Ignition on the Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0100 Hours Local

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At 0100 hours local time (GMT+2 hours) on 9 July there were two dozen Soviet special operations teams in place across West Germany. The majority of them were moving towards their mission objectives by this time. Some were already in position and simply waiting for the right time. Most teams were made up of anywhere between eight and twenty Spetsnaz soldiers, and one or two KGB operatives. A handful of groups consisted solely of KGB personnel. These were the ones tasked with political assassinations and the like. When the time came, most of the teams and groups would act independently of one another. Only in a handful of instances was more than one team assigned to the same target.

The Red Army’s infatuation with special operations teams was well known within NATO military circles. It was assumed that a Soviet offensive would kick off with raids by these groups against NATO targets deep behind the lines. The primary purpose of the strikes was to sew confusion, and chaos in the early hours of fighting. Quite possibly, if the stars lined up properly, one or two of the strikes might succeed in causing enough damage to tilt the balance in favor of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces at a critical moment somewhere down the line.

The list of potential Spetsnaz targets was staggeringly large. The grim reality facing NATO was that its security forces were stretched to the limit already. It could not defend every possible target at one time. Many fixed targets such as airbases, headquarters, and POMCUS sites had their own security forces and that helped to ease the burden. Unfortunately, an equal number of important locations had no indigenous security forces of their own. Their defenses would be dependent upon on recently called up reservists, or units taken from the rapidly diminishing pool of NATO’s specially trained security forces.

In a previous posting, the first contact between NATO and Soviet troops in West Germany in the war was briefly touched upon. KGB-trained saboteurs charged with destroying the NATO E-3A Sentry detachment at Gielenkirchen Air Base began their effort at 0100. The initial wave of Spetsnaz, and saboteur attacks behind the lines was not supposed to commence until 0130 hours. They encountered alert NATO security troops almost immediately and after a furious firefight were all either killed or wounded.

The premature attack gave NATO valuable time to get the warning out and bring security to a higher state of alert before the initial wave of attacks began a short time later. Some sites which may not have been ready were. In other cases, the additional time gained made little difference to the end results. In any event, it did not matter in the larger scheme of things. The war that millions of soldiers, politicians, and civilians around the world had been waiting for had become a reality, even if very few of them were aware of it at the moment. By dawn, the rest of the world would be fully aware that the Third World War was underway.

The Central Front Chessboard: 8 July, 1987

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General Galvin had decided to remain at NATO headquarters in Brussels for the time being instead of moving to his wartime headquarters. It was SACEUR’s prerogative where he chose to direct the defense of Western Europe. For the moment, Galvin preferred his office and the command room in Brussels to a command post nestled deep in the Belgian woods that was still in the process of standing up. His operations staff was not thrilled with his choice, but with rank came privilege. SACEUR would remain in Brussels unless the situation called for a change.

It was 2300 local time. The general was seated at his office desk looking over the latest situation reports from his commanders in the field, and intelligence reports from various agencies and commands. He’d slept from 1500 until 2030 and was now wide awake. The opportunities for long, uninterrupted sleeps would be few and far between from this moment forward. SACEUR fully expected the balloon to go up sometime before dawn.

To the east, hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides of the Inner-German Border were making their final preparations for war. In East Germany, Soviet tank and motor rifle divisions were, or shortly would be, at their lines of departure. At airfields across Western Europe, fighter aircraft sat on alert, waiting for the scramble order to come. The pilots inside of the cockpits understood that the next time they heard the klaxon it would be the real thing.  On autobahns all over West Germany, convoys of men and materials were moving east towards the frontier as reinforcements poured into the Federal Republic from the US, Great Britain, Holland, and Belgium. Five or six more days of peace would’ve worked wonders for NATO readiness, SACEUR knew all too well. As it stood, his command was as ready as it could be.

NATO’s defense of West Germany was anchored by a pair of powerful army groups. NORTHAG, the Northern Army Group, was one of them. The formation was comprised of four corps: I Dutch Corps, I West German Corps, I British, and I Belgian Corps. NORTHAG’s coverage area spanned from Hamburg in the north to Kassel. Its corps were equipped mainly with armor and mechanized infantry divisions. The area they defended was likely to be the main avenue of a Soviet/Warsaw Pact advance west. The North German Plain was ideal tank country and favored a mechanized attacker considerably. NORTHAG was a powerful entity, but if its corps elements did not react with speed and decisiveness, it might not be able to mass its combat power in time to prevent a breakthrough.

As fate, and post-World War II politics would have it, NATO’s most powerful army group was not situated along the Soviet’s most likely axis of advance. CENTAG, the central army group, guarded the border from south of Kassel to the Austrian border. It’s four corps were tank heavy, maneuver based units consisting of the V and VII US Corps, and the II and III West German Corps. CENTAG was SACEUR’s mailed fist. He hoped to smash elements of it into the flank of a Soviet blitz across the North German Plain if the situation presented itself. The Soviet formations facing CENTAG were powerful in their own right, yet he expected the US and West German corps to halt them in a relatively short period of time. The reasons for his confident expectation were the quality of CENTAG forces, and the extremely defense-oriented terrain in its area. The terrain in most of CENTAG’s sectors was made up of tree-lined hills, and valleys that would challenge the advance of an attacking force. US and West German tankers were extremely familiar with the terrain they’d fight on. Defensive positions had been staked out and established long ago. Artillery observers knew every inch of the ground they would plot their fires on intimately, as did forward air controllers. The Soviets would be made to pay a heavy price for every kilometer they advanced from Kassel on south. The ultimate objective of the Soviet 8th Guards Tank Army and its follow-on forces was Frankfurt. SACEUR fully expected them to be stopped cold long before they came anywhere near the city.

On the air side of things, SACEUR was comfortable with the level of readiness. The 2nd and 4th ATAFs (Allied Tactical Air Force) were ready to go. Both formations were broadswords that would be used to defend the skies of Western Europe, and then take the war directly to the enemy. His air commander was an experienced, creative career fighter pilot who had some surprises up his sleeve for when things kicked off. NATO air forces had a qualitative edge over their Warsaw Pact counterparts. Most aircraft types, and weapon systems were technologically superior. NATO pilots were better trained than the MiG pilots they’d soon face, or so the belief went.

That wasn’t to say that NATO’s air commanders were taking the Soviet threat lightly. The skies over Eastern Europe were defended by a dense integrated-air-defense system. SAMs were going to be a formidable threat. The world had seen the amount of damage that Soviet SAMs could inflict on Western air forces during the Vietnam conflict, and 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since then a new generation of Soviet missiles had arrived and they were even more capable. In response, NATO air forces had spent tens of millions of dollars developing anti-radiation missiles, and a new generation of ECM measures to counter the threat.

SACEUR chewed on all the positive changes that had come to NATO since the early 1980s. The Reagan administration’s military buildup had benefitted US and allied forces in Europe tremendously. The new class of weapons systems were fielded in Western Europe in large numbers including the M-1 Abrams battle tank, M-2 Bradley IFV, Apache attack helicopter, F-15 Eagle and F-16. Britain, West Germany, and other NATO countries had introduced their own modernization programs and were making progress.

In a matter of hours, the alliance would begin to find out if its investments had been worthwhile or not.

 

Search for the Stealth: 8 July, 1987 Part II

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Sergeant Richard Lawson walked into the pub shortly after 1400. The short, stocky NCO stopped  and spoke to the bartender for a brief moment, and then exchanged greetings with a few of the older gentlemen at the bar. Prokofiev got the idea that they knew Lawson personally and were pumping him for news. On the other hand, perhaps they were homosexuals with entirely different motives. When Lawson leaned over to shake one of their hands, Prokofiev noticed the small manila folder in his free hand and winced. Amateurish move. But Lawson was not a professional and that had to be considered, a voice inside his head reasoned. This meeting was not a good idea, Prokofiev knew, but it was absolutely necessary. The risk was worthwhile, he hoped.

Lawson finished chatting with the bar flies and made his way to the booth in the rear of the pub where Prokofiev was sitting. The Russian stood up and embraced the Englishman in a tight hug and the small folder slipped surreptitiously from Lawson’s hand into Prokofiev’s suit jacket. They sat back down and made small talk as a waitress approached, took Lawson’s order and then came back with a pint.

“I only have a short time,” the NCO informed Prokofiev between sips. “The base is going to be sealed off later this afternoon. Only reason I was able to get out was because my senior owed me a favor. He snuck his wife’s sister on base last week and had a go at her.” Lawson smiled thinly.

“I do not feel comfortable in here,” Prokofiev revealed in a low voice.

“Don’t worry. For the next twenty minutes or so this is the safest pub in England,” Lawson assured him. Then it was time to get down to business.

“What do you have for me?”

Lawson leaned forward and lowered his tone. “The Yanks flew more planes in yesterday before dawn. They came in while it was dark and were taken to a secure part of the base under heavy guard. Nobody outside of the tower people, ground crew, or security personnel got a look and they’re not saying anything.”

“Go on.”

“Last night, a pal of mine on security told me the plane type is the new Yank stealth fighter. The one that can’t be seen on radar. He got me into one of the hangars to see it for just a minute and I snapped off a couple of photos. Told him they were for the London Times.” He smiled again.

Prokofiev felt his excitement rising. “Tell me about the plane.”

“At first glance, it doesn’t look airworthy. Strange looking bird. Almost demonic. Damn thing was built like I am. Boxy. Twin tail, painted all black.”

“How many planes are there?”

“Not sure but at least ten. Maybe fifteen.”

“ What are people saying about the planes?”

Lawson shook his head. “Not a thing since few people even know they’re here. I got lucky. But that’s it, mate. From here on in I don’t know you. If I get caught talking to you after this afternoon they’ll shoot my ass.”

Prokofiev nodded. He understood what Lawson was telling him and fully expected it to come to this. The man valued his neck.

“You will not hear from me again,” he promised him.  “I wish you luck.”

“I wish the same for you,” Lawson reached over and patted his shoulder. “Honestly. After seeing that plane I’m more convinced than ever that you blokes aren’t going to win if the shooting starts. Tell that to your superiors if there is time.”

“There isn’t,” Prokofiev predicted. In his mind he was working out a plan to get this information to someone who could make use of it. He wasn’t an air marshal but knew these planes tip the balance in NATO’s favor. The mere thought of American stealth jets flying over his home sent a shudder up his spine.

He rose from his seat, shook Lawson’s hand and left the pub. He climbed into his rental car in the crowded lot across the street. Lawson paid for his pint and walked out, stopping briefly to check the time. As he was about to cross the roadway, a Jaguar with two men inside came tearing out from a alleyway, almost clipping him as it sped west.

“Fucking asshole!” Lawson flashed them a lewd gesture and then crossed the street to his own car.

 

The rental BMW was found five hours later on the side of the road ten miles west of RAF Alconbury. A local police unit came upon it, thinking the vehicle had broken down. Or an accident perhaps. As the policemen approached, they took out their flashlights to inspect the interior. To their surprise and shock, a man was in the car, slumped over the steering wheel. When they opened the door and leaned him back, the senior officer noticed a neat bullet wound in the back of his head. There was no manila folder to be found.

 

Search for the Stealth: 8 July, 1987 Part I

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His diplomatic immunity was no longer valid, Sergei Prokofiev reminded himself. The British government had declared a large number of Soviet diplomats in the United Kingdom persona non grata. In effect, they were no longer welcomed here and the Brits officially kicked them out of the country. The move had been announced three days ago and a list of the affected personnel was given to the Soviet ambassador in London. They would leave the country in twenty four hours. Most of the names on the list were possible, or known KGB officers suspected to be working undercover in the UK. They operated under the guises of midlevel diplomats at the Soviet embassy or consulates around the country. Prokofiev had been one of the names on the list, though he was confident the Brits were not entirely sure that he was KGB.

Officially, the thirty-two year old was a cultural attache. He had the proper papers and diplomatic background for the role. In reality, Prokofiev was a KGB captain who ran a handful of operatives in the UK. All were relatively low level civilian employees in the MoD, as well as one RAF non-commissioned officer. Moscow Center had ordered him to remain behind. So, two hours after receiving the news about his being PNGed, Prokofiev slipped past the British surveillance teams monitoring the embassy and immediately went to ground. Following the departure of his comrades, where his absence was immediately noticed, he had played a cat and mouse game with MI-5 and -6 officers. Prokofiev was successful in evading them so far, thanks to preparations he made long beforehand. He had a British ID, spoke the language fluently with a slight cockney accent, could call upon any of three safehouses, and had one hundred thousand pounds at his disposal.

The rising tensions made his job almost impossible. Contact with his operatives was limited, and in some cases entirely cut off. Dead drop boxes remained empty and untouched. Prokofiev had depressingly little information to pass along to his superiors. To his surprise, he’d found them to be sympathetic to his plight. He was ordered to make contact with his RAF man and try to find out about the arrival of warplanes from the US at RAF Alconbury. Specifically, Moscow wanted information on a new type of aircraft that might already be in the UK. Prokofiev had gotten in touch with his operative and relayed the instructions.

Now, he was awaiting the man’s arrival at a pub in Huntingdon, a stone’s throw away from the US airbase at Alconbury. Following this meeting, Prokofiev was to make his way west across Britain to Wales where he would be met and escorted to Ireland. Looking around from the booth he sat in, the Russian was surprised to see the pub so crowded. A wide variety of young, middle-aged, and older patrons sat and drank. Conversations were low, there was no music playing, and the atmosphere was less than lively to say the least. Prokofiev was not surprised by the number of people here. In times of crisis people went where they were comfortable to escape. Brits and their pubs shared a storied history. Even at the height of the Nazi blitz, many pubs around England still did a smash up business. The Russian quietly hoped it would be the same in this conflict.

The man Prokofiev was here to meet was a thirty-three year old RAF NCO who conveniently was stationed at Alconbury. His name was Richard Lawson and he had been coopted two years ago. Lawson’s motivation for selling information to the Soviets was purely financial. He was divorced and had two children to support. Ideologically, he was neither pro-Communism, or anti-liberal democracy. Lawson had been reliable and some of his information proved to be quite good according to Moscow, so Prokofiev thought it would be useful to have one final meeting and see if the Brit could answer some of Center’s questions.

Meeting at this pub in the late afternoon was not as chancy as it might seem. It was known to some of the locals as place frequented by homosexuals from time to time. Two men sitting near each other in a cramped booth would not seem out of the ordinary. Had that not been the case, Prokofiev would still have pushed for the meeting here. Lawson had few opportunities to get off base and the Russian was growing eager to leave this country once and for all.

As he sat there sipping his bitter and waiting, Prokofiev wondered idly about the new type of aircraft that Center was looking for information on. Apparently, from what he was told, the Americans had a jet that could not be seen on radar. It was supposed to be only an experimental model, but some people in Moscow believed it was either on its way to Europe or here already. Moving it from the US to base in the UK instead of West Germany made sense. For one reason or another, Moscow suspected RAF Alconbury to be the base that the aircraft was likely at.

He was not a pilot, and knew very little about aerodynamics. For these reasons the concept of an aircraft that couldn’t be seen was very difficult for Prokofiev to visualize or accept. It did not take much imagination to understand why such an aircraft filled his superiors with concern. One invisible jet armed with a nuclear weapon could turn Moscow to dust in the blink of an eye, essentially decapitating the Soviet Union in one swift act.

If that aircraft was here, Prokofiev hoped Lawson could confirm it so the KGB officer could get on with leaving the UK before the fighting began. He had no inside information about when the war would start, however, Prokofiev did not think it would be much longer.

Vital Peripheries: Western Pacific 8 July, 1987

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The Western Pacific was a region rife with potential flashpoints in early July, 1987. At the forefront of the minds of US defense planners was trying to discern what the Soviet strategy for the WestPac would be in a time of war. Immediately below this in terms of importance was the Korean situation. Overall, US Pacific Command had a substantial number of concerns on its plate. The main problem was the size and expanse of the Western Pacific region in comparison to the US forces in or near the region. In short, the United States could not be everywhere at any given time. A buildup of Soviet forces near the Philippines might draw away some US forces tagged for the defense of Japan, leaving a vulnerability that the Soviets could then exploit at their leisure.

The Soviets were certainly not making it easy to get a feel for their intentions. The majority of their air and naval forces in the Western Pacific were going about their regular activities. Routine patrols were conducted. The occasional Tu-95 took off from Cam Rahn Bay and flew lazily in the vicinity of the Philippines before US F-4s from Clark AB would escort them out of the area. The US and Soviet aircrews would wave to each other, and be cordial. Neither side behaved as if it expected to be shooting the other in the coming days. At sea, Soviet AGIs continued trailing US aircraft carrier groups in the region. Only in these cases, the Soviet’s apprehension was quite apparent and understandable. The trawler crews realized if hostilities began, they would likely become the first casualties at sea. The close distance they kept to US carriers and their escorts essentially guaranteed a short lifespan in wartime.

The Red Banner Pacific Fleet was nowhere near as brazen as their AGI comrades. Most of the fleet’s surface ships and attack submarines remained in Vladivostok, while its SSBNs sat tied up to their quays at Petropavlosk. Unlike the Red Banner Northern Fleet, Black Sea Squadron, and Baltic Fleet, Russia’s Pacific Fleet was not making an overt move. Whether this would mean an absence of Soviet military moves in the Pacific or not remained to be seen. The US Navy was not taking any chances. 7th Fleet only had one aircraft carrier in its area; Midway. Her battlegroup was steaming towards a station west of Japan for the time being. Ranger and her battlegroup was on its way west, however, it would be another week before they were available for operations. Until that time, one carrier group was not going to be enough to challenge the Pacific Fleet if it sortied, or to start working over military targets in Vladivostok and on the Kamchatka peninsula.

The Korean peninsula was the other major flashpoint that Pacific Command was concerned about. The North Koreans were an unpredictable bunch. It wouldn’t be beyond them to launch an invasion of South Korea if South’s most powerful ally was distracted. Since the possibility existed, US forces in South Korea, Japan, and Okinawa could not be committed elsewhere. That in itself could prove to be enough to entice North Korea to move south. The South Korean armed forces had come a long way in the past decade. Their equipment was modern and their officer corps highly motivated. If push came to shove on the peninsula, the South Koreans would acquit themselves well. It is the United States tripwire in Korea, however, that deters the North Koreans from moving south.

So, with war clouds moving in across the globe, the Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific, Admiral Ron Hays was confident in his command, and thankful that at least for the moment, his primary opponent did not appear to be eager about initiating a major action the moment the balloon went up. That could change. According to the last report from the Pentagon, the probability of war breaking out between the United States and Soviet Union in the next 24 hours was estimated to be at 92% as of 1200 Honolulu time.