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.

Soviet Air Mobile Forces on the Eve of Battle: 8 July, 1987

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Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact had fairly solid notions about what moves the other side would make in the opening hours of a conflict. Awareness does not automatically translate to an assured defeat or neutralization of those moves on the battlefield, however. Countermoves and defenses were created, worked into pre-existing operational plans, and practiced. However, their value would not be known until the balloon went up and the shooting starts.

NATO had a high regard for Soviet air assault forces and their capabilities after seven years of observing their use in Afghanistan. Alliance planners also had a keen idea of how the Soviets would decide to employ these forces in the first phase of a Soviet/Pact offensive against Western Europe. In the confusion of those first minutes, with the skies over West Germany and Denmark filled with hundreds of Warsaw Pact and NATO aircraft, heliborne troops would probably land at dozens of sites spread across NATO’s rear areas. Their objectives would range from seizing bridgeheads on the Weser and other rivers, to assaulting forward division and corps headquarters.

The Soviets had many specialized air assault battalions and regiments available to them for these tasks. The 35th Guards Air Assault Regiment was GFSG’s main air assault component. A number of additional air assault battalions had taken part in the June exercises and remained in Eastern Europe instead of returning to the Soviet Union. As tensions rose, and diplomacy broke down, company, and battalion-sized air assault forces began preparing for their wartime tasks.

NATO, in turn, was preparing to defend headquarters, air defense sites, bridges, REFORGER and nuclear weapons sites against possible Soviet air mobile assaults. Security was increased practically everywhere it might be needed at a time when every available soldier was desperately needed farther forward. West German, Dutch, Belgian, and Danish reserve units that should’ve been moving to join their parent active duty brigades and divisions were instead finding themselves watching over bridgeheads on the Weser or Rhine, and babysitting road intersections hundreds of kilometers away from the border. USAREUR focused its best security units on REFORGER sites and the field locations of its GLCM and Pershing II missiles. USAFE contributed to the later but its main security focus was the defense of its fixed installations across Europe.

At forward airbases across East Germany on 8 July, Soviet paratroopers were reviewing plans and making the final preparations for their coming missions. The commander of the 1185th Air Assault Battalion was confident his unit would achieve its objectives. The confidence did not come from hubris or arrogance. All of his company commanders, and a majority of the NCOs were, like him, veterans of Afghanistan. When he took command of the battalion the previous year, he made it a point to bring in as many experienced men as possible. That experience would be needed in the coming days.

The 1185th had a crucial role to play in the coming offensive. It would be transported as a whole unit to secure a number of bridgeheads on the Weser River and hold them until relieved by the armored spearheads of the 3rd Shock Army. The battalion commander was assured that his forces would be rescued within 3 days. He was not prepared to stake his life and that of his men on the promise of an arrogant tank general. In all likelihood it would be twice that amount of time before his battalion was rescued, if at all. In war there are no guarantees, he knew all too well. Therefore, he was bringing as much ammunition, rations, and other essential supplies forward as he could.

As he stood sweltering in the mid-afternoon heat, watching one of his assault companies go through calisthenics, he hoped other air assault unit commanders were thinking along similar lines. In fifteen hours or so they would all be on the ground behind NATO lines, and cut off from resupply. The mere thought was enough to send a chill up his spine.

The colonel took one last look at his men and walked away, wondering just how many of them would be alive at the same time tomorrow.

A Glimpse at West Berlin: Early July, 1987

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*Authors Note: I realize this posting is off the timeline somewhat and apologize in advance. Next weekend, I plan to spend time editing and reorganizing the pre-war posts into a more orderly presentation. That will precede the beginning of the posts centered on the actual conflict. Apologies for not doing this sooner. –Mike*

Opinions on what West Berlin’s fate would be in the event of war were wide and varied. The contentious history of the divided city, along with the symbolism that both East and West attached to it opened a realm of possibilities. On one end of the spectrum, many military and political observers expected a major East German/Soviet offensive against the city to commence immediately upon the opening of hostilities. A primary reason for this opinion was the fact that West Berlin had been a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union and its East German puppets for almost twenty-six years. Another reason was the amount of political capital a Berlin reunification would bring to the Warsaw Pact, especially early on in a war.

Another group influential political and military observers believed the opposite rang true. From a strict military perspective, seizing West Berlin would require a large, and capable East German force, likely supported by the Soviets to some degree. The regiments, and divisions comprising that force would be better utilized in a Warsaw Pact push into West Germany. Therefore, it made little sense to task so many units with the mission of capturing a half-city so far behind the potential frontline that would have no operational bearing on the outcome of the war. Leaving West Berlin untouched might bring in political and propaganda capital for the Soviets, something else which might be sorely needed as a conflict progresses.

West Berlin was taking no chances though. The lessons of 1948 blockade had been taken to heart. The city was prepared for a protracted state of hostilities, blockade, or whatever the future might bring. Large reserves of food, drinking water, emergency supplies, and other staples of life had been amassed should Berlin’s lifelines to the west ever be severed. Individual Berliners, and families mimicked the preparations made by their city government. Families, apartment buildings, and even neighborhoods had caches of food, and other necessities stashed away, and regularly replenished the items as expiration dates came and went. In ordnung is not simply a phrase for Germans. It is a way of life.

The city’s American, French, and British defenders were prepared to challenge an East German/Soviet invasion, yet they were also very realistic regarding the odds of a successful defense without reinforcements from the outside. Plans had been drafted and practiced for the possibility that troops from the West Berlin garrison might have to escape the city before its occupation and resort to a guerilla-style campaign against the GDR and Soviet occupiers until relief forces arrive.

As tensions increased in late June of ’87, the growing concern in West Berlin was the city’s corridors to the west. Would they remain open for long if the global situation did not reverse itself? Berlin’s citizens were keenly following events and reacted almost instinctively.  Each day more elderly, women, and children were sent west by concerned families. The offstage exodus was quietly condoned by the city fathers who were reluctant to call for an official evacuation for fear of sparking a major panic.  Other preparations were going on out of the public spotlight. US, French, and British officers, along with officials of the West Berlin police were out every night scouting areas marked to be used as potential strongpoints in a future battle for the city. The main strategy was to bog down the invaders in bloody house-to-house fighting. To make this strategy work, military officers had a keen awareness of what intersections offered the best fields of fire for anti-tank missile teams, the buildings sturdy enough to serve as a temporary redoubt, and a thousand other details essential to planning the defense of the city.

If West Berlin was to be fought over, the Western forces garrisoned there were determined to make the East Germans, Russians, and whoever else crossed the border pay a steep price in blood for every yard they advanced into the city.

 

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.