Red Storm Rising (1986) is a classic of the World War III genre. Tom Clancy’s second book, coming on the heels of the enormously successful The Hunt for Red October (1984), depicts a NATO-Warsaw Pact war in the mid-1980s fought entirely with conventional weapons. (Although the risk of nuclear escalation is present.)
The book opens with Azerbaijani terrorists destroying the main Soviet oil refinery at Nizhnevartovsk. The Politburo, split between a war-wary general secretary and a warmongering defense chief, decides to seize the oil fields of the Persian Gulf to avoid economic collapse. Fearing that the West would intervene in such an attack, the Soviet leaders determine to eliminate NATO first.
The premise seems a little incredible in hindsight. Launching a war in Europe as a prelude to an invasion of the entire Middle East? The real Soviet Union couldn’t even conquer Afghanistan!
It also turns out to be poor strategy. Of course, the war in Europe doesn’t go as well as the Red Army promised, with NATO dominating the skies and West German soldiers fighting to the last man in every city and town.
Much of the action takes place on Iceland, which the Soviets occupy in a surprise attack to prevent the Allies from closing the GIUK gap. Soviet submarines and long-range bombers are able to harass North Atlantic convoys, making it harder for the United States to bring men and matériel to the front in Europe.
The action scenes are expertly done. Many of the tactics and weapons are realistic. But too much of the story is taken up by American soldiers who are stranded behind enemy lines. I would have preferred to read more about the naval battles, the tank war in Germany and the political intrigue in Moscow.
Western politics are absent from the story. We only hear from the Supreme Allied Commander Europe in Brussels. Many of the Soviet characters are — to Clancy’s credit — more interesting, ranging from brave but soon disillusioned military commanders to stubbornly optimistic politicians to conniving spy masters.
Without spoiling the ending, I can reveal it foreshadows the events that took place in Russia in 1991.