THIS BOOK is a sequel to Sir John Hackett's earlier work, 2 The Third World War: August 1985, published in 1978. Like the earlier volume, The Untold Story points out the danger of leaving Western Europe without a secure non-nuclear defense.

The Untold Story purports to examine in greater depth the catastrophic events originally set forth in August 1985. Tempted by an unprepared NATO, the U.S.S.R. invades West Germany. The attack falters, and the poorly motivated Warsaw Pact forces begin to crumble. A desperate Soviet leadership tries to shore up its position by destroying Birmingham, England, with a single missile. Four NATO missiles then obliterate Minsk. A timely coup d',etat triggers the overthrow of the Communist hierarchy and Russia is put out of the war. A new and better world emerges.

The sudden turns in General Hackett's scenario are obviously contrived to illustrate the danger of a weak conventional defense, while making it plausible that future historians might survive in freedom to tell the story. The readers of August 1985 could accept the author's frequent resort to the deus ex machina because his fiction lent immediacy to what was, in 1978, a very timely and valuable warning.

Unfortunately, The Untold Story lacks this timeliness and does little more than underscore the message of its predecessor. Despite some powerful writing, most notably in the chapter on the destruction of Minsk, the book tends to be schizophrenic. It appears unable to reconcile the demands of a novel with those of a military position paper. Nevertheless, the book's wealth of detail may make it of interest to military or international political buffs seeking a semifictional tutorial on basic defense issues.

The book's tour of the geopolitical horizon before and after the fictional conflict is interesting and provocative, but it suffers from the fact that Hackett is the captive of his own tale. His scenario is now four years old, and 1985 is only three years hence. Real events are rapidly overtaking fiction. Much has occurred even in the last six months. Western conventional weapons may have eclipsed their Soviet counterparts in Lebanon, and the U.S.S.R. has suffered a serious loss of influence in the Middle East. The Falklands campaign has raised British confidence, while making important points about maritime power and naval weaponry.

More specifically, the rush of events has produced a number of straightforward anachronisms. For instance, Copperhead, the American laser-guided artillery shell, appears in the chapter on the weapons of World War III. But Congress recently cancelled that program and the few shells already in production are said to have been allocated to non-NATO contingencies.

Heavy salting with apparently factual statements of this sort gives rise to simple editorial mistakes. The description of Patriot missiles attacking enemy helicopters is not very plausible. The AH-64 Apache helicopter is referred to at least once as the AAH-64, and the AH-1 Cobra as the UH-1.

These issues aside, Hackett and his distinguished collaborators could have done a much greater service by abandoning the fictional approach. The earlier book did a great service in spotting the danger and sounding the alarm. But that warning is, in several ways, receiving the attention it deserves, and now is a time for careful and dispassionate examination of the conventional defense problem. A methodical analysis by the author's team of experts could have helped us answer many tough questions.

For example, the Warsaw Pact can mass 120-odd divisions against Western Europe on 35 days notice. NATO must act somehow to balance that threat. Does it make sense to buy the 10 or 12 new divisions that would give a feeling of comfort in Europe? Or should the allies opt for massive deep interdiction through improvements in battlefield missiles? What innovative firepower and maneuver schemes can be developed in a defensive alliance?

The NATO armies are actively considering integrated firepower and maneuver approaches to enable a better non-nuclear defense of the Central Front. These concepts, variously known as deep attack or extended battlefield, could promise an effective and affordable solution. Are these concepts sound? Can and will NATO support such efforts, both politically and financially?

Rather than address important questions such as these in a timely fashion, Hackett uses his scenario in a somewhat offhand manner. For example, he tells us that American tactics and organizations are flawed. He questions the efficacy of the large number of women in the U.S. Army but, in an interesting twist, allows a female U.S. Air Force pilot to lead the first offensive air action mounted from the United States. He emphasizes America's failure to understand the political ends of war until the events of World War III drive that lesson home. Some of these criticisms may be well-founded but the fictional context does not lend itself to an impartial weighing of the facts.

General Hackett's team of authors has shown that they can collaborate to produce provocative writing. I hope that they will now set their sights on addressing, in a nonfiction context, the truly pressing problems of conventional defense.