1530 Zulu (1730 Local)
Despite the trans-Atlantic distance between SACEUR’s wartime headquarters complex in the forest outside of Mons and Washington DC, President Reagan’s voice came through with a crispness and clarity that it seemed as if the leader of the free world was in a room next door. Communications, namely secure communications was one area where NATO had a distinct advantage over the Warsaw Pact before the war. Nearly a month of titanic battles fought around the world and in space had not diminished the edge NATO held.
This phone conference was being attended by the president, General Galvin and the defense secretary. It was intended to be an update for the leaders in Washington who were still coming to terms with the use of chemical weapons earlier in the day. Following five minutes discussing the political consequences that the Soviet chemical attack had created, Reagan shifted gears to NATO’s preparations to retaliate against Soviet and Pact formations in kind.
“Is everything proceeding as planned?” Reagan asked carefully.
“Yes, sir,” Galvin answered honestly. “As per your orders our response will be almost a mirror image of the Soviet attacks this morning.”
Next, Reagan asked SACEUR to walk him through the plan. The general did exactly this, going over the plan for NATO chemical retaliation step by step. Galvin told the president that the chemical shells were in the process of being airlifted to Denmark from Ramstein Air Base in West Germany. The Jutland Division and West German 6th Panzergrenadier Division would be ready to launch the chemical strikes by 2330. Targets were already selected and preapproved.
NATO’s retaliation was really a symbolic gesture. The Soviet chemical weapons program was far superior to the United States own, from munition types through to protective measures and decontamination. Essentially, the Soviets were much better equipped to ride out a chemical weapons attack and all signs pointed to the units on the Denmark/West German frontier as being prepared to endure an impending attack. As a result, the NATO chemical shells would probably not be as effective as their Soviet counterparts had been earlier. Reagan was aware of this and so was General Galvin. However, not retaliating was simply not an option. It would be interpreted as weakness and a major loss of face in the eyes of the other NATO allies, to say nothing of the rest of the world.
Reagan did not regard the enemy’s use of chemical weapons as a form of escalation. At this point, the usefulness of employing VX and nerve gas on the battlefield was severely limited. In the big picture though, Soviet chemical weapons raining down on NATO formations was seen as a warning from Moscow not to cross the Inner-German Border and bring the ground war into Warsaw Pact territory. NATO’s military and political leadership had no intention of expanding the war in Central Europe.
Soviet leadership was not convinced NATO armies were going to stop at the border though.
1545 Zulu (1145 Local)
Following the conference with SACEUR, Reagan placed his next call to SACLANT’s headquarters in Norfolk. He personally ordered the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, Admiral Lee Baggett Jr to suspend all operations supporting the US Marine landing on the Kola Peninsula set to commence in 36 hours. The amphibious operation was now temporarily on hold. Baggett was not surprised by the order. He’d been informed of the Soviet chemical weapons use and was aware of the underlying reasons for the president’s order change.
The admiral did require clarification on a handful of points though. “Sir, does this include a halt on airstrikes against targets on the Kola Peninsula? Because we have a number of missions underway there right now. Some have yet to penetrate Soviet airspace.”
Reagan discussed Baggett’s point with Secretary of Defense Weinberger and Admiral Crowe who had joined in for this telephone call. After two minutes of silence, the president came back on and told SACLANT to continue the underway strikes but no further offensive air missions were to be launched.
“Yes, sir.” Baggett acknowledged and then after a short paused added, “Does this moratorium include missile attacks too?”
“I am afraid I don’t understand what you mean, admiral,” Reagan said truthfully.
“Mr. President there are roughly twenty-four conventionally armed Tomahawk cruise missiles on board USS Iowa right now. There are probably another eight on some of the other ships in Strike Fleet Atlantic. If the carrier air wings are going to remain grounded for some time, I’d like to use the TLAMs on the Backfire bases soon.”
“Expect to hear back from myself or Admiral Crowe on that matter within the next hour. Now, I know you have a lot to do so I’ll let you get to it.”
“Thank you, sir. While I have you on the line though,” Baggett hesitated ever so slightly. “I want to inform you that HMS Illustrious was heavily damaged in a Soviet bomber attack less than an hour ago. We just received the telex before you rang, sir. It appears that she is not going to make it for much longer.”
“Damn,” Reagan sighed deeply. “It seems I’d better place a call to London right now then.