30 years past: 20th FW role in Victor Alert

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kelsey Tucker
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Thirty years ago, the first of November marked the end of the decades-long nuclear stalemate between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union.

For 28 years, forces on both sides of the Cold War stood vigilant against threats from the opposition.

During that time, the 20th Fighter Wing, based in England – first at Royal Air Force Wethersfield, and then RAF Upper Heyford – was a part of the mission known as Quick Reaction Alert, more commonly known as Victor Alert. Their job was to provide tactical nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice, providing targeting options in Eastern Europe and deterring Soviet forces from concentrating conventional forces and firepower.

“This was more of a deterrent than anything,” said Christopher Koonce, 20th FW historian. “Just to show them ‘hey, we’re here if you want to start trouble. We can handle it.’”

To retain their mission-ready status, crews remained on alert for 72-hour periods, prepared to take off within 15 minutes of an alert order.

Aircraft remained fully loaded with nuclear weapons, fueled and ready to go, said Koonce. Nearby in the alert facility aircrews slept, ate and remained for their alert shift. If the call ever came to deploy the weapons, all they had to do was run out the door, get on the jet and go.

Even though that call never came, the crews still had to practice to keep their skills sharp. Crews participated in drills where they would scramble as though it were a real-world situation, but before takeoff the nuclear weapons would be removed and returned to storage. Afterward, the pilots would fly as the mission directed.

“The Fulda Gap was the big thing during that time frame,” said Koonce. “All of the exercises, everything had to do with that – the Russians going and taking over Western Germany and moving across Western Europe like a plague.”

According to a March 1987 Los Angeles Times article, a key point of defense against the Soviet threat was the Fulda Gap in West Germany. The gap was pinpointed by NATO planners as a likely invasion route into Western Europe; there the United States maintained nearly 250,000 troops, part of a larger NATO force of about 990,000. These forces were poised to face off against more than 1 million Warsaw Pact personnel.

Though Victor Alert officially ended Nov. 1, 1986, today’s aircraft such as the F-16CM Fighting Falcon and F-15E Strike Eagle still retain the capability to arm nuclear weapons if necessary to combat today’s adversaries.

Editor’s Note: Information from March 2011 Air Force Magazine article Victor Alert by Rebecca Grant was used in this story