SACLANT’s Concerns 5-6 July, 1987

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Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACLANT) Admiral Lee Baggett Jr, USN was NATO’s senior naval officer. His area of responsibility was vast, stretching from the North Pole to the Tropic of Cancer, and from the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada across the Atlantic to Portugal. In wartime, Baggett’s command was tasked primarily with keeping the sea lines of communication (SLOC) between North America and Europe open to ensure the reinforcement and resupply of Europe. Without a massive, and nearly constant stream of men, equipment, and ammunition going from North America to Europe, NATO would likely lose the land war.

From his headquarters in Norfolk, Baggett was receiving near constant situation reports from every element of his command. It was 2330 local time in Virginia. Dozens of merchant vessels from around the world, long with allied and US Navy warships were converging on US east coast ports. Those ports would become beehives of activity in the coming days, most likely, as heavy equipment and supplies from US Army arrived. Baggett was hopeful about having the first convoy underway for Europe within 24 hours.

Shortly after President Reagan’s address, Secretary of Defense Weinberger contacted Baggett to let him know the call up of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet would be augmented by the National Defense Reserve Fleet by 0300. This meant the nation’s emergency reserve fleet of merchant ships would begin activation the next morning. It would be helpful, but only a handful of the ships would be activated within the next 20 days. The majority would take far longer to be made seaworthy once again.

Merchant shipping was only one of SACLANT’s concerns as 5 July came to an end. With REFORGER beginning, the bulk of cargo aircraft were going to be busy moving troops across the Atlantic to Europe. Baggett had reminded the Secretary of Defense that his command also needed transport aircraft to move the 4th Marine Amphibious Brigade from Camp Lejeune to marry up with its pre-positioned equipment in Norway. Weinberger assured him the planes would be available when the time came. As of yet, though, no orders for the 4th MAB’s movement had been issued.

Aircraft carriers were another concern. At the moment, he only had two carriers in the Atlantic. Forrestal had been working up in preparation for a deployment to take part in the NATO exercise Ocean Venture 87 in August. As tensions began to rise in June, her orders were revised. Right now, Forrestal and her escorts were steaming towards the North Atlantic. The USS Dwight Eisenhower had been underway in the Caribbean Sea in early July. Now, she was 12 hours from Norfolk and a very brief turnaround before heading back out to sea. She would likely join Forrestal, and hopefully a third carrier (fourth even if all went well) and form the bulk of Strike Fleet Atlantic. From there, Baggett’s war plans called for a three-carrier group at least to steam into the Norwegian Sea and seize control of it from the Red Banner Northern Fleet. The third carrier, Kitty Hawk had just arrived in Philadelphia to begin her Service Life Extension Program, a three-year major overhaul. With tensions rising, the CNO decided that she would be of better use at sea. The carrier was scheduled to depart from Philadelphia within the next 48 hours, her air wing would come aboard and she’d be ready for sustained combat operations.

That was the plan at least. No war plan survives first contact, and Baggett knew all too well that he needed to be flexible. Battle losses in theater, or an unexpected turn in the conflict might call for a revamping of NATO’s maritime doctrine.

As things stood, Baggett suspected peacetime was drawing to a close. Sooner or later the shooting would start. The Soviet Union had begun mobilizing two days ago. The West Germans were now mobilizing on their own. Now the US was in the game and other NATO allies were recognizing the threat and also responding. Belatedly, in SACLANT’s eyes. REFORGER was a good start, but it was just the start. Additional reinforcements and callups of reservists were coming, Baggett was certain.

Midnight passed almost unnoticed. In SACLANT’s mind, however, the start of 6 July would be remembered as the moment when he began to accept the reality that the Third Battle of the Atlantic was on the horizon and the outcome for NATO would be his responsibility.

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