The United States and Soviet Union both maintained satellites in orbit that were tasked with monitoring their enemy’s homeland for immediate indications of a missile launch. By unspoken agreement these birds had not been targeted with anti-satellite weaponry by either side. The loss of such a critically sensitive platform to hostile action by the other side would invariably be viewed as the prelude to a first strike. To prevent a misread of intentions leading to a full-scale nuclear exchange, these satellites remained untouched, thus keeping the strategic balance of power intact. Unfortunately, neither superpower had these types of satellites monitoring Central Europe in the early hours of 2 August, 1987. As a result, Marshal Snetkov’s call was the first news of the nuclear event to reach Moscow.
General Secretary Romanov was awakened from his slumber and took the call from CINC-West. As the general secretary was being briefed, telephones were ringing at dachas and apartments belonging to politburo members around Moscow. It was another three minutes before the Voyska PVO’s headquarters contacted the Kremlin.
It was still the previous evening in the United States, approaching 2015 in Washington DC. President Reagan was in the Executive Residence enjoying some downtime with his wife. The couple was watching television when the first calls came in. As Reagan was informed of the nuclear detonation in East Germany, a heated debate was taking place between the president’s Secret Service detail and the National Military Command Center. The Secret Service wanted the president airborne right away, however, the Pentagon balked. HMX-1’s helicopters were inbound to the White House and other government buildings from Andrews AFB and NEACP was prepped for flight at the base as well. But unless the president ordered an evacuation or missiles were detected headed for the US, Reagan would remain at the White House. The president was escorted to the Situation Room and arrived just as the initial call from Belgium came in.
In Mons, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe was a busy man. Prior to contacting Washington, he and his staff had been attempting to piece together the emerging picture from East Germany. Few solid facts were known other than a nuclear explosion had taken place south of Berlin just before midnight. Judging from the initial reports the location appeared to be at or near the Group of Soviet Forces Germany headquarters complex at Wünsdorf. The size of the weapon was estimated to fall somewhere between 25 and 40 kilotons. The method of delivery appeared to be an aircraft-delivered gravity bomb. It was still far too early to know for certain, but the crews of the Sentries now airborne reported no ballistic missile or potential cruise missile tracks in the air prior to the weapon detonating.
As far as aircraft went, the sky over that section of the GDR had been incredibly crowded and fluid. When the Sentries were relieved and returned to their home bases the radar tapes would be analyzed and controllers debriefed. For the time being though, the controllers had enough to deal with in attempting to gain control of the current situation in the skies.
SACEUR was certain the explosion had not been caused by a NATO device or launched from a NATO aircraft. He was not authorized to employ nuclear weapons. His air commander was now working to make sure there were no missing B-61s or any other type of NATO air-dropped nuclear gravity bomb. Both men knew there was no missing weapon in the inventory. Yet it did not matter what SACEUR or COMAAFCE thought right now.
It did matter what thoughts were being entertained in the Kremlin. Seeing how a nuclear bomb had just exploded over a major Soviet military headquarters in East Germany, SACEUR did not expect the enemy to file a protest at the United Nations in response. Retaliation was a given and it probably would not be very long in coming.
Author’s Note: The first two posts for D+24 have only covered a combined 30 minutes or so of time. This will not be the pattern for the entire day, I promise. 🙂