Shortly after 0100 local time on 8 July, 1987, SACEUR issued what was perhaps his most critical pre-war order. As the armies massing across Europe captured the attention of the world, a debate was raging behind the scenes in Brussels and select Western capitals. The question of whether or not to disperse NATO’s force of Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) into the field was being debated. From an operational standpoint, General Galvin favored dispersal of his primary tactical nuclear weapons at once. The installations where the BGM-109G Gryphons, and Pershing IIs were based would almost certainly be a prime target for Soviet airstrikes and commando raids when the balloon went up. The missiles would be far more secure if deployed to their dispersal locations where they’d be spread out and placed under the watchful eye of well-trained Air Force security troops.
Politically, a decision to disperse had to be closely considered. Moving the force into the field could be mistaken as preparation for a pre-emptive strike by Moscow. If the Soviets really believed that, the war that everybody feared was about to begin could likely begin with nuclear weapons used in the first salvo. Civilian reaction in NATO countries was another concern political and military leaders had to take into account. Moving the weapons now ran the risk of sparking a panic if it became publicly known. This in turn, could lead to unfounded rumors spreading, and a deeper public hysteria blossoming at the worst possible time.
When all was said and done, the decision was left up to the President of the United States and SACEUR. In a conversation shortly before 2300 Brussels time on 7 July, Reagan let Galvin know he favored dispersal, but the final decision on the matter was the general’s to make. For Galvin, it was simple. Intelligence reports confirmed the Soviets were moving their SS-20s out of garrison and into the field. Once the telephone call with the president ended, SACEUR contacted the secretary general and informed Carrington of his intent to immediately order the dispersal of NATO’s ground based nuclear forces.
In the predawn darkness on 8 July, at sites across West Germany, United Kingdom, Belgium, and Italy, convoys departed for their respective dispersal areas. At the Ground Launched Cruise Missile bases, the peace camps European civilians had constructed in close proximity to the fences were deconstructed and removed as the international situation had worsened. One of these bases was RAF Greenham Common, home of the 501st Tactical Missile Wing.
The first vehicles to depart Greenham were the transport-erector launchers and accompanying security and maintenance vehicles belonging to Alpha Flight. The sixteen vehicles of the flight headed north towards its intended dispersal area ensconced in the North Wessex Downs. British military policemen stood guard along the route, keeping the few civilians who’s curiosity got the best of them far enough away. Even before Alpha arrived at its destination, Charlie Flight was leaving Greenham Common, headed to its own dispersal area.
Word of the GLCM and Pershing movement eventually made it east that afternoon, causing Soviet planners to revise the operational planning. Spetznaz commandos and intelligence officers who were already on the ground near the NATO bases shifted their efforts to locating the dispersal areas. These teams had penetrated into Western Europe days earlier, originally tasked with raiding the installations, which now seemed pointless given that most of them were empty. The race was now on to locate the dispersal sites and prepare the commando teams before the start of hostilities in less than 24 hours.