Key Bridges

After the first 3 turns of "automatic supply", WP supply system needs railroads and autobahns from the Front Supply Heads to the East map edge.

Major rivers can be crossed by supply only at bridges, therefore WP must protect a number of key bridges along Elbe river, otherwise its FSH will have no supply line.

Key Bridges on Elbe River

4. Repair Capacity

In campaign game, Warsaw Pact has 10 Repair Points every turn to repair bridges (3 RP) and airports (5 RP).

Considering that supply limitations practically force WP to repair destroyed bridges as soon as possible, NATO air force should take every possible opportunity to damage key bridges (see point 1 and 3 above) and airports. 

WP will be forced to spend its precious RP to adjust bridges, thus leaving its already few decent airports damaged and weakening its air coverage. This will allow NATO to have more airplanes for bridges and airports attacks, and so on.

5. City Fights

The only place where NATO has a good chance of holding off an attack is inside a city. Cities offer the following advantages:
  1. +3 to dice roll for defender
  2. No wave assault (adjacent divisions don't help attacker)
  3. No electronic warfare against the defender
  4. If attacker is not itself in a city hex, defender EW can be used
A single NATO brigade, in Hedgehog mode and with EW or artillery unit in support, is a tough nut to crack for the Soviets. Two NATO brigades are a real problem. 

On average, an attack against 2 brigades defending in city would have :
  • 2-1 combat ratio (4-1 if NATO EW didn't work and WP brings in at least 3 artillery regiments)
  • +5 modifiers for NATO (+3 for city, +2 for hedgehog)
This translate for WP in 0% success chance in the worst case (NATO EW working), and 36% in the best case (Artillery support and NATO EW not working). Even if WP is lucky, all it gets is a single step loss on NATO units, and its overall problem doesn't change much at the next attack.

Of course, it's more than possible that NATO defender will be encircled and bypassed, but:
  • NATO is considered in supply for the first 4 turns
  • At least 2 WP divisions are busy and not attacking forward
So, never ever give away cities without fighting; fortify with a decent support and don't worry about being encircled. For a perfect defense, include a mobile antiair unit to discourage WP helicopters ground support.

3. Apply The Airland Battle Doctrine

This last point depends heavily on the "Wild Weasels" optional rule, that I strongly suggest using to  have a more balanced game. Without Wild Weasels, NATO must rely on single Flak Suppression (SEAD) missions, and in most cases there will be simply too many WP flaks to achieve any result with acceptable losses. 

NATO has a variable number of F-4 in "Wild Weasel" configuration (3 at game start, up to 5 later) that can be used to create a sort of "Flak Suppression Area" with a range of 3 hexes.

NATO should use Wild Weasel missions to:
  1. Open up holes in WP rear areas, in order to strike strategic supply lines, bridges and airports.
  2. Create areas in critical front line sectors where its fixed and rotary wing planes will be able to support defense thanks to limited WP flak effectiveness. If well placed and timely executed, a single Wild Weasel mission can help stopping a whole WP army.

But despite all this....

The Next War is slightly (or heavily, depends on who's talking) in favor of Warsaw Pact. 

The game was designed at the peak of Cold War period, when NATO was probably in its worst shape. With the fall of Soviet Union, we have discovered that Warsaw Pact was probably much less powerful than we thought and its internal cohesion was far from perfect.

We used these new facts to review or rewrite some rules, and I strongly suggest everyone to do the same if you want a more balanced and realistic game:

No +2 modifier in division vs brigade atttacks

Size difference is already abstracted by unit strength - no need to further penalize the brigade.

No automatic WP supply in the first 3 turns

In the original rules, the 3 turns of automatic supply represents stockpiled ammo and food. 

Problem is exactly that, they are stockpiled - no WP division could advance 50 km per day carrying all that stuff, so the supply must be moved from the stockpile to the front units using the usual supply chain.

NATO situation is different, as its stockpiles are in the territory where its units are fighting - not 200 km away in East Germany.

Consequently, WP units must trace a standard supply line to a Headquarter, even during the first 3 turns of war.

No NO-ZOC marker on units attacked by SSM-delivered chemicals

This rule greatly exaggerate the effectiveness and reliability of Soviet Surface-to-Surface Missiles.
They were probably capable of delivering enough gas to force defender to adopt anti-NBC measures, but not enough to paralyze a whole mech brigade.

Reduced cadre rating for Warsaw Pact allies

The cadre rating for all non-Soviet units is reduced by one (except pilots).
Moreover, every time a non-Soviet unit attack results in something different from "D", the cadre is reverted to its original value (i.e., the unit loses its battle-tested "5" cadre).

Electronic Warfare

The original rules considered soviet EW equipment more reliable and simpler to use, making it more effective on the battlefield.

We now know better about lack of spare parts and maintenance in eastern bloc countries, so we modified as follows:
  • NATO EW works on a roll of 1-4
  • WP EW works on a roll of 1-3

Proposed NORTHAG Defense Setup

Of course this setup presumes the scenario played gives NATO enough time to move in position (not applicable in a "Sudden War" scenario).


  1. Excellent analysis; it reflects my clear memories of play forty years ago.

    1. thank you! on my side, years of playing and losing as NATO :)


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