The post-Vietnam years were a period of reassessment, and regeneration for the US Air Force. The service’s Vietnam experience was, and still is, comprehensively regarded as an example of how an air war should not be run. Restrictive rules of engagement, micromanagement, and a cumbersome, ineffective process of changing tactics and strategy once it became apparent that those being used at a given moment were resulting in unacceptably high aircraft and pilot losses. There were periods of success, however, mainly in the later stages of the war. Linebacker II displayed for the world just what US air power could do when left unobstructed by political oversight, and shortsighted senior leadership. The Air Force took Vietnam to heart and in the mid-‘70s, the men who’d fought the air war and remained in the service vowed to transform the US Air Force, how it trained, thought, and fought.
By 1987, many of their reforms were embedded and producing results. The US Air Force was once again a world class air arm and its doctrine reflected a new era of offensive thinking. Dark Comet reflected this thinking. In the early ‘80s USAFE planners recognized that their counterparts on land were going to need every possible edge to halt a Red Army push into West Germany. Airland Battle 2000, the basis of the US Army’s European warfighting doctrine, involved using US air power to pulverize the second echelon Soviet divisions before they could reach the front and influence the battle there. With that concept in mind, USAFE planners, along with a handful of Luftwaffe, and RAF counterparts, started laying the foundation for a plan that could potentially level the playing field before the first Soviet tanks came across the Inner-German Border. For five years the plan had been revised and updated as needed, especially as new intelligence became available. US, British, and Luftwaffe aircrews practiced for it it regularly.
In 1986 the operational concept was nearly scrapped entirely. The release of the Tom Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising raised some eyebrows in the Pentagon and made more than one senior air officer believe they had a security problem to contend with. In Clancy’s book, NATO air forces launched a major air strike against sites in East Germany once it became apparent that war was imminent. The air plan in the novel was strikingly similar to Dark Comet, right down to the use of the secretive stealth aircraft. An internal investigation was launched to determine if any US Air Force officers had given Clancy sensitive information to use as research. Ironically enough, the investigation concluded in June of ’87 and determined that the Clancy’s fictional air plan, named Operation Dreamland, was purely the product of a creative imagination and detailed research from public sources.
In an ironic twist, reality would simulate fiction to a degree in the skies above East Germany on the first night of the war.
At 0130, SACEUR ordered Dark Comet to begin. Some of the aircraft that would be involved were already airborne and loitering over the North Sea, or central Germany waiting for the word to execute. When the order came, the long-rehearsed act began at once. The first aircraft to cross into East Germany were six F-117A stealth fighters. Their individual ingress corridors were spread out along the northern Baltic coast from Wismar to the east of Rostok. Each aircraft carried two GBU-27 Paveway III smart bombs inside of their internal weapon bays. The -27 was a laser-guided bomb designed and built specifically for use by the F-117. It was basically a GBU-24 Paveway attached to the warhead of a BLU-109, giving the weapon a deep penetration capability.
Their targets for the morning were three bunkers that intelligence expected to be used by the command staffs of three Soviet army groups now poised to strike west. The bunker locations were at Kossa, Mohlau, and one outside of Stendal. Intelligence had been aware of the bunkers existence for some time now and suspected that 3rd Shock Army’s bunker was outside of Stendal, 8th Guards Army at Kossa, and 20th Guards at Mohlau. Each bunker was targeted by a pair of F-117s.
0200– the pilot of Wrench 21, the lead F-117 performed a “fence check”– a final detailed check of the aircraft. He made sure all external lights were switched off. Sometimes, under the stress of combat, the most obvious things are left undone. A single wingtip light, visible to an enemy MiG pilot, could mean disaster.
Inside the cockpit, the only light came from the dimly glowing multi-function displays (MFDs) arrayed before him. Using switches on the throttles and pushing actuator buttons near the video displays, he could call up target information on one MFD while keeping aircraft status information, such as airspeed, attitude, and altitude, on another. Another display gave the pilot the data his sensors were gathering on enemy radar emissions in the area. He could call up almost any combination of data he wanted.
He selected the next checkpoint on the INS and checked the latitude and longitude readout. The auto pilot turned the aircraft.
He changed his heading frequently, as all F-117 pilots do, to complicate target tracking by an enemy radar that might get some slight return from the stealthy aircraft. On-board sensors told him where the probing radars were, and he flew a course to avoid them.
To complete the fence check, he compared the amount of fuel remaining with the level that a precomputation said he should have. He again made sure his warning and caution lights were out.
The pilot now concentrated on his displays, hearing only the hum of the cockpit as he sped through the night. He prepared to drop the first of two laser-guided, hardened, improved, 2000-pound bombs, designed to penetrate deep into enemy bunkers before detonating. He then punched up the armament display on an MFD. It told him that both bombs were operative and that the release system was ready. He armed his weapons and switched the armament system to “weapons armed, off safe” to prevent accidental release.
0220– As the dark morning drew on, and the extent of the Spetsnaz attacks became apparent, SACEUR was becoming anxious about the air missions. Somewhere over East Germany were six highly advanced, yet untested F-117s heading towards their targets and he had no clue about their progress. Hell, he had no clue about the aircraft themselves, having seen one for the first time just days before. Were they on schedule or had there been delays? Had Warsaw Pact air defenses claimed any or all of the aircraft? Two questions of the many that were in his mind. Unfortunately, he had no answers. All he could do was wait, and pray for the best.
0245– As his F-117 neared Stendal, the pilot switched his computer system from “nav” mode to “weapons delivery” mode. He turned to a new heading over the pre-initial point, then passed over the IP.
He then called up the target position on the INS and watched as aiming cross hairs positioned themselves over the computed position of the target. He was now scrutinizing the infrared picture on one of the MFDs. The F-117’s infrared sensors gather heat emanations from the ground, and an MFD displays their image, which closely resembles a black-and-white television picture.
As Wrench 21 approached the release point, the pilot’s pulse rate quickened, and he breathed fast and heavily. He set the autopilot to keep the F-117 steady on the target run. He checked the MFDs to ensure that his altitude, heading, and airspeed were correct for this delivery, checked his armament system one more time, and then flipped the master arm switch to “arm.”
Outside, only one or two lights from the town were visible. The F-117’s infrared sensors, however, picked out buildings, railroad tracks, and roads. He could see these clearly on his MFD.
0250– The nondescript GAZ sandwiched in between a pair of armored cars carried CINC-Group Soviet Forces Germany down a two-lane asphalt road west of Stendal. General Snetkov was becoming discouraged by the latest concerns of his senior commanders. A scant few hours before the offensive would begin, they wanted to make changes. When he heard about the request, Snetkov hit the roof. He was now on his way to confer with the commander of 3rd Shock Army personally. Considering the time of morning, he planned to remain with 3rd Shock’s commander through noon and monitor the progress of his most powerful army group once it crossed into West Germany.
0254– He had studied satellite imagery of the target intently beforehand and knew exactly where the bunker was in relation to the sparse terrain features. He compared what he saw on the MFD with an aerial photo strapped to his legboard. As he approached, he could see the outline of the bunker and some of its support structures for positive target identification.
The pilot moved the fingertip target designator (TD) button on one of the throttles, slewing the cross hairs until they were precisely over the aimpoint, which is called the “designated mean point of impact” (DMPI). Depending on size, hardness, and other considerations, a target may have more than one DMPI. In this case, the single aim-point was the center of the top of the bunker.
By depressing and then releasing the TD button, he told the computer exactly where he wanted to aim. Immediately the F-117’s laser designator began to shoot a continuous, invisible, pinpoint laser beam at the DMPI. The laser energy, reflecting from the target to the aircraft, provided guidance for the bomb.
Symbology on the MFD and on the head-up display in the wind-screen cued the pilot to fly left or right to correct for crosswinds. More symbology told him when he was in range of the target. Once he had passed the “max range” point, the bomb would have enough energy, imparted by the forward motion of the F-117, to arc into the target. F-117 pilots refer to such a shot as “putting it into the basket.”
he saw the “in range” symbology, checked his position in relation to the target, decided he agreed with the computer, and depressed the red button on the top of his control stick. The weapons bay doors snapped open. He heard a “clunk” as the huge bomb was released from its shackles in the weapons bay. The doors snapped closed.
As the weapon dropped away, its nose sensor homed on the reflected laser beam and sent signals to the guidance system, which moved vanes on the side of the bomb to control the arc of flight. The pilot watched the IR display intently. The plunging bomb appeared at the bottom of the display just before it impacted.
0254– To the west, a pair of brief flashes of light drew Snetkov’s attention. He peered in that direction wondering what it had been. An anxious anti-aircraft crew firing at a shadow in the sky probably. He would inquire with his air defense commander when he arrived at the bunker in a few minutes.
His assessment was wrong. 3rd Shock Army’s command bunker no longer existed. The flashes had come from Wrench 21’s GBU-27s. Both had hit within six feet of each other, and less than five seconds apart. As his vehicle drew closer, the flashes of light were becoming orange blossoms of fire set against the dark sky.
0256– Snetkov’s convoy was five kilometers away when Wrench 22’s bombs hit. A massive explosion rocked the countryside. The group of vehicles screeched to a halt at once as the drivers reacted to the flashes of light, columns of expanding flame, and then the noise to their front. The bunker where General Snetkov was supposed to be within the next five minutes was gone. Along with it went the commander of the 3rd Shock Army and his battle staff of 200 officers and NCOs.
Before the echo from the bomb impacts reverberated across the nearby valley, anti-aircraft guns were erupting all over the area. Too late, as the case would be.