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



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


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.


Denmark’s Home Guard Prepares


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.

REFORGER Activated


In the hours before President Reagan’s address to the nation began at 8 PM Eastern Time on 5 July, 1987 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was already taking the preliminary steps to place the US military on a war footing. In an NSC meeting late that afternoon, Reagan had decided that with the current crisis escalating and Soviet forces in Germany for Zapad ’87 showing no sign of leaving soon, the reinforcement of Western Europe was essential. He authorized Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs to start the process immediately. In his speech, Reagan also hinted at a possible callup of reservists within 24 hours. In reality, the decision on that had already been made and the first reserve units were receiving their warning orders even before the president’s address was over.

Weinberger’s first act was to declare an Airlift Emergency and activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Within 24 hours 171 commercial transport and cargo aircraft would be pressed into service to augment Military Airlift Command’s own fleet of C-5s and C-141s. Every available aircraft was going to be needed as soon as possible. The secretary’s next action was to authorize the start of REFORGER.

REFORGER is short for the Return of Forces to Germany. Before 1987 it was most commonly known as a large FTX conducted annually by US and NATO forces in West Germany. The premise of the exercise was practicing the movement of a substantial number of US troops from North America to Western Europe. Once there, they would marry up to pre-positioned equipment at POMCUS sites in West Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. From there, the forces would deploy into the field and begin simulated combat operations.

To the surprise of many civilian observers, REFORGER turned out to be more than an exercise. It was, in reality, also the actual plan to reinforce NATO in the event of a crisis between the superpowers. The initial movement of troops from stateside bases to POMCUS sites in the last days of the crisis mirrored the timeline and procession undertaken during peacetime REFORGERs. The last days of peace and the first week of hostilities exemplified the value of countless REFORGER exercises.

The order to initiate REFORGER did not come as a surprise to the commanders and most soldiers in the affected divisions. US Army officers, NCOs and enlisted men alike had all been keeping closer tabs on the news from the time Romanov captured power in Moscow. The steady decline of relations between the US and Soviet Union, coupled with the sudden clashes between their forces at sea, convinced more than one division commander that it would be only a matter of time before his troops were on aircraft bound for Europe.

At Fort Riley, Kansas, Major General Leonard Wishart III, commander of the 1st Infantry Division received a call from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe minutes before the president’s address. Crowe informed him that REFORGER was being activated and that he should consider the phone call to be a warning order. Once the call was over, Wishart contacted his brigade commanders to alert them. In minutes, the cycle was underway and Riley became a hotbed of activity as the word was passed down the line. Similar scenes were taking place at army bases across the country.

In Europe, the POMCUS sites were receiving warning orders from EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart. Preparations were shortly in motion to stand up the sites and receive the influx of troops that were going to start arriving within the next 24 hours. Equipment in the large warehouses was checked, and rechecked. Inventories of ammo, commo gear, and a host of other essentials was checked and rechecked. MP and security troops from bases in West Germany were sent off to the POMCUS sites to reinforce the security forces already there. US commanders in Europe were well aware that the POMCUS sites were  high on the Soviet’s targeting list. If war was in fact coming, it would likely begin with a number of coordinated Spetznaz strikes on the sites. Soviet thinking on this point was simple. The more equipment and troops that could be neutralized before arriving at the battleline, the easier the Red Army’s job would be once it crossed the inner-German border.