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

Боевое_Знамя_35-й_огдшбр.JPG

 

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.

Airbase Angst: 8 July, 1987

325452543

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.

 

Group Soviet Forces Germany 6 July, 1987

452243452345423

When the Commander-In-Chief of Group Soviet Forces Germany (GFSG) General Boris Snetkov informed his aide that he was retiring to his quarters for six hours, he made it clear that he was not to be disturbed for anything short of war. He had gone thirty-six straight hours with no sleep whatsoever and realized that this was simply not acceptable. Commanders needed their rest, especially now. Snetkov smartly decided to take advantage of a quiet period now while he could.

For Snetkov, the past month had been a whirlwind of activity. Shortly after the new General Secretary had assumed his duties in the Kremlin, the Minister of Defense began a reshuffling of senior military commanders. Ousted or transferred were men known to be supportive of, or sympathetic to the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. Snetkov was neither. He was originally scheduled to take command of GFSG from General Lushev in November of 1987. Romanov’s ascent to power changed that and Snetkov took command in early June instead.

From that moment forward he was a general officer preparing his command for a potential war. As June went on, Snetkov familiarized himself with his staff and the commanders of the army groups assigned to GFSG. The more he learned, the better position he managed to take it determining his how ready his command would be if the order to move west came from Moscow. One army group commander had been replaced and Snetkov’s own staff had experienced a moderate turnover. The general was more confident now than he’d been a month ago. There was more work to be done though.

The question was whether or not he would have the time. Frankly, Snetkov doubted it. He did not know for certain what was going on in the Kremlin, but the general had been told to prepare his forces for possible offensive action by mid-July. Even going at the current pace, he was not certain GFSG would be completely ready by then.

At 0300 local time he was abruptly woken up by his aide who then informed Snetkov that the minister of defense was waiting on the phone. The general took a moment to gather himself before nodding to his aide who handed over a bulky cordless phone.

“Boris Ivanovitch,” the voice of Marshal of the Soviet Union and current Minister of Defense Dimitri Yazov came through surprisingly clear.

“Good morning, Comrade Minister,” Snetkov replied, shaking away the cobwebs as best he could.

“Are you at your headquarters right now?”

“No, I am not. Do you need me to go there?”

Yazov paused briefly, considering. “Yes, it would be for the best.”

Snetkov started to get a sickening feeling in his stomach. “Has something happened?”

“The Americans have announced they will begin reinforcing Europe. I will meet with the politburo later this morning and recommend immediate full-scale mobilization. Begin your preparations now, Boris Ivanovitch. If the General Secretary is in agreement with my recommendations your tanks will begin crossing the border in seventy-two hours.”