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.

Airbase Angst: 8 July, 1987

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Airbase commanders on either side of the Iron Curtain breathed a collective sigh of relief as the sun rose in the eastern sky on the morning of 8 July, 1987. In NATO and Warsaw Pact air forces alike, the lessons of the Six Day War had been scrutinized incessantly ever since. The pre-emptive strike Israel launched against Egyptian airfields in the early morning hours of 5 June, 1967 destroyed over 300 combat aircraft and irreparably damaged its military infrastructure. The Egyptian Air Force was paralyzed and subsequently was unable to support Egypt’s ground forces in the fighting to come. Since then, the possibility of a massive series of predawn airstrikes against airbases, Command and control sites, and radars became the nightmare scenario for air commanders around the world. NATO expected a Warsaw Pact offensive to begin with a concentrated effort against its airfields, while Warsaw Pact commanders expected NATO to begin counter air operations as soon as possible should their own strikes not produce enough damage to NATO airbases and combat aircraft first.

After Israel destroyed the unprotected Egyptian Air Force, airbase protection became a priority. Hardened Aircraft Shelters quickly became a standard feature of Western airbases, while the Soviet Union and its allies turned to a variety of SAMs and self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons to protect its air forces on the ground. Eventually, the Soviets came around to the HAS concept, but nowhere near as fast as NATO. On the eve of war HAS construction was still underway at nearly every Soviet airbase in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

NATO airbase commanders accepted the reality that their bases would receive immediate, concentrated attention from Warsaw Pact air forces, and possibly from Soviet airmobile forces as well. Base defenses were readied, and aircraft were dispersed and spread out as much as possible. Pilots, staff officers, ground crew personnel and security troops alike worked, slept and ate with their cumbersome NBC gear nearby. It was anticipated that Pact forces would be using chemical weapons from the outset. The farther forward a NATO airbase was located, the more apprehensive the base commander was.

Their Soviet and Warsaw Pact counterparts were of a similar mindset. The greatest unknown on the eastern side of the Inner-German Border was the accuracy and effectiveness NATO aircraft and air-delivered weapons. The consensus among the more senior base commanders was NATO air forces held the edge in the quality of aircraft and weapons. If air superiority was lost over East Germany, round-the-clock airstrikes could be expected. Therefore, it was no surprise that fighter regiment and base commanders from Magdeburg to Vilnius were screaming for additional air defense assets.

What no NATO, and most Warsaw Pact air officers recognized at the time was that the morning of 8 July would be the last morning of peace for a while.

 

Pershing II and GLCM Disperal: 8 July, 1987

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Shortly after 0100 local time on 8 July, 1987, SACEUR made perhaps the most critical pre-war decision for the Western alliance. As armies massing across Europe in the past days consumed the world’s attention, a debate had been raging inconspicuously in Brussels and select Western capitals. The question of whether or not to disperse NATO’s force of Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM) into the field was being discussed. From an operational standpoint, Galvin had been in favor of dispersing his primary tactical nuclear weapons immediately. The installations where the BGM-109s and Pershing IIs based would almost certainly be a prime target for Soviet airstrikes and commando raids once the balloon went up. The missiles would be more secure once deployed to their secret dispersal locations, spread out and under the watchful eye of well-trained Air Force security troops.

Politically, a decision to disperse had to be closely considered. Moving the force into the field could be mistaken as preparation for a pre-emptive strike by Moscow. If the Soviets really believed that, the war which everybody feared was about to begin would likely begin with nuclear weapons launched in the first salvo. Civilian reaction in NATO countries was another concern leaders had to take into account. Moving the weapons now could spark a panic if it became publicly known. This, in turn, could lead to unfounded rumors spreading, and a deeper public hysteria coming about at the worst possible moment.

When all was said and done, the decision was left up to the President of the United States and SACEUR. In a conversation shortly after midnight, Reagan let Galvin know that he was in favor of dispersal, but would leave the final decision up to his general. For Galvin, the decision was a no brainer. Intelligence indicated that the Soviets were moving their SS-20s out of garrison and into the field. So after the telephone call with Reagan ended, SACEUR called the secretary general and informed Carington of his intent to immediately order the dispersal of NATO’s ground based nuclear forces.

Before first light, at various sites across West Germany, United Kingdom, Belgium, and Italy, convoys slipped through the main gates and into the predawn darkness bound for their respective dispersal areas. At the Ground Launched Cruise Missile bases, the peace camps that European civilians had constructed in close proximity to the fences had been deconstructed and removed as tensions grew. One of these bases was RAF Greenham Common, home of the 501st Tactical Missile Wing.

The first vehicles to depart Greenham were the transport-erector launchers and accompanying security and maintenance vehicles belonging to Alpha Flight. Sixteen vehicles in total, the flight headed north towards its intended dispersal area ensconced in the North Wessex Downs. British military policemen stood guard along the route, keeping the few civilians who’s curiosity got the best of them from getting too close. Even before Alpha arrived at its intended destination, Charlie Flight was leaving the base for its own dispersal area.

Word of the GLCM and Pershing movement eventually made it east that afternoon, causing Soviet planners to make some last-minute revisions in their operational planning. Spetznaz commandos and intelligence officers who were on the ground near the NATO bases went into high gear attempting to locate the dispersal areas so that they could be raided the coming morning by nearby commando teams in hiding. These teams had penetrated into Western Europe days earlier, originally tasked with raiding the installations, which now seemed pointless given that most of them were empty. The race was now on to locate the dispersal sites and prepare the commando teams before the start of hostilities in less than 24 hours.

 

3rd Armored Division To The Border: 7 July, 1987

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Across the length of the Federal Republic of Germany on the night of 7 July into the morning of the 8th, two mass migrations were underway. One was made up of thousands of West German civilians that resided in close proximity to the border. What had started as a steady stream of families heading west towards perceived safety in good order was transforming to an evacuation fueled by panic and rumors. News of mobilization, and diminishing chances for a diplomatic solution had finally pushed those West Germans who had ignorantly remained behind to accept the situation for what it was and leave before it was too late. Roadways from the Baltic Sea to Austria were now filled with thousands of civilians moving west.

The other migration was moving in the opposite direction: east. Tanks, APCs, armored vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and other military vehicles were pouring out of NATO installations across the FRG and moving east to occupy the wartime positions of their respective units. In some instances, evacuating civilians, and military convoys met on the autobahn, occasionally resulting in large traffic tie ups. For the most part, though, West German police were efficient in keeping the roads assigned to military traffic cleared.

All in all, NATO land units were responding swiftly and with determination to their deployment orders. In some brigades, and regiments records were set for the amount of time it took for the unit to pack up and deploy. The urgency of the moment was not lost on anyone wearing a uniform. Officers, NCOs, and enlisted men alike fell back on their training. Practice alerts were regular occurrences for NATO units based in West Germany. Personnel were recalled to their installations, units packed up and readied to deploy into the field. When the order to move was given, units embarked on road marches to the same locations they would move to in a time of crisis. Individual units trained on, and familiarized themselves with the terrain and features of the areas they would fight from.

In the US V Corps sector, the 3rd Armored Division was seventy percent in the field by 2300 hours. An impressive feat that exceeded the expectations of everyone in V Corps headquarters. For the division commander Major General Thomas Griffin Jr, his unit’s performance was no surprise. 3rd AD was as capable and motivated a combat division as Griffin had ever seen or been a part of during his career. His brigade commanders were all-stars, all of whom would likely command divisions. The junior officers and NCOs all took soldiering quite seriously. They took pride in their unit, its history, equipment, and most importantly, in its role should war come. Spearhead, the division’s nickname, was a word spoken with dignity and reverence at kasernes in Frankfurt, and across Hessen.

3rd AD was V Corps muscle, one of two heavy maneuver divisions assigned to the corps. The 8th Infantry Division (Mechanized) was the other division. But Griffin’s unit was the one that would serve as the sword which the Soviet 8th Guards Tank Army impaled itself on in the Fulda Gap. Griffin was certain that his counterpart in the 8th Infantry probably thought the same thing about his division. To an extent he was right, yet when it came down to it, Griffin fervently believed that his division was the corps most invaluable piece.

At the current time, the majority of the division’s kasernes were empty. Two of its three brigades were fully in the field, the combat elements digging in west of the town of Fulda. The remainder would be emptied out soon enough. Griffin had reported to V Corps commander, Lieutenant General John Woodmansee that the 3rd would be fully in the field by 0000 9 July.

East of Fulda lay the Inner-German Border, and on the other side of it sat thousands of Soviet tanks, IFVs, and artillery belonging to the 8th Guards Tank Army. When the balloon went up, the Soviets would push west, channeling through the valleys and around the mountains that marked the terrain, on the drive towards Frankfurt. It was the terrain that made up the area collectively known as the Fulda Gap, not the actual town of Fulda. In those valleys and from those hills is where V Corps planned to smash the Soviets.

Before that could happen, Griffin needed to ensure that his troops were ready. MPs had set up traffic control points to better control the flow of units heading into the field. Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of vehicles on the roadways was causing unforeseen delays. The section of autobahn between Hanau and Gelnhausen was a green parking lot where a large part of his division’s artillery and third brigade were stuck. Efforts were underway to detour German civilians onto nearby roads and clear the highway, but it was going to take more time than expected. The general needed those units off the road and, if not in the Gap, close to it, by the time fighting broke out. If the MPs couldn’t do the job by themselves, he’d get men in there who could.

As midnight approached, 3rd AD’s commander was certain that his problem was the worst one being faced by any division commander in the FRG. Had he been aware of the issues facing some of his NORTHAG counterparts just then, Griffin would’ve breathed a collective sigh of relief and realized that his problem wasn’t so major after all.

 

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.”

 

USAFE Stands Up 6 July, 1987 (Part 1)

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6 July, 1987 was a day the US Air Force had prepared long and hard for. Every year, at least one Rapid Reactor exercise was held to simulate the swift movement of stateside squadrons to their potential wartime airbases in Western Europe. After years of updating contingency plans, and training, the time had come to reinforce USAFE for real. Following the president’s speech on the night of 5 July, US airbase commanders across Western Europe were taking serious steps to prepare their respective bases for action. Within 24 hours a stream of tactical fighters would be streaming across the Atlantic from bases in the continental US to Europe. Simultaneously, two other resource-intensive events were happening which would directly affect air base operations.

One was the start of REFORGER and the reinforcement of Europe. Added to the flow of combat aircraft would be an endless stream of transport aircraft carrying men and supplies. In some cases, these large aircraft would be landing at the same bases earmarked to receive large numbers of fighters from the US. It was the responsibility of the base commanders to ensure that airlift and tactical air operations could coexist with minimal no hindrance to either.

The second event was the evacuation of US dependents from Western Europe, specifically West Germany for the moment. As per SACEUR’s  Rapid Reinforcement Plan, the evacuation was to begin within 12 hours of REFORGER. The concept was simple in theory at least: Transport aircraft would deliver troops and equipment to Europe and then return to the US with dependents. To augment the departure of US families from the potential war zone, Military Airlift Command had contracted a number of airliners from regional European carriers. The first families to be evacuated, predictably, were those living on or in close proximity to the airbases where the airlift/evacuations were taking place. This had nothing to do with favoritism. It was quite simply a matter of common sense. These mothers and children were closest to where they needed to be. Hence, they would be some of the first dependents placed on westward flights. The evacuation officially began on 6 July, moving smoothly at first. But within 12 hours the first major problems would arise. Ironically, these issues would have nothing to do with the airbases, or the availability or aircraft. It would be the traffic jams on the autobahns that inevitably disrupted the evacuation process. This will be discussed in greater detail in later posts.

The first tactical aircraft to arrive in Europe were F-15C Eagles from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley AFB in Virginia. As per the contingency plans, Bitburg Air Base was their wartime base. Bitburg was already home to the F-15s of the 36th TFW so integrating the new arrivals with the base’s maintenance, and aircraft support personnel and facilities went smoothly. The greatest issue for the base commander at Bitburg was where put all of the additional aircraft. Luckily for him, he had contingency plans available for dealing with this matter too, and the plans were executed almost flawlessly.

Over the next 12 hours similar scenes would be taking place at bases all over the Federal Republic of Germany and neighboring countries as the first contingents of combat aircraft from the US landed. F-4s from the 4th TFW at Seymour Johnson AFB went to Lahr AB, while F-15Cs from the 33rd TFW at Eglin AFB deployed to Soesterberg AB in the Netherlands. As the 6th turned into the 7th and beyond, the number and type of combat aircraft arriving increased dramatically.

Part II of this post will be published Friday and discuss a few of the unique challenges facing USAFE bases and wings as the transition from peace to war was sped up.

 

Group Soviet Forces Germany 6 July, 1987

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When the Commander-In-Chief of Group Soviet Forces Germany (GFSG) General Boris Snetkov informed his aide that he was retiring to his quarters for six hours, he made it clear that he was not to be disturbed for anything short of war. He had gone thirty-six straight hours with no sleep whatsoever and realized that this was simply not acceptable. Commanders needed their rest, especially now. Snetkov smartly decided to take advantage of a quiet period now while he could.

For Snetkov, the past month had been a whirlwind of activity. Shortly after the new General Secretary had assumed his duties in the Kremlin, the Minister of Defense began a reshuffling of senior military commanders. Ousted or transferred were men known to be supportive of, or sympathetic to the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. Snetkov was neither. He was originally scheduled to take command of GFSG from General Lushev in November of 1987. Romanov’s ascent to power changed that and Snetkov took command in early June instead.

From that moment forward he was a general officer preparing his command for a potential war. As June went on, Snetkov familiarized himself with his staff and the commanders of the army groups assigned to GFSG. The more he learned, the better position he managed to take it determining his how ready his command would be if the order to move west came from Moscow. One army group commander had been replaced and Snetkov’s own staff had experienced a moderate turnover. The general was more confident now than he’d been a month ago. There was more work to be done though.

The question was whether or not he would have the time. Frankly, Snetkov doubted it. He did not know for certain what was going on in the Kremlin, but the general had been told to prepare his forces for possible offensive action by mid-July. Even going at the current pace, he was not certain GFSG would be completely ready by then.

At 0300 local time he was abruptly woken up by his aide who then informed Snetkov that the minister of defense was waiting on the phone. The general took a moment to gather himself before nodding to his aide who handed over a bulky cordless phone.

“Boris Ivanovitch,” the voice of Marshal of the Soviet Union and current Minister of Defense Dimitri Yazov came through surprisingly clear.

“Good morning, Comrade Minister,” Snetkov replied, shaking away the cobwebs as best he could.

“Are you at your headquarters right now?”

“No, I am not. Do you need me to go there?”

Yazov paused briefly, considering. “Yes, it would be for the best.”

Snetkov started to get a sickening feeling in his stomach. “Has something happened?”

“The Americans have announced they will begin reinforcing Europe. I will meet with the politburo later this morning and recommend immediate full-scale mobilization. Begin your preparations now, Boris Ivanovitch. If the General Secretary is in agreement with my recommendations your tanks will begin crossing the border in seventy-two hours.”