The Central Front Mobilization Race Part I

Mobilization has played a key role in war planning for centuries. Only in the later half of the 19th Century, with the advent of railroads and industrialization, did it take on a new importance and standing. In Europe during the years leading up to World War I, Mobilization was transformed into nothing less than an art form. Sophisticated and intricate plans were created and updated on an almost weekly basis in some cases. No detail was too small to be overlooked and no variable left to chance. The German mobilization plans and schemes on the eve of World War I are a striking example of the extent mobilization planning was driven to in pre-World War I Europe. The military structure in Europe at the time was a connecting chain of war plans and mobilizations emphasizing swiftly enacted offensive action. In the political science realm this system was, and continues to be, regarded as a root cause of the First World War. George Quester probably puts it best; “World War I broke out as a spasm of pre-emptive mobilization schedules.” Frankly, I disagree with Quester’s view and consequently the opinions and theories of many in my field. To put it simply, there was a large number of risky factors at play in July, 1914 and they coalesced at the wrong time. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. The situation obviously appeared decidedly different to Berlin and Paris in that fateful month.

In June of 1987 NATO and the Warsaw Pact also had detailed mobilization plans prepared and ready to be put in action at a moment’s notice. Just as in 1914, each alliance was expected to regard a decision by the other side to mobilization as a clear indication that war was imminent. Mobilizations are disruptive to national economies and societies, making it near impossible to stage one purely for training purposes. Both NATO and the WP regularly staged major exercises involving multiple divisions and air units brought into Central Europe. The size and scale of these exercises were grand, but nowhere near full mobilization measures. There was normally a contingent of observers from the other side on hand to monitor exercises like Zapad and REFORGER to keep the opposing army honest. However, senior officers around Europe and North America were in general agreement about one particular point: When the first tanks and troops began rolling, the balloon was going up for certain.

Time was not on NATO’s side and its general officers and politicians knew it. As a defensive alliance, the possibility of NATO mobilizing first was nothing short of a delusion. It would have to come in response to a major force movement by Warsaw Pact members. Specifically, a major reinforcement of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. The first phase of a NATO mobilization would’ve been the immediate and rapid reinforcement of forces in Germany. REFORGER was the centerpiece for this strategy, performed in conjunction with the movement of large numbers of USAF warplanes to Western Europe. Great Britain also had contingency plans for the rapid reinforcement of the British Army of the Rhine and RAF Germany. The next step involved the calling up of reserve units in European NATO member-states and their movement to wartime positions. As domestic politics played a major role in determining the timeline and extent of national reserve call ups, there was no guarantee these forces would be ready for action and deployed before hostilities commenced.

The Soviet/WP mobilization plan was broader in scope and designed wholly to precede offensive military action against NATO. In the second part of this entry we will look closely at Western TVD’s mobilization designs and examine which side’s planning and execution fared better.

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