Cold War Era

40 years ago, NATO aircraft operated on German autobahn: the story of the biggest exercise to date to use a highway as improvised airfield

NATO aircraft land on German autobahn

Forty years ago, in 1984, NATO aircraft conducted a multi-national exercise that assessed the alliance’s ability to use specially prepared sections of the German autobahn as emergency airstrips.

According to US Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Facebook page, using concepts similar to today’s Agile Combat Employment (ACE), the West German government created 23 different sections of autobahn that could be converted into airstrips within twenty-four hours. This included making easily removable guardrails, burying electrical and telephone lines near the strips, and creating areas where NATO forces could establish command and support capabilities needed to operate an airstrip.

These airstrips could serve two purposes. First, if the Warsaw Pact destroyed NATO airbases in West Germany, the autobahn airstrips could serve as backups. Second, the airstrips could give NATO the airfield capacity to handle additional aircraft in West Germany in the event of a war with the Warsaw Pact.

HIGHWAY 84 Exercise

HIGHWAY 84 Exercise put one of these strips to the test. A section of the A29 near the city of Ahlhorn, Lower Saxony (in northwestern Germany, near the former RAF Ahlhorn) had just been completed and had not been opened to traffic. This was the perfect opportunity to test one of the autobahn strips without causing too much inconvenience to West Germans.

Over the course of several days, West German, American, British, French, Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian, and Danish aircraft took turns landing, refueling, and rearming on the prepared airstrip. The exercise gave NATO members a chance to practice using the airstrip while also proving the airstrip’s ability to handle a variety of aircraft including F-15s, F-16s, F-104s, A-10s, C-130s, French Mirages, and British Tornados. Airfield operations specialists installed temporary lighting, communications, and other systems for the exercise.

The ACE concept

The idea of using highways as emergency airstrips was not new in 1984 and has continued since. USAF A-10s have since practiced highway landings not only in Estonia, but also in the US within the framework of the ACE concept.

In April and May 2023 in fact MC-130J Commando II, an MQ-9 Reaper, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs aircraft and MH-6 Little Bird helicopters landed and took off on Highways 287 and 789 in Wyoming. On Jun. 29, 2022 instead A-10 Thunderbolt II, U-28A Draco and C-146 Wolfhound aircraft landed on M-28 one of the longest, flattest straightest highways in Michigan. The exercise featured several firsts including the first time a US Air Force aircraft had weapons (in the form of AIM-9 Sidewinders, JDAM bombs, AGM-65 Mavericks, rockets and targeting pods) loaded on a public highway. The weapons used in the exercise were inert. A-10s performed a similar training exercise in August 2021 on highway M-32 near Alpena. Moreover, A-10 aircraft from the Michigan National Guard previously landed on highways in Haapsalu, Estonia during exercise Saber Strike 18.

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Also, the Swedish and Finnish air forces routinely practice landings on sections of their highways. However, HIGHWAY 84 was NATO’s biggest exercise to date to test the idea and was a successful proof of the concept.

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and NATO

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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