Driving through Germany these days, one frequently encounters abandoned runways surrounded by huge, camouflaged, and “hardened” aircraft shelters. Their concrete walls and heavy sliding doors typically are painted a dark green, matching the colors of the surrounding countryside.
Future generations may well wonder how and why these relics came to be scattered across Europe. What was their purpose? The answer is that, in the 1980s, those massive shelters housed and protected thousands of sleek fighters that lay at the core of United States Air Force strategy in Europe.
Exactly what would cause the Soviet Union to attack Western Europe was never clear. What was only too clear, however, was that the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact had deployed powerful offensive forces along the inner German border, held a huge numerical advantage, and kept improving its capabilities.
The airpower community spent a lot of time in the 1980s planning for a war in Central Europe, because airpower would play the key role in the outcome of an East-West conflict. In 1988-89, I produced a classified study for RAND Corp. titled, “Basing Uncertainties in the NATO Theater.” It was recently declassified, and some of the material presented here comes from it.
NATO sought to deter an attack by maintaining powerful military forces that could, if deterrence failed, blunt the thrust close to the border (a German priority) while keeping the conflict at a conventional level. NATO reserved the option to “go nuclear” to further complicate Warsaw Pact decision-making and bolster deterrence.
Defending the border region was a daunting prospect. Land forces usually prefer to fall back and trade territory for time, but West Germany could not accept any strategy that accepted a Soviet thrust—however brief—into its national territory.
Vulnerable to Sheer MassNATO forces arrayed along the border possessed very little operational depth, particularly after France withdrew from the Allied military command in 1966. The distance from the inner German border to Belgium, Holland, and the English Channel was, at its shortest points, only about 350 miles.
To help redress this imbalance of land forces, the United States pre-positioned huge masses of equipment and war materiel on the continent. Commercial airlifters would fly in troops to link up with this equipment. Commanders planned to bolster the forward forces with three divisions in the first week, followed by a division a week after that.
Control of the air would also enable airmen to re-role their flexible fighter forces to conduct ground attack operations aimed at blunting the Soviet armored spearheads and reducing the flow of enemy forces to the front. In addition, some elements of the airpower fleet could be held in reserve to execute nuclear strikes should NATO choose to escalate.
By denying NATO control of the air, Warsaw Pact ground forces could utilize their larger mass of armor to smash through the outnumbered NATO ground forces and drive to the English Channel.
The Central Region air forces were divided into two Allied Tactical Air Forces or ATAFs, established in 1952: 2 ATAF in the northern half of West Germany and 4 ATAF in the southern half.
The division of the airspace into two zones might have made sense for slow-moving ground operations, but for air operations, it was a serious weakness. A seam ran down the middle between the two ATAFs, which one senior commander characterized as “a brick wall.”
There were force imbalances as well. USAF F-15s scheduled to reinforce central Europe were dedicated to 2 ATAF, and, within 2 ATAF, they were concentrated in the Netherlands.
Doctrinal differences were also present on both sides of the “brick wall.” British airmen believed communications channels would be disrupted very quickly in the opening phase of the war, and the individual air bases would have to operate independently. Aircraft would have to rely on low-level flying to evade defenses and reduce losses. As a result, 2 ATAF believed in a more decentralized approach and an operational style that required minimal coordination.
The Air Force accordingly embraced operations with integrated defense suppression, and so 4 ATAF placed a greater emphasis on centralization and coordination.
Passive and ActiveTo stymie Warsaw Pact efforts to cripple Allied airpower, NATO embraced a two-pronged strategy—use of passive defense and use of active defense. Passive defense comprised measures to reduce airbase vulnerability. Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when the Israeli Air Force caught the Arab air forces on the ground in a well-coordinated attack, NATO air forces made the decision to “harden” their airfields. Concrete was deemed much cheaper than aircraft.
Planners feared Soviet use of tactical ballistic missiles to pin down air defense aircraft, followed by a wave of attack aircraft to wreak further havoc on the airfields. Additional threats included chemical attacks and Soviet Special Forces. NATO believed the latter would be inserted before the Warsaw Pact offensive to sow confusion and attack key facilities on airfields.
Every year, USAF conducted so-called “Rapid Reactor” exercises to familiarize US-based squadrons with wartime beddown locations. For example, F-15Cs from Eglin AFB, Fla., would proceed to Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands, while the new F-15E Strike Eagles out of Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., would use Lahr AB, Germany, as their combat base.
In terms of active defenses, NATO forces fielded thousands of short-range surface-to-air missile batteries and guns in the forward area with longer-ranged Patriot, Hawk, and other SAMs farther in the rear. Interspersed within the longer-range missile engagement zones were fighter engagement zones manned by both dedicated air superiority aircraft and multirole fighters.
After a time, the air defense forces would be told to go “weapons tight” to avoid shooting down any NATO aircraft that may have been streaming across the border. A complex network of corridors, altitudes, aircraft speeds, and identification, friend or foe (IFF), electronic systems would be used to prevent so-called “friendly fire” incidents. How well the forward forces’ firing discipline would hold, however, was a major concern.
USAF planned to augment its forward-based forces with Stateside aircraft. In the plan, USAF’s total fighter force—approximately 3,700 operational aircraft, or more than 50 wings—would be allocated to various regions in the event of a general European conflict.
The encounter would no doubt have been the most epic air battle in history.
The key unknowable was the opening move. Post-Cold War disclosures of the details of Soviet war plans reveal Soviet intent to launch an early nuclear strike against Western Europe. Typically, however, the plans show the Warsaw Pact assuming a NATO “first use” of nuclear weapons, meaning that the pact strike would be classified as retaliatory—and thus less controversial to include in a war plan.
Would the Soviets have actually gone first—that is, have launched a surprise strike with nuclear weapons as the opening move? If so, all the vast array of planning, force buildup, and so on for conventional conflict could have been largely immaterial as nuclear weapons detonated across the European continent.
If Moscow had gone nuclear, would NATO have responded with its own nuclear riposte? NATO fighters were armed with so-called “dual key” nuclear weapons provided by the United States, while Britain, France, and the US maintained their own independent nuclear forces.
Whacking the PactThe Warsaw Pact air forces would have suffered grievous losses. Western air forces have consistently excelled at air-to-air combat, and NATO believed its equipment and training were superior to the Soviets’ rigid procedures.
Warsaw Pact losses would not permit more than a few days of such operations. No doubt the NATO air forces would have suffered attrition as well, from both enemy and friendly fire, but not to the same degree as that suffered by the pact. NATO would likely have gained control of the air quite quickly.
Although enemy strikes would certainly have disrupted NATO operations at several locations for a period, the Warsaw Pact would have been unable to generate the weight of effort required to cripple NATO air operations.
When it came to ground targets, the decision would be further complicated by issues concerning the depth of the strike operation. Should NATO airpower strike deep to interdict enemy forces approaching the battle area, or strike closer to the border against forces engaged with NATO’s ground forces?
One has to question the actual effectiveness of NATO air strikes against airfields and armored forces, given what we have learned from later wars. In the Gulf War, for example, the real difference-makers were the aircraft delivering precision weapons—F-117s and F-111s. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the USAF combat force in Europe could deliver precision guided bombs, and the Allies possessed even fewer.
The Western air strikes would still have disrupted significant parts of the Soviet follow-on armored echelons. From the battles of World War II to operations in Iraq, armored forces that have come under air attack were severely degraded. Actual tank losses may not be high, but the disruption caused by fear, road blockages, and running for cover dislocates time tables severely and undermines morale.
By interdicting onrushing armor formations, pressure on NATO ground forces could be kept in check, enabling the Allies to defend the border. Elements of these new systems were just being deployed when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The analysis of the air campaign produced several lessons.
Second, modern airpower was the most strategically and operationally agile element of US military power and was the only element that could be brought to bear quickly from American territory. The Air Force planned to deploy 25 fighter wings in the same amount of time that its airlift force moved only three United States Army divisions. Once in theater, these aircraft could also be shifted from one battlespace sector to another (providing that the 2 ATAF and 4 ATAF split did not get in the way). USAF’s airlift and Civil Reserve Air Fleet also provided strategic agility to the Army.
Fortunately for all involved, the Allied military forces were never put to the test, but the odds of success probably were better than even, perhaps much better.
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