Vital Peripheries: Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf 8 July, 1987

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On 8 July, 1987 CENTCOM was in the best possible shape possible. A brigade of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division was on the ground at Cario West Air Base in Egypt. A detachment of E-3 Sentries, along with two fighter squadrons, one of F-15s and the other of F-16s, and accompanying tankers were at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The Maritime Prepositioning Ships carrying the equipment of a Marine Amphibious Brigade had left their anchorage at Diego Garcia and were steaming towards the Strait of Hormuz with the Constellation battlegroup taking up position to support its transit. Marines from the 7th Marine Amphibious Brigade based at Twentynine Palms in California were moving to Saudi Arabia by air to mate up with the equipment now at sea. A large contingent was on the ground already, and CENTCOM expected to have the brigade’s manpower entirely in Saudi by 11 July at the latest. It was a matter of available airlift assets and priorities. There simply were not enough transports and CRAF aircraft available at the moment to satisfy everyone’s needs. Europe was the priority, and CENTCOM simply had to deal with it.

The brigade from the 82nd was in Egypt as a compromise of sorts. AFSOUTH was loudly complaining about the lack of ground reinforcements available for his command. He wanted to take the entire 82nd and use it as a fire brigade of sorts wherever it might be needed in his command’s area of responsibility. General Crist, CINC-CENT came down hard on the idea, complaining quite correctly that the 82nd Airborne was tagged for his command’s use in wartime. Admiral Crowe personally settled the matter and ordered the 82nd to stage at Cairo West for the time being. If it was needed in the Med or Southern Europe it would go there. If it was needed in Saudi, the force would be sent there. Through negotiations with the Egyptians, a deal was reached where the Egyptian Air Force would handle airlifting the unit wherever it needed to go.

The rest of the division was still at Fort Bragg and would not move until the first brigade was committed. The entire 101st Airborne Division was operating under the same principle. Behind those two units, the 7th Light Infantry Division and an assortment of Marine units were on the deployment list. They were prepping now, yet it was anyone’s guess when they would actually be ready to deploy.

The US Air Force was preparing to move more of its elements tagged for CENTCOM to the Middle East. The remainder of the 49th TFW (F-15s) and 388th TFW (F-16s) were hurriedly packing, and A-10s from Myrtle Beach and F-111s from Mountain Home had received warning orders to move. With just another five days of peace, Crist would feel better.

Unfortunately, five days did not appear likely. Five hours of peace was a more realistic estimate. Throughout the day, the situation had been progressively moving from bad to worse on a number of fronts. Crist had not paid that much attention, but nevertheless heard rumblings. In his command’s theater things were quiet. The Soviet forces in Yemen were doing nothing outside of routine patrols. In the Arabian Sea, naval activity was minimal. Most significantly, the Northern Caucus Military District was not making any moves to suggest operations against Iran or Saudi Arabia were imminent. That, however, could change at a moment’s notice, Crist was aware.

As was the case for general officers around the world at that moment, he had more than enough to occupy his mind. Yet, unlike the majority of his American peers, General Crist was, for the moment, a man without a war on the horizon. Strangely enough, instead of providing comfort to him, the thought filled him with apprehension.

 

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Vital Peripheries: Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf 5 July, 1987

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*Author’s note: I jumped around the timeline again. I apologize. But this idea came up long after the project was underway and I wanted to backtrack a bit and fit it in. Again, apologies. – Mike*

In late June and early July of 1987, as tensions rose in Europe and elsewhere, the Persian Gulf region transformed into a bastion of virtual serenity. As the superpowers moved towards an imminent conflict, the Iran-Iraq war receded dramatically. Whether this was by design, or circumstance was not known at the time. It was safe to assume that both Baghdad and Tehran had independently recognized the deteriorating global situation for what it was and chose to shift their military and diplomatic focuses to other areas for the time being.

The lull in fighting did not bring celebratory reactions from either country’s neighbors. Instead, nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain looked warily to the north and east, nervously wondering where the next threat would originate from. In the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, King Fahd was already aware of how ripe a target his country might seem to Iraq, Iran, or even the Soviet Union. The vast oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia translated to power and wealth for the kingdom. Whoever controlled those fields, held sway over immeasurable influence and power on the global stage. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia was incapable of defending the boundless resources located beneath its land. The Saudi military, though well-equipped with Western weapons, was small and not very effective. The King understood that the key to his kingdom’s survival was the United States. He was a staunch ally of the United States, a position born out of necessity as much as candor. Once, he had been quoted as saying that, “After Allah, we can count on the United States.”

For much of the late 70s and early 80s, the Saudis invested billions in upgrading its military infrastructure. This undertaking was not to benefit its own military forces as much as it was to increase the interoperability between Saudi installations and US forces. Airbases were rebuilt to US standards, and pre-positioned fuel and weapons depots were strategically placed throughout the country. King Fahd understood that the day could come when a large influx of US forces into Saudi Arabia might materialize. As June turned to July, it appeared that the day could be coming soon.

As REFORGER was getting underway on 5 July, a request was made by King Fahd at the most inopportune time. He placed a telephone call to President Reagan, and quite bluntly invited US forces to use his country as a base of operations if the situation required. It was a request for help, masked as an offer to help, and both leaders understood this. Following the conversation, Reagan spoke with his NSC about the issue. The Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense recommended that he take the Saudis up on their offer.

Two nightmare scenarios for the Pentagon centered around a Soviet/Iraqi move to capture the Saudi oilfields, and a Soviet invasion of Iran, to capture the Iranian oilfields and close the Strait of Hormuz. Since the US had only a token military force in the Persian Gulf currently, it would have to move additional forces in to counter a move against the oil fields. Saudi Arabia provided the perfect foundation for a buildup of forces in the region to counter Soviet designs on either the Arabian Peninsula or Iran.

A Soviet move against the oil fields was such a horrifying prospect, the US military had created a command specifically to deal with it just four years earlier. Central Command, formerly the Rapid Deployment Force, was tasked with preventing Soviet domination of the region. CENTCOM, as it is known, was comprised of combat and support units from each service that were able to deploy swiftly. Unfortunately, units that can deploy rapidly are generally always light infantry units, not equipped with the heavy weapons that would be needed to stop Soviet armor.

Annual CENTCOM exercises focused on countering a Soviet invasion of Iran. Lessons learned were then fed into already existing contingency plans. Saudi Arabia was the lynchpin for CENTCOM’s plans. It could build up and stage its forces directly from there in relative safety. In the event of a direct Soviet effort against the Saudi oil fields, CENTCOM’s forces would have the advantage of a pre-existing network of ready installations for its air and ground forces to fight from.

In Washington, it was a question of priorities. REFORGER was going to consume the lion’s share of airlift capability for some time, and the majority of USAF combat squadrons being readied would be heading to Europe. The Reagan administration wanted to assist the Saudis by moving a mid-sized force to the kingdom. But it was no going to be done at the expense of slowing down REFORGER. A middle ground needed to be found.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs got the ball rolling with a call to CENTCOM’s stateside headquarters at MacDill AFB outside of Tampa. He informed CENTCOM’s Commander-In-Chief General George Crist, USMC, of the Saudi request. He ordered Crist to put together a plan to reinforce the Saudis and be up in DC at 9 AM the following day to present it.

 

Strategic Considerations: Red Banner Northern Fleet 8 July, 1987

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Commander of the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet Admiral Ivan Matveyevich Kapitanets looked down at the stack of yellow message forms on his desk and shook his head tiredly. He did not bother to even glance at them when they’d arrived, already aware of the disappointing news they carried. Each one was a report detailing the position, speed, and course of a ship under his command as of one hour ago. His operations chief had delivered a summary of those reports fifteen minutes earlier. To put it bluntly, the Northern Fleet’s timeline lay in shambles.

The majority of Kapitanets’ attack submarines were a half day north of where they should have been by this point. His largest, and most powerful surface groups were supposed to be steaming south and entering the Norwegian Sea at this very moment. Unfortunately, the ships were still gathering in the Barents Sea and would not be in position to open hostilities as per the fleet’s battleplan until M+12 hours at the earliest. This particular setback was going to cause the most havoc with the operational timeline, but there was nothing Kapitanets could do about it.

The fleet had sortied much later than he intended. Doctrine called for the Red Banner Northern Fleet to sortie fully seven to eight days previous to the outbreak of fighting. Because of vacillating on the part of Moscow, Kapitanents, as well as his counterparts in the Black Sea, Baltic and Pacific fleets, did not surge their forces as quickly as they wanted to. The delay would adversely affect his fleet more than the others because of distances between the main fleet bases on the Kola Peninsula and the Norwegian Sea, and North Atlantic. His attack submarines had gotten off at a moderate pace instead of one massive surge as doctrine had also called for.

Luckily, his NATO and US Navy opponents were responding sloppily to the tensions and this afforded Kapitanets precious additional time to move his assets into position. NATO convoys bound for Europe would not be in range of his submarines and, potentially, his bombers for at least three days. The amphibious assault groups carrying reinforcements into the Norwegian Sea would be struck as they came into range too. The admiral also wondered if the reports about the vaunted US aircraft carriers were true as well. Intelligence estimated it would be at least ten days before enough carriers were massed together to begin a move north into the Norwegian Sea. By that time, even after contending with early setbacks, the Red Banner Northern Fleet would be ready to do battle with them.

There were other strategic issues to contend with. Foremost was Moscow’s decree to keep all Soviet ballistic missile submarines in port for the time being. The Kremlin appeared reluctant to make any moves that might be considered as signs of escalation by the United States. Kapitanets understood the reasoning by his political masters. Unfortunately, they did not sympathize with the problems this decision had on his fleet and its war plans. Obviously, the US Navy would be gunning for his ballistic missile submarines. He intended to place them in a bastion, defended by an impenetrable wall of submarines, ASW forces, and aircraft as a counter. By rights, those ballistic missile subs should be under guard in the White Sea and beneath the ice pack right now. As it was, Moscow’s decree meant they would remain in port for the time being. As long as they stayed there, a sizeable portion of his ASW units, and some attack submarines did too.

Looking out of the large window in his Severomorsk office, Kapitanents thought about how dependent his command would be on airpower, especially in the opening days. Success or failure of the entire Norwegian Sea/North Atlantic campaign might very well be determined by the heavy bombers of Naval Aviation and their Long Range Aviation comrades. He was intimately familiar with what advantages land based airpower brought to the table, but having to rely so heavily on it went against his very nature. It was a necessary evil though, and one he could support for the moment. Thirty six hours from now if northern Norway and Iceland were not pacified, Kapitanets take on airpower might be entirely different.

 

 

SAC on the Eve of War: 8 July, 1987

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In the last hours of peace on 8 June, 1987, the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command found itself in an unprecedented position. While its sister major commands in the Air Force and other service branches were hurriedly preparing for a war that seemed ready to begin at any moment, SAC was taking extreme measures to adopt and maintain a low key, business-as-usual approach. It was strange to imagine, but nevertheless true. Even though diplomatic efforts had more or less ended by this time, a late afternoon discussion over the hotline between President Reagan and General Secretary Romanov had produced an unexpected agreement: Both leaders agreed to keep the posture of their respective strategic forces untouched unless the alert level of the other superpower appeared to be changing. Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart had come to a mutual agreement on the conduct of the war that was to come. The Third World War would be fought conventionally. If NATO or the Warsaw Pact fared badly on the battlefield though, it could mean that all bets were off. At the very least, the superpowers wanted to make a sincere effort to keep the lid on the nuclear box for as long as possible.

This did little to assuage the nerves of SAC aircrews, missileers, and personnel assigned to SAC headquarters in Omaha, or any other SAC base across the US. The next time the klaxons went off it would be the real thing. CINC-SAC, General John Chain and his operations staff were kept busy keeping current with what was happening in Europe, while simultaneously preparing the command for action. The Looking Glass airborne command post would remain airborne at all times, as always. The Soviets understood Looking Glass and would not see the move as an escalation. Alert facilities at SAC bases were becoming cramped quarters. Additional aircrews were moving in as the number of tankers and bombers on alert was increased. Maintenance teams were combing over Minuteman III and Peacekeeper ICBMs constantly to ensure the missiles would be combat ready if the time came.

Not all SAC bombers would remain at their stateside bases on alert, though. Just as during Vietnam, conventionally-armed heavy bombers were going to be in high demand in this conflict. Some SAC squadrons had been assigned conventional roles in a time of war and were trained up to execute those missions if it became necessary. Two B-52 squadrons, one at Andersen AFB and the other at Loring AFB were tasked to employ Harpoon anti-ship missiles against Soviet warships in the Pacific, and North Atlantic. Other -52 squadrons were slated to support ground forces in Europe. Although they were in high demand, Chain was reluctant to part with more strategic bombers than absolutely necessary. His hesitation brought about intervention by the Joint Chiefs. General Larry Welch, the USAF Chief of Staff and Chain’s predecessor at SAC told him bluntly over a secure phone line, “Goddammit, John! Quit being so stingy. We both know your command has more than enough bombers and missiles to wipe Russia off the map. You can afford to part with a few -52s. Using them in Europe against Russian tanks might help to stop us from having to use the rest of your force over Russia later on.” Shortly after the phone call, warning orders went out to the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB to prepare for movement across the Atlantic.

For the rest of SAC, though, it was the usual watch-and-wait game. God willing, it would become nothing more.

Soviet Air Mobile Forces on the Eve of Battle: 8 July, 1987

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Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact had fairly solid notions about what moves the other side would make in the opening hours of a conflict. Awareness does not automatically translate to an assured defeat or neutralization of those moves on the battlefield, however. Countermoves and defenses were created, worked into pre-existing operational plans, and practiced. However, their value would not be known until the balloon went up and the shooting starts.

NATO had a high regard for Soviet air assault forces and their capabilities after seven years of observing their use in Afghanistan. Alliance planners also had a keen idea of how the Soviets would decide to employ these forces in the first phase of a Soviet/Pact offensive against Western Europe. In the confusion of those first minutes, with the skies over West Germany and Denmark filled with hundreds of Warsaw Pact and NATO aircraft, heliborne troops would probably land at dozens of sites spread across NATO’s rear areas. Their objectives would range from seizing bridgeheads on the Weser and other rivers, to assaulting forward division and corps headquarters.

The Soviets had many specialized air assault battalions and regiments available to them for these tasks. The 35th Guards Air Assault Regiment was GFSG’s main air assault component. A number of additional air assault battalions had taken part in the June exercises and remained in Eastern Europe instead of returning to the Soviet Union. As tensions rose, and diplomacy broke down, company, and battalion-sized air assault forces began preparing for their wartime tasks.

NATO, in turn, was preparing to defend headquarters, air defense sites, bridges, REFORGER and nuclear weapons sites against possible Soviet air mobile assaults. Security was increased practically everywhere it might be needed at a time when every available soldier was desperately needed farther forward. West German, Dutch, Belgian, and Danish reserve units that should’ve been moving to join their parent active duty brigades and divisions were instead finding themselves watching over bridgeheads on the Weser or Rhine, and babysitting road intersections hundreds of kilometers away from the border. USAREUR focused its best security units on REFORGER sites and the field locations of its GLCM and Pershing II missiles. USAFE contributed to the later but its main security focus was the defense of its fixed installations across Europe.

At forward airbases across East Germany on 8 July, Soviet paratroopers were reviewing plans and making the final preparations for their coming missions. The commander of the 1185th Air Assault Battalion was confident his unit would achieve its objectives. The confidence did not come from hubris or arrogance. All of his company commanders, and a majority of the NCOs were, like him, veterans of Afghanistan. When he took command of the battalion the previous year, he made it a point to bring in as many experienced men as possible. That experience would be needed in the coming days.

The 1185th had a crucial role to play in the coming offensive. It would be transported as a whole unit to secure a number of bridgeheads on the Weser River and hold them until relieved by the armored spearheads of the 3rd Shock Army. The battalion commander was assured that his forces would be rescued within 3 days. He was not prepared to stake his life and that of his men on the promise of an arrogant tank general. In all likelihood it would be twice that amount of time before his battalion was rescued, if at all. In war there are no guarantees, he knew all too well. Therefore, he was bringing as much ammunition, rations, and other essential supplies forward as he could.

As he stood sweltering in the mid-afternoon heat, watching one of his assault companies go through calisthenics, he hoped other air assault unit commanders were thinking along similar lines. In fifteen hours or so they would all be on the ground behind NATO lines, and cut off from resupply. The mere thought was enough to send a chill up his spine.

The colonel took one last look at his men and walked away, wondering just how many of them would be alive at the same time tomorrow.

A Glimpse at West Berlin: Early July, 1987

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*Authors Note: I realize this posting is off the timeline somewhat and apologize in advance. Next weekend, I plan to spend time editing and reorganizing the pre-war posts into a more orderly presentation. That will precede the beginning of the posts centered on the actual conflict. Apologies for not doing this sooner. –Mike*

Opinions on what West Berlin’s fate would be in the event of war were wide and varied. The contentious history of the divided city, along with the symbolism that both East and West attached to it opened a realm of possibilities. On one end of the spectrum, many military and political observers expected a major East German/Soviet offensive against the city to commence immediately upon the opening of hostilities. A primary reason for this opinion was the fact that West Berlin had been a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union and its East German puppets for almost twenty-six years. Another reason was the amount of political capital a Berlin reunification would bring to the Warsaw Pact, especially early on in a war.

Another group influential political and military observers believed the opposite rang true. From a strict military perspective, seizing West Berlin would require a large, and capable East German force, likely supported by the Soviets to some degree. The regiments, and divisions comprising that force would be better utilized in a Warsaw Pact push into West Germany. Therefore, it made little sense to task so many units with the mission of capturing a half-city so far behind the potential frontline that would have no operational bearing on the outcome of the war. Leaving West Berlin untouched might bring in political and propaganda capital for the Soviets, something else which might be sorely needed as a conflict progresses.

West Berlin was taking no chances though. The lessons of 1948 blockade had been taken to heart. The city was prepared for a protracted state of hostilities, blockade, or whatever the future might bring. Large reserves of food, drinking water, emergency supplies, and other staples of life had been amassed should Berlin’s lifelines to the west ever be severed. Individual Berliners, and families mimicked the preparations made by their city government. Families, apartment buildings, and even neighborhoods had caches of food, and other necessities stashed away, and regularly replenished the items as expiration dates came and went. In ordnung is not simply a phrase for Germans. It is a way of life.

The city’s American, French, and British defenders were prepared to challenge an East German/Soviet invasion, yet they were also very realistic regarding the odds of a successful defense without reinforcements from the outside. Plans had been drafted and practiced for the possibility that troops from the West Berlin garrison might have to escape the city before its occupation and resort to a guerilla-style campaign against the GDR and Soviet occupiers until relief forces arrive.

As tensions increased in late June of ’87, the growing concern in West Berlin was the city’s corridors to the west. Would they remain open for long if the global situation did not reverse itself? Berlin’s citizens were keenly following events and reacted almost instinctively.  Each day more elderly, women, and children were sent west by concerned families. The offstage exodus was quietly condoned by the city fathers who were reluctant to call for an official evacuation for fear of sparking a major panic.  Other preparations were going on out of the public spotlight. US, French, and British officers, along with officials of the West Berlin police were out every night scouting areas marked to be used as potential strongpoints in a future battle for the city. The main strategy was to bog down the invaders in bloody house-to-house fighting. To make this strategy work, military officers had a keen awareness of what intersections offered the best fields of fire for anti-tank missile teams, the buildings sturdy enough to serve as a temporary redoubt, and a thousand other details essential to planning the defense of the city.

If West Berlin was to be fought over, the Western forces garrisoned there were determined to make the East Germans, Russians, and whoever else crossed the border pay a steep price in blood for every yard they advanced into the city.

 

The Media Goes To War: 8 July, 1987

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Combat aircraft, soldiers, weapons, and equipment were not the only things streaming into Western Europe in those tense early July days. The global media was heading off to war as well, and there was a significant amount of anxiety all around. The relationship between the US military and the media had not yet fully healed from American media’s treatment of the services during the Vietnam War. It had bred a deep resentment and distrust of the media in US military circles. Even the post-Vietnam generation of officers, NCOs, and soldiers took the lessons to heart.  As a general rule, soldiers have to contend with reporters. It is part of the job. However, no directive exists that can force a soldier to like it. In the post-Vietnam years, the relationship between America’s defenders and its media can best be described as a cool, yet peaceful co-existence. With the world moving towards another major war, there was no guessing what shape the relationship would assume once the shooting started.

The events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities took the US and global media by surprise, as it did to essentially everyone else on the planet. Overnight, the major networks, publications and newly emerging cable news networks had to formulate a plan of action. The Pentagon and NATO headquarters in Brussels was doing much the same thing with regards to the media. Soon there would be hundreds of reporters on the ground in Europe to deal with. A plan was needed, and quickly.

There was much to consider. This war would involve unprecedented Western media coverage. Satellites, and emerging technologies were changing the way reporters covered conflicts. The ability to go live anywhere in the world was a simple act nowadays. The diminishing size of cameras, recorders, and other devices made journalists more mobile. Could they be trusted to report objectively and without revealing details and information that could potentially cause harm to the war effort? Was there enough time to give reporters rudimentary training on how to survive on the modern battlefield and then send them out into the field to join a unit already there? What would the bent of the media be in general; Pro-US and NATO, objectively neutral, or hostile?

By 8 July, a number of journalists had made it forward and joined military units assigned to them by NATO or the Pentagon. It was not simply up to a journalist, or their respective parent agency to decide what unit they would be attached to. For that matter, no reporter was permitted to travel freely anywhere. If they were found to be moving about without their unit or a previously authorized military escort, the offending party was transported to the rear immediately and inevitably sent home. For the most part, journalists were assigned to units belonging to their respective home country. It made little sense to place a Portuguese reporter with a Dutch infantry battalion, for example. Journalists from nations not involved in the fighting were assigned to roving press pools that rarely made it close to the battle line.

In the last days of peace some issues did crop up between the military and media. A BBC reporter attached to the British Army of the Rhine mentioned offhandedly in a live transmission with anchors back in London the delays  some units of the Dutch Army were having in reaching their prewar positions. Farther south in the US V Corps area of operations an intrepid young reporter from NBC reporter took a camera crew out to record a piece on an abandoned village in front of the US Army battalion he was attached to. The battalion commander provided an escort and warned the reporter not to explore the town because it had been ‘prepared.’ The reporter, naturally, became curious. At the first chance he got, he and his crew ditched their escort to explore the deserted town more thoroughly on their own. Less than three minutes later, he stumbled across a claymore mine that had been placed near an intersection. The reporter and his two-man camera crew were all severely wounded and had to be medevaced to the rear. Brussels, and the Pentagon were incensed and came down hard on the media. It was announced that the parent company of any journalist who violated field regulations would be punished along with the offender. All journalists, cameramen and employees of the parent company would be removed from their attached units and transported to the rear for the duration of the conflict.

Senior officers in Brussels, Washington, and across the globe had more important issues to contend with than the media. As the morning dragged on, solid indications started to appear which made it clear the Soviet offensive was likely set to begin within the next 24 to 36 hours.