The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0500-0545

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By the time he arrived back at Wunsdorf, General Snetkov had a fair idea of what was happening. NATO had defied all expectations and launched a number of daring airstrikes against the command bunkers of his most powerful army groups. How NATO was even aware of the existence of some of these bunkers was beyond him at the moment. This was only one of a thousand questions raging in his mind. The most prevalent one, though, was how the NATO bombers managed to penetrate into GDR airspace without being detected on radar. There were rumors that the Americans were working to develop an aircraft invisible to radar, but it was not yet in operational service. Or was it? If so, what did that mean for his command? Nothing good. Snetkov was certain of that.

The attacks on command bunkers were not the only instances of preemption that morning either. Scattered reports from across the western half of the GDR spoke of further NATO air strikes against bridges spanning the Elbe river, fuel depots, and a small number of Frontal Aviation airbases.

Before boarding the helicopter in Stendal, the general had sent a coded message to the theater commander explaining the situation and requesting a temporary moratorium on future operations.  Much to his surprise, there was an answer from CINC-West waiting for him when he touched down. CINC-West agreed to a two hour delay on all land operations scheduled to go off at 0600, but everything else would go off as planned. There was not enough time to delay the offensive air operations, and airmobile raids that had been planned to precede the ground offensive. In fact, some of those missions were already inbound to targets in West Germany. Snetkov argued that these operations should also be delayed, but CINC-West would not entertain the notion. His comrades in Frontal Aviation were going to be dealing with a lot soon, if they weren’t already. Their blow would fall shortly.

Snetkov’s problems were more immediate and critical to the overall outcome of the war. Two, possibly three of his army group’s had been decapitated and were now without commanders, and battle staffs at a moment when their divisions were approaching inner-German border. His own battle staff was frantically contacting every one of 3rd Shock, 20th and 8th Guards Armies divisions to order them not to begin offensive operations until 0800. 1st and 2nd Guards Armies commanders, alive and untouched by the devastation brought upon their comrades earlier, acknowledged the order from Wunsdorf and went about passing the word along. It took time, and unorthodox effort in some instances, but Snetkov’s staff succeeded in halting the subordinate units of the affected armies. With that urgent task completed, Snetkov could worry about selecting new commanders for the affected army groups.

 

As all of this was taking place in Wunsdorf, Frontal Aviation and the air forces of other Warsaw Pact allies went into action. While it was true that some units and installations belonging to  the 16th Air Army had been in action since 0300 or so, this action was part of the long planned air offensive against NATO. The offensive was originally intended to begin less than an hour before the first Soviet tanks crossed the border, but that timeline and battleplan no longer existed. Snetkov’s thoughts about Frontal Aviation having their own woes was right on the mark. NATO’s own preemptive airstrikes had thrown the morning’s planned air operations into chaos. USAF and Luftwaffe low level fighter-bombers had visited Mahlwinkle and Cochstedt, causing damage to facilities and aircraft. MiGs had also seen in the pre-dawn hours engaging NATO fighters over East Germany as well.

What all of this translated to was that the first blow struck from the air was not going to be as powerful as intended. The morning’s events so far had punched holes in the Soviet/WP’s master target list. Some NATO airbases and radar sites slated to be hit early on would not be struck until. The aircraft tasked for those missions had been damaged or destroyed outright on the ground. Defensive counter-air now took on a heightened priority as well. Some fighter regiments assigned to provide protection for the attack aircraft and fighter-bombers heading west were reassigned to defend the suddenly vulnerable skies over East Germany.

For years, Soviet and Warsaw Pact air commanders had speculated about this very moment, should it become reality. Now that it was, the situation was far different than most of them had imagined. And tt was destined to get worse.

The NATO air forces were ready and waiting as the first MiGs and Sukhois approached the border.

 

 

 

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

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0300– The first non-stealth NATO aircraft into East Germany that morning were USAF F-111F Aardvarks and a mixed force of RAF and Luftwaffe Tornadoes. As the last GBU-27 impacted on the 20th Guards Army’s bunker complex at Mohlau, the fighter-bomber were breaking formation as flights headed off for their assigned ground targets. The primary targets were bridges across the Elbe River that were to be used by the second echelon of the Soviet armies now arrayed to attack West Germany. The destruction of the bridges would prevent those armies from being reinforced for a period of time. Other targets included air bases, railheads, and logistical centers. The majority of targets being struck were in the 3rd Shock Army’s sector. This was the army NATO and US planners feared the most. The more damage that could be caused to it before crossing the border meant less pressure on the NORTHAG formations in the opening hours of fighting.

Behind and above the strike aircraft F-15 Eagles and other NATO fighters were engaging the MiGs that had been loitering on CAP stations over East Germany. Radar operators aboard E-3 Sentries over the western reaches of the Federal Republic vectored the fighters towards intercepts. Their Soviet counterparts aboard two A-50 Mainstay aircraft north of Berlin were shocked to find their screens suddenly filled with NATO fighters. As the aircraft they controlled began dropping from the skies, scramble orders were transmitted to every fighter base in East Germany.

It would be too late, however. Even as the additional MiGs rose into the pre-dawn skies to challenge the intruders, the F-15s now augmented by F-4 Phantoms, and air-to-air Tornadoes were waiting in ambush and took a horrifying toll of the Soviet defenders.

 

0335– General Snetkov was a man consumed by rage. Around him, the sounds of battle were finally dying off. For the last half hour he heard the roar of combat aircraft to the south and west. The sound of explosions, and flashes of light on the horizons had confirmed to him that the command bunkers were not the only sites being targeted by NATO on this morning. It was bad enough that 3rd Shock Army’s commander and all of his people were dead. Now Snetkov’s contact with 20th Guards and 8th Guards Armies was disrupted. Calls to both of their command posts were going unanswered. The fact that 2nd Guards Tank Army in the far north remained in touch was of little solace.

Snetkov’s worst fears were coming true. NATO air forces were in the midst of successful pre-emptive air strikes. He was stranded in Stendal, forced to take cover in a shelter on the edge of the now-immolated bunker complex while NATO fighters ran roughshod overhead. Now, the general needed to gain a clear picture of the temporary disaster unfolding around him. That could not be done from here, though. He ordered his aide to arrange helicopter transportation back to Wunsdorf. The aide did not even remind the general that enemy fighters might still be in the area. Snetkov’s glare was enough to deter him from verbalizing any objection.  Once that was done, the general told his chief of staff to get in contact with CINC-WEST, the theater commander immediately. The general was going to personally inform him of the situation and recommend a two to three hour delay before the attack commenced. He assumed at least that much time was going to be needed to unscramble the mess that NATO air power had caused.

0359– In Brussels, SACEUR was busy dealing with the aftermath of the Spetsnaz attacks. For the most part the attacks had failed, except for two places. The port of Rotterdam was a fiery mess. Two ships had been scuttled in the harbor, and another was burning at the dockside. The second success had come in northern Germany at the I Netherlands Corps field headquarters. A group of Soviet commandos dressed in Dutch military uniforms had penetrated the headquarters and killed the corps commander before they were killed themselves. It was bad, he reminded himself, but it could’ve been far worse.

Through the excitement, SACEUR had nearly forgotten that NATO aircraft were in action over East Germany. His air commander had provided bits and pieces on the progress of the air strikes. Judging from those reports, the air strikes seemed to have gone off well. An in-depth briefing was set to take place in less than thirty minutes.

For the moment, SACEUR looked at the large electronic map mounted on the wall of his operations center. Successful air strikes or not, at any moment now he expected to begin receiving word that Soviet fighters, helicopters, and tanks were storming across the border. As chaotic as the last few hours had been, General Galvin knew it would be nothing compared to what was to come. The fate of an entire continent now lay squarely upon his shoulders.

It was 0400 hours, 9 July, 1987.

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vital Peripheries: Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf 8 July, 1987

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On 8 July, 1987 CENTCOM was in the best possible shape possible. A brigade of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division was on the ground at Cario West Air Base in Egypt. A detachment of E-3 Sentries, along with two fighter squadrons, one of F-15s and the other of F-16s, and accompanying tankers were at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The Maritime Prepositioning Ships carrying the equipment of a Marine Amphibious Brigade had left their anchorage at Diego Garcia and were steaming towards the Strait of Hormuz with the Constellation battlegroup taking up position to support its transit. Marines from the 7th Marine Amphibious Brigade based at Twentynine Palms in California were moving to Saudi Arabia by air to mate up with the equipment now at sea. A large contingent was on the ground already, and CENTCOM expected to have the brigade’s manpower entirely in Saudi by 11 July at the latest. It was a matter of available airlift assets and priorities. There simply were not enough transports and CRAF aircraft available at the moment to satisfy everyone’s needs. Europe was the priority, and CENTCOM simply had to deal with it.

The brigade from the 82nd was in Egypt as a compromise of sorts. AFSOUTH was loudly complaining about the lack of ground reinforcements available for his command. He wanted to take the entire 82nd and use it as a fire brigade of sorts wherever it might be needed in his command’s area of responsibility. General Crist, CINC-CENT came down hard on the idea, complaining quite correctly that the 82nd Airborne was tagged for his command’s use in wartime. Admiral Crowe personally settled the matter and ordered the 82nd to stage at Cairo West for the time being. If it was needed in the Med or Southern Europe it would go there. If it was needed in Saudi, the force would be sent there. Through negotiations with the Egyptians, a deal was reached where the Egyptian Air Force would handle airlifting the unit wherever it needed to go.

The rest of the division was still at Fort Bragg and would not move until the first brigade was committed. The entire 101st Airborne Division was operating under the same principle. Behind those two units, the 7th Light Infantry Division and an assortment of Marine units were on the deployment list. They were prepping now, yet it was anyone’s guess when they would actually be ready to deploy.

The US Air Force was preparing to move more of its elements tagged for CENTCOM to the Middle East. The remainder of the 49th TFW (F-15s) and 388th TFW (F-16s) were hurriedly packing, and A-10s from Myrtle Beach and F-111s from Mountain Home had received warning orders to move. With just another five days of peace, Crist would feel better.

Unfortunately, five days did not appear likely. Five hours of peace was a more realistic estimate. Throughout the day, the situation had been progressively moving from bad to worse on a number of fronts. Crist had not paid that much attention, but nevertheless heard rumblings. In his command’s theater things were quiet. The Soviet forces in Yemen were doing nothing outside of routine patrols. In the Arabian Sea, naval activity was minimal. Most significantly, the Northern Caucus Military District was not making any moves to suggest operations against Iran or Saudi Arabia were imminent. That, however, could change at a moment’s notice, Crist was aware.

As was the case for general officers around the world at that moment, he had more than enough to occupy his mind. Yet, unlike the majority of his American peers, General Crist was, for the moment, a man without a war on the horizon. Strangely enough, instead of providing comfort to him, the thought filled him with apprehension.

 

USAFE Stands Up 6 July, 1987 (Part 2)

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Even though REFORGER assumed a major priority in the US reinforcement of Western Europe, the first priority was airpower. The trickle of warplanes leaving the United States for Europe on 6 July would shortly transform into a nearly constant stream as more active duty and eventually Air National Guard and reserve squadrons tagged for Europe came online. Combatant command and wing commanders in the US were not the only ones grappling with deployment and redeployment issues. Some of their counterparts in Europe were contending with similar problems, especially US commanders in the United Kingdom.

The 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing based at RAF Alconbury was in the midst of changing missions when Romanov’s coup was launched. The wing was transitioning from RF-4C Phantoms and their reconnaissance mission to A-10A Thunderbolt IIs. The wing was scheduled to be designated the 10th Tactical Fighter Wing in August of 1987. In June, the wing’s RF-4Cs departed England, leaving a hole in USAFE’s reconnaissance capabilities on the eve of battle. Air Guard squadrons flying the RF-4C would eventually fill the void. However, the pinch was felt during the first week of hostilities when combat losses and limited availability caused some disruption in tactical reconnaissance.

The 81st TFWs problems was strikingly different. The 81st was a combat wing made up of four A-10 squadrons based at RAF Bentwaters-Woodbridge. It was regarded as a super-wing that’s primary wartime role was to provide close air support for NATO ground forces trying to halt a Soviet advance into West Germany. Detachments of the wing’s aircraft were often rotated to forward operating locations in Germany as a hedge against a surprise Soviet invasion. Under current war plans, the 81st would fight from West Germany while Bentwaters hosted newly arrived fighter wings from the US.

Fortunately for USAFE, the 81st was well versed in its wartime mission and practiced for it regularly. The forward operating locations at Sembach, Leipheim, Alhorn and Norvenich Air Bases were fully stocked with ordnance, ammunition, fuel, and spare parts. Pilots and maintainers had spent so much time at one or more of these sites in the past that they were intimately familiar with them. So when the 81st’s commander Colonel Bill Studer received his orders from 3rd Air Force, the wing was ready to go. Within three hours the first C-130 carrying maintainers and other wing staff had arrived at Sembach.

CINC-USAFE was not entirely satisfied with the speed of the deployments and redeployments. General Bill Kirk, USAF was a realist by nature, and a perfectionist by trade. The former F-4 driver understood that the clock was running against him and NATO. War was coming and it would likely arrive before his command was completely reinforced and ready for action.  He was pushing his wing and base commanders to prepare their units for war as fervently as he was pushing Tactical Air Command and the Pentagon to send him as many aircraft and pilots as fast as possible. “I have enough gas, ammo, and spare parts to get through ten days of intensive air ops,” he confided to his TAC counterpart General Bob Russ. “For now just send me as many aircraft and pilots as you can before the balloon goes up!”