General Bill Kirk, USAF was the Commander of Allied Air Forces in Central Europe (COMAAFCE). Thus far, he had run an almost flawless air war, having achieved air superiority and overcome Warsaw Pact advantage in aircraft numbers, as well as the much-vaunted effectiveness of enemy air defenses. That is not to say NATO losses in the air had been light, however, pilot and aircraft losses were nowhere near the levels some experts had predicted they would be at by this point in a war. Kirk categorized them as moderate although he never used this term in the presence of anyone outside of his most senior staff officers and air commanders. There is no way to avoid casualties, yet Kirk refused to publicly describe NATO air losses as moderate. Doing so would minimize the ultimate sacrifices made by hundreds of pilots already and serve no purpose.
Since the limited nuclear exchange on D+18, air operations were curtailed considerably. Ground attack aircraft continued to fly sorties against Soviet formations, supply depots and suspected headquarters on West German soil, but no missions had been flown against targets in East Germany, Poland or Czechoslovakia in nearly forty-eight hours. The risk of the enemy misinterpreting the appearance of NATO warplanes over Pact territory was too great to chance. Tension was still high following the destruction of both Madrid and Gorki. As a result, interdiction and other deep strike missions were off the table for the time being.
The last-minute delay in launching the NATO counteroffensive was welcomed by Kirk. The pause allowed him give 2 ATAF a brief period of rest. The ground attack squadrons assigned to the Second Allied Tactical Air Force had started flying sorties against Soviet targets on the North German Plain the previous day as preparation for the coming attack. Now that it had been postponed, Kirk wanted his aircrews up north to take advantage of the unexpected downtime while ground crews and logistics officers went about making certain the aircraft were ready and there would be enough fuel, ordnance and spare parts on hand to sustain these squadrons through the first forty-eight hours of the NATO ground attack.
In the afternoon of D+20, Kirk took advantage of the lull to leave his headquarters at Ramstein Air Base to make an unscheduled visit to Bitburg Air Base. He arrived quietly without drawing unnecessary attention and briefly with the commander of the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing. Next, he spent an hour inspecting battle damaged aircraft and talking with maintenance personnel, sky cops and numerous other Bitburg personnel. Then, Kirk spent another hour talking shop with the pilots of the 22nd and 53rd Tactical Fighter Squadrons. These informal discussions were the true purpose for COMAAFCE’s visit to this particular base. He wanted to hear firsthand from the pilots about their experiences and how they thought the air war was going. The 36th had racked up an impressive number of MiG kills. There were now five F-15 pilots at Bitburg with at least five confirmed kills, making them aces. Twenty years earlier, Kirk had two MiG kills himself while flying with Robin Olds and the 8th TFW over Vietnam.
As he departed from Bitburg in the early evening, Kirk was impressed by the quality of the Eagle Drivers he’d spent time with. The investments made by the Air Force in the late ‘70s on new training methods such as Red Flag were paying off handsomely now in the skies above Central Europe.
As the helicopter carrying his air boss was landing at Ramstein, SACEUR was concluding a secure telephone conversation with President Reagan at the White House. After hours of wrangling, he had finally managed to bring Kohl and Thatcher around. The attack would commence with whatever British and West German units were on hand. More would be attached to offensive operations in the NORTHAG area as they became available. SACEUR was grateful and relieved. He now had Reagan’s permission to start the attack at a time of his choosing. All that remained was determining when the time would come.