AF GLCM and Its Role in the INF Treaty

(The untold stories)




Richard Kleckner

AAFM Mbr SA017


The United States Air Force’s Land-based Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) and its role in The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty are now just memories.  Unlike other weapon systems such as the B-52 ‘Buff’ bomber or the F-4 ‘Phantom’ fighter, GLCM ‘Gryphon’ missile was in service but for a short eight year period.  Its life was literally cut short by INF Treaty; December 8, 1987 to May 31, 2001.  GLCM was not scrapped due to obsolescence, it was eliminated by treaty and cut up and sold for scrap metal.  GLCM and the INF Treaty are truly significant firsts in the annals of U.S. history.  Their stories have never been told and should be.  Like December 7, 1941, the date of December 8, 1987 becomes just as important a date in history.  The 8th was chosen very carefully for its importance, but not to take away from the 7th; The Day of Infamy.  One date brought us into war and the other may have prevented war; a “No-Win” war.


There was much written and vocal opposition, in both the United States and Europe, casting doubt on support for the cruise missile concept.  Whatever information the average American got about GLCM came from the evening news; and, it told only the smallest part of the story.  Many people feared that the deployment of modern North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) missiles would lead to a nuclear war, even though the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR or Soviets) had initiated the nuclear forces modernization process.  Few people realized, then or now, that GLCM was a deterrent that accomplished its mission simply by being on alert.  Eventually, most people got used to the missiles being there and got on with their daily lives.  The inevitable nuclear war’ did not occur and people soon realized that an arms control agreement was actually possible.  By bargaining from a position of strength, the U.S. and its NATO allies forced the Soviets into meaningful arms discussions.  The weapons that were thought could provoke a war had helped to prevent one.  Thus, from its design to elimination, never was one fired in anger.  Had a European war occurred, however, the missile would have performed a vital role by releasing piloted aircraft for other missions. 


The Soviets had always proclaimed a ‘no first use’ policy regarding nuclear weapons.  However, their air and ground forces had trained extensively in the use of such weapons for years.  Short range missiles, rocket launchers, and nuclear artillery rounds had been deployed by the Soviets since the 1950s.  The picture changed dramatically by the mid-1970s.  A modernization of nuclear forces began, but an overwhelmingly conventional advantage remained.  Three new Soviet weapon systems came on line.  The TU-26 ‘Backfire’ bomber, the SU-24 ‘Fencer’ attack aircraft, and most destabilizing of the three, the multiple warhead SS-20 ballistic missiles (BM).  The delicate NATO/WARPAC (Warsaw Pact) balance of power was seriously eroded, bringing about a crisis within the NATO Alliance. 


It was the SS-20 that NATO experts feared the most; a modern replacement to the SS-4/5s Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM).  The new missile used solid propellant instead of volatile liquid fuels.  It carried a payload of three warheads,

instead of one, and was very accurate.  From launch sites located in western USSR, the SS-20’s 4,500km range put every point within Europe at risk.  Furthermore, the SS-20s were a mobile system.  This made locating and destroying them very difficult. By replacing the SS-4/5s with the SS-20, the Soviets had more than doubled the number of warheads directed at NATO.


In light of the emerging nuclear threat, the NATO Alliance was faced with a difficult decision.  Since NATO nuclear forces were primarily air delivered, they were at grave risk on vulnerable air bases.  Clearly a survivable deterrent force of mobile missiles was needed to redress the imbalance.  Aside from the military threat European governments also realized that the new SS-20 missiles posed a grave political threat to the Alliance.  European ‘fringe’ political groups could be influenced by Moscow to oppose a rearmament plan.  If some leftist groups could gain more influence, the basic structure of the Alliance could possibly collapse. 


In late 1977, then West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called the United States to respond to the crisis.  In January 1979, leaders of Britain, France, and West Germany agreed to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to deploy the Army’s Pershing II ballistic missiles (1800km) and the GLCM missiles (2500km) in Europe.  Another part of the proposal called upon the Soviet Union to begin ‘meaningful’ discussions with the United States aimed at eliminating all intermediate range missiles in Europe.  In December 1979, the ‘two-track’ proposal was unanimously approved by the NATO leaders.   Politically, the deployment would clearly show U.S. resolve and commitment to NATO.  Also, each host country would be seen as sharing the defense burden.


The Air Force’s GLCM BGM-109G Gryphon was a modified version of the Navy’s Tomahawk built by General Dynamics Convair Division in San Diego, California.  The Gryphon missile was different from the Navy’s in several ways.  It was fitted with the new W84 nuclear warhead and a new inertial navigation system (Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation, or DSMAC) coupled to the Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM) system.  Support equipment, particularly the Transport / Erector / Launcher (TEL) had to be designed and built.  European bases had to be located and permanent facilities constructed, taking into account missile, site security, and range requirements.  A total of six Main Operating Bases (MOBs) were selected; two within the United Kingdom (501 & 303Tactical Missile Wings (TMWs)), one within Sicily (487TMW), one within Belgium (485TMW), one within Germany (38TMW), and one within the Netherlands (486TMW).  In addition to the military considerations, there were serious political implications in choosing a base.  It was not acceptable to put all missiles in one country, since NATO wanted to show a common front towards the adversary.  Five nations agreed to host GLCM, but some only with great reservations and intense national debate.  


The United Kingdom agreed to the largest number; and, with only moderate protests.  On the other extreme, The Netherlands delayed the decision and tried hard to get out of accepting any; and, severe protests were raised.


The Gryphon missile was prepackaged in an aluminum canister with a frangible (fly-through) seal; the prepackaged unit was called an All Up Round (AUR).  The missile was fueled, pre-targeted, and could remain sealed within the canister for months without requiring maintenance.  Each TEL carried four AURs, with four TELs and two Launch Control Centers (LCCs) forming a combat flight.  Both the TEL and LCC were hardened against nuclear and chemical effects as well as small arms fire.  The deployment plan called for 29 flights dispersed among the above mentioned host countries.


Under normal operations, Quick Reaction Alert was maintained in the GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area (GAMA); a hardened facility located at each MOB. At a higher state of readiness, each combat flight was dispersed into the countryside in convoys of 22 vehicles and some 70 personnel.  Many of the dispersed personnel comprising the flight were specially trained Security Police.  Every member, however, was trained in the use of an M-16 automatic rifle and had a backup security function.  The Flight Commander was the senior missile launch officer and had the overall responsibility for the security and combat readiness of the flight.  Making extensive use of camouflage and other deceptive measures, the flight would then await the order to launch.  Well equipped with various communication systems (HF and UHF radios, and AFSATCOM satellite systems), the flight was self-sustaining and prepared for every contingency.


This overriding concern for security was well founded.  The Soviets were known to employ special ‘diversionary troops’ (SPETSNAZ) much like the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets).  These highly trained and well disciplined soldiers were responsible for covert infiltration and destruction of high value NATO assets, assassination of political and military leaders, and civilian targets like television or radio stations.  In wartime, SPETSNAZ troops would have sought out the combat flight and attempted to destroy it by any means possible.  To prevent this, U.S. Army Special Forces units acted as SPETSNAZ forces attempting to locate a dispersed GLCM flight and aggress it.  Of the numerous occasions that these units were used to aggress, they were unable to accomplish their mission.  Often these units sustained serious ‘casualties’ at the hands of the GLCM security forces and with nominal damage to flight assets; and, never to a ‘critical‘asset (TEL or LCC).


Had a launch order been received, the four missile launch officers (two per LCC) would have decoded the message, authenticated it and fired the missiles.  With the 2,500km range, GLCM could strike virtually any target within western USSR, including Moscow.  Because of its high speed and flight profile, the GLCM, once launched, was extremely difficult to locate and destroy.  It was also very difficult to   locate and destroy the GLCM while on base in the GAMA, and most especially once dispersed into the field.  It became very clear to the Soviet leadership that they could be safe only through negotiations. 


The Soviets agreed to bargain in good faith, eventually giving up three weapon systems (primarily the SS-20) to NATO’s one under the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; an unparalleled accomplishment in the history of U.S. / Soviet relations.


On December 8, 1987, in Washington, D.C., the late former President Ronald Regan and then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty into effect between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics bring about the elimination of a complete class of nuclear missiles; Intermediate and Short-range.  This accord became a momentous historic event due to its being the first time the U.S. and Soviets agreed to actually reduce their nuclear arms rather than simply placing limits on their growth.  Ratification and start of the treaty was June 1, 1988.


The INF Treaty covered U.S. and Soviet land based nuclear missile systems with ranges from about 300 to 3,400 miles (500- 5,500km).  Immediately the treaty banned any further production or flight-testing of INF designated missiles and their specialized support equipment (TEL, LCC and Training Devices).   It called for a three year draw-down of all deployed critical assets (Missiles, TELs, LCCs, and related training devices).  This treaty seriously limited the threat posed by the six MOBs located within the NATO host countries during the three year draw-down period.  By the treaty implementing this course of action, production of INF missile systems ceased and the ability to deploy, store, and repair basically ceased until all Treaty Limited Critical Items had been eliminated.  This virtually eliminated the use of production facilities and the GLCM bases for any other use for thirteen years.  The treaty’s duration was from June 1, 1988 to May 31, 2001; the three year draw-down of missile systems and ten years of future inspections.  To me, this revealed the true fear that the Soviets had that NATO have used the recently completed GLCM facilities for some other weapon system at a future date.


After treaty ratification (June 1, 1988) U.S. and Soviet INF Treaty Inspection teams began conducting inspections once the comprehensive ‘critical assets’ database (by serial number and quantity) was developed and base-lined.  This database, or baseline, was called the GLCM INF Treaty Tracking System (GITTS).  Every step in the elimination of ‘critical assets or treaty limited assets’ was done under the careful scrutiny of the Soviet Inspectors; and, U.S. Inspectors of Soviet same items.  At treaty set scheduled intervals over the three year draw-down, these treaty limited assets were flown out of Europe on Air Force C-5s / C-141s to transports to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona’s Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC).  Each MOB's electronically GITTS maintained inventory automatically was updated with each departure.  The Weapons System Logistics Officer (WSLO) initiated action for the GITTS system to report by asset and serial number (SN) those items departing.  This system produced an Official Message (for Wing Commander signature) and automatically updated the database.  Each departure’s Official Message triggered the informational movement through a network to the State Department.  MOB departures and AMARC arrivals each had only 48 hours the reach Soviet Officials.  If exceeded, a treaty infraction would occur that could negate the INF Treaty.




In brief, GLCM was designed, built, and deployed (some would say… field tested while deployed for mission) with one primary purpose.  It was intended to show the Soviets that the U.S. and NATO were committed to force modernization and also to arms reductions.  By committing hundreds of millions in dollars on hardware and base facilities, this alliance made it clear that GLCM was not a ‘short-term’ fix that the weapons would be in place for and extended period of time.  It can again be said that GLCM was a ‘political pawn’ a bargaining chip to force the Soviets into arm discussions.  Based upon the Carter ‘two track’ proposal of 1979, the viewpoint is an accurate one; but does not entirely tell the story.  I believe that two examples of Soviet anxiety can be put forth for consideration.  One would be that Soviet leader-ship had a deep appreciation of GLCM’s capabilities and were forced to commit exceedingly more monies for defense that led to their ultimate bankruptcy.  The second would be, that upon ‘Treaty Entry Into Force’ ( 1 Jun 88) the U.S. and Soviets agreed to destroy their missiles over a period of time (3 yrs.) subject to ‘on-site’ inspections by the other side.  The Soviets sought and received an additional ten years of these on-site inspections by their teams in order to negate any possibility of the U.S. and NATO to use recently completed GLCM facilities to support any future use for any other weapon system.  Can it be said that they feared the bases equal to or more than the hardware?  It should also be noted here, that the Soviets attempted to get the British and French intermediate range missiles included in the INF treaty; even though the treaty was between the Soviets and the U.S.  However, when the treaty was ratified there was no mention of these missiles.


On May 1, 1991 an historic milestone was reached by the INF Treaty, The United States Air Force destroyed the 445th and final BGM109G ‘GRYPHON’ missile.  His milestone occurred a full thirty days in advance of treaty requirements… and on the Soviet’s May Day Parade.  By May 31, 1991, all U.S. and Soviet missiles would be destroyed!  On May 31, 2001 a small two to two and one half paragraph article appeared in the back pages of the Daily Oklahoman stating some insignificant treaty between the U.S. and, no longer, Soviet Union had expired.  Is this a fitting end to an historic event?  I THINK NOT!!!