The Central Front Chessboard: 8 July, 1987

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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

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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.

“Yes?”

“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

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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.