Outpost Iceland 7 July, 1987

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For an island long considered to be one of the most peaceful nations on the planet, Iceland was a remarkably important element in NATO’s contingency plans and wartime strategy. Its geographic location is what made it so significant. Situated in the middle of the North Atlantic, almost directly between Greenland and Scotland, the island was a logical point to combat the expected surge of Soviet submarines transiting from the Norwegian Sea to the North Atlantic in a time of war. Submarines were not the only threat NATO convoys could expect in a time of war. Bombers loaded with anti-ship missiles would also range down into the North Atlantic from their bases on the Kola Peninsula. Therefore, Iceland was expected to be just as important in maintaining control of Atlantic skies during hostilities.

Keflavik Air Base was the centerpiece of military activity on Iceland. The combined US/NATO installation served as home to a squadron of USAF F-15C Eagles, and rotating detachments of E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, and US Navy P-3C Orions. In war, the primary role of the P-3s was to be hunting Soviet submarines around the GIUK gap, while the Eagle-AWACS team’s task was to interdict Soviet bombers coming south to hit the Atlantic SLOCs.

Along with the airbase, Iceland was also home to a small number of SOSUS stationed arrayed along the coast. These stations were critical nodes in the quest to detect and track Soviet subs moving south through the GIUK gap. NATO ASW aircraft especially would rely on vectors tracks provided by the information gathered at these stations. During peacetime the practice was a normal part of operations around Iceland. In wartime, the greatest difference would be the use of live torpedoes, as well as the possibility of some Soviet subs being equipped with hand-held SAMs on their periscope masts.

Bearing all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why Iceland, and Keflavik especially, was considered so valuable by NATO. Of course, the value and capabilities of NATO’s most isolated outpost were appreciated and recognized in Moscow as well. Where NATO war plans envisioned Iceland being used to bolster the effort to protect the convoys, Soviet plans called for the immediate neutralization of Iceland before it could play a pivotal role in a Third Battle of the Atlantic.

NATO was aware of this, yet the real mystery lay in exactly how the Soviets might neutralize Iceland. Imaginations ran wild when considering the possibilities. The effort could be limited to strikes by Long Range Aviation bombers in the Kola, and cruise missile attacks by SSGNs in the North Atlantic. Or, it could include airborne and amphibious landings to physically gain control of Keflavik and its environs. With this potential myriad of threats facing it, NATO was determined to ensure that Iceland was well protected in the event of war.

The best laid intentions of mice and men, however……

By 7 July, Keflavik was a busy place. Aircraft heading to and from Europe used it as a refueling spot. Additional P-3s and some KC-135s were arriving to augment the aircraft already there. Dependents had been evacuated and base defenses prepared. Air Force security personnel bore responsibility for this, though it was hoped that US Army or Marine troops would be available soon to bolster the sky cops. Plans called for the 187th Infantry Brigade, a US Army Reserve unit to be responsible for defending Iceland from a potential ground threat. That unit, however, was only receiving its warning orders from the Pentagon on the afternoon of the 7th. It would be at least two weeks before significant numbers of the brigade’s troops arrived.

In the meantime, the commander of Iceland Defense Force (A US military command) was frantically trying to rustle up additional reinforcements. More troops were desperately needed in the short term, as well as air defenses. The US Marines had offered a battery of I-HAWK missiles but until the Icelandic government gave its blessing, the batteries were sitting on the tarmac of MCAS Cherry Point, packed and waiting. Icelanders were already quite sensitive to the presence of so many foreign troops on their soil. Increasing the number even more was a matter that the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, was passionately debating at the moment.

The reluctance of Icelanders to accept what was happening in the world was especially frustrating to US personnel already on Iceland. As one unnamed USAF tech sergeant put it during an off-camera interview with a BBC reporter, “The natives are resistant to us bringing in more friendly troops to protect them. Fuck ‘em then. Let the ungrateful bastards live under Soviet occupation for a while and see what it’s like.”

 

 

 

America’s Awakening 7 July, 1987 (Part 2)

Ronald Reagan

President Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office again at 3PM Eastern Time. This was the greatest speech of Reagan’s presidency and the one which will forever be attached with the man’s legacy. Quotes from the speech have appeared practically everywhere in one form or another in the post-war years, from memorial statues, to countless textbooks. The address has been immortalized, and rightfully so. Reagan’s words came at a pivotal moment. The gravity of the crisis was now sinking in, and for most Americans the realization was traumatic and horrifying. Reagan acknowledged this and through his words essentially told his fellow Americans that he was feeling similar emotions. Hearing the president admit he was every bit as worried as the average American was had a tremendously affirmative effect on people. They realized that they were not alone.

The heart of the address was, of course, the ‘choice we make today’ portion. Reagan laid out the two choices facing the United States. The country could stand aside, ignore its treaty commitments and allow the evil entity that was the Soviet Union to overrun Western Europe without lifting a finger to help. In that scenario, no American blood would be spilled on the battlefield, Europe would likely be spared a major war, and the horrors of nuclear war would not become reality. But at some point in the future, the enemy would arrive on America’s shores, likely after the rest of the world had been enslaved.

Or, the United States could assume its proper place as the leader of the free world, stand up for its ideals, and lead the defense of Western Europe. If war came, Reagan warned, it would be deadly, and wrought with destruction, and peril. Thousands would perish on the battlefield, and there was no guarantee the nation would be kept safe from the ravages of modern war. Despite the unknowns, and danger, Reagan believed we were compelled to defend Europe. Standing aside guaranteed the world would slide into the abyss once and for all.  “Europe,” he concluded bluntly and correctly, “Is worth fighting for.”

At the tail end of the speech, the president announced the immediate call up of 300,000 reservists, but stopped short of declaring a national emergency for the time being. Doing so would have contradicted the purpose of his speech. He wanted Americans cognizant and able to function, not consumed with fear and thus incapacitated. In this regard, Reagan was doubling down on his faith in Americans to do the right thing when it mattered the most.

That afternoon at Wrigley Field, the San Diego Padres were in town to play the Chicago Cubs. The game was delayed so the speech could be played over the stadium’s sound system for the sold-out crowd. Once it was over, a long moment of reflective silence followed. Wrigley had likely never been so quiet with a capacity crowd in attendance. It was to be temporary. The silence was broken by the PA announcer asking the crowd to rise for the national anthem. What followed was the most inspiring recital of the Star Spangled Banner ever by a sporting event crowd. After the anthem, an ear shattering cheer rolled through the historic stadium, sparking a seven minute long “USA! USA!” chant which was probably heard in Milwaukee.

Ronald Reagan had set the tone of the moment and America was responding. As the afternoon went on, a national resolve began to grow. The peace protests that had cropped up were soon dwarfed by anti-Soviet and pro-USA rallies. By 5 PM on the east coast, flag waving citizens began converging upon many military installations in spontaneous shows of support for the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who would soon be leaving for Europe. For officers and NCOs who served in Vietnam, the sight was almost overwhelming. This war…if it evolved to that…was not destined be another Vietnam. Troops were not going to be spat upon, or labeled as ‘baby killers.’ It was clear the American people would support the troops and the mission.

Unlike Vietnam, this war would be about national survival, and that made all the difference in the world.

America’s Awakening 7 July, 1987 (Part 1)

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In late July of 1914 when the governments of Europe’s main powers made their respective mobilization announcements, the public reactions in each nation were strikingly similar. An atmosphere of celebration descended upon national capitals. Jubilant crowds streamed into public squares, waving flags and banners. Emotional embraces and bottles of wine and liquor were shared among stranger and friend alike. Patriotic songs and national anthems were sung with passionate zeal and heart. Tears of joy were shed, and talk of glorious victories in the days ahead streaked through the crowds with lightning speed. In 1914 mobilization meant war, and the coming war was generally viewed as an adventure. The horror, misery, and destruction which would define the First World War were in the minds of but a few influential people in Europe during this time. They wisely kept their opinions to themselves, and mourned silently as the masses frolicked in blissful ignorance of what the future truly held. This was their moment and they were not to be denied.

It was noon in the eastern US, and 9 AM on the west coast when special report bulletins preempted regularly scheduled television programming. News anchors, some visibly fighting to keep their composure, informed the nation that NATO nations were ordering their armed forces to mobilize and begin moving to their wartime staging areas and positions. President Reagan was expected to address the nation for the second time in less than 48 hours later that same afternoon. Speculation ran high in media circles that Reagan would announce a full-scale US mobilization.

The response of the average American citizen to the news from Brussels was a stark contrast to how Europeans responded in similar news on the eve of World War I. Collectively, Americans were entirely aware of how severe the situation was in Europe. For the past two days, a number of peace marches and protests had taken place in a number of major cities. The marches mirrored the fears of most people concerning the possibility of this crisis leading to eventual nuclear war. This fear had a sobering effect on almost everyone in North America and it was evident in the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding the addresses of national leaders and announcements of mobilization.

Public opinion polls indicated a large amount of support for President Reagan’s actions and the US position thus far. Americans realized this was not a crisis of their own government’s making, and the majority of people polled laid responsibility square on the Soviets. Ironically enough for the Reagan administration, the heightening tensions in the past two months had served to deflate the growing cauldron of public interest and concern in the Iran-Contra matter. The Reagan administration had allegedly sold arms to Iran in violation of an embargo then in place, and subsequently used the money from the sales to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. News had broken in November of 1986 and following the release of the Tower Report joint House-Senate hearings were scheduled and got underway in May. Public attention had waned as the international situation worsened. On the previous day the Senate announced the postponement of the hearings underway, effectively erasing the Iran-Contra affair from the American psyche.

 

(Apologies for splitting this post in two parts. Work commitments for this afternoon have to take precedence)

 

 

The View From The Flanks: AFSOUTH 6 July, 1987

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For the Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Southern Europe (CINC-AFSOUTH) Admiral James Busey, the bulk of 6 July was spent on the telephone with Norfolk, attempting to pry another aircraft carrier away from SACLANT for use in the Mediterranean. As it stood, the Sixth Fleet had only one carrier in the Mediterranean at present with the SaratogaConstellation was supposed to have steamed up from the Arabian Sea and made the transit through the Suez Canal but hadn’t yet. Chopping that carrier group to Sixth Fleet was turning into an impossible task. Seventh Fleet was complaining loudly that the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean were now naked of carrier support. Busey knew that was true, however, he was aware that Seventh Fleet could afford to transfer one of its other carriers to fill the void if necessary.

SACLANT was sympathetic, but his cupboard was quite bare at the moment. The carriers in the Atlantic were going to be needed there, so he was reluctant to even consider moving one of them east to the Sixth Fleet and AFSOUTH’s AOR. Yard workers in Norfolk were hustling to put the carriers there for overhaul back together and ready for sea as quickly as possible. It would be another week at the earliest before one of those decks became available and there was no guarantee that it would wind up coming his way anyhow.

So, as it stood, CINC-SOUTH had two traditional carriers available in the Mediterranean: Sara, and the French carrier Clemenceau. Doctrine called for at least three carriers (two of them at least being US) to fight and survive in the Eastern Med. Busey now had two, but the air wing aboard Clemeneau was nowhere near as powerful as the one on the US carrier. At sea, AFSOUTH’s main wartime mission would be to retain control of the Eastern Med and prevent it from becoming a Soviet lake. To do this, Busey’s command had developed a maritime strategy revolving around using the US Sixth Fleet and accompanying NATO units aggressively from the second hostilities commenced.

Busey envied his AFNORTH counterpart somewhat. The north flank had a laundry list of reinforcements from outside the AOR that were already packing and preparing to move. AFSOUTH and NATO’s vulnerable southern flank lacked the prepositioned equipment and specifically assigned units AFNORTH had. His reinforcements would be more of a scratch force depending on what was available and the situation at a given moment.

His command’s intelligence staff was working feverishly to develop a picture of what the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies might do in Southern Europe and the Med if war began. There were strong indications of a major build up going on in Buglaria, indicating a potential Soviet/WP plan to move into Thrace and cut off Turkey from the rest of Europe. The consequences of a successful Thrace offensive were almost too dire to contemplate. Therefore, keeping both Turkey and Greece from being driven out of the war also was positioned high on Busey’s priority list. The two nations were bitter enemies as well as NATO allies. The tense relationship nearly led to open war between the two back in March when the Greeks began exploring for oil in disputed waters. How well they would function together now was anybody’s guess.

The primary threat he was concerned with was that posed by Soviet Long Range Aviation, Naval Aviation and tactical air. From bases on the Black Sea coastline, Backfires and Badgers would waste little time in streaming down across Turkey to attack his ships in the Eastern Med. Satellite photos also indicated that Soviet aircraft were arriving in Bulgaria, and Syria. If the Turkish and Hellenic air forces were not up to the challenge of stopping these attacks, or at least inflicting moderate casualties, Saratoga’s battlegroup and air wing were going to have an exciting, and likely short life if the shooting started.

As late afternoon turned to early evening in Naples, Admiral Busey was contemplating a quick meal when the phone on his desk rang. He lifted it up.

“Yes?”

“Jim?” The voice on the other end belonged to SACEUR in Brussels. “Sorry to bother you. Have you got a second?”

“Evening, general. What can I do for you?” Busey was immediately on guard.

“I’ll be brief. Peter Carington is making a statement within the hour.” Carington was the NATO secretary general. “He is going to publicly announce that NATO is officially mobilizing.”

“God,” Busey breathed. “What took him so long?”

“I know,” General John Galvin chuckled. “Just a formality at this point, really. But I thought you should know.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. Since I have you on the line, is there anything new happening anywhere that I should be aware of?” The direct line from Brussels to Busey’s office was one of the most secure telephone lines in the world.

SACEUR was quiet for a long moment before responding, “The diplomatic efforts have closed down almost entirely. They weren’t making progress anyhow. Ready your command for action, Jim,” Galvin spoke slow and deliberately. “I’m guessing we have maybe another two days of peace left at best.”

 

USAFE Stands Up 6 July, 1987 (Part 2)

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Even though REFORGER assumed a major priority in the US reinforcement of Western Europe, the first priority was airpower. The trickle of warplanes leaving the United States for Europe on 6 July would shortly transform into a nearly constant stream as more active duty and eventually Air National Guard and reserve squadrons tagged for Europe came online. Combatant command and wing commanders in the US were not the only ones grappling with deployment and redeployment issues. Some of their counterparts in Europe were contending with similar problems, especially US commanders in the United Kingdom.

The 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing based at RAF Alconbury was in the midst of changing missions when Romanov’s coup was launched. The wing was transitioning from RF-4C Phantoms and their reconnaissance mission to A-10A Thunderbolt IIs. The wing was scheduled to be designated the 10th Tactical Fighter Wing in August of 1987. In June, the wing’s RF-4Cs departed England, leaving a hole in USAFE’s reconnaissance capabilities on the eve of battle. Air Guard squadrons flying the RF-4C would eventually fill the void. However, the pinch was felt during the first week of hostilities when combat losses and limited availability caused some disruption in tactical reconnaissance.

The 81st TFWs problems was strikingly different. The 81st was a combat wing made up of four A-10 squadrons based at RAF Bentwaters-Woodbridge. It was regarded as a super-wing that’s primary wartime role was to provide close air support for NATO ground forces trying to halt a Soviet advance into West Germany. Detachments of the wing’s aircraft were often rotated to forward operating locations in Germany as a hedge against a surprise Soviet invasion. Under current war plans, the 81st would fight from West Germany while Bentwaters hosted newly arrived fighter wings from the US.

Fortunately for USAFE, the 81st was well versed in its wartime mission and practiced for it regularly. The forward operating locations at Sembach, Leipheim, Alhorn and Norvenich Air Bases were fully stocked with ordnance, ammunition, fuel, and spare parts. Pilots and maintainers had spent so much time at one or more of these sites in the past that they were intimately familiar with them. So when the 81st’s commander Colonel Bill Studer received his orders from 3rd Air Force, the wing was ready to go. Within three hours the first C-130 carrying maintainers and other wing staff had arrived at Sembach.

CINC-USAFE was not entirely satisfied with the speed of the deployments and redeployments. General Bill Kirk, USAF was a realist by nature, and a perfectionist by trade. The former F-4 driver understood that the clock was running against him and NATO. War was coming and it would likely arrive before his command was completely reinforced and ready for action.  He was pushing his wing and base commanders to prepare their units for war as fervently as he was pushing Tactical Air Command and the Pentagon to send him as many aircraft and pilots as fast as possible. “I have enough gas, ammo, and spare parts to get through ten days of intensive air ops,” he confided to his TAC counterpart General Bob Russ. “For now just send me as many aircraft and pilots as you can before the balloon goes up!”

 

USAFE Stands Up 6 July, 1987 (Part 1)

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6 July, 1987 was a day the US Air Force had prepared long and hard for. Every year, at least one Rapid Reactor exercise was held to simulate the swift movement of stateside squadrons to their potential wartime airbases in Western Europe. After years of updating contingency plans, and training, the time had come to reinforce USAFE for real. Following the president’s speech on the night of 5 July, US airbase commanders across Western Europe were taking serious steps to prepare their respective bases for action. Within 24 hours a stream of tactical fighters would be streaming across the Atlantic from bases in the continental US to Europe. Simultaneously, two other resource-intensive events were happening which would directly affect air base operations.

One was the start of REFORGER and the reinforcement of Europe. Added to the flow of combat aircraft would be an endless stream of transport aircraft carrying men and supplies. In some cases, these large aircraft would be landing at the same bases earmarked to receive large numbers of fighters from the US. It was the responsibility of the base commanders to ensure that airlift and tactical air operations could coexist with minimal no hindrance to either.

The second event was the evacuation of US dependents from Western Europe, specifically West Germany for the moment. As per SACEUR’s  Rapid Reinforcement Plan, the evacuation was to begin within 12 hours of REFORGER. The concept was simple in theory at least: Transport aircraft would deliver troops and equipment to Europe and then return to the US with dependents. To augment the departure of US families from the potential war zone, Military Airlift Command had contracted a number of airliners from regional European carriers. The first families to be evacuated, predictably, were those living on or in close proximity to the airbases where the airlift/evacuations were taking place. This had nothing to do with favoritism. It was quite simply a matter of common sense. These mothers and children were closest to where they needed to be. Hence, they would be some of the first dependents placed on westward flights. The evacuation officially began on 6 July, moving smoothly at first. But within 12 hours the first major problems would arise. Ironically, these issues would have nothing to do with the airbases, or the availability or aircraft. It would be the traffic jams on the autobahns that inevitably disrupted the evacuation process. This will be discussed in greater detail in later posts.

The first tactical aircraft to arrive in Europe were F-15C Eagles from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley AFB in Virginia. As per the contingency plans, Bitburg Air Base was their wartime base. Bitburg was already home to the F-15s of the 36th TFW so integrating the new arrivals with the base’s maintenance, and aircraft support personnel and facilities went smoothly. The greatest issue for the base commander at Bitburg was where put all of the additional aircraft. Luckily for him, he had contingency plans available for dealing with this matter too, and the plans were executed almost flawlessly.

Over the next 12 hours similar scenes would be taking place at bases all over the Federal Republic of Germany and neighboring countries as the first contingents of combat aircraft from the US landed. F-4s from the 4th TFW at Seymour Johnson AFB went to Lahr AB, while F-15Cs from the 33rd TFW at Eglin AFB deployed to Soesterberg AB in the Netherlands. As the 6th turned into the 7th and beyond, the number and type of combat aircraft arriving increased dramatically.

Part II of this post will be published Friday and discuss a few of the unique challenges facing USAFE bases and wings as the transition from peace to war was sped up.

 

Group Soviet Forces Germany 6 July, 1987

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When the Commander-In-Chief of Group Soviet Forces Germany (GFSG) General Boris Snetkov informed his aide that he was retiring to his quarters for six hours, he made it clear that he was not to be disturbed for anything short of war. He had gone thirty-six straight hours with no sleep whatsoever and realized that this was simply not acceptable. Commanders needed their rest, especially now. Snetkov smartly decided to take advantage of a quiet period now while he could.

For Snetkov, the past month had been a whirlwind of activity. Shortly after the new General Secretary had assumed his duties in the Kremlin, the Minister of Defense began a reshuffling of senior military commanders. Ousted or transferred were men known to be supportive of, or sympathetic to the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. Snetkov was neither. He was originally scheduled to take command of GFSG from General Lushev in November of 1987. Romanov’s ascent to power changed that and Snetkov took command in early June instead.

From that moment forward he was a general officer preparing his command for a potential war. As June went on, Snetkov familiarized himself with his staff and the commanders of the army groups assigned to GFSG. The more he learned, the better position he managed to take it determining his how ready his command would be if the order to move west came from Moscow. One army group commander had been replaced and Snetkov’s own staff had experienced a moderate turnover. The general was more confident now than he’d been a month ago. There was more work to be done though.

The question was whether or not he would have the time. Frankly, Snetkov doubted it. He did not know for certain what was going on in the Kremlin, but the general had been told to prepare his forces for possible offensive action by mid-July. Even going at the current pace, he was not certain GFSG would be completely ready by then.

At 0300 local time he was abruptly woken up by his aide who then informed Snetkov that the minister of defense was waiting on the phone. The general took a moment to gather himself before nodding to his aide who handed over a bulky cordless phone.

“Boris Ivanovitch,” the voice of Marshal of the Soviet Union and current Minister of Defense Dimitri Yazov came through surprisingly clear.

“Good morning, Comrade Minister,” Snetkov replied, shaking away the cobwebs as best he could.

“Are you at your headquarters right now?”

“No, I am not. Do you need me to go there?”

Yazov paused briefly, considering. “Yes, it would be for the best.”

Snetkov started to get a sickening feeling in his stomach. “Has something happened?”

“The Americans have announced they will begin reinforcing Europe. I will meet with the politburo later this morning and recommend immediate full-scale mobilization. Begin your preparations now, Boris Ivanovitch. If the General Secretary is in agreement with my recommendations your tanks will begin crossing the border in seventy-two hours.”