The Central Front Chessboard: D-1 (8 July, 1987) **


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. His operations staff was not thrilled with the choice, but with rank came privilege. SACEUR intended to remain in Brussels unless the situation called for a change.

It was 2300 local time. The American general was in his office looking through the latest situation reports from his commanders in the field, and intelligence reports from national intelligence services and  combatant commands alike. He’d slept from 1500 until 2030 and was now wide awake. The opportunities for long, uninterrupted sleeps were going to be few and far between from this moment forward. Judging by the intelligence reports on the desk in front of him, and his own instincts, SACEUR fully expected the balloon to go up at some point between midnight and 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 airbases across Western Europe, fighter aircraft sat on Zulu alert, waiting for the scramble order to come. The pilots understood fully that the next time they heard the klaxon it would be the real thing.  On autobahns across the Federal Republic, 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. But as it stood now, the alliance was as ready as it could possibly be at this point.

NATO’s hopes for the defense of West Germany were attached to a pair of powerful army groups. NORTHAG, the Northern Army Group, was one of them. It 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. West German territory from north of Hamburg to the Danish border was the responsibility of LANDJUT and its parent command AFNORTH.  NORTHAG’s corps were made up mainly of armor and mechanized infantry divisions. The area it was responsible for defending would likely 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 combat elements did not react to an emerging Soviet threat 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 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, but Galvin fully expected the US and West German corps to grind them to a halt 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 intimately familiar with the terrain they were expected to fight on. Defensive positions were staked out and established regularly. Artillery observers knew every inch of the ground they would plot their fires on, and so did forward air controllers. The Soviets would be made to pay a heavy price for every kilometer they advanced west . The ultimate objective of the Soviet 8th Guards Army  and the follow on 1st Guards Tank Army was Frankfurt. SACEUR fully expected both to be stopped cold long before they came anywhere near the city.

On the air side of the equation, SACEUR was satisfied with where readiness stood. 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 aces up his sleeve. NATO air forces had a qualitative edge over their Warsaw Pact counterparts. Most aircraft types, and weapon systems were technologically superior. NATO pilots were also better trained than the MiG pilots they’d soon face, or so the belief went.

That wasn’t to say 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-equipped air forces in the Vietnam conflict, and 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since then an entirely new generation of Soviet missiles had arrived and they were even more capable. In response, NATO air forces had spent billions of dollars developing anti-radiation missiles, a new generation of ECM, and new tactics needed to counter the threat.

SACEUR chewed on all the positive changes that had come to NATO since the early and mid-80s. The Reagan administration’s military buildup benefited US and allied forces in Europe tremendously. TA new generation of weapons systems was 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 start to find out if its investments had been worthwhile or not.


4 Replies to “The Central Front Chessboard: D-1 (8 July, 1987) **”

  1. I began reading your stuff back in 2019 (late), I think. I stopped reading it a while back (sickness, kids, war), but I’m going to begin again. I was always going to finish it: you Tom Clancy’d a damn fine thriller, my friend.

    Odd though: when I BEGAN reading this series, I was worried you had a pollyanna-ish view about whether NATO could resist Warsaw attacks. I was sure of two things: one, that the “soft underbelly” attack on Swtizerland (where about 1/3rd of Soviet forces were going to push through the Swiss valley) would absolutely fail. Absolutely. I knew the Swiss would stop them cold. But as for the main attack? I was pretty sure they could win.

    It’s funny what one war can do. Now I’m starting to believe you’re overestimating Russian competence in your story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome aboard, James! 🙂 Thanks for the kind words and I’m glad you checked in.

      I think in 1987 the Soviet military was considerably more capable than the contemporary Russian military. I think the Red Army especially would’ve acquitted itself respectably if war broke out in 1987. Wouldn’t have crossed the Rhine of course. The force we’re seeing in Ukraine now was nowhere near as ready for war as its generals made Russian leadership think.


      1. Hello Mike,

        I do so apologize for responding so late (life, right?), but I had always intended to respond to your assertion. Not for any deep need, just to keep letting you know you have a real *fan* out there. You’re just fantastic, Mike. Love your writing. As my 80’s coach would have said, “Damn boy, you can RUN with that ball!”.

        Just because I like fun, I’m going to take three minutes and just write a counterfactual:

        I don’t know about your assertion as to how well they would have done. I used to think the Soviets would have won, but only at any time up to the mid-1980’s. They had enough power to hold our first line forces on the front with a holding force, and then had *plenty* of power to punch through our front lines: they EXPECTED that whole first wave to be destroyed and barely even supported them: their big strategy was that they had an entire second army waiting after everyone was exhausted.

        But by the mid-80’s after new doctrine? The Soviets would lose. Hands down. The Americans correctly did a “Hans von Seekt” style reimagining with their Airland battle doctrine and figured out how to win.

        That’s changed. I also question BEFORE the mid-80’s now. Would the Soviets have won? You think they would have acquitted themselves well? Hm.

        Nah. I don’t buy it. I don’t think they would have acquitted themselves well: not after seeing Ukraine. I don’t mean how poorly the Soviets did and the lack of NCO’s and the Soviet style logistics, although that IS part of it.

        No, when I say the Russians would have lost I mean something more basic: I just mean seeing how easily Russian mechanized and armored forces got crushed by infantry(!) armed with ATGM’s and hand-held rockets.

        There was a lot more in the initial invasion that happened tactically that WAS NOT noticed by most civilians, but being watched closely by our military. Just one single example? One example was how easily nearly ancient technologies like FASCAM stopped Russian battalions in their tracks: on the Eastern approach to Kiev in the beginning of the war, a Russian attack was stopped entirely by American mines hastily scattered in the way by retreating Ukrainians.

        Mines developed in the 1970’s and nearing the end of their 50 year shelf life caused so many casualties to a first-line, elite Russian BTG that they couldn’t even do the old “just ignore the mines, take the casualties and drive on through” Soviet trick. The mines just inflicted too many casualties. And they are easy and quick to lay by modern engineers: engineers the Americans and most of NATO had in abundance.

        That’s not all, obviously. I should point out we learned ALL our 70’s/80’s ATGM’s worked as advertised: by ’82 American mechanized divisions had 856(!) anti-tank missile launchers each. That’s not even including tanks and other weapons that CAN kill tanks, that’s just anti-tank weapons. Normal Infantry divisions (which didn’t have hundreds of Bradley’s like heavy divisions) had over 600 anti-tank weapons each. Even “weak” M3’s Carl Gustav’s can destroy a tank from any angle except head-on, and anti-tank ambushes are almost ALWAYS at an angle.

        I just don’t think the Soviets could have maintained speed of advance to win in a war. And they desperately needed it: their teeth to tail ratio was just horrible. In fact, it was literally a downgrade: Soviet logistics was always one size smaller than the West: A NATO Brigade would have a thick battalion of direct, frontline support to back it (plus a brigade of directed-maneuver-support at Division level) while a Soviet Brigade would have a single thin company and NO divisional support. What’s worse is only their heaviest Armored forces would even get one-size-down logistic support: their infantry and mechanized brigades would only get a platoon(!) of direct maneuver support. Basically, American and NATO forces had over SIX times the level of support Soviet divisions had. I think they would have melted away in combat.

        Oh, and I *know* they would have failed in their attack through Switzerland, no matter when they did it.

        Okay, I write fast. Sorry, didn’t mean to write a thesis.

        Good Lord, all I wanted to do was say “good job, I’m still reading and waiting for your other books”.

        Which I am. Honestly, you’re a great military writer. Keep it up.


        Jim Versluys


    2. James! For some reason this comment of yours went to spam. I do want to respond to it, but since its the weekend, time is short. So on Monday or Tuesday I’ll get back and respond. You bring up some interesting points.
      As for your last sentence about overestimating Russian competence….just remember, the Red Army was in much better shape in 1987 compared to 2022 🙂


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