A Brief Glance At NATO Theater Nuclear Forces D+23 (1 August, 1987)

NATO’s theater nuclear forces in Central Europe on D+23 consisted of intermediate range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, and nuclear gravity bombs delivered by tactical fighters. In the case of ballistic and cruise missile systems, the warheads and missiles were both operated and owned by the United States. When it came to air delivered B-61s, the US owned and controlled the weapons, though the aircraft that would drop them on targets in Eastern Europe belonged to Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and West Germany. On the first day of August, 1987 tactical fighters tasked with the nuclear role stood Victor Alert at their primary airbases and several dispersal fields. The intermediate range missiles and slower, more maneuverable cruise missiles were almost all in the field and positioned at one of dozens of launch sites spread out across wooded and hilly areas of West Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Great Britain.

The Victor Alert aircraft and their crews were ready to launch ten minutes after the order was received. The exact number of aircraft on alert early on 1 August remains classified, but it has been estimated by a handful of credible sources to have been between twenty-four and twenty-eight aircraft in Central Europe and Britain. Behind these F-16s, Tornados, and F-111s was a second contingent of dual-capability aircraft that were prepared to take off within 20 minutes of the order. Their targets included airbases, fuel depots, railheads and headquarters far behind the lines in Eastern Europe. NATO forces in Southern Europe also had their own contingent of Victor Alert warplanes based in Italy and Turkey. These crews had similar targets in their own theater assigned to strike.

These aircraft were capable of causing catastrophic damage to the Warsaw Pact war machine and Pact air commanders were wary of them. Yet it was the Pershing II intermediate range ballistic missile and the BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missile that struck real fear into the hearts of Soviet generals and political leaders. The two missile systems were the heart of NATO theater nuclear forces in Europe, providing a lethal combination that the Soviet Union could not counter. The BGM-109G, colloquially known as the GLCM and the Pershing II gave NATO commanders the option of striking potential targets farther east. The GLCM’s longer range, but slower speed made it well suited pop up tactical targets of opportunity on the battlefield, as well as fixed targets deep in the enemy rear. With an operational range of over 1,500miles, GLCM could reach targets in the Soviet Union from as far away as Britain. The Pershing II had a fast launch capability and incredible accuracy, able to strike targets inside Soviet territory in 6-8 minutes. Its operational range of 1,100 miles was its only shortcoming. To reach the Soviet Union, Pershing IIs had to be based in West Germany, nearer to the frontline and as a result more vulnerable to Soviet weapons.

Since 9 July, 1987, 103 Pershing II missiles and over 300 GLCMs were deployed in Western Europe from the Federal Republic west to the British countryside. The launchers and support vehicles were heavily guarded. US Army troops handled Pershing II security while US Air Force Security Police troops protected the GLCM launchers and sites in the field. Except for a handful of attempted raids and air attacks early in the war, the Soviets had wisely left NATO theater forces alone. NATO also purposely avoided striking Soviet theater nuclear forces for fear of inadvertently leading the Soviets to believe a nuclear attack was coming soon.

Security troops at missile launch sites in West Germany and the Victor Alert bases knew this wouldn’t last. If NATO forces continued their eastward push and the Soviets began to sweat, Spetsnaz commandos and saboteurs would appear out of the woodwork and attack as many sites as possible to degrade what Moscow viewed as NATO’s first strike trump card.

9 Replies to “A Brief Glance At NATO Theater Nuclear Forces D+23 (1 August, 1987)”

  1. Mike, do we have any real information on the state of 1987-era plans for committing the F-117 force from Tonopah to Europe in the event of a large-scale European war? I assume that they would have been sent, perhaps to Lakenheath, as they would have been excellent for striking key infrastructure and C&C targets deep in DDR, Czech and Polish territory but I’ve never seen anything printed about it. You think at least someone from Tonopah would have visited Lakenheath to plan for forward deployment of an F-117 det there…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Weren’t there also British WE177A bombs declared to NATO at that time? France also had tactical and theatre nuclear weapons but I don’t know whether those were kept under entirely national control?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure if they were or not. I did some research a while back to see if those weapons were part of the Victor Alert plans in the mid-80s. Never found anything substantial, unfortunately.

      Yeah, French tactical nuclear weapons and forces were kept under national control


  3. I did my conscription duty in Sicherungsstaffel S, JaboG 34 in Memmingerberg, 1989. Our job was to provide security for the nukes alongside a smaller US contingent (Cobra Force, unofficially, 7261 MUNSS officially). It was a riot, with live nukes being issued erroneously during exercises, and other fun.

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    1. That must’ve been a hell of an experience for a young soldier like yourself. Seeing up close and personal just how incompetent some folks are around nuclear weapons 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You could literally see the blood drain from our platoon commander’s (a grizzled Hauptfeldwebel) face when he was told that live ammunition was not to be collected, the security cordon to be maintained, and of could the driver of the nuke on a trailer please be extra careful when turning?

        Liked by 1 person

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