Strategic Considerations: SACLANT 7 July, 1987


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.






SACLANT’s Concerns 5-6 July, 1987


Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACLANT) Admiral Lee Baggett Jr, USN was NATO’s senior naval officer. His area of responsibility was vast, stretching from the North Pole to the Tropic of Cancer, and from the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada across the Atlantic to Portugal. In wartime, Baggett’s command was tasked primarily with keeping the sea lines of communication (SLOC) between North America and Europe open to ensure the reinforcement and resupply of Europe. Without a massive, and nearly constant stream of men, equipment, and ammunition going from North America to Europe, NATO would likely lose the land war.

From his headquarters in Norfolk, Baggett was receiving near constant situation reports from every element of his command. It was 2330 local time in Virginia. Dozens of merchant vessels from around the world, long with allied and US Navy warships were converging on US east coast ports. Those ports would become beehives of activity in the coming days, most likely, as heavy equipment and supplies from US Army arrived. Baggett was hopeful about having the first convoy underway for Europe within 24 hours.

Shortly after President Reagan’s address, Secretary of Defense Weinberger contacted Baggett to let him know the call up of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet would be augmented by the National Defense Reserve Fleet by 0300. This meant the nation’s emergency reserve fleet of merchant ships would begin activation the next morning. It would be helpful, but only a handful of the ships would be activated within the next 20 days. The majority would take far longer to be made seaworthy once again.

Merchant shipping was only one of SACLANT’s concerns as 5 July came to an end. With REFORGER beginning, the bulk of cargo aircraft were going to be busy moving troops across the Atlantic to Europe. Baggett had reminded the Secretary of Defense that his command also needed transport aircraft to move the 4th Marine Amphibious Brigade from Camp Lejeune to marry up with its pre-positioned equipment in Norway. Weinberger assured him the planes would be available when the time came. As of yet, though, no orders for the 4th MAB’s movement had been issued.

Aircraft carriers were another concern. At the moment, he only had two carriers in the Atlantic. Forrestal had been working up in preparation for a deployment to take part in the NATO exercise Ocean Venture 87 in August. As tensions began to rise in June, her orders were revised. Right now, Forrestal and her escorts were steaming towards the North Atlantic. The USS Dwight Eisenhower had been underway in the Caribbean Sea in early July. Now, she was 12 hours from Norfolk and a very brief turnaround before heading back out to sea. She would likely join Forrestal, and hopefully a third carrier (fourth even if all went well) and form the bulk of Strike Fleet Atlantic. From there, Baggett’s war plans called for a three-carrier group at least to steam into the Norwegian Sea and seize control of it from the Red Banner Northern Fleet. The third carrier, Kitty Hawk had just arrived in Philadelphia to begin her Service Life Extension Program, a three-year major overhaul. With tensions rising, the CNO decided that she would be of better use at sea. The carrier was scheduled to depart from Philadelphia within the next 48 hours, her air wing would come aboard and she’d be ready for sustained combat operations.

That was the plan at least. No war plan survives first contact, and Baggett knew all too well that he needed to be flexible. Battle losses in theater, or an unexpected turn in the conflict might call for a revamping of NATO’s maritime doctrine.

As things stood, Baggett suspected peacetime was drawing to a close. Sooner or later the shooting would start. The Soviet Union had begun mobilizing two days ago. The West Germans were now mobilizing on their own. Now the US was in the game and other NATO allies were recognizing the threat and also responding. Belatedly, in SACLANT’s eyes. REFORGER was a good start, but it was just the start. Additional reinforcements and callups of reservists were coming, Baggett was certain.

Midnight passed almost unnoticed. In SACLANT’s mind, however, the start of 6 July would be remembered as the moment when he began to accept the reality that the Third Battle of the Atlantic was on the horizon and the outcome for NATO would be his responsibility.