The prospect of a third world war is terrifying: the weapons that humanity has acquired over the course of the past century are powerful enough to irreparably damage or even totally annihilate society as we know it. Though it’s unlikely to happen, World War 3 remains a disturbing idea that’s inspired plenty of post-apocalyptic fiction.
But what about a real one? Is World War III coming? What would the conflict look like? What might cause it? In this article, I’ll speculate about the form World War 3 would take and explain the most likely trigger points based on the current global political landscape.
Disclaimer: Speculation Ahead
Before I get into describing what World War 3 might look like and how it could come about, I want to emphasize that everything in this article is based on conjecture. These events are very unlikely considering how long it has been since the last war on a global scale. They’re all drastic ideas that won’t make the transition into reality unless catastrophically irresponsible mistakes are made on the parts of multiple world governments. With the level of destruction we have the potential to create now, a large-scale war would be extremely harmful to everyone involved.
While we may ruin our environment in other slower ways, in all likelihood World War 3 won’t be happening anytime soon!
What Would WW3 Look Like?
The term “World War 3” is virtually synonymous with Armageddon. The human race has acquired such horrific military capabilities that there is no way for us to wage war on a global scale without bringing about catastrophic consequences for our species and the environment overall.
While we wouldn’t all die immediately in a nuclear war, this type of conflict would make the phrase “bomb them back to the Stone Age” scarily literal. The detonation of many nuclear weapons would create enormous firestorms that would destroy every living thing in the vicinity and release huge amounts of smoke into the atmosphere. The smoke would rise into the stratosphere, block the sunlight, and create what is commonly referred to as a “nuclear winter.” Temperatures would reach Ice Age levels within days. These extreme environmental changes coupled with toxins and radioactivity would instigate global famine and mass extinction.
World War 3 could also take the form of biological warfare. A dangerous biological agent might be released into the population of an enemy state to weaken it internally. It’s easy to see how this plan might get out of control and spark a pandemic rather than remaining contained in one country. Viruses are constantly mutating to survive in new environments, and with the prevalence of international travel, it’s likely that infected individuals would slip through the cracks and spread dangerous pathogens to the world at large. There are numerous highly deadly viruses (including Ebola, Marburg virus, and SARS) that have emerged or re-emerged in recent years that have the potential to set off terrible epidemics if their destructive power is harnessed by people who choose to use it for military purposes.
How Will World War 3 Start?
Most current WWIII predictions center around the melting pot of chaos that is the current political climate in the Middle East. Here are a few scenarios that people have speculated may become catalysts for the next major global conflict.
Scenario #1: Pakistan’s Instability
Pakistan combines nuclear capabilities with political instability, which means there is potential for fringe terrorist organizations to get their hands on a rogue nuclear bomb. This could lead to a chain of events culminating in a World War 3 scenario. If a militant group in Pakistan smuggled a bomb into India and detonated it, India might immediately assume that the attack was orchestrated by the official Pakistani government. In this situation, India would likely bomb Pakistan with nuclear warheads and face enormous pressure from its citizens to conduct a full-scale invasion.
China and Pakistan have developed close ties in recent years, so this would almost certainly lead to China’s intervention. The US is technically allied with Pakistan, but relations are strained, so it would be less likely to intervene on Pakistan’s behalf (especially if a Pakistani group instigated the violence). If China became involved in this war between India and Pakistan, half the world’s population would already have a direct stake in the conflict. China, India, and Pakistan represent three out of four of the world’s largest armies, and consequences would be further exacerbated by the fact that these countries are responsible for a huge proportion of global trading revenue.
Supremacy over the Indian Ocean is extremely important for India, the US, and Japan because of its strategic relevance to world trade. If this scenario were to occur, China would be seriously threatening that supremacy, which could have dire financial consequences. This means the rest of the world would be compelled to take sides.
India would be in trouble at this point and begin asking other powerful nations like the US and Japan for support. If the US and Japan were drawn into the conflict, Russia would also participate, presumably siding with China and Pakistan. It would almost certainly be selling more weapons to the China and Pakistan side of the conflict considering the other side already has a significant number of its own nukes. Also, Russia has a long-standing alliance with China and is overall hostile towards the US.
Ultimately, the large alliances in conflict would be US, Japan, and India vs. China, Russia, and Pakistan.
Scenario #2: Russia, Turkey, and the Syrian Crisis
The situation in Syria is very complicated. Officially, Russia has only conducted strikes against ISIS, but there are claims that they have also targeted Syrian rebels to protect Russian interests in the region. Russia supports Syrian President Bashar Assad while the United States would like to see him removed from power.
Russia’s military campaign in Syria has created conflicts with Turkey as well. Turkey already shot down a Russian plane that they say was infringing on their airspace. The Russians, on the other hand, claim the plane was actually a kilometer away from the Turkish border conducting strikes against ISIS when it was shot down. They insist that the plane posed absolutely no threat to Turkey. In response to this event, Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed ships and submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles in the event of further aggression from Turkey. Since Turkey is a member of NATO, conflict between Russia and Turkey could lead to the involvement of the United States.
The US and other western powers could also become more involved in the situation in Syria due to the current siege on the city of Aleppo. This is already a huge humanitarian crisis and is likely to become even more deadly as the siege continues. Right now Russia and the US are attempting to work together to find a diplomatic solution despite the fact that Russia supports President Assad, and the US wants him to step down. It’s unclear how successful these negotiations will be in ending the conflict or preventing it from escalating, but it is promising that larger powers are working together to resolve tensions. Hopefully, the conflict can be de-escalated rather than blowing up into something with dangerous consequences for the world at large.
Scenario #3: Iran’s Aggression
Iran continues to spout rhetoric about its ability to destroy Israel if its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, gives the order to do so. Iran and Israel have been playing a game of chicken for a long time, so if one of them were to strike or threaten to strike based on some sort of violent encounter between the two countries at a lower level, it could escalate into a full-on war. With alliances on both sides with major powers (the US and Israel vs. Russia and Iran), this sort of situation has the potential to generate conflict on a global scale.
Iran has also threatened to cut off access to the Strait of Hormuz, an extremely important maritime access point to the Persian Gulf for the US and others. Tankers carry around 17 million barrels of oil through the strait on a daily basis. This represents a huge chunk of the world’s economy – about a third of all oil traded by sea globally travels through the strait. The strait is also important for the transport of shipments of natural gas. The US, China, and other developed Asian countries rely strongly on this conduit for their energy imports.
Then again, the feasibility of actually closing off the strait is dubious, and it’s not clear that this would start a global conflict because it would be such a one-sided fight. No one would benefit from supporting Iran because the strait is so critical to the interconnected economies of the large powers. Even powers that are known to disagree with each other would be motivated to band together and lift the blockade.
Scenario #4: ISIS and Terrorist Attacks
ISIS has an apocalyptic vision that is dangerous for the planet as a whole. Unlike in other wars fought over the course of the past century, one of the sides of the conflict literally believes in an imminent Armageddon where the Islamic world will fight a grand final battle against the West.
In recent years, there have been increases in deadly terrorist attacks all over the world and in efforts by ISIS to recruit members from other countries. There is even evidence that ISIS is looking into biological warfare with diseases like bubonic plague and Ebola. They also have hopes of purchasing a nuclear bomb from Pakistan so they can sneak it into the US and detonate it in a major city.
The issue with this conflict as a contender for a WW3 trigger point is that the Islamic State doesn’t necessarily have the manpower, weapons, economic relevance, or unity to create a conflict on a global scale. It’s more likely that if this does escalate into war, it will be contained within a smaller area and won’t end up involving all the major powers.
Scenario #5: The Threat of North Korea
North Korea continues to languish in its own little bubble of insanity. The government regularly threatens to wage nuclear war against the US and has possibly acquired nuclear missiles that are capable of reaching America’s west coast (though it’s hard to tell what they actually have and what they’re bluffing about).
North Korea is a threat mainly because it’s so disconnected from the rest of the world. If North Korea does move towards war, South Korea is committed to responding in force, which could cause things to spiral out of control into a larger conflict. Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea could cause high levels of death and destruction through the use of chemical weapons and military forces currently deployed in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
Again, however, this would be extremely unlikely to develop into a full-on world war. South Korea might suffer quite a bit of damage, but North Korea has limited resources and virtually no outside support. Any attack perpetrated by North Korea would be shut down by the major powers. This would be much too one-sided and insignificant of a conflict to reach a global scale.
Remember: World War 3 Predictions Are Nothing New
While considering all of these admittedly scary possibilities, it’s also important to remember that this isn’t the first time people have claimed that World War 3 is imminent. Almost every year since the advent of nuclear weapons, a new conflict is predicted to be the turning point that will spark the most devastating war in human history.
Past examples include:
- The Korean War in the early 1950s, which many feared would escalate to an all-out war between communist and capitalist powers.
- The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962
- The Yom Kippur War in 1973 (US-supported Israel vs. Soviet-supported Arab countries)
- Several false alarms in both the US and Russia in the late 70s and early 80s that indicated the other power had launched a nuclear weapon and were luckily discovered to be errors before retaliatory measures were taken.
- In 1995, Russia thought a research rocket launched by US and Norwegian scientists was a nuke and prepared to launch a counterstrike – high command realized the rocket wasn’t entering Russian airspace and called off the attack.
Some people would even say that the Cold War was World War 3 fought by-proxy as the US, Russia, and China engaged with each other through conflicts in smaller nations. Predictions for WWIII have shifted slightly in the 21st century to focus more on the threat of terrorism, largely due to fallout from the September 11th attacks. The actions of the United States after September 11th and our complicated relationship with Middle Eastern countries have been instrumental in creating more extremists eager to join the ranks of ISIS. This threat is entangled with fear of Russia’s continued aggression and its stirring up of tensions in already highly destabilized areas.
Conclusion: Will There Be a World War 3?
Technology has evolved to a point where if World War III happens, the consequences will undoubtedly be devastating for the planet as a whole. In 2016, the scenarios that have the greatest potential to spiral into global war include Pakistan’s struggle with internal instability, Russia’s conflict with Syria and Turkey, Iran’s aggression, the activities of religious extremists in the Middle East, and the ongoing crisis in North Korea.
Keep in mind that people have predicted World War III since the end of World War II, but so far these predictions have failed to yield significant results. While the concept of WWIII is terrifying, it’s likely that we will cause more damage to our species through relentless abuse of resources and disregard for environmental consequences than through overt nuclear or biological warfare.