Airbase Angst: D-1 (8 July, 1987) **

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Airbase commanders on both sides of the Iron Curtain breathed a collective sigh of relief as the sun rose in the eastern sky on the morning of 8 July, 1987. In NATO and Warsaw Pact air forces alike, the lessons of the Six Day War were well known. The preemptive airstrikes Israel launched against Egyptian airfields in the early morning hours of the Six Day War destroyed over 300 combat aircraft, and irreparably damaged Egypt’s military infrastructure. The Egyptian Air Force was paralyzed and subsequently unable to support Egypt’s ground forces in the fighting to come.

Since then, the possibility of a massive series of predawn airstrikes against airbases, Command and control sites, and radars became the nightmare scenario for air commanders around the world. NATO anticipated any future war to begin with a concentrated effort against its airfields and air defenses, while Warsaw Pact commanders expected NATO to begin counter air operations as soon as possible.

After Israel destroyed the unprotected Egyptian Air Force, airbase protection became a priority. Hardened Aircraft Shelters soon became a standard feature of Western airbases, while the Soviet Union and its allies turned to a new generation of SAMs and self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons to effectively  protect its air forces on the ground. Eventually, the Soviets did come around to the HAS concept, but nowhere near as fast as NATO did. On the eve of war HAS construction was still underway at almost every major Soviet airbase in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

NATO airbase commanders accepted the reality that their bases were going to receive immediate, concentrated attention from Warsaw Pact air forces. Perhaps from Soviet air mobile forces as well. Base defenses were readied,  aircraft were dispersed and spread out as much as possible. Pilots, staff officers, ground crew personnel and security troops alike worked, slept and ate with their cumbersome NBC gear nearby. It was expected that Pact forces were going to be using chemical weapons from the outset. The farther forward a NATO airbase was located, the more apprehensive  the base commander was.

Their Soviet and Warsaw Pact counterparts were thinking along similar lines. The greatest unknown on the eastern side of the Inner-German Border was the accuracy and effectiveness of the new generation of NATO warplanes, and air-to-ground weapons. The consensus among the more senior base commanders was that NATO air forces held the edge in the quality of aircraft and weapons. If air superiority was lost over East Germany, round-the-clock airstrikes could be expected. Therefore, it was no surprise that fighter regiment and base commanders from Magdeburg to Vilnius were screaming for additional air defense assets.

What very few NATO, and Warsaw Pact air officers recognized at the time was that the morning of 8 July would be the last morning of peace for a while.

 

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