SAC on the Eve of War: 8 July, 1987

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In the last hours of peace on 8 June, 1987, the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command found itself in an unprecedented position. While its sister major commands in the Air Force and other service branches were hurriedly preparing for a war that seemed ready to begin at any moment, SAC was taking extreme measures to adopt and maintain a low key, business-as-usual approach. It was strange to imagine, but nevertheless true. Even though diplomatic efforts had more or less ended by this time, a late afternoon discussion over the hotline between President Reagan and General Secretary Romanov had produced an unexpected agreement: Both leaders agreed to keep the posture of their respective strategic forces untouched unless the alert level of the other superpower appeared to be changing. Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart had come to a mutual agreement on the conduct of the war that was to come. The Third World War would be fought conventionally. If NATO or the Warsaw Pact fared badly on the battlefield though, it could mean that all bets were off. At the very least, the superpowers wanted to make a sincere effort to keep the lid on the nuclear box for as long as possible.

This did little to assuage the nerves of SAC aircrews, missileers, and personnel assigned to SAC headquarters in Omaha, or any other SAC base across the US. The next time the klaxons went off it would be the real thing. CINC-SAC, General John Chain and his operations staff were kept busy keeping current with what was happening in Europe, while simultaneously preparing the command for action. The Looking Glass airborne command post would remain airborne at all times, as always. The Soviets understood Looking Glass and would not see the move as an escalation. Alert facilities at SAC bases were becoming cramped quarters. Additional aircrews were moving in as the number of tankers and bombers on alert was increased. Maintenance teams were combing over Minuteman III and Peacekeeper ICBMs constantly to ensure the missiles would be combat ready if the time came.

Not all SAC bombers would remain at their stateside bases on alert, though. Just as during Vietnam, conventionally-armed heavy bombers were going to be in high demand in this conflict. Some SAC squadrons had been assigned conventional roles in a time of war and were trained up to execute those missions if it became necessary. Two B-52 squadrons, one at Andersen AFB and the other at Loring AFB were tasked to employ Harpoon anti-ship missiles against Soviet warships in the Pacific, and North Atlantic. Other -52 squadrons were slated to support ground forces in Europe. Although they were in high demand, Chain was reluctant to part with more strategic bombers than absolutely necessary. His hesitation brought about intervention by the Joint Chiefs. General Larry Welch, the USAF Chief of Staff and Chain’s predecessor at SAC told him bluntly over a secure phone line, “Goddammit, John! Quit being so stingy. We both know your command has more than enough bombers and missiles to wipe Russia off the map. You can afford to part with a few -52s. Using them in Europe against Russian tanks might help to stop us from having to use the rest of your force over Russia later on.” Shortly after the phone call, warning orders went out to the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB to prepare for movement across the Atlantic.

For the rest of SAC, though, it was the usual watch-and-wait game. God willing, it would become nothing more.

Soviet Air Mobile Forces on the Eve of Battle: 8 July, 1987

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Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact had fairly solid notions about what moves the other side would make in the opening hours of a conflict. Awareness does not automatically translate to an assured defeat or neutralization of those moves on the battlefield, however. Countermoves and defenses were created, worked into pre-existing operational plans, and practiced. However, their value would not be known until the balloon went up and the shooting starts.

NATO had a high regard for Soviet air assault forces and their capabilities after seven years of observing their use in Afghanistan. Alliance planners also had a keen idea of how the Soviets would decide to employ these forces in the first phase of a Soviet/Pact offensive against Western Europe. In the confusion of those first minutes, with the skies over West Germany and Denmark filled with hundreds of Warsaw Pact and NATO aircraft, heliborne troops would probably land at dozens of sites spread across NATO’s rear areas. Their objectives would range from seizing bridgeheads on the Weser and other rivers, to assaulting forward division and corps headquarters.

The Soviets had many specialized air assault battalions and regiments available to them for these tasks. The 35th Guards Air Assault Regiment was GFSG’s main air assault component. A number of additional air assault battalions had taken part in the June exercises and remained in Eastern Europe instead of returning to the Soviet Union. As tensions rose, and diplomacy broke down, company, and battalion-sized air assault forces began preparing for their wartime tasks.

NATO, in turn, was preparing to defend headquarters, air defense sites, bridges, REFORGER and nuclear weapons sites against possible Soviet air mobile assaults. Security was increased practically everywhere it might be needed at a time when every available soldier was desperately needed farther forward. West German, Dutch, Belgian, and Danish reserve units that should’ve been moving to join their parent active duty brigades and divisions were instead finding themselves watching over bridgeheads on the Weser or Rhine, and babysitting road intersections hundreds of kilometers away from the border. USAREUR focused its best security units on REFORGER sites and the field locations of its GLCM and Pershing II missiles. USAFE contributed to the later but its main security focus was the defense of its fixed installations across Europe.

At forward airbases across East Germany on 8 July, Soviet paratroopers were reviewing plans and making the final preparations for their coming missions. The commander of the 1185th Air Assault Battalion was confident his unit would achieve its objectives. The confidence did not come from hubris or arrogance. All of his company commanders, and a majority of the NCOs were, like him, veterans of Afghanistan. When he took command of the battalion the previous year, he made it a point to bring in as many experienced men as possible. That experience would be needed in the coming days.

The 1185th had a crucial role to play in the coming offensive. It would be transported as a whole unit to secure a number of bridgeheads on the Weser River and hold them until relieved by the armored spearheads of the 3rd Shock Army. The battalion commander was assured that his forces would be rescued within 3 days. He was not prepared to stake his life and that of his men on the promise of an arrogant tank general. In all likelihood it would be twice that amount of time before his battalion was rescued, if at all. In war there are no guarantees, he knew all too well. Therefore, he was bringing as much ammunition, rations, and other essential supplies forward as he could.

As he stood sweltering in the mid-afternoon heat, watching one of his assault companies go through calisthenics, he hoped other air assault unit commanders were thinking along similar lines. In fifteen hours or so they would all be on the ground behind NATO lines, and cut off from resupply. The mere thought was enough to send a chill up his spine.

The colonel took one last look at his men and walked away, wondering just how many of them would be alive at the same time tomorrow.

A Glimpse at West Berlin: Early July, 1987

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*Authors Note: I realize this posting is off the timeline somewhat and apologize in advance. Next weekend, I plan to spend time editing and reorganizing the pre-war posts into a more orderly presentation. That will precede the beginning of the posts centered on the actual conflict. Apologies for not doing this sooner. –Mike*

Opinions on what West Berlin’s fate would be in the event of war were wide and varied. The contentious history of the divided city, along with the symbolism that both East and West attached to it opened a realm of possibilities. On one end of the spectrum, many military and political observers expected a major East German/Soviet offensive against the city to commence immediately upon the opening of hostilities. A primary reason for this opinion was the fact that West Berlin had been a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union and its East German puppets for almost twenty-six years. Another reason was the amount of political capital a Berlin reunification would bring to the Warsaw Pact, especially early on in a war.

Another group influential political and military observers believed the opposite rang true. From a strict military perspective, seizing West Berlin would require a large, and capable East German force, likely supported by the Soviets to some degree. The regiments, and divisions comprising that force would be better utilized in a Warsaw Pact push into West Germany. Therefore, it made little sense to task so many units with the mission of capturing a half-city so far behind the potential frontline that would have no operational bearing on the outcome of the war. Leaving West Berlin untouched might bring in political and propaganda capital for the Soviets, something else which might be sorely needed as a conflict progresses.

West Berlin was taking no chances though. The lessons of 1948 blockade had been taken to heart. The city was prepared for a protracted state of hostilities, blockade, or whatever the future might bring. Large reserves of food, drinking water, emergency supplies, and other staples of life had been amassed should Berlin’s lifelines to the west ever be severed. Individual Berliners, and families mimicked the preparations made by their city government. Families, apartment buildings, and even neighborhoods had caches of food, and other necessities stashed away, and regularly replenished the items as expiration dates came and went. In ordnung is not simply a phrase for Germans. It is a way of life.

The city’s American, French, and British defenders were prepared to challenge an East German/Soviet invasion, yet they were also very realistic regarding the odds of a successful defense without reinforcements from the outside. Plans had been drafted and practiced for the possibility that troops from the West Berlin garrison might have to escape the city before its occupation and resort to a guerilla-style campaign against the GDR and Soviet occupiers until relief forces arrive.

As tensions increased in late June of ’87, the growing concern in West Berlin was the city’s corridors to the west. Would they remain open for long if the global situation did not reverse itself? Berlin’s citizens were keenly following events and reacted almost instinctively.  Each day more elderly, women, and children were sent west by concerned families. The offstage exodus was quietly condoned by the city fathers who were reluctant to call for an official evacuation for fear of sparking a major panic.  Other preparations were going on out of the public spotlight. US, French, and British officers, along with officials of the West Berlin police were out every night scouting areas marked to be used as potential strongpoints in a future battle for the city. The main strategy was to bog down the invaders in bloody house-to-house fighting. To make this strategy work, military officers had a keen awareness of what intersections offered the best fields of fire for anti-tank missile teams, the buildings sturdy enough to serve as a temporary redoubt, and a thousand other details essential to planning the defense of the city.

If West Berlin was to be fought over, the Western forces garrisoned there were determined to make the East Germans, Russians, and whoever else crossed the border pay a steep price in blood for every yard they advanced into the city.

 

The Media Goes To War: 8 July, 1987

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Combat aircraft, soldiers, weapons, and equipment were not the only things streaming into Western Europe in those tense early July days. The global media was heading off to war as well, and there was a significant amount of anxiety all around. The relationship between the US military and the media had not yet fully healed from American media’s treatment of the services during the Vietnam War. It had bred a deep resentment and distrust of the media in US military circles. Even the post-Vietnam generation of officers, NCOs, and soldiers took the lessons to heart.  As a general rule, soldiers have to contend with reporters. It is part of the job. However, no directive exists that can force a soldier to like it. In the post-Vietnam years, the relationship between America’s defenders and its media can best be described as a cool, yet peaceful co-existence. With the world moving towards another major war, there was no guessing what shape the relationship would assume once the shooting started.

The events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities took the US and global media by surprise, as it did to essentially everyone else on the planet. Overnight, the major networks, publications and newly emerging cable news networks had to formulate a plan of action. The Pentagon and NATO headquarters in Brussels was doing much the same thing with regards to the media. Soon there would be hundreds of reporters on the ground in Europe to deal with. A plan was needed, and quickly.

There was much to consider. This war would involve unprecedented Western media coverage. Satellites, and emerging technologies were changing the way reporters covered conflicts. The ability to go live anywhere in the world was a simple act nowadays. The diminishing size of cameras, recorders, and other devices made journalists more mobile. Could they be trusted to report objectively and without revealing details and information that could potentially cause harm to the war effort? Was there enough time to give reporters rudimentary training on how to survive on the modern battlefield and then send them out into the field to join a unit already there? What would the bent of the media be in general; Pro-US and NATO, objectively neutral, or hostile?

By 8 July, a number of journalists had made it forward and joined military units assigned to them by NATO or the Pentagon. It was not simply up to a journalist, or their respective parent agency to decide what unit they would be attached to. For that matter, no reporter was permitted to travel freely anywhere. If they were found to be moving about without their unit or a previously authorized military escort, the offending party was transported to the rear immediately and inevitably sent home. For the most part, journalists were assigned to units belonging to their respective home country. It made little sense to place a Portuguese reporter with a Dutch infantry battalion, for example. Journalists from nations not involved in the fighting were assigned to roving press pools that rarely made it close to the battle line.

In the last days of peace some issues did crop up between the military and media. A BBC reporter attached to the British Army of the Rhine mentioned offhandedly in a live transmission with anchors back in London the delays  some units of the Dutch Army were having in reaching their prewar positions. Farther south in the US V Corps area of operations an intrepid young reporter from NBC reporter took a camera crew out to record a piece on an abandoned village in front of the US Army battalion he was attached to. The battalion commander provided an escort and warned the reporter not to explore the town because it had been ‘prepared.’ The reporter, naturally, became curious. At the first chance he got, he and his crew ditched their escort to explore the deserted town more thoroughly on their own. Less than three minutes later, he stumbled across a claymore mine that had been placed near an intersection. The reporter and his two-man camera crew were all severely wounded and had to be medevaced to the rear. Brussels, and the Pentagon were incensed and came down hard on the media. It was announced that the parent company of any journalist who violated field regulations would be punished along with the offender. All journalists, cameramen and employees of the parent company would be removed from their attached units and transported to the rear for the duration of the conflict.

Senior officers in Brussels, Washington, and across the globe had more important issues to contend with than the media. As the morning dragged on, solid indications started to appear which made it clear the Soviet offensive was likely set to begin within the next 24 to 36 hours.

 

 

Romanov Reflects 8 July, 1987

1986-1987: Moscow, Red Square

General Secretary Grigory Vasilyevich Romanov stared hard at the men seated around the conference table with him. Together, they made up the leadership core that would reenergize the rapidly failing Soviet Union and ascend the CCCP to new heights of power and global leadership. These men were all subordinate to Romanov, willfully accepting their places and roles in the new hierarchy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. There was to be no sharing of power. When Romanov began planning for his eventual seizure of power shortly after being ousted by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, he deliberately kept his intentions from being known even by these men who were all close to him. Nothing was said until minutes before the bold undertaking was launched. As Romanov had fervently hoped, these men immediately realized the opportunity presented to them and gave their support without a second thought.

Now, here they were less than three months since Romanov took power, in a position that none of them, including the General Secretary, anticipated would come so quickly. He understood the precarious position the Soviet Union had been placed in, largely due to Gorbachev’s attempted reforms. Glasnost and Perestroika would only serve to speed up the demise of the Soviet Union. Romanov recognized this and it motivated him to move decisively to prevent his predecessor and rival from sending the motherland into an irrecoverable tailspin.

Lamentably, Romanov quickly discovered the true condition of his nation upon assuming control. The Soviet Union was essentially on life support. The degeneration of the state’s power had advanced farther than anyone outside Gorbachev’s circle fully understood. The nation had been sedentary for far too long. Its economic strength had been allowed to atrophy, and Soviet military power would not lagging very far behind. Support for the Party was diminishing, and for good reason, Romanov believed. The Party was doing nothing for its people! Animosity was reaching the critical level in the Southern and Baltic republics. And of course, there was still Afghanistan to contend with.

Outside of the CCCP, the situation was more desperate. The Eastern European satellites were in even worse condition. All that was needed for a complete collapse was one errant event. Poles, East Germans, Hungarians, and Czechs were frustrated and despondent. Their living conditions steadily diminished while to the west, their counterparts in West Germany, France, the Low Countries and beyond were enjoying unprecedented economic prosperity.

The writing on the wall was clear: Nothing short of extreme measures was going to save the Soviet empire from being consigned to the dustbin of history. Those measures were less than 24 hours in coming, Romanov noted with some sadness. He certainly had not wanted it to come to this. At least not this quickly. Regrettably, time was against him. The Romanov coup had instigated a chain of events that would consume the State if left untreated. World opinion was decidedly against him. Many governments refused to recognize the legitimacy of his government. The United States had denounced the coup and demanded that Gorbachev be reinstated. Beneath the surface, the US was licking its chops and preparing to use the situation to its advantage, Romanov was positive. Sure enough, evidence of US military preparations around the world began to trickle in after he was in power. In response, Romanov took a hard stance and challenged the US and Reagan, hoping to dissuade any opportunistic moves while the Soviet Union was undergoing transition.

That was not to be, and it became clear very rapidly the US was not going to give Romanov the time needed to consolidate his hold on power, and begin repairing the dry-rot that had become so prevalent in the Soviet Union.

Security was inextricably linked to expansion, Western scholars liked to contend. Romanov agreed, though the current position was more akin to security being linked to a consolidation of power. Conversely, that would not be possible until NATO and the United States were forced into compliance with the Soviet Union’s intended course into the future. And to bring that about meant war, while the Soviet military still held the advantage over the armies, navies, and air forces of the West. An advantage which would cease to exist come 1988.

Therefore, action had to be taken immediately.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

America’s Awakening 7 July, 1987 (Part 1)

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In late July of 1914 when the governments of Europe’s main powers made their respective mobilization announcements, the public reactions in each nation were strikingly similar. An atmosphere of celebration descended upon national capitals. Jubilant crowds streamed into public squares, waving flags and banners. Emotional embraces and bottles of wine and liquor were shared among stranger and friend alike. Patriotic songs and national anthems were sung with passionate zeal and heart. Tears of joy were shed, and talk of glorious victories in the days ahead streaked through the crowds with lightning speed. In 1914 mobilization meant war, and the coming war was generally viewed as an adventure. The horror, misery, and destruction which would define the First World War were in the minds of but a few influential people in Europe during this time. They wisely kept their opinions to themselves, and mourned silently as the masses frolicked in blissful ignorance of what the future truly held. This was their moment and they were not to be denied.

It was noon in the eastern US, and 9 AM on the west coast when special report bulletins preempted regularly scheduled television programming. News anchors, some visibly fighting to keep their composure, informed the nation that NATO nations were ordering their armed forces to mobilize and begin moving to their wartime staging areas and positions. President Reagan was expected to address the nation for the second time in less than 48 hours later that same afternoon. Speculation ran high in media circles that Reagan would announce a full-scale US mobilization.

The response of the average American citizen to the news from Brussels was a stark contrast to how Europeans responded in similar news on the eve of World War I. Collectively, Americans were entirely aware of how severe the situation was in Europe. For the past two days, a number of peace marches and protests had taken place in a number of major cities. The marches mirrored the fears of most people concerning the possibility of this crisis leading to eventual nuclear war. This fear had a sobering effect on almost everyone in North America and it was evident in the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding the addresses of national leaders and announcements of mobilization.

Public opinion polls indicated a large amount of support for President Reagan’s actions and the US position thus far. Americans realized this was not a crisis of their own government’s making, and the majority of people polled laid responsibility square on the Soviets. Ironically enough for the Reagan administration, the heightening tensions in the past two months had served to deflate the growing cauldron of public interest and concern in the Iran-Contra matter. The Reagan administration had allegedly sold arms to Iran in violation of an embargo then in place, and subsequently used the money from the sales to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. News had broken in November of 1986 and following the release of the Tower Report joint House-Senate hearings were scheduled and got underway in May. Public attention had waned as the international situation worsened. On the previous day the Senate announced the postponement of the hearings underway, effectively erasing the Iran-Contra affair from the American psyche.

 

(Apologies for splitting this post in two parts. Work commitments for this afternoon have to take precedence)