The Central Front Chessboard: 8 July, 1987


General Galvin had decided to remain at NATO headquarters in Brussels for the time being instead of moving to his wartime headquarters. It was SACEUR’s prerogative where he chose to direct the defense of Western Europe. For the moment, Galvin preferred his office and the command room in Brussels to a command post nestled deep in the Belgian woods that was still in the process of standing up. His operations staff was not thrilled with his choice, but with rank came privilege. SACEUR would remain in Brussels unless the situation called for a change.

It was 2300 local time. The general was seated at his office desk looking over the latest situation reports from his commanders in the field, and intelligence reports from various agencies and commands. He’d slept from 1500 until 2030 and was now wide awake. The opportunities for long, uninterrupted sleeps would be few and far between from this moment forward. SACEUR fully expected the balloon to go up sometime before dawn.

To the east, hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides of the Inner-German Border were making their final preparations for war. In East Germany, Soviet tank and motor rifle divisions were, or shortly would be, at their lines of departure. At airfields across Western Europe, fighter aircraft sat on alert, waiting for the scramble order to come. The pilots inside of the cockpits understood that the next time they heard the klaxon it would be the real thing.  On autobahns all over West Germany, convoys of men and materials were moving east towards the frontier as reinforcements poured into the Federal Republic from the US, Great Britain, Holland, and Belgium. Five or six more days of peace would’ve worked wonders for NATO readiness, SACEUR knew all too well. As it stood, his command was as ready as it could be.

NATO’s defense of West Germany was anchored by a pair of powerful army groups. NORTHAG, the Northern Army Group, was one of them. The formation was comprised of four corps: I Dutch Corps, I West German Corps, I British, and I Belgian Corps. NORTHAG’s coverage area spanned from Hamburg in the north to Kassel. Its corps were equipped mainly with armor and mechanized infantry divisions. The area they defended was likely to be the main avenue of a Soviet/Warsaw Pact advance west. The North German Plain was ideal tank country and favored a mechanized attacker considerably. NORTHAG was a powerful entity, but if its corps elements did not react with speed and decisiveness, it might not be able to mass its combat power in time to prevent a breakthrough.

As fate, and post-World War II politics would have it, NATO’s most powerful army group was not situated along the Soviet’s most likely axis of advance. CENTAG, the central army group, guarded the border from south of Kassel to the Austrian border. It’s four corps were tank heavy, maneuver based units consisting of the V and VII US Corps, and the II and III West German Corps. CENTAG was SACEUR’s mailed fist. He hoped to smash elements of it into the flank of a Soviet blitz across the North German Plain if the situation presented itself. The Soviet formations facing CENTAG were powerful in their own right, yet he expected the US and West German corps to halt them in a relatively short period of time. The reasons for his confident expectation were the quality of CENTAG forces, and the extremely defense-oriented terrain in its area. The terrain in most of CENTAG’s sectors was made up of tree-lined hills, and valleys that would challenge the advance of an attacking force. US and West German tankers were extremely familiar with the terrain they’d fight on. Defensive positions had been staked out and established long ago. Artillery observers knew every inch of the ground they would plot their fires on intimately, as did forward air controllers. The Soviets would be made to pay a heavy price for every kilometer they advanced from Kassel on south. The ultimate objective of the Soviet 8th Guards Tank Army and its follow-on forces was Frankfurt. SACEUR fully expected them to be stopped cold long before they came anywhere near the city.

On the air side of things, SACEUR was comfortable with the level of readiness. The 2nd and 4th ATAFs (Allied Tactical Air Force) were ready to go. Both formations were broadswords that would be used to defend the skies of Western Europe, and then take the war directly to the enemy. His air commander was an experienced, creative career fighter pilot who had some surprises up his sleeve for when things kicked off. NATO air forces had a qualitative edge over their Warsaw Pact counterparts. Most aircraft types, and weapon systems were technologically superior. NATO pilots were better trained than the MiG pilots they’d soon face, or so the belief went.

That wasn’t to say that NATO’s air commanders were taking the Soviet threat lightly. The skies over Eastern Europe were defended by a dense integrated-air-defense system. SAMs were going to be a formidable threat. The world had seen the amount of damage that Soviet SAMs could inflict on Western air forces during the Vietnam conflict, and 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since then a new generation of Soviet missiles had arrived and they were even more capable. In response, NATO air forces had spent tens of millions of dollars developing anti-radiation missiles, and a new generation of ECM measures to counter the threat.

SACEUR chewed on all the positive changes that had come to NATO since the early 1980s. The Reagan administration’s military buildup had benefitted US and allied forces in Europe tremendously. The new class of weapons systems were fielded in Western Europe in large numbers including the M-1 Abrams battle tank, M-2 Bradley IFV, Apache attack helicopter, F-15 Eagle and F-16. Britain, West Germany, and other NATO countries had introduced their own modernization programs and were making progress.

In a matter of hours, the alliance would begin to find out if its investments had been worthwhile or not.


Awakening In Brussels


In the days immediately following Mikhail Gorbachev’s ouster, NATO commanders collectively began to consider what the consequences of the coup would be for the alliance, as well as for their respective commands. Romanov had the reputation of being a hardliner and it was suspected that he would eventually turn his attention to the smoldering situation in the Eastern European satellites. It was not widely known in April, 1987 exactly how deep of a hole the Soviet Union had itself in. At home, there was increasing strife in the southern republics and Baltics. Discontent was growing among the general population as well. The grumblings were not restricted to Armenians and Estonians either. Russians were questioning the Communist Party’s decisions now in ever increasing numbers.  The economy was teetering on the verge of a total collapse, Afghanistan continued to consume Soviet blood, and Soviet influence in Central America was declining.

Nowhere was the situation more precarious for Moscow than in Eastern Europe. Internal discontent was fomenting from East Berlin to Warsaw and Prague. Poland had never been entirely pacified in the early 1980s. Jaruzelski, despite Soviet propping, was barely keeping his country together. Solidarity was still a force to be reckoned with. In East Berlin, Erich Honecker’s problems were more pronounced. His hold on power was becoming more illusionary. The harder he clamped down, the more resistant the voice of his opponents became. And it was spreading across the population rapidly. East Germany would celebrate its 40th anniversary as a nation-state in 1989 and there was widespread concern in the Kremlin that the nation would not last that long without Soviet military intervention.

What the ramifications of an East German collapse would mean for NATO was alarmingly clear: Nothing good. So, as Romanov was consolidating his power in the Kremlin, General Bernard Rodgers, SACEUR at the time, was holding meetings with his top commanders in Brussels to discuss the situation, and the training schedule for the summer months. Rodgers was leaving in June and wanted everything to be running perfectly for General John Galvin, his successor.

Over the next two weeks the new geo-political situation started to take shape. Romanov’s first priority was the United States. Specifically, repositioning the Soviet Union into a position of, if not political strength, political parity. The balance of power was tilting dangerously in Washington’s favor, even if the West was not clearly aware at this point. By mid-May, incidents between US and Soviet aircraft, submarines, and ships at sea were becoming a regular occurrence. It was the collision between a Russian Tu-95 Bear and US Navy F-14 Tomcat in the Pacific that captured Rodger’s attention and did not let go. Incidents like this have the power to start a war. Romanov was playing for keeps, he decided then and there. It now became the American general’s sole mission to ensure that the alliance was prepared for a conflict with the Soviets.