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.

 

 

 

 

 

The View From The Flanks: AFNORTH, 5 July, 1987

Allied_Forces_Northern_Europe  The Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Northern Europe, British General Sir Geoffrey Howlett had been monitoring the deterioration of the international situation with great trepidation. Like most general officers in Europe and North America in early July of 1987, his focus was on his command, the role it would play in a conflict, and, last but not least, ensuring that his command was properly prepared if hostilities broke out. AFNORTH (Allied Forces Northern Europe) had an operational area which covered vast areas. Howlett’s forces were charged with defending every square mile of land and airspace from the North Cape south to the Kiel Canal, as well as the Norwegian, North, and Baltic seas.

He was eager to get on with the preparations for war. Even before Reagan’s speech announcing the call up of reservists and reinforcement of Europe, Howlett was quietly making sure that his command would be ready if the orders to begin mobilizing and reinforcing AFNORTH came from Brussels. His dilemma was that AFNORTH was made up of military units from three separate nations in peacetime. In war, that number would inflate to at least six. Nation-states, even allies, rarely march in lockstep. Denmark, and Norway especially were two special cases. Although NATO members, they were among the more liberal member nations. The governments in Oslo and Copenhagen made concerted efforts to avoid provoking the Soviet Union. Norway did not allow foreign soldiers to be permanently stationed on its soil in peacetime. Denmark followed a similar policy for Jutland and Zealand. In wartime, the bans did not apply, of course.

For Norway, though there were no foreign troops on its territory, there was a large amount of pre-positioned military equipment belonging to Royal Marines, US Marines, and the US Air Force. War plans called for the immediate and heavy reinforcement of Norway in a time of crisis. There was equipment on hand to fit out a US Marine Amphibious Brigade, and Royal Marine 3 Commando Brigade. The troops simply needed to be flown in and marry up with its equipment, a concept very similar to REFORGER in principle.

Following Reagan’s speech, Howlett received a telephone call from SACEUR. He did not know General Galvin very well, having only met the new supreme allied commander at the change of command ceremony in Brussels back in late June. Five minutes into the conversation and any questions or concerns about the new commander were melting away. SACEUR informed him that REFORGER was beginning immediately and although the initial focus was going to be reinforcing Germany, he was going to make sure a number of transport aircraft were earmarked to begin bringing US Marines into Norway within 24 hours. It would be Howland’s task to get permission from the Norwegians for foreign troops to land on their soil. The request was a formality, however, a crucial one. Should US or Royal Marines begin landing in Norway without the government’s blessing, the Soviets could use it as a potential reason to make war.

After hanging up with SACEUR, Howlett made a quick call to England and confirmed that 3 Commando’s troops were packing, Howelett contacted the office of Norway’s Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and requested an immediate audience with the PM. It was granted and five minutes later, Sir Geoffrey was in a car departing AFNORTH’s headquarters at Kolsas, Norway for the short ride into Oslo. On the drive, CINC-AFNORTH stared out the window as his mind cataloged the endless list of tasks that needed to be accomplished once this essential political ritual was complete.

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.