SAC on the Eve of War: 8 July, 1987

Alert_Ops_SAC_1957-1991_P42

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

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.

 

Pershing II and GLCM Disperal: 8 July, 1987

35366563.jpg

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

REFORGER '85

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.

 

Outpost Iceland 7 July, 1987

565765845546778

For an island long considered to be one of the most peaceful nations on the planet, Iceland was a remarkably important element in NATO’s contingency plans and wartime strategy. Its geographic location is what made it so significant. Situated in the middle of the North Atlantic, almost directly between Greenland and Scotland, the island was a logical point to combat the expected surge of Soviet submarines transiting from the Norwegian Sea to the North Atlantic in a time of war. Submarines were not the only threat NATO convoys could expect in a time of war. Bombers loaded with anti-ship missiles would also range down into the North Atlantic from their bases on the Kola Peninsula. Therefore, Iceland was expected to be just as important in maintaining control of Atlantic skies during hostilities.

Keflavik Air Base was the centerpiece of military activity on Iceland. The combined US/NATO installation served as home to a squadron of USAF F-15C Eagles, and rotating detachments of E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, and US Navy P-3C Orions. In war, the primary role of the P-3s was to be hunting Soviet submarines around the GIUK gap, while the Eagle-AWACS team’s task was to interdict Soviet bombers coming south to hit the Atlantic SLOCs.

Along with the airbase, Iceland was also home to a small number of SOSUS stationed arrayed along the coast. These stations were critical nodes in the quest to detect and track Soviet subs moving south through the GIUK gap. NATO ASW aircraft especially would rely on vectors tracks provided by the information gathered at these stations. During peacetime the practice was a normal part of operations around Iceland. In wartime, the greatest difference would be the use of live torpedoes, as well as the possibility of some Soviet subs being equipped with hand-held SAMs on their periscope masts.

Bearing all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why Iceland, and Keflavik especially, was considered so valuable by NATO. Of course, the value and capabilities of NATO’s most isolated outpost were appreciated and recognized in Moscow as well. Where NATO war plans envisioned Iceland being used to bolster the effort to protect the convoys, Soviet plans called for the immediate neutralization of Iceland before it could play a pivotal role in a Third Battle of the Atlantic.

NATO was aware of this, yet the real mystery lay in exactly how the Soviets might neutralize Iceland. Imaginations ran wild when considering the possibilities. The effort could be limited to strikes by Long Range Aviation bombers in the Kola, and cruise missile attacks by SSGNs in the North Atlantic. Or, it could include airborne and amphibious landings to physically gain control of Keflavik and its environs. With this potential myriad of threats facing it, NATO was determined to ensure that Iceland was well protected in the event of war.

The best laid intentions of mice and men, however……

By 7 July, Keflavik was a busy place. Aircraft heading to and from Europe used it as a refueling spot. Additional P-3s and some KC-135s were arriving to augment the aircraft already there. Dependents had been evacuated and base defenses prepared. Air Force security personnel bore responsibility for this, though it was hoped that US Army or Marine troops would be available soon to bolster the sky cops. Plans called for the 187th Infantry Brigade, a US Army Reserve unit to be responsible for defending Iceland from a potential ground threat. That unit, however, was only receiving its warning orders from the Pentagon on the afternoon of the 7th. It would be at least two weeks before significant numbers of the brigade’s troops arrived.

In the meantime, the commander of Iceland Defense Force (A US military command) was frantically trying to rustle up additional reinforcements. More troops were desperately needed in the short term, as well as air defenses. The US Marines had offered a battery of I-HAWK missiles but until the Icelandic government gave its blessing, the batteries were sitting on the tarmac of MCAS Cherry Point, packed and waiting. Icelanders were already quite sensitive to the presence of so many foreign troops on their soil. Increasing the number even more was a matter that the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, was passionately debating at the moment.

The reluctance of Icelanders to accept what was happening in the world was especially frustrating to US personnel already on Iceland. As one unnamed USAF tech sergeant put it during an off-camera interview with a BBC reporter, “The natives are resistant to us bringing in more friendly troops to protect them. Fuck ‘em then. Let the ungrateful bastards live under Soviet occupation for a while and see what it’s like.”

 

 

 

America’s Awakening 7 July, 1987 (Part 2)

Ronald Reagan

President Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office again at 3PM Eastern Time. This was the greatest speech of Reagan’s presidency and the one which will forever be attached with the man’s legacy. Quotes from the speech have appeared practically everywhere in one form or another in the post-war years, from memorial statues, to countless textbooks. The address has been immortalized, and rightfully so. Reagan’s words came at a pivotal moment. The gravity of the crisis was now sinking in, and for most Americans the realization was traumatic and horrifying. Reagan acknowledged this and through his words essentially told his fellow Americans that he was feeling similar emotions. Hearing the president admit he was every bit as worried as the average American was had a tremendously affirmative effect on people. They realized that they were not alone.

The heart of the address was, of course, the ‘choice we make today’ portion. Reagan laid out the two choices facing the United States. The country could stand aside, ignore its treaty commitments and allow the evil entity that was the Soviet Union to overrun Western Europe without lifting a finger to help. In that scenario, no American blood would be spilled on the battlefield, Europe would likely be spared a major war, and the horrors of nuclear war would not become reality. But at some point in the future, the enemy would arrive on America’s shores, likely after the rest of the world had been enslaved.

Or, the United States could assume its proper place as the leader of the free world, stand up for its ideals, and lead the defense of Western Europe. If war came, Reagan warned, it would be deadly, and wrought with destruction, and peril. Thousands would perish on the battlefield, and there was no guarantee the nation would be kept safe from the ravages of modern war. Despite the unknowns, and danger, Reagan believed we were compelled to defend Europe. Standing aside guaranteed the world would slide into the abyss once and for all.  “Europe,” he concluded bluntly and correctly, “Is worth fighting for.”

At the tail end of the speech, the president announced the immediate call up of 300,000 reservists, but stopped short of declaring a national emergency for the time being. Doing so would have contradicted the purpose of his speech. He wanted Americans cognizant and able to function, not consumed with fear and thus incapacitated. In this regard, Reagan was doubling down on his faith in Americans to do the right thing when it mattered the most.

That afternoon at Wrigley Field, the San Diego Padres were in town to play the Chicago Cubs. The game was delayed so the speech could be played over the stadium’s sound system for the sold-out crowd. Once it was over, a long moment of reflective silence followed. Wrigley had likely never been so quiet with a capacity crowd in attendance. It was to be temporary. The silence was broken by the PA announcer asking the crowd to rise for the national anthem. What followed was the most inspiring recital of the Star Spangled Banner ever by a sporting event crowd. After the anthem, an ear shattering cheer rolled through the historic stadium, sparking a seven minute long “USA! USA!” chant which was probably heard in Milwaukee.

Ronald Reagan had set the tone of the moment and America was responding. As the afternoon went on, a national resolve began to grow. The peace protests that had cropped up were soon dwarfed by anti-Soviet and pro-USA rallies. By 5 PM on the east coast, flag waving citizens began converging upon many military installations in spontaneous shows of support for the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who would soon be leaving for Europe. For officers and NCOs who served in Vietnam, the sight was almost overwhelming. This war…if it evolved to that…was not destined be another Vietnam. Troops were not going to be spat upon, or labeled as ‘baby killers.’ It was clear the American people would support the troops and the mission.

Unlike Vietnam, this war would be about national survival, and that made all the difference in the world.