Strategic Considerations: SACLANT 7 July, 1987

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Inside of the operations center at his headquarters in Norfolk, SACLANT studied the large, computerized map display of the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea intently. Blue NTDS symbols indicated the current positions of NATO surface ships, submarines, and air units. Red symbols showed the known or suspected positions of their Soviet counterparts. At the moment, it was the Soviet subs not visible on the map that concerned him most.

The Red Banner Northern Fleet had not yet sortied en masse. Admiral Baggett was not surprised. The crisis had exploded in a flash and was evolving at a near reckless pace. Diplomats and general officers on both sides were having a difficult time keeping pace with events, let alone try to slow them down. His counterpart in Murmansk was doubtless contending with his own problems and would have preferred to have his surface ships and submarines at sea already. The Soviets had their own designs for the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. If the Northern Fleet’s assets were out of position when hostilities kicked off, their wartime tasks would be that much more difficult.

SACLANT’s intelligence chief estimated that the Northern Fleet would begin putting to sea within the next eight to ten hours. The latest satellite intel showed the main surface elements of the fleet preparing to get underway, and activity at the main submarine base at Polyarny was extremely high, with a large number of Red submarined getting ready to sail. When it happened, the news would reach Norfolk quickly. Baggett had three submarines operating in close to the coast up there.

It was widely believed in Norfolk, Brussels, and Washington that once the Northern Fleet sailed, hostilities would begin forty-eight hours from that point. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and SACEUR checked in with Baggett at the top of every hour for an update. Admiral Crowe had another reason for making frequent calls. One major component of Maritime Strategy, the playbook which the US Navy and its NATO partners would use to fight the Third Battle of the Atlantic, was being hotly debated in the White House and Pentagon; Taking out the Soviet SSBNs operating under the Arctic ice pack. There was growing question inside of the Reagan administration about the prudence of targeting Soviet strategic assets directly from the start of hostilities. Doing so could invite a disproportionate response which in turn might dangerously escalate the conflict. Right now, a number of US and British SSNs were moving north towards the Barents Sea exclusively for this mission.

SACLANT would not be disheartened if the SSBN hunt were postponed. Operationally, a delay would give him more subs to interdict Soviet surface ships and submarines heading into the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. As the situation stood, his command would need every additional asset it could get its hands on to keep the Soviets bottled up in the Norwegian Sea until Baggett was ready to move Strike Fleet Atlantic north and take control of the sea. To do this, he needed two or more carrier battlegroups to form the vaunted strike fleet. Forrestal and Eisenhower were steaming northeast through Atlantic waters right now. However, it would be at least four days until both were in position. Kitty Hawk was expected to leave from Philadelphia tomorrow. When the time came, he could move north with two decks if the situation called for it, though he was admittedly not comfortable with the possibility.

SACLANT was in ‘transition to war’ phase of Maritime Strategy, more commonly referred to as Phase One. It involved the marshalling of naval forces and their movement into the forward areas, specifically the Norwegian Sea, and to a lesser extent the Barents as well. The time frame of the phase served as preparation for Phase Two: seizing the initiative and taking the fight to the enemy.

Baggett’s forces were not ready to move north at the moment and would not be ready when the shooting began. Therein lay the first strategic problem of the war for SACLANT: To go north with what was available, or wait until significant forces were massed and ready. The Norwegian Sea, as well as northern Norway were a cornerstone of the alliance’s SLOC defense. If NATO was forced to withdraw from the waters north of Iceland, and cede control of them to the Soviets, the pressure then placed on convoys crossing the Atlantic could be overwhelming.

It was a race, Baggett realized, of which side could muster the needed forces, and begin its operations first. For the moment, neither SACLANT or the Red Banner Northern Fleet was in the position it wanted to be. With every hour that passed, the equation changed. However, for every hour that went by with the Soviets still in port, NATO benefitted.

 

 

 

 

 

Outpost Iceland 7 July, 1987

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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.”

 

 

 

Opening Moves

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Hostilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact began at 0103 hours Zulu on 9 July, 1987. For a war that would spread across the globe in a matter of days, the opening clashes between combatants were quite small. The first shots were exchanged outside of the NATO airbase at Gielenkirchen by KGB-trained saboteurs attempting to gain entry to the base and NATO security forces. The effort was unsuccessful and all seven saboteurs were killed. After the war, it would be learned that this particular attack went off twenty-seven minutes ahead of schedule. The initial wave of Soviet Spetznaz, desant, and saboteur attacks behind the lines was not supposed to commence until 0130 Zulu.

As it was, however, the early attack gave NATO valuable time to get the warning out and bring security to a higher state of alert before the initial wave of attacks began a short time later. Some sites which may not have been ready were. The extent of the attacks and the results will be explored and discussed at a later time. Suffice to say, the opening hours of hostilities were defined by explosions, helicopter landings, and small unit actions across West Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries, and even the United Kingdom and Norway to an extent. Before the first Soviet tanks crossed the border, the war was more or less already in full swing.

At sea, the first contact between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces took place in the Norwegian Sea at 0219 hours Zulu. Soviet and Norwegian fast attack craft clashed in the North Cape area. The first casualties of the war at sea were the Norwegian Storm-class patrol boat Brask and a Soviet Pauk class patrol boat. Fighting in the North Cape continued through the early morning hours as a running battle between units of the Royal Norwegian Navy and Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet materialized.

In the North Atlantic, the Soviets drew first blood, sinking a pair of merchant ships northwest of the Azores. The Foxtrot class diesel submarine that launched the attack escaped the area only to be discovered and sunk by US Navy P-3 Orions operating from Lajes Airfield later on the first day.

The Mediterranean and Black Sea remained quiet until around dawn when fast attack craft of the Soviet navy made contact with elements of the Greek and Turkish navies in the Black Sea. Not long afterward, Soviet and Syrian naval forces struck Turkish and other NATO warships operating in the Eastern Med. The rest of the region remained precariously quiet in those first two hours.

The storm would soon break across Europe and the Med.