The early FRG Luftwaffe

I read a book about the history of the (West) German air force in 1950-1970 recently. The corresponding military history book about the army in 1950-1970 was very interesting. I can summarise this Luftwaffe 1950-1970 history book for you:

Nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, *breathing* nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes.
And then some considerations about organisational issues and such, but seemingly mostly about nukes.

Seriously; the two main themes of the Luftwaffe in those early years were the "strike" role  (nuking targets especially in Eastern Europe, primarily using F-104s) and stopping about 95% of all red strike bombers (presumably mostly with Nike Hercules and HAWK missiles, since even F-104G would rarely intercept in time) before they destroyed our strike assets on the ground.
Both were utterly stupid, nonsensical ideas for a long list of reasons each */**.

A single hardware argument sufficed as a knockout argument against both roles at once; ballistic missiles reached their targets with a nuclear warhead at all relevant ranges, and were impossible to intercept under wartime conditions. They were furthermore practically impossible to destroy prior to their launch except with strategic surprise, and aircraft on airbases would have suffered from such an attack even more.

The F-104s, HAWK and Nike Hercules batteries constituted almost the entire combat power of the Luftwaffe by the late 60's, so almost the entire Luftwaffe followed an idiotic design.

This isn't really about hindsight; the basics about ballistic missiles were understood early on. The mistakes made were utterly ordinary and plausible ones:
A Luftwaffe dominated by pilots was able to understand the capabilities of ballistic missiles, but not willing to yield to the conclusions. Second, they were fascinated by the destructive power of nuclear warheads and simply had not thought the whole World War Three thing through.***

The book mentions  that the young new pilots weren't too much irritated when an exercise demanded them to nuke an airfield right next to an East German town. The more mature senior officers may have expected more scruple from them, but they themselves failed to have enough scruple and to think rationally about nuclear warfare at their level. The understanding of nuclear war appears to have remained patchy instead of being clear and calling for clear, sweeping consequences.

In other words: The early FRG Luftwaffe did not serve the people, it was full of shit. We were really lucky that we got through the Cold War alive with such dumb Cold Warriors. I don't even blame these officers; I blame those who allowed such men to be in such positions. More mature men with more analytical minds were needed. The ones who ran the early FRG Luftwaffe were former nazi air force generals and former nazi ace fighter pilots; neither did a good job.

The more history I learn about the Cold War the more I get convinced that the reason for why the Warsaw Pact never attacked wasn't our deterrence, but that the pseudocommunists were not all that motivated to conquer Western Europe to begin with.


*: Strike was nonsense: It was all-or-nothing deterrence, and its employment in actual war would have led to the destruction of the German nation. Ballistic missiles were more reliable means. Ballistic missiles were not dependent on long runways. BMs could be dispersed for survivability in times of crisis or war. BMs were single purpose (de facto nuke only), so they didn't suffer from attrition in a conventional role until used for nuclear strike (quite a concern with the Starfighters). Many nuclear strike targets (and most tactical nuclear strike targets) were on German soil, those missions would have been perverse.
**: Radars of the time didn't reliably detect strike bombers below 1,000 ft, so intercept was nonsense. Strike bombers at Mach 2 and at very high altitude were almost impossible to intercept with the required reliability. Surface-to-air area defence missiles (Nike Hercules, HAWK) were considered the mainstay of bomber interception, but they were easily saturated, due to their de facto or complete static setup easily targeted (similar to what happened to Egyptian SA-6 late in the Yom Kippur War), and the missiles were initially useless below 1,000 ft especially in the hilly Southern Germany. Missile stocks would have been expended in less than an hour of intense defence. Starfighters had a radar, but it wasn't very good and indeed useless against low-flying aircraft at night. There were SAM belt gaps in the north at sea. The SAM systems could be defeated by jamming. Nike Hercules wasn't really effective without using a fallout-producing 2 kt or bigger nuke of its own against incoming bombers. HAWK didn't reach up high enough; all combat aircraft were able to overfly its engagement zone.
The nonsense was clearly to hope for an almost impenetrable shield that would protect the strike assets till they take off to their strike missions. All that SAM belt effort was thus meant to partially compensate for the wrong choice of strike platform; BMs would not have needed that kind of protection. The way to go was to think about air superiority; exchange ratios should have been at the centre instead of '% of strike bombers stopped on their first sortie'.
***: They weren't exactly intellectuals and seemed to have overemphasised the protection of Germany from being a conventional battlefield, at the expense of risking it would become an uninhabitable nuclear battlefield.


  1. I remember reading the Tornado was made to counter the continued allegiance from the yanks to this same doctrine. It provided support for the 'credible' argument that conventional interdiction/strike could be used to draw back tac nukes in operational planning.

    That shows a level of political understanding and courage we aren't seeing at the moment.

    Re your point. It wouldn't gave made any difference in the sixties if the balloon had gone up, even if the Germans had been more 'elightened'. The majority of nukes exploding in poor old Deutschland wouldn't have been fired by Germans. Perhaps some of the vigour you read about was fatalism. Recognise the scale of the problem, how many US nukes would have been used? So what's the difference?

    1. According to the book the Americans actually moved on from massive retaliation since the Cuba crisis, while the German generals kept being focused on nukes, knowing that efforts to turn the Starfighter into a multi-role combat aircraft were doomed.

      I suppose with almost half of the ground troops provided, the FRG should have had leverage. A total destruction nuclear war served no-one, and a mixed conventional/nuclear war would have been lost for sure if the Bundeswehr simply went home, recognising that everyone else is an enemy and nothing but evacuation of nationals made any sense.

      The political grand strategy was Western integration though; the exploitation of such leverage was thus taboo.

    2. I apologise, I looked for a source to affirm what I'm about to say. No joy.

      After the yanks moved from massive retaliation to MAD, all of the tactical and strategic war games resulted in rapid conventional overmatch followed by hasty calls up the chain for delegation of authorisation for mushroom clouds over Allemande.

      In effect, slightly delayed massive retaliation.

      "Are they coming?"
      "Have they broken your line?"
      "Permission for turning continental Europe into a green glowing hellpit of death?"
      "Permission granted"

      I remember listening to one of those think-tank discussions that are uploaded to youtube where this was echoed. Good background noise for when I'm at my desk. I tried to find it. Apologies, I can't locate it. So treat this accordingly.

      Cut through the nuance. I do not believe a limited exchange is possible. Especially if accompanied by a full-on conventional spearhead. If a couple of tac nukes go off in poor old Deutschland the whole world will be glowing green before that day is done. I don't think that would be any different in 1962, I don't think different now.

      I'm not saying your book isn't counter to my understanding of what I imagined, lazily, west German starfighter pilots to be. My point is I can't imagine that would have done more than shorten the tenure of modern humanity by more than a couple of minutes.

      Side note. I've been rewatching, relistening really, to "fall of the eagles", the amazing BBC series from the 70s. Its on youtube. It carries the certain type of absolute startegic ineptitude we are witnessing at the moment. It didn't end well last time. I don't imagine it will this time either. Give it a go. A couple of episodes at least. Its worth it for Curt Jürgers as Bismarck if nothing else.

    3. One could go much beyond the conventional approaches used by NATO and venture into Raumverteidigung and mobile mechanised forces too small and too nimble for proportionate nuclear munitions employments.

      You could even go so far as blowing up Rhine bridges in Cologne yourself so the Soviets don't do the same with a 150 kt nuke (with Cologne as collateral damage).

      I suppose the problems with NATO's Cold War approach to deterrence and defence were that they were terribly fascinated by nuclear firepower, but too lazy to become truly innovative, thinking outside the box in response to Soviet nuclear munitions.

      The way to go was to offer hardly any targets worthy of nuclear attack, and to still offer a formidable non-conventional resistance to invasion, blockade and bombardment.

      The Austrian Spannocchi was a much more impressive thinker than all but maybe one NATO general IMO.

  2. I would make the same argument about conventinally tipped ballistic and cruise missiles vs CAS/BAI and attack aircraft in the context of a European war were one to break out today. The difference is, SAMs now (particularly sensor agnostic ones) are getting on for survivable as BMs and would be a worthwhile investment.

  3. Just a by the way, but I remember Ken Estes over on TN describing a military exercise in 1981 in which US Army AH-1s posing as Hinds flew under the radar and hosed-down SAM and radar sites in W. Germany essentially unopposed.

    1. They did something similar with Apaches in 1991, but such stunts weren't even necessary. The Soviets had figured out effective standoff-jamming by the 70's. HAWK and IHAWK were of little use against the WP, and Nike Hercules had marginal military relevance.

      Radar-based SAMs only appear to have a decent track record against forces that just had the bare bones equipment. They failed against forces that knew the SAM system intimately (such as the Brits knew HAWK and Roland in the Falklands War) or had the ability to mount a combined arms effort / strike package.

      The irritating thing about this is that SAMs and MRAAMs are barely distinguishable nowadays. MRAAMs may be less lethal today than Sparrow was over Vietnam!

    2. The Argentines didn't have HAWK. The SAMs they had were Blowpipe, SA-7, Tigercat and Roland. I believe they had one Roland launcher in the Falklands which shot down one Sea Harrier. It was subsequently captured intact.