In the hours before President Reagan’s address to the nation at 8 PM Eastern Time on 5 July, 1987, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was taking the preliminary steps necessary for moving the US military to a war footing. In the National Security Council meeting late that afternoon, Reagan decided that with the current crisis escalating rapidly, the reinforcement of Western Europe was essential. He authorized Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs to begin the process immediately. In his evening speech, Reagan hinted at a possible call up of reservists in the next twenty-four hours. In reality, the decision on that had already been made and the first reserve and National Guard units were receiving warning orders even before the president’s address was over.
Weinberger’s first act was to declare an Airlift Emergency and activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Within 24 hours 171 commercial transport and cargo aircraft would be pressed into service to augment Military Airlift Command’s own fleet of C-5s and C-141s. Every available aircraft was going to be needed as soon as possible. The secretary’s next action was to authorize the start of REFORGER.
REFORGER is short for the Return of Forces to Germany. Before 1987 it was most commonly known as a large FTX conducted annually by US and NATO forces in West Germany. The premise of the exercise was practicing the movement of a substantial number of US troops from North America to Western Europe. Once there, they would marry up to pre-positioned equipment at POMCUS sites in West Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. From there, the forces would deploy into the field and begin simulated combat operations.
To the surprise of many civilian observers, REFORGER turned out to be more than an exercise. It was, in reality, also the actual plan to reinforce NATO in the event of a crisis between the superpowers. The initial movement of troops from stateside bases to POMCUS sites in the final days of the crisis mirrored the timeline and procession rehearsed to perfection in peacetime REFORGERs. The last days of peace and the first week of hostilities exemplified the value that twenty years of annual REFORGER exercises brought to the US military.
The order to initiate REFORGER did not come as a surprise to the commanders and most soldiers in the affected divisions. US Army officers, NCOs and enlisted men alike had all been keeping closer tabs on the news from the time Romanov captured power in Moscow. The steady decline of relations between the US and Soviet Union, coupled with the sudden clashes between their forces at sea, convinced more than one division commander that it was only a matter of time before his troops were on aircraft bound for Europe.
At Fort Riley, Kansas, Major General Leonard Wishart III, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, received a call from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe minutes before the president’s address. Crowe informed him that REFORGER was being activated and that he should consider the phone call to be a warning order. Once the call was over, Wishart contacted his brigade commanders to alert them. In minutes, the cycle was underway and Riley became a hotbed of activity as the word was passed down the line. Similar scenes were taking place at army bases across the country.
In Europe, the POMCUS sites were receiving warning orders from EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart. Preparations were shortly in motion to stand the sites up to receive the influx of troops that were going to start arriving within the next 24 hours. Equipment in the large warehouses was checked, and rechecked. Inventories of ammo, commo gear, and a host of other essentials was checked and rechecked. MP and security troops from bases in West Germany were sent off to the POMCUS sites to reinforce the security forces already in place. US commanders in Europe were keenly aware that POMCUS sites were high on the Soviet’s targeting list. If war was in fact coming, it was likely to begin with a wave of coordinated Spetznaz, and airmobile strikes on the sites. Soviet thinking on this point was simple. The more equipment and troops that could be neutralized before arriving at the battleline, the easier the Red Army’s job would be once it crossed the Inner-German border.