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

65898997654

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Search for the Stealth: 8 July, 1987 Part II

654476869876543

Sergeant Richard Lawson walked into the pub shortly after 1400. The short, stocky NCO stopped  and spoke to the bartender for a brief moment, and then exchanged greetings with a few of the older gentlemen at the bar. Prokofiev got the idea that they knew Lawson personally and were pumping him for news. On the other hand, perhaps they were homosexuals with entirely different motives. When Lawson leaned over to shake one of their hands, Prokofiev noticed the small manila folder in his free hand and winced. Amateurish move. But Lawson was not a professional and that had to be considered, a voice inside his head reasoned. This meeting was not a good idea, Prokofiev knew, but it was absolutely necessary. The risk was worthwhile, he hoped.

Lawson finished chatting with the bar flies and made his way to the booth in the rear of the pub where Prokofiev was sitting. The Russian stood up and embraced the Englishman in a tight hug and the small folder slipped surreptitiously from Lawson’s hand into Prokofiev’s suit jacket. They sat back down and made small talk as a waitress approached, took Lawson’s order and then came back with a pint.

“I only have a short time,” the NCO informed Prokofiev between sips. “The base is going to be sealed off later this afternoon. Only reason I was able to get out was because my senior owed me a favor. He snuck his wife’s sister on base last week and had a go at her.” Lawson smiled thinly.

“I do not feel comfortable in here,” Prokofiev revealed in a low voice.

“Don’t worry. For the next twenty minutes or so this is the safest pub in England,” Lawson assured him. Then it was time to get down to business.

“What do you have for me?”

Lawson leaned forward and lowered his tone. “The Yanks flew more planes in yesterday before dawn. They came in while it was dark and were taken to a secure part of the base under heavy guard. Nobody outside of the tower people, ground crew, or security personnel got a look and they’re not saying anything.”

“Go on.”

“Last night, a pal of mine on security told me the plane type is the new Yank stealth fighter. The one that can’t be seen on radar. He got me into one of the hangars to see it for just a minute and I snapped off a couple of photos. Told him they were for the London Times.” He smiled again.

Prokofiev felt his excitement rising. “Tell me about the plane.”

“At first glance, it doesn’t look airworthy. Strange looking bird. Almost demonic. Damn thing was built like I am. Boxy. Twin tail, painted all black.”

“How many planes are there?”

“Not sure but at least ten. Maybe fifteen.”

“ What are people saying about the planes?”

Lawson shook his head. “Not a thing since few people even know they’re here. I got lucky. But that’s it, mate. From here on in I don’t know you. If I get caught talking to you after this afternoon they’ll shoot my ass.”

Prokofiev nodded. He understood what Lawson was telling him and fully expected it to come to this. The man valued his neck.

“You will not hear from me again,” he promised him.  “I wish you luck.”

“I wish the same for you,” Lawson reached over and patted his shoulder. “Honestly. After seeing that plane I’m more convinced than ever that you blokes aren’t going to win if the shooting starts. Tell that to your superiors if there is time.”

“There isn’t,” Prokofiev predicted. In his mind he was working out a plan to get this information to someone who could make use of it. He wasn’t an air marshal but knew these planes tip the balance in NATO’s favor. The mere thought of American stealth jets flying over his home sent a shudder up his spine.

He rose from his seat, shook Lawson’s hand and left the pub. He climbed into his rental car in the crowded lot across the street. Lawson paid for his pint and walked out, stopping briefly to check the time. As he was about to cross the roadway, a Jaguar with two men inside came tearing out from a alleyway, almost clipping him as it sped west.

“Fucking asshole!” Lawson flashed them a lewd gesture and then crossed the street to his own car.

 

The rental BMW was found five hours later on the side of the road ten miles west of RAF Alconbury. A local police unit came upon it, thinking the vehicle had broken down. Or an accident perhaps. As the policemen approached, they took out their flashlights to inspect the interior. To their surprise and shock, a man was in the car, slumped over the steering wheel. When they opened the door and leaned him back, the senior officer noticed a neat bullet wound in the back of his head. There was no manila folder to be found.

 

Search for the Stealth: 8 July, 1987 Part I

RAF_Alconbury_-_Front_Gate

His diplomatic immunity was no longer valid, Sergei Prokofiev reminded himself. The British government had declared a large number of Soviet diplomats in the United Kingdom persona non grata. In effect, they were no longer welcomed here and the Brits officially kicked them out of the country. The move had been announced three days ago and a list of the affected personnel was given to the Soviet ambassador in London. They would leave the country in twenty four hours. Most of the names on the list were possible, or known KGB officers suspected to be working undercover in the UK. They operated under the guises of midlevel diplomats at the Soviet embassy or consulates around the country. Prokofiev had been one of the names on the list, though he was confident the Brits were not entirely sure that he was KGB.

Officially, the thirty-two year old was a cultural attache. He had the proper papers and diplomatic background for the role. In reality, Prokofiev was a KGB captain who ran a handful of operatives in the UK. All were relatively low level civilian employees in the MoD, as well as one RAF non-commissioned officer. Moscow Center had ordered him to remain behind. So, two hours after receiving the news about his being PNGed, Prokofiev slipped past the British surveillance teams monitoring the embassy and immediately went to ground. Following the departure of his comrades, where his absence was immediately noticed, he had played a cat and mouse game with MI-5 and -6 officers. Prokofiev was successful in evading them so far, thanks to preparations he made long beforehand. He had a British ID, spoke the language fluently with a slight cockney accent, could call upon any of three safehouses, and had one hundred thousand pounds at his disposal.

The rising tensions made his job almost impossible. Contact with his operatives was limited, and in some cases entirely cut off. Dead drop boxes remained empty and untouched. Prokofiev had depressingly little information to pass along to his superiors. To his surprise, he’d found them to be sympathetic to his plight. He was ordered to make contact with his RAF man and try to find out about the arrival of warplanes from the US at RAF Alconbury. Specifically, Moscow wanted information on a new type of aircraft that might already be in the UK. Prokofiev had gotten in touch with his operative and relayed the instructions.

Now, he was awaiting the man’s arrival at a pub in Huntingdon, a stone’s throw away from the US airbase at Alconbury. Following this meeting, Prokofiev was to make his way west across Britain to Wales where he would be met and escorted to Ireland. Looking around from the booth he sat in, the Russian was surprised to see the pub so crowded. A wide variety of young, middle-aged, and older patrons sat and drank. Conversations were low, there was no music playing, and the atmosphere was less than lively to say the least. Prokofiev was not surprised by the number of people here. In times of crisis people went where they were comfortable to escape. Brits and their pubs shared a storied history. Even at the height of the Nazi blitz, many pubs around England still did a smash up business. The Russian quietly hoped it would be the same in this conflict.

The man Prokofiev was here to meet was a thirty-three year old RAF NCO who conveniently was stationed at Alconbury. His name was Richard Lawson and he had been coopted two years ago. Lawson’s motivation for selling information to the Soviets was purely financial. He was divorced and had two children to support. Ideologically, he was neither pro-Communism, or anti-liberal democracy. Lawson had been reliable and some of his information proved to be quite good according to Moscow, so Prokofiev thought it would be useful to have one final meeting and see if the Brit could answer some of Center’s questions.

Meeting at this pub in the late afternoon was not as chancy as it might seem. It was known to some of the locals as place frequented by homosexuals from time to time. Two men sitting near each other in a cramped booth would not seem out of the ordinary. Had that not been the case, Prokofiev would still have pushed for the meeting here. Lawson had few opportunities to get off base and the Russian was growing eager to leave this country once and for all.

As he sat there sipping his bitter and waiting, Prokofiev wondered idly about the new type of aircraft that Center was looking for information on. Apparently, from what he was told, the Americans had a jet that could not be seen on radar. It was supposed to be only an experimental model, but some people in Moscow believed it was either on its way to Europe or here already. Moving it from the US to base in the UK instead of West Germany made sense. For one reason or another, Moscow suspected RAF Alconbury to be the base that the aircraft was likely at.

He was not a pilot, and knew very little about aerodynamics. For these reasons the concept of an aircraft that couldn’t be seen was very difficult for Prokofiev to visualize or accept. It did not take much imagination to understand why such an aircraft filled his superiors with concern. One invisible jet armed with a nuclear weapon could turn Moscow to dust in the blink of an eye, essentially decapitating the Soviet Union in one swift act.

If that aircraft was here, Prokofiev hoped Lawson could confirm it so the KGB officer could get on with leaving the UK before the fighting began. He had no inside information about when the war would start, however, Prokofiev did not think it would be much longer.