The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 1200-2359


CENTAG was an army group blessed with a number of inherent advantages. It was made up of NATO’s best trained, and equipped divisions. The US V and VII Corps, as well as the West German II and III Corps contained well trained, and motivated officers, NCOs and soldiers. Their equipment was second to none, in most cases the best that the United States and West Germany were capable of producing. As if this weren’t advantage enough, CENTAG’s four heavy maneuver corps guarded the central and southern areas of the Federal Republic, regions consisting in large part of hills, mountains, and other defensible terrain, supplemented by a first class network of roads which was expected to make the movement of units and supplies flow smoothly in a time of war. The Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces facing CENTAG opposite the border were also well equipped and trained, but  it was widely expected that the main Soviet/WP effort in a war would be made against NORTHAG farther north. This is not to say the danger facing CENTAG was trivial or minimized in any way. The III West German Corps defended the vital seam between the two NATO army groups, an area expected to receive significant Soviet pressure. To its south, the US V Corps protected the gate to Frankfurt and beyond it the Rhine. If the Soviets had any significant success in either area it could be catastrophic to the overall NATO plan for the defense of West Germany.

When Soviet forces crossed the frontier on 9 July, CENTAG’s covering forces were deployed in close proximity to the border, spread out in small, yet powerful clusters and supported by air and artillery support. Engagements began almost immediately and carried on with a growing intensity in some areas through the early afternoon and beyond. By 1500,  the entranceways to theFulda Gap and Hof Corridor looked like high tech junkyards littered with the burning hulks of dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, the overwhelming majority of which were Soviet. The initial Soviet thrusts had been halted with a minimal loss of territory. Elements of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment fought two regiments of the 57th Guards Motor Rifle Division to a bloody standstill before Gersfeld. North of there, West German reconnaissance forces, supported by armor were keeping the Soviets busy in front of Hunfeld. Similar situations were being reported near Hof, where the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment was positioned as VII Corps covering force.

–  –  –

The second echelon regiments were expected to begin moving forward by 1700, however this didn’t happen. NATO air attacks, communications jamming, and the leadership crisis earlier in the day were taking their toll on 8th Guards Tank Army. The pace of the general Soviet offensive was falling farther behind schedule, something that was not lost on higher headquarters. General Snetkov and his aides managed to select replacements for the fallen army group commanders and install them, as well as new staffs by late afternoon.  Considering the fact that he also had an offensive to run at the same time, it should come as no surprise that the process took so long.

As dusk grew closer, Snetkov was haranguing his air commanders on the importance of air superiority over the battle line and rear areas. The NATO air forces had already displayed a prowess for night fighting. So much so that if the second night of the war went anything like the first one had, NATO airpower would be on the cusp of controlling the night skies over the Central Front.

Snetkov informed his newly minted ground commanders that he would tolerate no major delays in resuming forward progress once they were adjusted and had assumed full command of their army groups. He cautioned them on remaining stationary for too long at night, however, he need not have bothered. The fates of their predecessors had made an impression that would not be washed away anytime soon. Coordinating and issuing orders was not a simple task when mobile in command vehicles, yet it was the best option until the alternate command posts were up and functioning.


As darkness fell, a brief lull set in over theater before covering forces began withdrawing from their forward positions and passing through friendly lines. At 2200 NATO strike fighters went back into action flying offensive counter air missions against airfields in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and interdiction strikes against targets deeper in the Warsaw Pact rear. The attacks were made mostly by US F-111s, Luftwaffe and RAF Tornados in the first part of the evening. As midnight approached, the F-117 stealth fighters was added to the mix,  make their second appearances over the GDR in twenty four hours. Rumors of  the aircraft’s stealth capability -real and imagined- were coursing through Soviet and WP air defense units like wildfire all day.

And so ended the first day of hostilities on the Central Front.




The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 1200-2359 Part I


Through the course of the afternoon, the covering force battles raged on with no Soviet breakthrough coming about. Pressure was starting to build up in some areas though, namely in the NORTHAG area and to the north of it. The mission of NATO covering forces was to buy time for the main forces to deploy and prepare. When mobilization began the expected surge of forces  heading for the border commenced within hours. Regrettably, in some sectors the pace of the surge more closely resembled a slow crawl, while in other sectors units moved quicker and were close to being fully manned and deployed by the time hostilities began. Divisions in CENTAG fell into this column, and their NORTHAG counterparts the former with the notable exception of the British Army of the Rhine.

Fortunately, NATO had anticipated such a possibility and worked revisions into the latest concept of operations for corps and their assigned army groups. An excellent example of this new thinking was in the changes made to the I Netherlands Corps covering force TO&E in 1985. The bulk of the corps troops and equipment were positioned in the Netherlands even though it came under NORTHAG’s command.  During a time of emergency the Holland-based units would move into West Germany and join the rest of the corps. Recognizing that this situation likely meant the corps needed additional time to mobilize and move, the size of its covering force was increased considerably. On 9 July, 1987 it comprised the Dutch 103rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 41st Armored Brigade, German 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, and the US 2nd Brigade/2nd Armored Division. This collection of units was essentially a covering force on steroids for the most part and was under the command of the German 3rd Panzer Division. Its coverage area ran from the Inner German Border west to the Elbe Lateral Canal, and planners expected this covering force to fight a delaying action there for 24 hours to allow for the forces in I Netherlands Corps ( Note: this formation will be referred to as I NL Corps for the duration of this blog) sector to finish deploying to their battle positions.

While its covering force was holding firm after fighting two regiments of the 21st Motor Rifle Division to a standstill in the morning and afternoon, I NL Corps was hastily reorganizing from a devastating Spetznaz raid before dawn. A group of Soviet commandos dressed in Dutch Army uniforms had penetrated the perimeter of the corps field headquarters and attacked the command post, killing the corps commander and severely wounding its deputy. None of the attackers survived the effort, but the damage had been done: I NL Corps was decapitated at the worst possible time. The command structure was reorganized as fast as events allowed. By 1000 the commander of the 1st Division had assumed command of the corps and was actively directing the battle.

North of I NL Corps, NATO forces situated north and east of Hamburg were enduring a determined push by elements of the 2nd Guards Tank Army. In this sector of the line allied forces were under the command of LANDJUT, not NORTHAG. Soviet forces were moving northwest and west from the Inner German Border against West German and Danish forces, and making headway. Lubeck would fall by dusk and  the main axis of the Soviet’s initial advance showed signs of focusing near Mölln, indicating the 2nd Guards Tank Army’s (Note:  initial objective could be to swing south of Hamburg, this isolating the city and everything north of it from the rest of the Federal Republic. This prospect was causing concern at NORTHAG headquarters as well as Brussels. A successful south swing by the bulk of 2nd GTA (Note: this formation will be referred to as 2nd GTA for the duration of this blog) would threaten the left flank of NORTHAG as well as indicate Denmark as the target for follow-on Polish and Baltic Military District divisions.

To the south of I NL Corps, the covering force battles in the I German Corps (I GE Corps), I British Corps (I BR Corps), and I Belgian Corps (I BE Corps) areas continued. Heavy casualties were being inflicted on the Soviet first echelons , but it was coming at a price. Losses in the covering force elements were increasing as the afternoon drew on. All three corps commanders hoped to wait until the cover of night to hand the battle off from their respective covering forces to the main forces, but it wasn’t realistic for each corps.

The Belgians were under the heaviest pressure. On his own, the I BE Corps commander ordered his forward forces to begin pulling back at 1630. The Belgians were facing a similar dilemma to that of the Dutch farther north. The entirety of the I BE Corps was not yet fully in the field and more time was needed before that task was complete. The premature disengagement of its forward elements put the corps commander in a bind. In order to buy more time for his main force, and to prevent his covering force from being overrun and smashed he requested as much air support as was available to cover the withdrawal. 2nd ATAF , its resources already stretched thin, allocated two squadrons of ground attack fighters to the effort and made a desperate request to 4th ATAF for help, which was given in the form of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and a mixed force of F-15s and F-16s flying top cover and support.

The British and Germans opted to wait until nightfall to begin the withdrawals of their covering forces. They’d fought the Soviet first echelons of the 3rd Shock Army to a bloody standstill. In the case of both corps, however, the second echelons had yet to appear. The afternoon moved towards early evening and all that appeared in the east were signs of Soviet BRDMs and other reconnaissance vehicles prowling and searching for the next line of defensive positions for the covering forces. The movement of the recon elements appeared hesitant and even pained to an extent. British and German commanders passed these reports and observations up the line, not sure what to make of them. NORTHAG’s thinking was along similar lines. It was not until word reached Brussels that SACEUR and his staff were able to connect the dots. The slow movement of follow up forces in 3rd Shock Army’s area, combined with other reports on strange happenings in front of CENTAG forces that will be discussed in Part II led SACEUR to conclude that the events were directly connected to the results of the early morning F-117 strikes. The Soviets, General Galvin suspected, had been hurt far worse than they were letting on.



The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0800-1200


No one in Western Europe other than a handful of generals in Brussels and Ramstein, and a slightly larger cadre of pilots and squadron intelligence officers at RAF Alconbury, had any suspicions about the level of chaos and confusion that the pre-dawn F-117 strikes might have sewn in East Germany. Remarkable post-strike videos from the targeting pods on the stealth fighters showed smart weapons impacting precisely on the intended targets. Copies were made and hurried up the line for analysis by NATO air commanders, SACEUR and their staffs. As dawn came and went and the air war kicked off with ferocity, NATO commanders braced, fully expecting the land war to begin at any minute. By 0700, with the Inner-German border still intact, only SACEUR and his senior air commander suspected the delay was linked to the command bunker attacks.

It was around this time that hostilities in space began to have an effect on NATO operations. The war in space on 9 July and beyond will be covered in detail at future point, but to summarize, the opening hours were marked by effective Soviet attacks on US communications and reconnaissance satellites. Close attention was given to those satellites approaching the Central Front. US and NATO commanders in Europe suddenly lost large swaths of satellite from the Baltic Sea to the central Hungary. Communications disruptions were also experienced, but these were minor in comparison. Other methods were available to replace lost communications. The lost reconnaissance satellites could also be replaced as well, and eventually they would be. Only it took more time.

At 0754 the first Soviet forces crossed the frontier south of Hötensleben. The early movement was due to a miscommunication yet it did not have an adverse effect on the attackers overall strategy or plans. By 0803 hours the scene was being repeated all along the frontier. T-80 tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles were moving through holes in the fortifications that had been hastily erected at the border and into West German territory. Contact between Soviet and NATO forces started to materialize, marking the start of the covering force battles.

Allied airbases that had been the recipients of heavy damage from raids earlier in the morning were undergoing repairs. Fortunately, the number of bases that had to be temporarily closed because of damage was small. As the air battle continued to rage through the morning the need for close air support was shifting the focus of air commanders. Gaining control of the airspace over the forward edge of the battle area became a paramount concern as urgent calls for close air support came in. Over the CENTAG area of operations air superiority was gained and held by a curtain of US Air Force F-15s operating out of Bitburg. This allowed A-10s and other ground attack aircraft to be committed to the covering force battles in the US V and VII Corps areas without having to worry about them being challenged by marauding MiGs. Control of the skies over NORTHAG was another matter altogether. It wouldn’t be until later in the afternoon before NATO ground attack fighters and attack helicopters were able to influence the action on the ground.

In Brussels, SACEUR monitored the reports coming in on the covering force battles. Communications were not entirely reestablished, though, and the content of the reports that reached Brussels highlighted this fact. In place of the fluid, constantly updated big picture that he needed were singular pieces of the puzzle that provided little more than a fraction of information. He had a very good idea of how the offensive would likely play out,  yet had to rely on his commanders in NORTHAG and CENTAG to confirm or deny where the main axes of advance were forming in reality. Would 3rd Shock Army be oriented westward or perhaps southwest aimed at the seam between NATO’s army groups? Was the bulk of the 2nd Guards Tank Army’s thrust be directed south of Hamburg or north? The flow of information coming in was far too disjointed to offer indications of where the axes might materialize. All SACEUR could do for the moment was watch and wait.


As 1200 approached, the covering force battles were still raging while overhead the battle for air superiority continued unabated. Chemical or nuclear weapons had not yet been used by either side, though SACEUR expected the Soviets to make use of them by the end of the day. West Berlin was quiet so far. Communications with the city were spotty, but the East Germans and Soviets hadn’t made a move against the city yet. That could change by the end of the day too, General Gavin knew. If it did he wouldn’t be surprised. Unfortunately, if Pact forces did begin crossing into West Berlin there was nothing he could do to aid the city or its defenders.




The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0545-0800


The first wave of Soviet and Warsaw Pact aircraft heading towards targets in West Germany, and the Low Countries was made up largely of anti-radiation missile armed MiG-27 Floggers, and Su-17 Fitters weighed down with gravity bombs. Overhead, a formation of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters flew cover on the strike force. Fifty miles behind the border, offensive jammers were going to work degrading NATO’s line of ground based radars closest to the border. The jamming, however, did not have a great effect on the E-3 Sentries orbiting over the far western fringes of the Federal Republic. Operators on board these aircraft were vectoring defending fighters towards the inbounds. The coordination was excellent, to the point that some NATO aircraft actually began engaging their Warsaw Pact counterparts on the eastern side of the border!

The first wave’s target concentration was air defense: ground based radars, air defense centers, and SAM sites. Their mission was to disrupt NATO’s forward air defenses and pave the way for follow-on waves to strike airbases and command posts without being disruption by air defenses. Upon crossing the border they fanned out and headed towards their intended targets, in many cases with NATO fighters actively pursuing them. The Fulcrums had done an admirable job defending their charges, but the advanced fighters couldn’t be everywhere at once. Some of the Soviet attack pilots found themselves being bounced by F-15s or Tornados when they were still a long way away from their targets. The choice they had was simple: press on towards the target and hope they could get there before being shot down, or jettison their bomb loads now and evade. Some made the right choice and lived to fight again, while their comrades made the wrong one and paid the price.

The air battle over the central front on 9 July would eventually include hundreds of aircraft of various types and expand from central East Germany to the Low Countries. Many NATO radar stations and SAM sites received at least some damage, and some were knocked out entirely. Yet the system as a whole held solid. By 0700 as additional waves of Soviet/WP warplanes crossed the border, the focus of the air attacks was shifting from air defense sites to airbases in the 2nd ATAF (Allied Tactical Air Force) region. By afternoon, airbases in the heavily defended 4th ATAF region were also being targeted. The first day’s air actions will be discussed and analyzed in future posts, however, when all was said and done, the day did not go the way 16th Air Army’s commanders and planners intended it to.


MiGs and Sukhois were not the only Soviet aircraft in action that morning. As the air offensive commenced, large formations of attack and transport helicopters filled with troops were streaking across the border at low level. Soviet airmobile forces were highly regarded by NATO and their use early on in the conflict was widely expected. In this case, the Soviets did not disappoint. Airmobile company-sized units were assigned to strike a wide variety of targets in NATO’s rear area this morning ranging from headquarters to crossroads. A handful of airmobile battalions were also going into action as whole units. Their use was restricted for the most crucial targets: bridges spanning the Weser River and parts of the Kiel Canal.

Just transporting the airmobile troops to their intended targets turned out to be hazardous enough. NATO fighters, when able to, engaged and tore into some formations, destroying a large number of Hip transport helicopters. Ground fire also became a great peril. Many of the targets being struck had air defenses of some sort. Transport helicopters had to dodge anti-aircraft fire and handheld surface-to-air missiles as they approached their targets. Accompanying Mi-24 Hinds helped in suppressing some of the defensive fire, but not all of it. More casualties were inflicted.

From 0630 through 0730 Soviet airmobile forces made landings at 20 separate locations from the West German-Denmark border south to VII Corps staging area. In spite of losses endured, the attacks on the Kiel Canal and bridges spanning the Weser River, and crossroads between Kassel and Hannover were successful. Resistance on the ground was light, surprise was gained, and the objectives taken with minimal further loss. Attacks on more heavier defended locations fared differently for the most part, especially headquarters sites.

Much like the air battle, chaos and confusion reigned supreme around the airmobile raids. Neither NATO or Soviet higher headquarters were aware of what was truly happening for some hours. Communications had gone silent in many cases. The first sign of Soviet airmobile troops on the ground in some areas was when civilian cars or an approaching supply convoy was attacked sometime on 9 July.

By 0745 the attention of NATO and Warsaw Pact general officer had moved away from the troublesome airmobile attacks. The main Soviet/WP was just fifteen minutes from launching and preceding artillery strikes were already underway. As reports went up the NATO chain of command it rapidly became apparent what was happening.

The battle for Western Europe was about to begin in earnest.







The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0500-0545


By the time he arrived back at Wunsdorf, General Snetkov had a fair idea of what was happening. NATO had defied all expectations and launched a number of daring airstrikes against the command bunkers of his most powerful army groups. How NATO was even aware of the existence of some of these bunkers was beyond him at the moment. This was only one of a thousand questions raging in his mind. The most prevalent one, though, was how the NATO bombers managed to penetrate into GDR airspace without being detected on radar. There were rumors that the Americans were working to develop an aircraft invisible to radar, but it was not yet in operational service. Or was it? If so, what did that mean for his command? Nothing good. Snetkov was certain of that.

The attacks on command bunkers were not the only instances of preemption that morning either. Scattered reports from across the western half of the GDR spoke of further NATO air strikes against bridges spanning the Elbe river, fuel depots, and a small number of Frontal Aviation airbases.

Before boarding the helicopter in Stendal, the general had sent a coded message to the theater commander explaining the situation and requesting a temporary moratorium on future operations.  Much to his surprise, there was an answer from CINC-West waiting for him when he touched down. CINC-West agreed to a two hour delay on all land operations scheduled to go off at 0600, but everything else would go off as planned. There was not enough time to delay the offensive air operations, and airmobile raids that had been planned to precede the ground offensive. In fact, some of those missions were already inbound to targets in West Germany. Snetkov argued that these operations should also be delayed, but CINC-West would not entertain the notion. His comrades in Frontal Aviation were going to be dealing with a lot soon, if they weren’t already. Their blow would fall shortly.

Snetkov’s problems were more immediate and critical to the overall outcome of the war. Two, possibly three of his army group’s had been decapitated and were now without commanders, and battle staffs at a moment when their divisions were approaching inner-German border. His own battle staff was frantically contacting every one of 3rd Shock, 20th and 8th Guards Armies divisions to order them not to begin offensive operations until 0800. 1st and 2nd Guards Armies commanders, alive and untouched by the devastation brought upon their comrades earlier, acknowledged the order from Wunsdorf and went about passing the word along. It took time, and unorthodox effort in some instances, but Snetkov’s staff succeeded in halting the subordinate units of the affected armies. With that urgent task completed, Snetkov could worry about selecting new commanders for the affected army groups.


As all of this was taking place in Wunsdorf, Frontal Aviation and the air forces of other Warsaw Pact allies went into action. While it was true that some units and installations belonging to  the 16th Air Army had been in action since 0300 or so, this action was part of the long planned air offensive against NATO. The offensive was originally intended to begin less than an hour before the first Soviet tanks crossed the border, but that timeline and battleplan no longer existed. Snetkov’s thoughts about Frontal Aviation having their own woes was right on the mark. NATO’s own preemptive airstrikes had thrown the morning’s planned air operations into chaos. USAF and Luftwaffe low level fighter-bombers had visited Mahlwinkle and Cochstedt, causing damage to facilities and aircraft. MiGs had also seen in the pre-dawn hours engaging NATO fighters over East Germany as well.

What all of this translated to was that the first blow struck from the air was not going to be as powerful as intended. The morning’s events so far had punched holes in the Soviet/WP’s master target list. Some NATO airbases and radar sites slated to be hit early on would not be struck until. The aircraft tasked for those missions had been damaged or destroyed outright on the ground. Defensive counter-air now took on a heightened priority as well. Some fighter regiments assigned to provide protection for the attack aircraft and fighter-bombers heading west were reassigned to defend the suddenly vulnerable skies over East Germany.

For years, Soviet and Warsaw Pact air commanders had speculated about this very moment, should it become reality. Now that it was, the situation was far different than most of them had imagined. And tt was destined to get worse.

The NATO air forces were ready and waiting as the first MiGs and Sukhois approached the border.




The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0130-0400 Part III


0300– The first non-stealth NATO aircraft into East Germany that morning were USAF F-111F Aardvarks and a mixed force of RAF and Luftwaffe Tornadoes. As the last GBU-27 impacted on the 20th Guards Army’s bunker complex at Mohlau, the fighter-bomber were breaking formation as flights headed off for their assigned ground targets. The primary targets were bridges across the Elbe River that were to be used by the second echelon of the Soviet armies now arrayed to attack West Germany. The destruction of the bridges would prevent those armies from being reinforced for a period of time. Other targets included air bases, railheads, and logistical centers. The majority of targets being struck were in the 3rd Shock Army’s sector. This was the army NATO and US planners feared the most. The more damage that could be caused to it before crossing the border meant less pressure on the NORTHAG formations in the opening hours of fighting.

Behind and above the strike aircraft F-15 Eagles and other NATO fighters were engaging the MiGs that had been loitering on CAP stations over East Germany. Radar operators aboard E-3 Sentries over the western reaches of the Federal Republic vectored the fighters towards intercepts. Their Soviet counterparts aboard two A-50 Mainstay aircraft north of Berlin were shocked to find their screens suddenly filled with NATO fighters. As the aircraft they controlled began dropping from the skies, scramble orders were transmitted to every fighter base in East Germany.

It would be too late, however. Even as the additional MiGs rose into the pre-dawn skies to challenge the intruders, the F-15s now augmented by F-4 Phantoms, and air-to-air Tornadoes were waiting in ambush and took a horrifying toll of the Soviet defenders.


0335– General Snetkov was a man consumed by rage. Around him, the sounds of battle were finally dying off. For the last half hour he heard the roar of combat aircraft to the south and west. The sound of explosions, and flashes of light on the horizons had confirmed to him that the command bunkers were not the only sites being targeted by NATO on this morning. It was bad enough that 3rd Shock Army’s commander and all of his people were dead. Now Snetkov’s contact with 20th Guards and 8th Guards Armies was disrupted. Calls to both of their command posts were going unanswered. The fact that 2nd Guards Tank Army in the far north remained in touch was of little solace.

Snetkov’s worst fears were coming true. NATO air forces were in the midst of successful pre-emptive air strikes. He was stranded in Stendal, forced to take cover in a shelter on the edge of the now-immolated bunker complex while NATO fighters ran roughshod overhead. Now, the general needed to gain a clear picture of the temporary disaster unfolding around him. That could not be done from here, though. He ordered his aide to arrange helicopter transportation back to Wunsdorf. The aide did not even remind the general that enemy fighters might still be in the area. Snetkov’s glare was enough to deter him from verbalizing any objection.  Once that was done, the general told his chief of staff to get in contact with CINC-WEST, the theater commander immediately. The general was going to personally inform him of the situation and recommend a two to three hour delay before the attack commenced. He assumed at least that much time was going to be needed to unscramble the mess that NATO air power had caused.

0359– In Brussels, SACEUR was busy dealing with the aftermath of the Spetsnaz attacks. For the most part the attacks had failed, except for two places. The port of Rotterdam was a fiery mess. Two ships had been scuttled in the harbor, and another was burning at the dockside. The second success had come in northern Germany at the I Netherlands Corps field headquarters. A group of Soviet commandos dressed in Dutch military uniforms had penetrated the headquarters and killed the corps commander before they were killed themselves. It was bad, he reminded himself, but it could’ve been far worse.

Through the excitement, SACEUR had nearly forgotten that NATO aircraft were in action over East Germany. His air commander had provided bits and pieces on the progress of the air strikes. Judging from those reports, the air strikes seemed to have gone off well. An in-depth briefing was set to take place in less than thirty minutes.

For the moment, SACEUR looked at the large electronic map mounted on the wall of his operations center. Successful air strikes or not, at any moment now he expected to begin receiving word that Soviet fighters, helicopters, and tanks were storming across the border. As chaotic as the last few hours had been, General Galvin knew it would be nothing compared to what was to come. The fate of an entire continent now lay squarely upon his shoulders.

It was 0400 hours, 9 July, 1987.

The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0130-0400 Part II


The post-Vietnam years were a time of reconstruction for the US Air Force. The service’s Vietnam experience was best regarded as a stark example of how not to run an air war. Restrictive rules of engagement, micromanagement, and a cumbersome, almost ineffective process of changing tactics and strategy once it became apparent that what was being used at the moment was failing and costing aircraft and pilots. The Air Force took Vietnam to heart and in the mid-70s, the men who’d fought the air war and remained in the service, vowed to transform the US Air Force, how it trained, thought, and fought.

By 1987, many of the reforms were embedded and producing results. The US Air Force was once again a world class air arm and its doctrine reflected a new era of offensive thinking. Dark Comet was a result of this thinking. In the early 80s USAFE planners recognized that their counterparts on land would need every possible edge to halt a Red Army push into West Germany. Airland Battle 2000, the basis of the US Army’s European warfighting doctrine, involved using US air power to pulverize the second echelon Soviet divisions before they could reach the front and influence the battle there. With that in mind, USAFE planners, along with a handful of Luftwaffe, and RAF counterparts, began putting together the foundation of a plan that could possibly even the playing field before the first tanks crossed the border. For five years the plan had been revised and updated as needed, especially as new intelligence became available, and US aircrews stationed in Europe practiced it regularly.

In 1986 the entire operational concept was almost scrapped entirely. The release of the Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising raised some eyebrows in NATO and made more than one senior air officer believe they had a security problem to contend with. In Clancy’s book, NATO air forces launched a major air strike against sites in East Germany when it became apparent that war was imminent. The air plan in the novel was strikingly similar to Dark Comet, right down to the use of the secretive stealth aircraft. A major investigation was launched to determine if any US Air Force officers had given Clancy any sensitive information to use as research. Ironically, enough the investigation had come to an end in June of ’87 and concluded that the Clancy’s air plan was simply the product of a creative imagination and detailed research from public sources.

In an ironic twist, reality was about to mimic fiction in the skies above East Germany.

At 0130, SACEUR ordered Dark Comet to commence. Most of the aircraft that would be involved were already airborne and loitering over the North Sea, or central Germany waiting for the word to execute. When it came, the long rehearsed act began immediately. The first aircraft to cross into East Germany were six F-117A stealth fighters. Their individual ingress corridors were spread out along the northern Baltic coast from Wismar to east of Rostok. Each aircraft carried two GBU-27 Paveway III smart bombs inside of their internal weapon bays. The -27 was a laser guided bomb designed and built specifically for use by the F-117. It was basically a GBU-24 Paveway attached to the warhead of a BLU-109, giving the weapon a deep penetrator capability.

Their targets for the morning were three bunkers that intelligence expected to be used by the commanders and staffs of three Soviet army groups now poised to strike west. The bunker locations were at Kossa, Mohlau, and one outside of Stendal. Intelligence had been aware of the bunkers existence for some time now and estimated that 3rd Shock Army’s bunker was outside of Stendal, 8th Guards Army at Kossa, and 20th Guards at Mohlau. Each bunker was targeted by a pair of F-117s.


0200-  the pilot of Wrench 21, the lead F-117  performed a “fence check”– a final detailed check of the aircraft. From then on, things would happen rapidly. He made sure all external lights were switched off. Sometimes, under the stress of combat, the most obvious things are left undone. A single wingtip light, visible to enemy gunners, could mean disaster

Inside the cockpit, the only light came from the dimly glowing multi-function displays (MFDs) arrayed before him. Using switches on the throttles and pushing actuator buttons near the video displays, he could call up target information on one MFD while keeping aircraft status information, such as airspeed, attitude, and altitude, on another. Another display gave the pilot the data his sensors were gathering on the enemy’s radar system. He could call up almost any combination of data he wanted.

He selected the next checkpoint on the INS and checked the latitude and longitude readout. The auto pilot turned the aircraft.

He changed his heading frequently, as all F-117 pilots do, to complicate target tracking by an enemy radar that might get some slight return from the stealthy aircraft. On-board sensors told him where the probing radars were, and he flew a course to avoid them.

To complete the fence check, he compared the amount of fuel remaining with the level that a precomputation said he should have. He again made sure his warning and caution lights were out.

The pilot now concentrated on his displays, hearing only the hum of the cockpit as he sped through the night. He prepared to drop the first of two laser-guided, hardened, improved, 2000-pound bombs, designed to penetrate deep into enemy bunkers before detonating. He then punched up the armament display on an MFD. It told him that both bombs were operative and that the release system was ready. He armed his weapons and switched the armament system to “weapons armed, off safe” to prevent accidental release.


0220- As time drew on, and the extent of the Spetsnaz attacks became apparent, SACEUR was growing anxious about the air missions. Somewhere over East Germany were six highly advanced, yet untested F-117s  heading towards their targets and he had no clue about their progress. Hell, he had no clue about the aircraft themselves, having seen one for the first time just days before. Were they on schedule or had there been delays? Had Warsaw Pact air defenses claimed any or all of the aircraft? Two questions of the many that were in his mind. Unfortunately, he had no answers. All he could do was wait and pray for the best.


0245- As his F-117 neared Stendal, the pilot switched his computer system from “nav” mode to “weapons delivery” mode. He turned to a new heading over the pre-initial point, then passed over the IP.

He then called up the target position on the INS and watched as aiming cross hairs positioned themselves over the computed position of the target. He was now scrutinizing the infrared picture on one of the MFDs. The F-117’s infrared sensors gather heat emanations from the ground, and an MFD displays their image, which closely resembles a black-and-white television picture.

As Wrench 21 approached the release point, the pilot’s pulse rate quickened, and he breathed fast and heavily. He set the autopilot to keep the F-117 steady on the target run. He checked the MFDs to ensure that his altitude, heading, and airspeed were correct for this delivery, checked his armament system one more time, and then flipped the master arm switch to “arm.”

Outside, only one or two lights from the town were visible. The F-117’s infrared sensors, however, picked out buildings, railroad tracks, and roads. He could see these clearly on his MFD.


0250- The nondescript GAZ, sandwiched in between a pair of armored cars carrying CINC-Group Soviet Forces Germany traveled down the two lane road west of Stendal. General Snetkov  was starting to grow discouraged by concerns of his senior commanders. Now, just hours before the offensive would begin, they wanted to make changes in the plans. When he heard about the request, Snetkov hit the roof.  He was now on his way to confer with the commander of 3rd Shock Army personally. Considering the time of morning, he would remain with 3rd Shock’s commander through noon and monitor the progress of his most powerful army group as it crossed into West Germany.


0254- He had studied his target intently beforehand, so he knew exactly where the bunker was in relation to the sparse terrain features. He compared what he saw on the MFD with an aerial photo strapped to his legboard. As he flew closer, he could see the outline of the bunker and some of its support structures for positive target identification.

The pilot moved the fingertip target designator (TD) button on one of the throttles, slewing the cross hairs until they were precisely over the aimpoint, which is called the “designated mean point of impact” (DMPI). Depending on size, hardness, and other considerations, a target may have more than one DMPI. In this case, the single aim-point was the center of the top of the bunker.

By depressing and then releasing the TD button, he told the computer exactly where he wanted to aim. Immediately the F-117’s laser designator began to shoot a continuous, invisible, pinpoint laser beam at the DMPI. The laser energy, reflecting from the target to the aircraft, provided guidance for the bomb.

Symbology on the MFD and on the head-up display in the wind-screen cued the pilot to fly left or right to correct for crosswinds. More symbology told him when he was in range of the target. Once he had passed the “max range” point, the bomb would have enough energy, imparted by the forward motion of the F-117, to arc into the target. F-117 pilots refer to such a shot as “putting it into the basket.”

he saw the “in range” symbology, checked his position in relation to the target, decided he agreed with the computer, and depressed the red button on the top of his control stick. The weapons bay doors snapped open. He heard a “clunk” as the huge bomb was released from its shackles in the weapons bay. The doors snapped closed.

As the weapon dropped away, its nose sensor homed on the reflected laser beam and sent signals to the guidance system, which moved vanes on the side of the bomb to control the arc of flight. The pilot watched the IR display intently. The plunging bomb appeared at the bottom of the display just before it hit.


0254- To  the west, two brief flashes of light caught Snetkov’s eye. He looked in that direction wondering what it had been. An anxious anti-aircraft crew firing a round at a shadow in the sky perhaps? He would inquire with his air defense commander when he arrived at the bunker in a few minutes.

He was wrong. 3rd Shock Army’s command bunker no longer existed. The flashes had come from Wrench 21’s GBU-27s. Both had hit within six feet of each other, less than five seconds apart. As his vehicle drew closer, the flashes of light were orange blossoms set against the early morning sky.

0256- 0255- Snetkov’s convoy was five kilometers away when Wrench 22’s  bombs hit. A massive explosion rocked the countryside.  The car screeched to a halt as the driver responded to the large burst of light and then noise to their front. The bunker where General Snetkov was scheduled to arrive in less than five minutes was gone. With it, went the commander of the 3rd Shock Army and his battle staff of 200 officers and NCOs.

Before the echo from the bomb impacts reverberated across the nearby valley, anti-aircraft guns were erupting all over the area. Too late, as the case would be.