Seventy years after the first Cold War began, and almost 24 years after it ended, the United States is again stationing troops and tanks in Europe to protect against Russian aggression, specifically in Baltic states. It appears, 26 years after the Berlin Wall fell, that if we’re not at the start of a new Cold War, then at least the winds from the East certainly appear chilly.
In the first Cold War, American-led NATO forces stared down the Russian-led Warsaw Pact, and for forty-five years Europe remained divided into two opposing armed camps. The whole affair was a miserable nuclear standoff that reads much better in Tom Clancy novels than it played out in real life.
The end of the Cold War gave us an odd historical moment. The United States sat unparalleled as the most powerful military force on earth. NATO expanded, adding countries that were not only once part of the Warsaw Pact but even ones that were part of the USSR. It looked, for a brief moment, that Russia might even transition to a functioning democracy.
That didn’t last long. Russian president Vladimir Putin served two terms from 2000 to 2008, then held onto power as Prime Minister from 2009 to 2012 before starting a third term as President. Under his watch Russia has rebuilt some of its military strength, and explicitly invaded neighbors like Georgia to the south and supported pro-Russian separatists to the West in Ukraine.
If there is a new Cold War, how will it be different than the one that ended 24 years ago? Here’s how military technology has changed for combat on ground, sea, air and space:
U.S. Then: M1 Abrams
A World War I novelty, tanks grew into tough and deadly vehicles during WWII, and much Cold War planning was based around a potential Soviet tank offensive through a part of Germany known as the Fulda Gap. Meeting the Russian tanks on the NATO side of that gap would be M1 Abrams tanks. First introduced in 1980, upgraded versions of the tank still serve today.
U.S. Now: Bradley Fighting Vehicle
Also going back to Europe is the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. A Cold War veteran, it first entered service in 1981 after a lengthy and complicated development process, best documented in this scene from Pentagon Wars. Designed as both a fast scout, troop transport, and light armored fighter, it is somewhat serviceable in all three roles. In the Cold War, it was to rush into the Fulda Gap alongside Abrams tanks, carrying infantry right to the jaws of hell. Since the Cold War, it’s been somewhat overshadowed in Iraq and Afghanistan by vehicles like MRAPs, which lack the Bradley’s firepower but can instead survive IED blasts.
Russia Then: Soviet T-80
Introduced in the tail end of the Cold War, the T-80 tank included then state-of-the-art improvements like laser rangefinders and ballistics computers. A gas turbine engine gave it the impressive (for a tank) top speed of almost 45 mph. Its front armor was strong against NATO anti-tank rounds, which is great for a headlong charge into West Germany.
Russia Now: Armata Tank
The Armata tank is Russia’s shiniest, newest and deadliest armored fighter. While it’s had a few hiccups, like this poor parade performance, the Armata boasts, at least according to official literature from Russia, a deadly long-range cannon and powerful defense mechanisms, designed to defend against anti-tank rockets. If it works as stated, its top speed is also 10mph faster than the T-80.
U.S. Then: USS Lincoln
America’s Nimitz-class aircraft carriers were first introduced in 1975, and the last one to see the Cold War was the CVN Abraham Lincoln. Like the Abrams and Bradley, the Nimitz class was built for the Cold War, capable of carrying more than sixty aircraft, some of which could tote nuclear bombs. The Nimitz-class remains an active part of the U.S. Navy. In the 2000s, aircraft on board the Lincoln flew from the Persian Gulf to hit targets in Iraq, as part of the war effort there. President George W. Bush famously landed on the Lincoln in 2003 with a “Mission Accomplished” banner displayed. When not at drydock, the Lincoln carries Super Hornet fighters, Prowlers for electronic warfare, Sea King anti-submarine helicopters, and other aircraft.
U.S. Now: Zumwalt Destroyer
The Nimitz-class carriers are all still serving, and the new Ford-class carriers are getting ready to enter service complete with electromagnetic plane-hurling catapults. More futuristic than that is a smaller, almost experimental ship. The Zumwalt is a high-tech destroyer set to commission later this year. It’s stealthy, with a helicopter landing pad in the back, and it has enough electrical power to someday fire either a laser or a railgun–weapons the Navy is working on but still hasn’t finished yet. With a small crew, deadly weapons, and low profile, the Zumwalt is a very modern take on a very old idea: what if a warship was just built around some obscenely powerful guns?
Russia Then: Submarine Severodvinsk
The Yasen-class K-329 Severodvinsk is a modern vessel, but it’s keel was laid in place just as the Cold War ended. A nuclear-powered submarine designed to hunt other submarines, its role is to scour the ocean for “boomers,” or submarines that can launch nuclear missiles underwater. Outnumbered by more modern American submarines, the Yasen-class is still deadly on its own, and may even carry anti-aircraft missiles on board.
Russia Now: Mistrals, Maybe
As a sign of the weird state of Europe following the Cold War, for years France was building warships for Russia. The Mistral-class “amphibious assault ships” were made to carry landing craft and attack helicopters, the kinds of things a country uses to invade somebody else from the sea. Following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, French delivery of the Mistrals was put on hold, and may never happen.
U.S. Then: The A-10
The A-10 Thunderbolt II, affectionately known as the “Warthog”, is an Air Force plane beloved by all the services that aren’t the Air Force. First introduced in 1975, the A-10 is a slow-flying rugged tank-killer, with a deadly gun built into the body. It makes a distinctive “brrrrrrrrrrrrrt” sound and tears through armor. No surprise, the A-10 was designed for service in Europe, ready to rip apart invading Soviet tanks. It still serves today, but is at the very end of its service life. Congressional support for it remains strong.
U.S. Now: F-35
Since the Cold War, the United States has debuted three different stealth fighters. The now-retired F-117 Nighthawk was all angles and weird handling. The F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter is perhaps the single deadliest airplane to ever grace the sky. There are only 187 in service. Next, stepping into the void is the long-troubled F-35, a plane with three different versions and a price tag whose overflow is well into the billions. Designed for use by the Air Force, Marines, and Navy, the F-35 comes in a normal F-35A, a short takeoff/vertical landing F-35B, and a shorter, carrier-based F-35C. Despite its troubles, the Pentagon plans on replacing several fighters, including the A-10, with F-35s. They’re so confident of the approach that they’ve already ordered almost 2,500 of them. Maybe it will all work out okay.
Russia Then: Su-25 Frogfoot
Russia’s Su-25 is the bargain bin version of the A-10. What it lacked in terrifying gauss cannon it more than made up for in fighting a lot of insurgencies. Dubbed the “Frogfoot” by NATO, the Su-25 is a Close Air Support fighter, hunting vehicles and infantry while letting other planes fight other airplanes. This became a relevant detail last summer, after Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 was shot down over Ukraine. In the week that followed, Russian media claimed that a Ukrainian Su-25 shot down the airliner. The Su-25 flies at much lower altitudes than airliners, and they don’t carry very advanced anti-air missiles, making it an absurd claim that has only become more absurd with time.
Russia Now: Su-35
Russia’s Su-35 is Russia’s deadliest air-to-air fighter, descended from the USSR’s Su-27. Made to take on airplanes, it’s fast, armed to the teeth, and full of powerful sensors. It isn’t stealthy, but it might fight well enough that it doesn’t have to be.
Strategic Defense Initiative logo
Under international law, no one is supposed to have weapons in space. Thanks to the Outer Space Treaty, signatories, which include the United States and Russia, agreed to not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in space, or any weapons at all. The treaty also bans testing military maneuvers and installing fortifications on the moon or other celestial bodies. But that didn’t stop people from thinking about it, or trying it secretly. The Strategic Defense Initiative, launched by President Reagan in 1983, wanted to figure out if weapons in space could protect against nuclear attacks on earth. The program was unsuccessful, but interest in space weapons never really went away.
U.S. Now: X-37B
The United States Air Force, in addition to protecting the sky, claims space as one of its domains. Air Force satellites circle the globe and provide intelligence for the government, as well as weather data and global positions for the rest of us. The Air Force’s X-37B is a secretive space robot, an unmanned shuttle that goes into space to do unknown things. We know it has a Darth Vader-style engine, and that it’s testing materials for NASA. Much of its mission remains obscure, so while there’s no way at present to know if it carries a space weapon, if the U.S. does have space weapons, it’s hard to find a likelier candidate.
Russia Then: Drawing Of Salyut 3
Secrecy is one way around a space treaty. Another way is to look at the letter of the law, and say “whatever” and then send up a satellite armed with a gun. Russia’s Salyut 3 military reconnaissance station was reportedly armed with a 30mm cannon, intended as a defense against any potential American space weapons.
Russia Now: Object 2014-28E, Soviet Anti Satellite Weapon
We don’t know what Object 2014-28E was. Spotted by satellite trackers, it appeared to come from a Russian military launch. Undeclared at launch, it was thought to be space junk until astronomers could track it moving in a deliberate way. It visited Russian satellites, perhaps repairing them, but others speculate that it was a revived Soviet-era satellite killer, or at least built on previous satellite-killing research. We don’t know for sure what it is, but it’s probably “a war thing.” If so, it’s another sign that the Cold War is back on, and it doesn’t get any colder than the void of space itself.