SAC on the Eve of War: 8 July, 1987

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In the last hours of peace on 8 June, 1987, the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command found itself in an unprecedented position. While its sister major commands in the Air Force and other service branches were hurriedly preparing for a war that seemed ready to begin at any moment, SAC was taking extreme measures to adopt and maintain a low key, business-as-usual approach. It was strange to imagine, but nevertheless true. Even though diplomatic efforts had more or less ended by this time, a late afternoon discussion over the hotline between President Reagan and General Secretary Romanov had produced an unexpected agreement: Both leaders agreed to keep the posture of their respective strategic forces untouched unless the alert level of the other superpower appeared to be changing. Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart had come to a mutual agreement on the conduct of the war that was to come. The Third World War would be fought conventionally. If NATO or the Warsaw Pact fared badly on the battlefield though, it could mean that all bets were off. At the very least, the superpowers wanted to make a sincere effort to keep the lid on the nuclear box for as long as possible.

This did little to assuage the nerves of SAC aircrews, missileers, and personnel assigned to SAC headquarters in Omaha, or any other SAC base across the US. The next time the klaxons went off it would be the real thing. CINC-SAC, General John Chain and his operations staff were kept busy keeping current with what was happening in Europe, while simultaneously preparing the command for action. The Looking Glass airborne command post would remain airborne at all times, as always. The Soviets understood Looking Glass and would not see the move as an escalation. Alert facilities at SAC bases were becoming cramped quarters. Additional aircrews were moving in as the number of tankers and bombers on alert was increased. Maintenance teams were combing over Minuteman III and Peacekeeper ICBMs constantly to ensure the missiles would be combat ready if the time came.

Not all SAC bombers would remain at their stateside bases on alert, though. Just as during Vietnam, conventionally-armed heavy bombers were going to be in high demand in this conflict. Some SAC squadrons had been assigned conventional roles in a time of war and were trained up to execute those missions if it became necessary. Two B-52 squadrons, one at Andersen AFB and the other at Loring AFB were tasked to employ Harpoon anti-ship missiles against Soviet warships in the Pacific, and North Atlantic. Other -52 squadrons were slated to support ground forces in Europe. Although they were in high demand, Chain was reluctant to part with more strategic bombers than absolutely necessary. His hesitation brought about intervention by the Joint Chiefs. General Larry Welch, the USAF Chief of Staff and Chain’s predecessor at SAC told him bluntly over a secure phone line, “Goddammit, John! Quit being so stingy. We both know your command has more than enough bombers and missiles to wipe Russia off the map. You can afford to part with a few -52s. Using them in Europe against Russian tanks might help to stop us from having to use the rest of your force over Russia later on.” Shortly after the phone call, warning orders went out to the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB to prepare for movement across the Atlantic.

For the rest of SAC, though, it was the usual watch-and-wait game. God willing, it would become nothing more.

Airbase Angst: 8 July, 1987

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Airbase commanders on either side of the Iron Curtain breathed a collective sigh of relief as the sun rose in the eastern sky on the morning of 8 July, 1987. In NATO and Warsaw Pact air forces alike, the lessons of the Six Day War had been scrutinized incessantly ever since. The pre-emptive strike Israel launched against Egyptian airfields in the early morning hours of 5 June, 1967 destroyed over 300 combat aircraft and irreparably damaged its military infrastructure. The Egyptian Air Force was paralyzed and subsequently was unable to support Egypt’s ground forces in the fighting to come. Since then, the possibility of a massive series of predawn airstrikes against airbases, Command and control sites, and radars became the nightmare scenario for air commanders around the world. NATO expected a Warsaw Pact offensive to begin with a concentrated effort against its airfields, while Warsaw Pact commanders expected NATO to begin counter air operations as soon as possible should their own strikes not produce enough damage to NATO airbases and combat aircraft first.

After Israel destroyed the unprotected Egyptian Air Force, airbase protection became a priority. Hardened Aircraft Shelters quickly became a standard feature of Western airbases, while the Soviet Union and its allies turned to a variety of SAMs and self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons to protect its air forces on the ground. Eventually, the Soviets came around to the HAS concept, but nowhere near as fast as NATO. On the eve of war HAS construction was still underway at nearly every Soviet airbase in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

NATO airbase commanders accepted the reality that their bases would receive immediate, concentrated attention from Warsaw Pact air forces, and possibly from Soviet airmobile forces as well. Base defenses were readied, and aircraft were dispersed and spread out as much as possible. Pilots, staff officers, ground crew personnel and security troops alike worked, slept and ate with their cumbersome NBC gear nearby. It was anticipated that Pact forces would be using chemical weapons from the outset. The farther forward a NATO airbase was located, the more apprehensive the base commander was.

Their Soviet and Warsaw Pact counterparts were of a similar mindset. The greatest unknown on the eastern side of the Inner-German Border was the accuracy and effectiveness NATO aircraft and air-delivered weapons. The consensus among the more senior base commanders was NATO air forces held the edge in the quality of aircraft and weapons. If air superiority was lost over East Germany, round-the-clock airstrikes could be expected. Therefore, it was no surprise that fighter regiment and base commanders from Magdeburg to Vilnius were screaming for additional air defense assets.

What no NATO, and most Warsaw Pact air officers recognized at the time was that the morning of 8 July would be the last morning of peace for a while.

 

Pershing II and GLCM Disperal: 8 July, 1987

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Shortly after 0100 local time on 8 July, 1987, SACEUR made perhaps the most critical pre-war decision for the Western alliance. As armies massing across Europe in the past days consumed the world’s attention, a debate had been raging inconspicuously in Brussels and select Western capitals. The question of whether or not to disperse NATO’s force of Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) into the field was being discussed. From an operational standpoint, Galvin had been in favor of dispersing his primary tactical nuclear weapons immediately. The installations where the BGM-109s and Pershing IIs based would almost certainly be a prime target for Soviet airstrikes and commando raids once the balloon went up. The missiles would be more secure once deployed to their secret dispersal locations, spread out and under the watchful eye of well-trained Air Force security troops.

Politically, a decision to disperse had to be closely considered. Moving the force into the field could be mistaken as preparation for a pre-emptive strike by Moscow. If the Soviets really believed that, the war which everybody feared was about to begin would likely begin with nuclear weapons launched in the first salvo. Civilian reaction in NATO countries was another concern leaders had to take into account. Moving the weapons now could spark a panic if it became publicly known. This, in turn, could lead to unfounded rumors spreading, and a deeper public hysteria coming about at the worst possible moment.

When all was said and done, the decision was left up to the President of the United States and SACEUR. In a conversation shortly after midnight, Reagan let Galvin know that he was in favor of dispersal, but would leave the final decision up to his general. For Galvin, the decision was a no brainer. Intelligence indicated that the Soviets were moving their SS-20s out of garrison and into the field. So after the telephone call with Reagan ended, SACEUR called the secretary general and informed Carington of his intent to immediately order the dispersal of NATO’s ground based nuclear forces.

Before first light, at various sites across West Germany, United Kingdom, Belgium, and Italy, convoys slipped through the main gates and into the predawn darkness bound for their respective dispersal areas. At the Ground Launched Cruise Missile bases, the peace camps that European civilians had constructed in close proximity to the fences had been deconstructed and removed as tensions grew. One of these bases was RAF Greenham Common, home of the 501st Tactical Missile Wing.

The first vehicles to depart Greenham were the transport-erector launchers and accompanying security and maintenance vehicles belonging to Alpha Flight. Sixteen vehicles in total, the flight headed north towards its intended dispersal area ensconced in the North Wessex Downs. British military policemen stood guard along the route, keeping the few civilians who’s curiosity got the best of them from getting too close. Even before Alpha arrived at its intended destination, Charlie Flight was leaving the base for its own dispersal area.

Word of the GLCM and Pershing movement eventually made it east that afternoon, causing Soviet planners to make some last-minute revisions in their operational planning. Spetznaz commandos and intelligence officers who were on the ground near the NATO bases went into high gear attempting to locate the dispersal areas so that they could be raided the coming morning by nearby commando teams in hiding. These teams had penetrated into Western Europe days earlier, originally tasked with raiding the installations, which now seemed pointless given that most of them were empty. The race was now on to locate the dispersal sites and prepare the commando teams before the start of hostilities in less than 24 hours.

 

3rd Armored Division To The Border: 7 July, 1987

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Across the length of the Federal Republic of Germany on the night of 7 July into the morning of the 8th, two mass migrations were underway. One was made up of thousands of West German civilians that resided in close proximity to the border. What had started as a steady stream of families heading west towards perceived safety in good order was transforming to an evacuation fueled by panic and rumors. News of mobilization, and diminishing chances for a diplomatic solution had finally pushed those West Germans who had ignorantly remained behind to accept the situation for what it was and leave before it was too late. Roadways from the Baltic Sea to Austria were now filled with thousands of civilians moving west.

The other migration was moving in the opposite direction: east. Tanks, APCs, armored vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and other military vehicles were pouring out of NATO installations across the FRG and moving east to occupy the wartime positions of their respective units. In some instances, evacuating civilians, and military convoys met on the autobahn, occasionally resulting in large traffic tie ups. For the most part, though, West German police were efficient in keeping the roads assigned to military traffic cleared.

All in all, NATO land units were responding swiftly and with determination to their deployment orders. In some brigades, and regiments records were set for the amount of time it took for the unit to pack up and deploy. The urgency of the moment was not lost on anyone wearing a uniform. Officers, NCOs, and enlisted men alike fell back on their training. Practice alerts were regular occurrences for NATO units based in West Germany. Personnel were recalled to their installations, units packed up and readied to deploy into the field. When the order to move was given, units embarked on road marches to the same locations they would move to in a time of crisis. Individual units trained on, and familiarized themselves with the terrain and features of the areas they would fight from.

In the US V Corps sector, the 3rd Armored Division was seventy percent in the field by 2300 hours. An impressive feat that exceeded the expectations of everyone in V Corps headquarters. For the division commander Major General Thomas Griffin Jr, his unit’s performance was no surprise. 3rd AD was as capable and motivated a combat division as Griffin had ever seen or been a part of during his career. His brigade commanders were all-stars, all of whom would likely command divisions. The junior officers and NCOs all took soldiering quite seriously. They took pride in their unit, its history, equipment, and most importantly, in its role should war come. Spearhead, the division’s nickname, was a word spoken with dignity and reverence at kasernes in Frankfurt, and across Hessen.

3rd AD was V Corps muscle, one of two heavy maneuver divisions assigned to the corps. The 8th Infantry Division (Mechanized) was the other division. But Griffin’s unit was the one that would serve as the sword which the Soviet 8th Guards Tank Army impaled itself on in the Fulda Gap. Griffin was certain that his counterpart in the 8th Infantry probably thought the same thing about his division. To an extent he was right, yet when it came down to it, Griffin fervently believed that his division was the corps most invaluable piece.

At the current time, the majority of the division’s kasernes were empty. Two of its three brigades were fully in the field, the combat elements digging in west of the town of Fulda. The remainder would be emptied out soon enough. Griffin had reported to V Corps commander, Lieutenant General John Woodmansee that the 3rd would be fully in the field by 0000 9 July.

East of Fulda lay the Inner-German Border, and on the other side of it sat thousands of Soviet tanks, IFVs, and artillery belonging to the 8th Guards Tank Army. When the balloon went up, the Soviets would push west, channeling through the valleys and around the mountains that marked the terrain, on the drive towards Frankfurt. It was the terrain that made up the area collectively known as the Fulda Gap, not the actual town of Fulda. In those valleys and from those hills is where V Corps planned to smash the Soviets.

Before that could happen, Griffin needed to ensure that his troops were ready. MPs had set up traffic control points to better control the flow of units heading into the field. Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of vehicles on the roadways was causing unforeseen delays. The section of autobahn between Hanau and Gelnhausen was a green parking lot where a large part of his division’s artillery and third brigade were stuck. Efforts were underway to detour German civilians onto nearby roads and clear the highway, but it was going to take more time than expected. The general needed those units off the road and, if not in the Gap, close to it, by the time fighting broke out. If the MPs couldn’t do the job by themselves, he’d get men in there who could.

As midnight approached, 3rd AD’s commander was certain that his problem was the worst one being faced by any division commander in the FRG. Had he been aware of the issues facing some of his NORTHAG counterparts just then, Griffin would’ve breathed a collective sigh of relief and realized that his problem wasn’t so major after all.

 

Denmark’s Home Guard Prepares

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Gert Madsen, like dozens of other Danish Home Guard officers, received the telephone call he had been dreading, but subconsciously anticipating to come at any time, as he was preparing to leave his office in Holstebro on 5 July, 1987. The thirty-five year old Home Guard captain was a barrister in civilian life. He was an associate in a mid-sized firm in Holstebro which dealt with insurance claims. Madsen had joined the Home Guard after his conscription time in the Royal Danish Army came to an end. He did so out of a sense of obligation to his fellow citizens. It was only fair that he contribute something back to the country that had given him so much. So, on weekends, and select other times of the year, Madsen trained with the Home Guard.

The telephone call was short and curt. Madsen picked up, verified who he was when asked and was told by a voice he did not recognize, “The Van Gogh exhibit at National Gallery opens in three weeks.” The code was one of seven that Home Guard officers had to memorize. Each one had its own meaning that was known to the recipient. For anyone who might have been eavesdropping they would have heard mindless chatter. This particular coded message instructed Madsen, and other Home Guard officers in the district to arrive at his local Home Guard depot at 9 o’clock that evening. He checked his watch. It was approaching 4:30 now. There was enough time to go home, spend some time with his wife and two boys, have dinner and then be at the depot in time.

The phone call had been expected for days, since US and Soviet warships exchanged fire in the Mediterranean. Each passing day brought a new deterioration in the crisis, and growing alarm in Western European nations. In Denmark, the tension was palpable. Citizens made a large effort to go about their regular daily routines and pay little attention to the growing menace to the east or the preparations for war taking place to the south and north.

When he arrived home, his wife Jane was waiting expectantly. The wife of a fellow Home Guard officer had called her with the news about the message going out. Madsen tried his best to calm and reassure her. A phone call and resultant meeting did not quite mean mobilization and imminent war. His wife, though, was not swayed. She understood what was happening, yet this moment was when the real world violently collided with hers. The insulation that kept Jane’s mind padded from the foul truth of the international situation was stripped away. She broke down and cried. Gert brought her into the bedroom, away from the kids, and consoled her. He assured her that he would not be packing up and leaving for war that evening, though in reality, he could not rule the possibility out entirely. In time, Jane came around, and dinner that evening was not the tense, subdued meal that Gert had begun to think it would be. Quite the opposite actually.

Madsen arrived at the Holstebro depot a little after 8 PM. The normal Elk’s lodge type of atmosphere that permeated weeknight meetings like this one was gone. In its place was quiet determination and concealed anxiousness. The Home Guard depot at Holstebro was larger than its counterparts in other towns across Denmark. Equipment and supplies for a battlegroup belonging to the Jutland Division was located nearby. In the event of mobilization, many of the reservists in this district would fill out that formation. Home Guard officers and enlisted personnel knew what their unit’s place would be in the Danish military’s order of battle in the event of mobilization. Madsen’s own company of 100 was specifically trained for and assigned to airbase security.

The senior officer for the district was Colonel Kruse, an affable, soft spoken civil servant in Ringkobing. He had been in this post for seven years now and proved himself as a capable officer in more than one field exercise. He normally spent the pre-meeting minutes socializing with the officers. Tonight, that was not the case. Kruse was nowhere to be found. His absence only amplified the restless air now permeating the depot. Madsen and his fellow officers speculated in hushed tones about where Kruse might be. Arne Dahl, a short, solidly built lieutenant mentioned that the colonel’s car was outside in the parking lot. This only fueled the speculation.

At 8:55PM an NCO directed the twenty-four officers into the large conference room. Madsen and the others filed in. He was fortunate enough to find a seat, many officers had to stand. Once everyone was settled, the narrow door at the front of the room swung open and Colonel Kruse strode in. The men rose and snapped to attention but Kruse waved them down. He informed the officers that the first steps towards a national mobilization were about to get underway. The government in Copenhagen was determined to ensure that Denmark was prepared to fulfill its NATO commitments and meet its own national defense needs. All active duty military personnel would be recalled to their bases, and leaves cancelled at midnight. The next morning at 6 AM all Home Guard personnel would be ordered to their depots and mobilization was to begin officially at 12 noon on 6 July.

For the evening, Kruse told the officers they would be given the assignment and orders for their respective units. He, and a pair of active duty officers who’d arrived during the meeting handled the matter. An Army major briefed Madsen when it was his turn.

“Madsen,” he began. “Your company is trained for air base security and defense, correct? Good. You will be assigned to Karup and augment the base security there. When your men are gathered here tomorrow, equipment will be issued. Trucks will arrive shortly thereafter to transport you to Karup.”

In the blink of an eye, Denmark, and Madsen’s transformations from peacetime to war were kicked into overdrive.

July 2, 1987- CBS News Special Report

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White House sources have confirmed to CBS News that there has been a clash between US and Soviet warships in the Mediterranean. Less than an hour ago, a Soviet cruiser rammed the frigate USS Klakring east of Malta. The Soviet ship had been shadowing the Saratoga carrier battlegroup for two days. After the ramming, Klakring was fired upon and sustained further damage. The frigate returned fire along with other nearby US ships. As of right now, both ships are dead in the water and burning. There is no word on the condition of either ship or casualties.

June 12, 1987-NBC Nightly News

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While in West Berlin today, President Reagan responded to comments made last week by Soviet General Secretary Grigory Romanov about the increase in tension between the US and Soviet Union since Romanov’s unexpected rise to power in April. In a speech made in front of the Berlin Wall, Reagan expressed hope that Romanov will continue the policies that were being enacted by his predecessor but until concrete evidence is made available that this is the case, the United States will continue to regard the new general secretary and Soviet Union warily.