Wargames: Joshua’s Nuclear War Scenarios 1-59

*Author’s Note: I wanted to step away from Ukraine for a day or two. So instead of an update or some personal observations on the conflict, I’ve revised a handful of posts I did on Today’s DIRT from 2013-2016 on the list of scenarios presented in the final minutes of the movie Wargames from back in the ‘80s. Hope you enjoy—Mike  *

The movie Wargames was an influential piece of cinema back in the early 80s. Like a respectable number of movies during that time period, this one took an indirect look at nuclear war. For many young people back then, Wargames helped to shape their views on nuclear warfare. Keep in mind the tenor of the times. The Cold War was in full swing. The possibility of it boiling over into a hot nuclear conflict was quite real. The United States was no longer the push over it had been during the Carter years. The Post-Vietnam malaise was wearing off and Soviet expansion efforts across the globe were being countered effectively. The US military was undergoing a complete overhaul. Soviet leadership was fluid, with a revolving door seemingly in place at the Kremlin. The Soviets were fearful of the United States. Americans, in turn, were quite worried by the Soviets. Folks were fearful there might not be a tomorrow and it certainly was a dangerous time. I can appreciate that now. However, back then I was just a kid who was more concerned with his GI Joes. 😊

In the final minutes of the movie, Joshua begins to process a large number of nuclear war scenarios at a rapid clip. As it plays through these scenarios, it learns and ultimately draws the conclusion that the only proper move is not to play at all. The scenarios always piqued my curiosity. Back in my undergrad days I came across a copy of the entire list on the internet. Over the years I’d pull the list out and try to figure out the background story of each scenario.  I thought I would share the list and my summaries on here. Since the list has over 150 scenarios, I have to break this particular list into 2-3 separate blog entries.

Two final notes:  Keep in mind the time period of these scenarios: Late 70s to Early 80s, as well as the fact that I compiled this list before WWIII 1987 was even a thought in my mind.

So, shall we play a game?

 1. US First Strike– Pretty standard. A US counterforce nuclear strike against targets in the Soviet Union. I disagree with Joshua on this one. The scenario is quite winnable under the right circumstances

2. USSR First Strike – Same as above, only the Soviets launching first. Again, I believe this scenario is winnable for the initiator.

3. NATO / Warsaw Pact– NATO vs WP conventional conflict escalates to a strategic nuclear exchange.

4. Far East Strategy– This scenario title is open ended. I’ll go on the assumption that it involves a Soviet backed campaign in the Far East. Korea perhaps.

5. US USSR Escalation– Very generic. Tensions rise, forces deploy, units exchange fire and ultimately it leads to a nuclear exchange.

6. Middle East War– In the 80s, the Middle East was a hotbed of violence. Israel vs Syria, Iran/Iraq, Operation Praying Mantis….a nuclear war could have kicked off from one of many conflicts in the region.

7. USSR – China Attack – Back in the 70s and 80s the Chinese and Soviet Union disliked each other quite a bit. The fear was always there that a conflict between the two might go nuclear.

8. India Pakistan War– Still a very real threat today!

9. Mediterranean War– Soviet/WP moves against NATO’s Southern Flank or a flare up between the US and Soviet allies such as Syria and/or Libya which leads to rapid escalation.

10. Hong Kong Variant– In the 1980s Hong Kong was sovereign British territory. Any PRC moves against the city would have inevitably drawn in the superpowers.

11. SEATO Decapitating– SEATO dissolved in 1977. A decapitation attack would have been nuclear strikes against the capital cities of its member-states.

12. Cuban Provocation– Cuba provoking a crisis somewhere that leads to a conflict between the US and Soviet Union. Grenada could be considered a Cuban provocation. Fortunately, it did not involve direct fighting between the superpowers.

13. Inadvertent– An accident. Always possible. When the one side launches its missiles, accident or not, the other side is going to be forced to respond.

14. Atlantic Heavy– Control of the North Atlantic was essential to both NATO and Soviet war plans. The US Navy was prepared to take the war directly to the Soviet homeland. The Soviets were prepared to close the Atlantic off with its submarine and bomber forces.

15. Cuban Paramilitary– A situation similar to Angola

 16. Nicaraguan Preemptive– A US preemptive strike against Communist-controlled Nicaragua. There were always fears that Mexico would be next if the Nicaragua’s ambitions were allowed to go on unchecked.

17. Pacific Territorial– Naval fighting between the US and Soviet Union in the North Pacific

18. Burmese Theatrewide– This scenario title was always interesting. How could Burma have played central role in nuclear war planning?

19. Turkish Decoy– A Soviet attack against Turkey to keep NATO’s attention focused there. It’s a feint and the real Soviet objective is somewhere else in the world.

20.  NATO …? This is one of the titles on the list that was obscured.

21. Argentina Escalation– In 1982 Argentina invaded the Falklands, prompting a powerful British response. Another attempt to retake the islands bringing about an escalation was not out of the question back in the 80s. In recent years the idea of another invasion attempt in the future has actually gained some momentum in Argentinian military circles.

22. Iceland Maximum– Control of the North Atlantic would have been essential to both sides in a NATO-Warsaw Pact war. Iceland was the gate to the North Atlantic. The Soviets would have had to neutralize the NATO bases there in order to undertake a successful Atlantic campaign

23. Arabian Theatre-wide- All hell breaks loose on the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf. Escalation of the Iran-Iraq War or perhaps a Soviet invasion of Iran.

24. U.S. Subversion– Political turmoil and internal conflict inside of the United States. Homegrown or the result of foreign meddling?

25. Australian Maneuver– This one could either be Soviet action against Australia or, less likely, Australian-led action in the region

26. Iranian Diversion-Another open-ended title. It could signify a Soviet invasion of Iran to draw off US/NATO attention from Europe

27.  …? limited- Another obscured title. Ugh!

28. Sudan surprise– Challenges to the Sudanese Socialist Union could have led to an Afghanistan-like invasion by the Soviet Union

29. NATO territorial– Incursion of NATO territory by the Warsaw Pact

30. Zaire Alliance– Mobutu aligns Zaire closely with the Soviet Union

31. Iceland Incident– Soviet assault against Iceland or an inadvertent incident at sea between the US and Soviet navies off of Iceland.

32. English Escalation– Oh those whacky Brits

33. Zaire Sudden- Zaire falls into chaos. The Soviets intervene

34. Egypt Paramilitary– This one stumps me. Overthrow of Egyptian government by paramilitary forces perhaps.

35. Middle East Heavy– Conflict in the Middle East. Lebanon, Arab-Israeli, Iran-Iraq….take your pick

36. Mexican Takeover– The red tide that threatened Central America in the 1980s comes north. Mexico falls to Nicaragua and Cuba

37. Chad Alert- Chad was a hotspot in the 80s. Libya became embroiled in the Chad civil war. France supported Chad.

38. Saudi Maneuver– A Soviet move against the Saudi oilfields

39. African Territorial– One of the myriads of African conflicts escalates and brings in the superpowers.

40. Ethiopian Escalation– During the late 70s the Horn of Africa was a very active Cold War chessboard. Ethiopia and Somalia had fought a war in 1977-78, aided by supplies furnished by the Superpowers. Another conflict in the area was always possible.

41. Turkish Heavy– A conflict on NATO’s Southern Flank, whether part of a larger Soviet operation or not, would have run the risk of swift escalation.

42. NATO Incursion– Open ended somewhat. It could refer to an attempt by NATO to break through a Soviet/East German blockade of Berlin.

43. U.S. Defense– Think Red Dawn. Wolverines!

44. Cambodian Heavy– The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 did not bring everlasting serenity to Southeast Asia. China and Vietnam had already locked horns once as a result of Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia. A second war between the two could have escalated. 

45. Pact Medium– Generic title. Invasion of Warsaw Pact territory by NATO, or vice versa.

46. Arctic Minimal– The world’s attention on the Arctic in recent years is nothing new.

47. Mexican Domestic– Civil war in Mexico, perhaps touched off by Nicaraguan backed rebels. The US would not stand idle while its southern neighbor dissolved into chaos.

48. Taiwan Theaterwide– China moves to recapture Taiwan, touching off a conflict that rages across the entire Western Pacific.

49. Pacific Maneuver– A ruse by the Soviets in the Pacific to take attention away from another region where they were preparing to make a move.

50. Portugal Revolution– Revolution in Portugal. The communists came close to seizing power there once or twice. Portugal was and still is a valuable member of NATO. A communist revolution there could have drawn in Spain and perhaps even France.

51. Albanian Decoy– A Soviet gambit to deflect attention away from somewhere else.

52. Palestinian Dream– Arafat’s dream. The Palestinian conflict draws in the superpowers and escalates to a nuclear showdown

53. Moroccan Minimal– Morocco has been a bastion of stability in North Africa for decades. This title is open to speculation

54. Bavarian Diversity– When I think about diversity in Bavaria, I’m generally thinking about the diverse selection of beers available there

55. Czech Option– NATO launches an operation through Czechoslovakia, perhaps to shear it away from the Warsaw Pact

56. French Alliance– France allies itself with someone untoward and before they can surrender, the mushrooms begin to sprout

57. Arabian Clandestine– A covert Soviet operation to secure or destroy the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia leads to escalation

58. Gabon Rebellion– Yet another African hotspot during the Cold War

59. Northern Maximum– Major Soviet air, land and sea operations against the Northern Flank of NATO

25 Replies to “Wargames: Joshua’s Nuclear War Scenarios 1-59”

  1. I grew up in the 80s as a teenager under the Nuclear War cloud. Oh please don’t let it go that way again! You’ll think that once in a lifetime is enough and I don’t need more grey hairs on my head! BTW, loved Red Dawn (original) and Wargames as a teen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those were two classics from the ’80. Let’s pray the nuclear war threat subsides in the coming days and weeks


  2. The Burmese ones are interesting, as I’m writing a book where Myanmar (yes, I’m weird and call it Myanmar in singular terms but Burmese in plural ones) gets nuclear weapons, and they’re the main focus of the plot.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A lot of these are basically the same.
    To this day, when one of my kids, co-workers, etc. is in a painfully long moment of indecision, my comment is, “turn your key, sir.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Superb work.
    Actually – I have been thinking about the ‘Northern Maximum’ variant recently, with Finns, Danes, US and Royal Marines …and some Soviet punishment battalions. I’m sure I read about this variant in Hackett’s book, but must check. I think there are many valid wargames scenarios in that one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      Sounds familiar, I think Hackett might’ve talked about it. Great premise for a scenario, though. A lot of different routes it could go.


    2. I agree – the Soviets would have regarded the airfields in Northern Norway as major targets and possession of them would have been valuable vis-a-vis the Battle for the Atlantic.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Mike, I always wanted to do this, just never did. LOL

    Wasn’t there a short film about Ivan massing boomers on both coasts and taking out most of the missile fields and SAC bases before they could launch? Always thought it was a long shot of that working. Didn’t the US Navy have all the Soviet boomers trailed by a 688 fast attack? Plus, with how hardened the silos were I doubt a sea launched attack could take out the required number of silos to keep the US from retaliating. Am I off in those opinions?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No problem, Chris!

      Yeah, the film you’re talking about was First Strike. It was actually a documentary that came out in the late ’70s and discussed the growing disparity between our strategic forces and Russia’s. The first part of the scenario was a bolt out of the blue Soviet counterforce attack that more or less destroyed our strategic forces. At that point, the president’s options were clear: go on fighting and risk the destruction of our cities or surrender.
      Nightmare scenario and one still possible today.


      1. The First Strike piece was the part of an “advertising” campaign for the MX/Midgetman/etc. modernization of the strategic triad. After First Strike, there were pieces that featured Harold Brown and other defense experts discussing a opening window of vulnerability in the early 1980s. None of the interview stuff was a riveting as the initial 10 minute video. With all of you, I pray we don’t return to those days. However, it appears that the 2nd half of this decade could be a window of vulnerability relative to the Chinese (conventional, not nuclear),

        Liked by 1 person

        1. They used the stock footage from the missile silos and bomber crews in First Strike for the Day After a few years later too. Interesting factoid.

          I think we’re in that window of vulnerability now, Ed. Especially on the naval side in the Western Pacific. Hope I’m wrong but I don’t know


      2. Have to say, after seeing the performance of Ivan’s hardware recently I would be surprised if half of the missiles would actually launch and I would give more than 50% odds that a mishap occurring at launch that would sink the sub.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s the problem. We don’t know how reliable their missiles are now and we can’t assume half of them won’t work. Bad position to be in


  6. Oh man, Mike, WarGames is one of my favorite movies from the 80s. The casting, the music, the sets, the dialog, the plot…everything is pitch-perfect. I’ve often wondered about these scenarios and how they might all touch off a global conflict.

    I have some thoughts on Burmese Theaterwide. Burma is of course Myanmar, but setting that aside, from 1962-1988, it was Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. The government was heavily allied with the USSR and Eastern European nations, which of course would have put them in a precarious position, as they are next door to China.

    Protests against the government could escalate to a situation where Burma was destabilized and this in turn leads China to intervene (on the side of reformers) which causes the USSR to deploy its navy to Southern Burma. The US would be content to watch them duke it out, but of course, Thailand somehow becomes involved, as does Vietnam (which is beginning to be but not nearly as reconciled with the US as they are now), Laos and Cambodia. There’s your “Burmese Theater”. An over-extended Soviet expeditionary force exercises nuclear discretion and before you know it, Joshua’s calling the shots from NORAD while Gen. Beringer and Dr. McKittrick look on in horror at the big board.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great thoughts on Burma, Bill. Definitely a realistic possibility.

      I loved General Beringer. Tried to model myself on him back in the day. Some of it stuck

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Beringer was a great character because he was written and played so well: he wasn’t some technophobe who thought that computers had no place, just that taking humans out of the PAL was a bad idea (and it was, and is in reality an astoundingly bad idea). He’s not the one who cares what David did.

        I know it’s Broderick’s film but the last half of the last act is all Barry Corbin. That bit where he tells Mckittrick, when Dabney Coleman asks (of a call from Washington, presumably the President) “Wh…ah, what are you going to tell him?”

        That LOOK Corbin gives Coleman right there. You know the bit I’m talking about.

        “That I’m ordering our bombers back to fail-safe. That we might have to go through this thing after all.”

        It’s easy to think that it’s absurd that McKittrick would care about who was to blame, but it’s not. Assume for a moment a *few* nukes fly and it’s a very *limited* exchange: whoever has their finger on the trigger – and that would be McKittrick as well as Beringer – would be responsible for monumental crimes against humanity, willing or not.

        So yeah, Gen. Beringer hate-staring Dr. McKittrick is such a gut-punch of a scene. I love it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve always loved Barry Corbin. A great actor who is really underappreciated. The animosity between Beringer and McKittrick was well thought out and presented. It sure helped to have two excellent American actors playing the parts

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Great stuff!

    Wargames is my all time favourite film.

    I can remember recording it onto videotape and obsessively pausing it over and over to write down all of those scenarios which were fascinating at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think most of us tried to write them now. Pausing the VCR and trying to get down as many as possible. The list really was fascinating


      1. Yes, great film, although it’s been a while (decades?) since I’ve seen it. It’s available on bluray if you’re interested.

        I also think Threads, The Wargame, The Day After, World War III, On the Beach, When the Wind Blows, By Dawn’s Early Light and Fail Safe are all pretty good re: nuclear war, plus there’s a film entitled Countdown to Looking Glass available on YouTube.

        Growing up in the 80s, you always had this shadow over your day-to-day life, you tried to ignore it as best you could but it was always there. I’d hate to return to a similar situation.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It was always there, you’re right. Hard to ignore.

          Those movies would make a great weekend binge…..but maybe not in the current climate 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  8. If “Bavarian Diversity” isn’t just a typo and meant to be “… Diversion”, one scenario might be based on the traditional Bavarian “specialness” as a German federal state (to this day!). Think “secessionist Bavarian state premier who somehow kicks off Big Mistake No. 3”. It would make for an interesting story.

    Liked by 1 person

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