NATO’s battlefield and theater nuclear weapons in Central Europe were practically untouched by the war. With the exception of a handful of failed Spetznaz and air attacks in the early hours of the conflict, Warsaw Pact forces had deliberately avoided targeting possible deployment areas and airbases containing nuclear weapon storage bunkers. It was planned to commence attacks against these targets as the Soviet spearheads penetrated deep into West Germany and threatened to rupture NATO lines. This was the danger period when senior NATO commanders would be under increasing pressure to authorize nuclear weapons release. Once the battle reached this critical juncture, Soviet war plans called for the enemy’s battlefield and theater nuclear weapons to be targeted. But the battle never reached that point. NATO lines did not break and Soviet weapons never fell upon installations or areas thought to contain enemy nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
By D+23 the situation in Central Europe had changed dramatically. Now it was NATO on the offensive and pushing east against steadily deteriorating Soviet resistance. The prospect of resorting to nuclear weapons in order to defend Western Europe was no longer realistic in the view of SACEUR and his subordinates. But what about the enemy? It was unclear if the Soviets would resort to a nuclear defense to blunt the NATO offensive and turn the tables. The uncertainty of the present situation prompted NATO to maintain an adequate number of battlefield nuclear warheads in close proximity to the NORTHAG and CENTAG formations charging towards the border.
Battlefield nuclear weapons consist mainly of artillery-delivered low-kiloton shells. For non-American corps, nuclear shells are available for use if permission is received. Using I NL (Netherlands) Corps as an example, its dual-capable artillery batteries do not own the nuclear warheads their shells would fire. The US owns the warheads, and they remain under US Army control until release authority is granted. At that point, artillery batteries tasked with a nuclear mission come under the command of I NL Corps Artillery. The shells are moved forward from the rear area of I NL Corps, under the close guard of US troops, and handed off. The US security detachments would also provide inner security while the nuclear fire missions are being conducted.
US corps and even some divisions had ample amounts of nuclear artillery shells on hand and prepared for use almost immediately, if release authority was granted. The fact there was no middleman to deal with, as was the case with Dutch, British, Belgian and West German units, significantly reduced the amount of time required to bring the weapons on line to begin their nuclear missions.
Along with nuclear artillery, some NORTHAG formations used tactical ballistic missiles in the battlefield nuclear role. The MGM-52 Lance missile was in use with artillery units of the NATO member nations mentioned above. The missiles were armed with conventional warheads although nuclear ones were available for use. The West Germans also had two wings of Pershing Ia missiles The arrangements for their employment was similar to that designed for nuclear artillery shells. The United States owned and controlled the warheads and would transport them forward if the time ever came. The West Germans also had two wings of Pershing 1a that could be configured to either the battlefield or theater nuclear role.
Author’s Note: On Sunday we look at NATO theater nuclear forces and then D+23 starts officially.