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


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.









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


News of the raid at Geilenkirchen reached NATO headquarters in Brussels shortly after it began. SACEUR wasted no time in getting the word out. Less than a minute after giving the order, flash messages were going out to every NATO installation across Europe warning them to be prepared for the sudden appearance of Spetsnaz commandos or saboteurs soon. General Galvin expected to be swarmed with incoming reports of facilities under attack beginning at any moment. When it didn’t happen he was unsettled. What was going on?

Another seven minutes of silence passed by before it occurred to him that the attack on Geilenkirchen might’ve gone off prematurely. And that thought was a fleeting one. The uncertainty of the situation around 0120 placed SACEUR squarely between two chairs, so to speak. Unbeknownst to everyone except for his deputy and a handful of other senior officers, SACEUR had been approached by his air commanders a week earlier with a plan for a series of offensive air strikes targeting a core group of high value enemy targets in East Germany. The intent was for the missions to launch at the first concrete sign of hostilities; the moment that the Russians showed their hand.

SACEUR expected that moment to be the start of Spetsnaz attacks in the NATO rear. But with only one attack underway so far, Galvin faced a moment of truth. If he ordered his air commander to begin what they referred to as Operation Dark Comet without more validation that the Soviet offensive was imminent he ran the risk of handing Moscow a justification for hostilities. If he wavered and the offensive emerged as expected, a golden opportunity to maybe even the playing field would be lost. Aware that time was running out, SACEUR made what many historians now consider to be one of the most pivotal decisions of the war. Dark Comet would commence immediately.

While fighter bombers and support aircraft assigned to the missions were taking off from NATO airbases in the UK and Federal Republic, Spetsnaz attacks began going off across the Central Front region. Explosions, and the rattle of small arms fire punctured the quiet pre-dawn hours. From the North Sea to the Austrian border firefights were breaking out in and around almost every NATO military facility, and at select points in the major Western European cities. Soviet commandos, and KGB operatives found, much to their astonishment, that NATO security troops were alert and prepared for them. In spite of their high degrees of training and  rugged mental preparedness, a number of Spetsnaz teams could not recover from the shock of losing the initiative so abruptly. From the intelligence each team was privy to, NATO was not expected to be ready.

The size and qualities of the security contingents at individual target sites depended on the size of the target and its significance. Predictably, POMCUS, nuclear weapon storage sites, and dispersal locations for GLCM and Pershing II missiles. On average, the size of a NATO security unit was a platoon sized unit, 30-35 men. Spetsnaz teams, in contrast normally had between 4-6 troops, and in some instances upwards of 10-12. The attackers relied on speed, and slinkiness. The defenders, on firepower and numbers.

Bulletins started reaching Brussels minutes after 0130. Word was working up the chain of command about an increasing number of NATO military and civilian sites coming under attack. A POMCUS compound in Holland, GLCM dispersal sites north of Wuschheim, and an air defense radar site west of Hanover were among the first places to be hit. SACEUR was digesting those reports as even more news arrived. A major explosion had occurred in the port of Bremerhaven. Two West German cabinet members were assassinated in their own homes.

As his aide informed him of these attacks, SACEUR took some solace in the fact that he had made the right decision in authorizing Dark Comet.


The Central Front Chessboard: 8 July, 1987


General Galvin had decided to remain at NATO headquarters in Brussels for the time being instead of moving to his wartime headquarters. It was SACEUR’s prerogative where he chose to direct the defense of Western Europe. For the moment, Galvin preferred his office and the command room in Brussels to a command post nestled deep in the Belgian woods that was still in the process of standing up. His operations staff was not thrilled with his choice, but with rank came privilege. SACEUR would remain in Brussels unless the situation called for a change.

It was 2300 local time. The general was seated at his office desk looking over the latest situation reports from his commanders in the field, and intelligence reports from various agencies and commands. He’d slept from 1500 until 2030 and was now wide awake. The opportunities for long, uninterrupted sleeps would be few and far between from this moment forward. SACEUR fully expected the balloon to go up sometime before dawn.

To the east, hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides of the Inner-German Border were making their final preparations for war. In East Germany, Soviet tank and motor rifle divisions were, or shortly would be, at their lines of departure. At airfields across Western Europe, fighter aircraft sat on alert, waiting for the scramble order to come. The pilots inside of the cockpits understood that the next time they heard the klaxon it would be the real thing.  On autobahns all over West Germany, convoys of men and materials were moving east towards the frontier as reinforcements poured into the Federal Republic from the US, Great Britain, Holland, and Belgium. Five or six more days of peace would’ve worked wonders for NATO readiness, SACEUR knew all too well. As it stood, his command was as ready as it could be.

NATO’s defense of West Germany was anchored by a pair of powerful army groups. NORTHAG, the Northern Army Group, was one of them. The formation was comprised of four corps: I Dutch Corps, I West German Corps, I British, and I Belgian Corps. NORTHAG’s coverage area spanned from Hamburg in the north to Kassel. Its corps were equipped mainly with armor and mechanized infantry divisions. The area they defended was likely to be the main avenue of a Soviet/Warsaw Pact advance west. The North German Plain was ideal tank country and favored a mechanized attacker considerably. NORTHAG was a powerful entity, but if its corps elements did not react with speed and decisiveness, it might not be able to mass its combat power in time to prevent a breakthrough.

As fate, and post-World War II politics would have it, NATO’s most powerful army group was not situated along the Soviet’s most likely axis of advance. CENTAG, the central army group, guarded the border from south of Kassel to the Austrian border. It’s four corps were tank heavy, maneuver based units consisting of the V and VII US Corps, and the II and III West German Corps. CENTAG was SACEUR’s mailed fist. He hoped to smash elements of it into the flank of a Soviet blitz across the North German Plain if the situation presented itself. The Soviet formations facing CENTAG were powerful in their own right, yet he expected the US and West German corps to halt them in a relatively short period of time. The reasons for his confident expectation were the quality of CENTAG forces, and the extremely defense-oriented terrain in its area. The terrain in most of CENTAG’s sectors was made up of tree-lined hills, and valleys that would challenge the advance of an attacking force. US and West German tankers were extremely familiar with the terrain they’d fight on. Defensive positions had been staked out and established long ago. Artillery observers knew every inch of the ground they would plot their fires on intimately, as did forward air controllers. The Soviets would be made to pay a heavy price for every kilometer they advanced from Kassel on south. The ultimate objective of the Soviet 8th Guards Tank Army and its follow-on forces was Frankfurt. SACEUR fully expected them to be stopped cold long before they came anywhere near the city.

On the air side of things, SACEUR was comfortable with the level of readiness. The 2nd and 4th ATAFs (Allied Tactical Air Force) were ready to go. Both formations were broadswords that would be used to defend the skies of Western Europe, and then take the war directly to the enemy. His air commander was an experienced, creative career fighter pilot who had some surprises up his sleeve for when things kicked off. NATO air forces had a qualitative edge over their Warsaw Pact counterparts. Most aircraft types, and weapon systems were technologically superior. NATO pilots were better trained than the MiG pilots they’d soon face, or so the belief went.

That wasn’t to say that NATO’s air commanders were taking the Soviet threat lightly. The skies over Eastern Europe were defended by a dense integrated-air-defense system. SAMs were going to be a formidable threat. The world had seen the amount of damage that Soviet SAMs could inflict on Western air forces during the Vietnam conflict, and 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since then a new generation of Soviet missiles had arrived and they were even more capable. In response, NATO air forces had spent tens of millions of dollars developing anti-radiation missiles, and a new generation of ECM measures to counter the threat.

SACEUR chewed on all the positive changes that had come to NATO since the early 1980s. The Reagan administration’s military buildup had benefitted US and allied forces in Europe tremendously. The new class of weapons systems were fielded in Western Europe in large numbers including the M-1 Abrams battle tank, M-2 Bradley IFV, Apache attack helicopter, F-15 Eagle and F-16. Britain, West Germany, and other NATO countries had introduced their own modernization programs and were making progress.

In a matter of hours, the alliance would begin to find out if its investments had been worthwhile or not.


The View From The Flanks: AFSOUTH 6 July, 1987


For the Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Southern Europe (CINC-AFSOUTH) Admiral James Busey, the bulk of 6 July was spent on the telephone with Norfolk, attempting to pry another aircraft carrier away from SACLANT for use in the Mediterranean. As it stood, the Sixth Fleet had only one carrier in the Mediterranean at present with the SaratogaConstellation was supposed to have steamed up from the Arabian Sea and made the transit through the Suez Canal but hadn’t yet. Chopping that carrier group to Sixth Fleet was turning into an impossible task. Seventh Fleet was complaining loudly that the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean were now naked of carrier support. Busey knew that was true, however, he was aware that Seventh Fleet could afford to transfer one of its other carriers to fill the void if necessary.

SACLANT was sympathetic, but his cupboard was quite bare at the moment. The carriers in the Atlantic were going to be needed there, so he was reluctant to even consider moving one of them east to the Sixth Fleet and AFSOUTH’s AOR. Yard workers in Norfolk were hustling to put the carriers there for overhaul back together and ready for sea as quickly as possible. It would be another week at the earliest before one of those decks became available and there was no guarantee that it would wind up coming his way anyhow.

So, as it stood, CINC-SOUTH had two traditional carriers available in the Mediterranean: Sara, and the French carrier Clemenceau. Doctrine called for at least three carriers (two of them at least being US) to fight and survive in the Eastern Med. Busey now had two, but the air wing aboard Clemeneau was nowhere near as powerful as the one on the US carrier. At sea, AFSOUTH’s main wartime mission would be to retain control of the Eastern Med and prevent it from becoming a Soviet lake. To do this, Busey’s command had developed a maritime strategy revolving around using the US Sixth Fleet and accompanying NATO units aggressively from the second hostilities commenced.

Busey envied his AFNORTH counterpart somewhat. The north flank had a laundry list of reinforcements from outside the AOR that were already packing and preparing to move. AFSOUTH and NATO’s vulnerable southern flank lacked the prepositioned equipment and specifically assigned units AFNORTH had. His reinforcements would be more of a scratch force depending on what was available and the situation at a given moment.

His command’s intelligence staff was working feverishly to develop a picture of what the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies might do in Southern Europe and the Med if war began. There were strong indications of a major build up going on in Buglaria, indicating a potential Soviet/WP plan to move into Thrace and cut off Turkey from the rest of Europe. The consequences of a successful Thrace offensive were almost too dire to contemplate. Therefore, keeping both Turkey and Greece from being driven out of the war also was positioned high on Busey’s priority list. The two nations were bitter enemies as well as NATO allies. The tense relationship nearly led to open war between the two back in March when the Greeks began exploring for oil in disputed waters. How well they would function together now was anybody’s guess.

The primary threat he was concerned with was that posed by Soviet Long Range Aviation, Naval Aviation and tactical air. From bases on the Black Sea coastline, Backfires and Badgers would waste little time in streaming down across Turkey to attack his ships in the Eastern Med. Satellite photos also indicated that Soviet aircraft were arriving in Bulgaria, and Syria. If the Turkish and Hellenic air forces were not up to the challenge of stopping these attacks, or at least inflicting moderate casualties, Saratoga’s battlegroup and air wing were going to have an exciting, and likely short life if the shooting started.

As late afternoon turned to early evening in Naples, Admiral Busey was contemplating a quick meal when the phone on his desk rang. He lifted it up.


“Jim?” The voice on the other end belonged to SACEUR in Brussels. “Sorry to bother you. Have you got a second?”

“Evening, general. What can I do for you?” Busey was immediately on guard.

“I’ll be brief. Peter Carington is making a statement within the hour.” Carington was the NATO secretary general. “He is going to publicly announce that NATO is officially mobilizing.”

“God,” Busey breathed. “What took him so long?”

“I know,” General John Galvin chuckled. “Just a formality at this point, really. But I thought you should know.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. Since I have you on the line, is there anything new happening anywhere that I should be aware of?” The direct line from Brussels to Busey’s office was one of the most secure telephone lines in the world.

SACEUR was quiet for a long moment before responding, “The diplomatic efforts have closed down almost entirely. They weren’t making progress anyhow. Ready your command for action, Jim,” Galvin spoke slow and deliberately. “I’m guessing we have maybe another two days of peace left at best.”


Awakening In Brussels


In the days immediately following Mikhail Gorbachev’s ouster, NATO commanders collectively began to consider what the consequences of the coup would be for the alliance, as well as for their respective commands. Romanov had the reputation of being a hardliner and it was suspected that he would eventually turn his attention to the smoldering situation in the Eastern European satellites. It was not widely known in April, 1987 exactly how deep of a hole the Soviet Union had itself in. At home, there was increasing strife in the southern republics and Baltics. Discontent was growing among the general population as well. The grumblings were not restricted to Armenians and Estonians either. Russians were questioning the Communist Party’s decisions now in ever increasing numbers.  The economy was teetering on the verge of a total collapse, Afghanistan continued to consume Soviet blood, and Soviet influence in Central America was declining.

Nowhere was the situation more precarious for Moscow than in Eastern Europe. Internal discontent was fomenting from East Berlin to Warsaw and Prague. Poland had never been entirely pacified in the early 1980s. Jaruzelski, despite Soviet propping, was barely keeping his country together. Solidarity was still a force to be reckoned with. In East Berlin, Erich Honecker’s problems were more pronounced. His hold on power was becoming more illusionary. The harder he clamped down, the more resistant the voice of his opponents became. And it was spreading across the population rapidly. East Germany would celebrate its 40th anniversary as a nation-state in 1989 and there was widespread concern in the Kremlin that the nation would not last that long without Soviet military intervention.

What the ramifications of an East German collapse would mean for NATO was alarmingly clear: Nothing good. So, as Romanov was consolidating his power in the Kremlin, General Bernard Rodgers, SACEUR at the time, was holding meetings with his top commanders in Brussels to discuss the situation, and the training schedule for the summer months. Rodgers was leaving in June and wanted everything to be running perfectly for General John Galvin, his successor.

Over the next two weeks the new geo-political situation started to take shape. Romanov’s first priority was the United States. Specifically, repositioning the Soviet Union into a position of, if not political strength, political parity. The balance of power was tilting dangerously in Washington’s favor, even if the West was not clearly aware at this point. By mid-May, incidents between US and Soviet aircraft, submarines, and ships at sea were becoming a regular occurrence. It was the collision between a Russian Tu-95 Bear and US Navy F-14 Tomcat in the Pacific that captured Rodger’s attention and did not let go. Incidents like this have the power to start a war. Romanov was playing for keeps, he decided then and there. It now became the American general’s sole mission to ensure that the alliance was prepared for a conflict with the Soviets.