You are Army Lieutenant Jack Raker, leader of a platoon of five M60A3 tanks in U.S. 3d “Spearhead” Armored Division stationed at Ray Barracks, Friedberg, West Germany. In the fourth decade of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, your unit is part of U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR), the American ground forces component of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). USAREUR’s mission is to be prepared to engage and defeat any attack on West Germany by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies should the Cold War suddenly turn “hot” in central Europe.
Your division’s area of responsibility includes Fulda Gap, the most strategic portion of south-central West Germany. The gap is a traditional east-west invasion corridor of “tank-friendly” terrain running from the border of East Germany (the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact ally) 70 miles southwest to Frankfurt, West Germany. Like all 3d Armored Division combat units, your platoon has been assigned a defensive position to occupy immediately in the event of an alert.
At 1 a.m. this morning, the division was suddenly placed on the highest alert level. As you have done in many previous training exercise alerts, you quickly drew ammunition, refueled your tanks and led your men in a several-hour road march to their assigned location near the village of Schenklengsfeld.
At 6:15 a.m., any hope that this was merely another training exercise vanished when a rolling barrage of artillery fire swept over your platoon’s position. Fortunately, you took no direct hits and your “buttoned-up” tanks suffered no damage.
Moments ago, however, you opened the commander’s hatch and observed three Soviet T-72 tanks followed by two BRDM armored vehicles approaching. Although the T-72s are comparable to your M60A3s in armor protection and firepower, the BRDMs’ machine guns pose no threat to your vehicles.
Your tanks outnumber the Soviet tanks 5-to-3, and you are confident that your crews’ well-honed gunnery skills will make short work of the enemy. Yet you realize this is only a small reconnaissance force and that it no doubt is moving in advance of a Soviet tank or motorized rifle division.
Since an overwhelming enemy force will soon arrive, you must quickly make a crucial tactical decision and determine what to do after your tanks destroy the recon force.
WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, LIEUTENANT RAKER?
ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION
What prompted the Soviet Union’s leaders in the Kremlin to start an all-out war with NATO by invading West Germany is not your concern right now. The stark reality facing your tank platoon is that the invasion for which NATO forces have trained for decades to oppose has begun. Now, you must rely on your training and judgment and the skill and motivation of your Soldiers to respond to the enemy attack.
Your platoon is in a good tactical position to engage and quickly defeat the reconnaissance force. However, you know from studying Soviet fighting tactics and organization that following some distance behind this small force will be the lead elements – tanks, armored fighting vehicles and infantry – of an enemy tank or motorized rifle division. In fact, you know from NATO intelligence gathering that you are most likely facing Soviet 8th Guards Army, composed of a tank division, a tank brigade and three motorized rifle divisions.
NATO’s plan to defend West Germany is based on defense in depth – i.e., several echelons of combat units, beginning with those closest to the border, like your tank platoon, and extending into the country’s interior. This strategy aims to slow and attrit the invading forces as they fight their way through the defending echelons, there by giving NATO commanders valuable time to gather reserves and reinforcements with which to launch major counterattacks to defeat the invasion.
At the platoon, company and battalion levels, however, the unit commanders must decide what specific combat actions and maneuvers to take based on their unique tactical situations.
POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION
After engaging and destroying the Soviet reconnaissance force, you will have two possible courses of action:
The first option is to remain in place and defend your position against the main enemy attack force for as long as possible. Although massive numbers of Soviet tanks and infantry eventually will overwhelm your platoon or force it to retreat, your men can significantly delay the attack and thereby help give U.S. and NATO commanders the time they need to gain control of the overall battle.
The alternative is to withdraw to one of the secondary company assembly areas designated in the division war plan and attempt to join up with other units in the company. This would preserve the platoon’s fighting strength and allow your company or battalion commander to consolidate combat forces to create a more powerful defense against the enemy’s lead elements. However, this also initially would permit the Soviet forces to proceed unhindered in your sector. Moreover, you have no way of knowing the status or even the exact location of the other units in your battalion.
PLATOON LEADER’S ORDERS
You decide that your tank platoon will make the greatest contribution to 3d Armored Division’s overall defensive effort by remaining in its assigned position for as long as possible after destroying the enemy recon force. Although you risk losing some – or possibly all – of your tanks and crews, engaging the main Soviet force is absolutely vital to disrupting the enemy’s timetable, thereby giving USAREUR and NATO commanders the crucial time they need to prepare and launch counterattacks to defeat the invasion.
Speaking into the radio, you address the platoon: “Gunners, when I give the order to fire, engage the T-72s first and then shift fire to the BRDMs. After the recon unit has been destroyed, we will prepare to engage the main Soviet force from our current position once it arrives.”
You then shout, “Gunners, fire!”
Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of the must-read book “7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution: The Founding Fathers, Liberty and the Struggle for Independence” (Casemate, 2013).
HISTORICAL NOTE: During the nearly half-century-long Cold War (circa 1946 to December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed), the military forces of the United States and its NATO partners were organized, equipped and highly trained to respond instantly to a Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany, such as the one depicted in this hypothetical tactical situation. Fortunately, no invasion ever occurred, although there were several periods of heightened tensions in which the Cold War could have escalated into armed conflict.
ACG dedicates this article to all U.S. military personnel who served in the defense of freedom during the Cold War.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Armchair General.