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World War III

Might Look Like
By George Friedman

What World War III

Might Look Like
By George Friedman

On Sept 26, we released a documentary on the possibility of World War III occurring in the
coming years. I made three arguments.
First, the general pattern in Eurasia today broadly resembles the way Eurasia looked prior to
World War II. Second, I argued that we are already seeing regional wars, some intense. Finally, I
said that while an integrated war like World War II might occur, it is not by any means a certainty.
Thats my view, but it is worth going to the extreme and thinking about how such a war
might come about and what it would look like. This is speculation on my part, but sometimes
speculation can trigger thoughtful discussion and generate new scenarios and new ideas.
Lets assume, for arguments sake, that the broad pattern would resemble World War II.

World War III Origins

World War II did not begin in Europe. It began in Asia when Japan invaded China. The United
States became involved on the margins, supporting the Chinese regime. It sent supplies and
gunboats to patrol the rivers and ultimately set sanctions against Japan, which threatened its
economic survival. Those sanctions led to Pearl Harbor (after the war in Europe had already
broken out).
Following this pattern, the next world war would begin in Asia and begin modestly. Chinas access
to global sea lanes is blocked by a ring of small islands. China, concerned about an American
blockade, would become more aggressiveseizing some of the smaller islands and supporting
insurgencies in the Philippines and Indonesia.This would open the door to the Pacific for them.
The United States would fear that an uncontained Chinese navy might block the Strait of Malacca
at Singapore. This would block US access to the Middle East from the Pacific and cut the supply of
oil to Japan, a US ally. The US would respond by positioning the US Navy aggressively and sending
counterinsurgency troops to stabilize the Philippines and Indonesia.

What World War III Might Look Like

US and China at War

The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is not large enough or sophisticated enough
to challenge the US Navy in solely sea-based combat. Thats why the PLAN has a large network
of land-based anti-ship missiles, as well as an air force that can launch anti-ship missiles from a
For these to work, however, the Chinese need real-time data on US ship locations. Satellites and
unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are needed for this mission. Therefore, the United States has to
do two things.
First, it must destroy or degrade the data flowing from these satellites and UAVs to Chinese
command centers. This would involve shooting down UAVs, destroying satellites, and conducting
cyber and electronic warfare.
At the same time, the US, aware that this would retard a Chinese attack but not eliminate it,
would rapidly move to air and missile strikes on Chinese anti-ship missiles to reduce the threat to
naval forces.
The Chinese, anticipating a preemptive attack by the Americans, would proceed to launch their
anti-ship missiles with available targeting material. The Chinese and Americans would wage a
battle stretching from Chinese bunkers into space.
The US could not go ashore and face Chinese manpower. China cant engage the United States
Navy or its space-based assets. So it would become an extended conflict.

Europes Disintegration
During this time, Europe will be destabilizing. NATO will be weakened now that the US is engaged
in Asia and diverting forces there. The EU will have been fragmenting for a long time. Nationalist
political parties will be taking power and their goal will be to protect the interests of their own
nation, not Europe as a whole.
There will be small conflicts in Europe. The disintegration of the EU and the weakness of NATO
will allow conflicts within and between nations to operate unchecked. Germany, the major power
in Europe, will have its own economic and social problems, and given its history, will not be
allowed to play the role of occupier and peacemaker.

What World War III Might Look Like

Russia will also be in an intensely difficult economic situation. The price of oil, remaining low, will
undermine Moscows ability to support economic life, particularly outside of Moscow and St.
Petersburg. But Russia is at its most determined when poor.
It was impoverished when it defeated Hitler. It was impoverished when it attacked Germany at
the beginning of World War I. It was impoverished when it defeated Napoleon. In most countries,
strong economies are necessary to wage war. Historically, thats not the case with Russia.

Window of Opportunity for Russia

With the United States seemingly bogged down with war in Asia, Russia would see an
opportunity to achieve two things. First, it could build relations with European countries that
could strengthen its economy. Second, considering the weakness and fragmentation of Europe, it
could selectively extend its military influence.
There would be relatively little to block Russia. It would use a combination of military action and
offers of economic cooperation to solve some of its economic problems while neutralizing any
hostile forces in Europe.
Attacks along a line ranging from Romania to the Baltics would not bring Western Europe
rushing to Eastern Europes aid. Nor would the US be in a position to immediately counter Russia.
Various countries (such as Germany, France, and Italy) would see a war with Russia as pointless.
Russian actions to their east would not threaten their interests, and they lack the force and will
to counter Russia regardless of their views. These European countries would see that Russia was
the dominant military power.
Lacking military options, they would try to use Russias economic weakness to stabilize their
economies. Nationalist governments in Europe would not be eager to come to each others
aid. With each country pursuing its own interests, those farther away from Russia would see
opportunities in trade trade that Russia would be happy to provide at a discount (in spite of its
economic problems) in return for an agreement to not enter into a military coalition.

Emergence of Russia-Europe Alliance

The United States then would face the strategic problem that has haunted it since 1914. The
foundation of American national security is its control of the seas. North America could only be
threatened by an enemy with a massive naval force.

What World War III Might Look Like

This is why the United States would face Chinato prevent the Chinese navy from challenging
the US in the Pacific. The best way to defeat an enemy navy is to keep it from being built. And so
long as Eurasia is fragmented and fighting itself, it has no resources to build such a navy the US
is secure.
But the increasing cooperation between major European powers and Russia would raise the
specter of an alliance. This alliance would be the major European force. It could combine Russian
raw materials and European technology.
The US would see this as a potential existential challenge. In World War II, Japan was a problem,
but Germany, dominating Europe and controlling the British and French navies, was a nightmare.
In this scenario, the Chinese would be a problem, but the political evolution in Europe could lead
to a nightmare.
The US fought the two world wars and the Cold War to prevent this threat. Now, it is appearing

The US Response: Anti-Russian Coalition

The difficulty the US has in all wars is that most take place in the Eastern Hemisphere. It takes
time to deploy a major force there, and it is difficult to supply the force. The US, therefore, tries to
fight wars in coalitions with nations already there those that have similar political interests and
require material support. In the end, the US might put major force in place, but it would begin by
supporting resisting countries.
The Russian move into the former Eastern Europe would not be a lightning strike. These
countries are equipped to fight and are motivated. The first move the United States would make
is to rush supplies to these countries.
The Russians are also not built for lightning war. As we saw in both world wars, they try to grind
their enemy down. The Soviets did not strike in the Cold War because they lacked the ability to
move rapidly. This bought the US the time it needed.
Countries would respond to action by the US in different ways. Some would be appalled that
the United States is undermining what they see as a satisfactory solution to their problem. They
would want a deal with Russia, and the Americans would be opening the door to war.

What World War III Might Look Like

Other countries would be relieved that the United States was prepared to underwrite an antiRussian coalition in Europe. The US would have to move carefully in the European political chaos,
but it would have no choice.
The US would ship armor to the Eastern countries through the Denmark Strait, and more
important, it would move large numbers of aircraft into position to impose attrition on any
Russian advance.
The American expectation would be that when the Russians see that the US is involved, they
would retreat. But the Russian view is that if they give the Americans time to execute the kind of
buildup they are capable of, the US would break them.
Time is not on their side, so they would go into grinding mode, pushing westward, postponing
grand economic plans until the end of the war.
The war would go well for the Russians. But that would trigger a massive mobilization in the
United States. In due course, Europe would become a battleground between the US and Russia.

Turkeys Chance
As all this is happening, Turkey, the leading Islamic country, would be alarmed and intrigued. If
the Russians were to win the war, Turkeys position would be weakened, and it might be forced to
submit to Russia.
But with Russia absorbed in Europe and the US fighting a global war on two fronts, Turkey would
see intriguing possibilities. It could exert its influence in the Arab world, controlling its oil. Or it
could gain a foothold in Europe in the Balkans. It could also turn the Mediterranean into a Turkish
No one would be in a position to block Turkey, and there would never be a better chance of
enhancing Turkish and Muslim power. Turkeys position would be unassailable no matter who
won the war between Russia and the US.
All wars have surprising outcomes, and how all this ends is a guess. A good guess would be that
Turkey would seek to secure its rear by exerting its force over the Arab world. It would use its
own forces as little as possible. Turkey would use alliances plus limited force to make certain that
no threats emerge in that region, and it would watch for the outcome of the other conflicts that
are raging.

What World War III Might Look Like

Time Will Tell

Remember, this is all speculation and not prediction. The specific battles and weapons are not
the point, except for one. There will be no nuclear weapons used. Even tactical nuclear weapons
approach the size of Hiroshima.
It is true that totally occupying a nuclear power is unlikely because in that extreme case, the
country might use nuclear weapons. However, it is hard to define a military mission for nuclear
They are effective as terror weapons, deterring other countries from acting in certain ways, but
once used against a nuclear power, the likely response is not surrender but counterattack.
Since politicians seek power and not personal annihilation, I will argue that the reason that no
nuclear weapons have been used since Japan (even as nations were losing wars) is that they are
not very useful. This is a controversial point, but in a work of speculation, I will make it.
What is not speculation is that in every century, the world has seen systemic wars in which all
major powers were drawn in. I will bet that the 21st century will be no different.
That does not mean that this situation will lead to a single integrated world war. True, Eurasia is
having various crises, and some have started interacting. But it does not mean it will go where
I have speculated. But its also not impossible. All this is an intellectual exercise imagining a
possible scenario.

Are You Prepared for the Future?

Nobody knows if we will see another world war in our lifetimes. But there are many other, less
cataclysmic scenarios I can think of that could directly or indirectly affect your life. An increase
of terrorist attacks on US soil, stronger ties between Russia and China, social unrest in formerly
stable EU exporters like Germany, the rise of Islam via Turkey all these events could end up
having a substantial impact on you, especially if you are an investor.
Of course, some events always have a degree of uncertainty. But for the most part, geopolitical
events are predictableif you know history and are aware of the hidden threads that make up the
tapestry of our world.

What World War III Might Look Like

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