The world was changing fast by 1964. Nikita Khruschev had been removed by a communist party coup in October of that year and replaced by hard-line Leonid Brezhnev, President Johnson had taken power in the US after the assassination of Kennedy, and Britain was now governed by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. The conduct of the Cold War was also changing. The Cuban Missile Crisis had shown the real dangers of the confrontation and each side appeared to agree that tensions needed to be relaxed. The mid 1960s to the end of the 1970s became known as the period of Détente; (French for relaxation of tensions) between East and West. For a period, tensions did calm between the superpowers and a number of arms control agreements were settled or started. Yet the Cold War was far from over, and its focus was shifting away from Central and Eastern Europe and toward the Third World states of the southern hemisphere. The forces of communism were spreading in areas of South East Asia and the focus of US defense policy was to be focussed intently for the next 10 years on containing communist expansion from Vietnam and its neighbours.
Greenham remained practically unused as an airfield in the years that followed which also coincided with the closure or rundown of other USAF bases in Britain. SAC no longer maintained operational bases exclusively for its use as it had done since 1951. However, events in Europe meant that the rundown of USAF bases in Britain was only temporary. In 1966, aptly on All Fool's Day, French President Charles De Gaulle made an incomprehensible step of cutting French military involvement in NATO and expelling all US military bases that remained in France. De Gaulle set a deadline that all US forces must leave the country by April 1969. France played host to a number of logistics and supply bases including Chaumont, Toul Rousiéres, Chateauroux, Evreux, Dreux, and Laon. Instead, the US Department of Defense set its own deadline to remove forces from its nine bases and decided to leave by April 1967 in what was known as Operation FRELOC (for French Relocation). Some units were moved to West Germany, others were disbanded and many came to British bases including RAF Alconbury and Mildenhall.
The increased pressure and aircraft on British USAF bases meant that other bases had to be found for various uses. In January 1967, Greenham and RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk were brought back into American use. The base was used as a storage site for the Air Force, manned only by a small number of personnel far smaller than that of its 1950s and early 1960s SAC days. It then came under the charge of the 7551st Combat Support Squadron, serving as the sister site to the huge USAF ordnance storage complex at RAF Welford, near Hungerford until its control passed to the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at Upper Heyford in May 1970. During this period, many of the personnel working at RAF Welford lived in the accommodation at Greenham.
During these years, the base was used as part of a number of exercises. These included the annual REFORGER (Re-enforcement of Germany) NATO exercises. These served as training for the reinforcement of West Germany by mainly US Forces on a huge scale in the event of Warsaw Pact hostilities against NATO members. Huge numbers of troops would be flown in by transport aircraft from the US and would be parachuted into areas of West Germany. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 demonstrated how this might be necessary. The invasion caused a major NATO alert as it seemed the invasion my have been a prelude to an attack on Romania or West Germany. A small hospital unit was established at Greenham during this time. Mostly though, the base was maintained by a mainly British skeleton support staff.
The base was put to an unusual use in 1972. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was at the height of his purge of foreigners in the country and many fled to the United Kingdom. A number of refugees were housed in the then empty barracks on the base just left off the main gate.
From 1973, the base became the venue for many years to come for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund's Royal International Air Tattoo. The first had been held at the Essex airfield of North Weald in 1971 and moved to Greenham in 1973. This charity event was established to assist those RAF personnel who were now approaching retirement age from wartime service. At first, this air show was held every two years, but became annual after 1977. At each Tattoo, air forces from many NATO members would arrive at Greenham to give flying and static displays of their planes and helicopters. The base saw many interesting visitors and aircraft we can now only dream of seeing fly,often over 200 aircraft attending. Visitors included RAF Vulcans, F-104 Starfighters, Lockheed Constellations, Lightnings, Javelins, Hunters, F1-11s, F4 Phantoms, and even on occasion, the mach 3+ SR71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet.
RAF Vulcan and... US Navy F-14 Tomcat At the 1976 Air Tattoo celebrating the American Bicentennial. Courtesy of Mike Carpenter.
In 1976, the runways at RAF Upper Heyford had to be resurfaced which meant that its F1-11E bombers would have to find a new home during the three months the work would take. Greenham Common was not a vast distance from the Oxfordshire home of the F1-11s and was chosen as the temporary base to host planes, crews, and support staff. From March until June, the runways were once again aglow to the roar of jets. The arrival of the F1-11s also meant that their load of B-61 nuclear bombs also had to be sited at the base. This did not present any problems as the storage igloos from the original SAC deployments of B-47s remained on the west end of the base. Soon however, the aircraft and many of the support staff returned to Upper Heyford and for a brief period, the base returned to standby status.
An F1-11 blasts its way out of its home base of RAF Upper Heyford (UH)
Greenham Common was about to hit the headlines over plans by the Third Air Force. In April of 1977, the Third AF started informal discussions with the British Ministry of Defence for a plan to fully reactivate Greenham with a force of at least 20 KC-135 tankers as part of an expansion of the European Tanker Task Force. At the time, RAF Mildenhall was already pushed for space and Greenham had a good runway and better facilities and location than other possible bases. In August 1977, work began to extend and refurbish the runways and taxiways. Local people guessed that something big was about to happen at Greenham. Plans for the reactivation were officially announced in February 1978 and led to a storm of protest among local people. A local pressure group was formed to oppose the reactivation. Locals claimed that the KC-135 was one of the loudest aircraft in the Air Force that would cause disturbance to Thatcham which had become a large residential area since the SAC deployments of the 1950s and early 1960s. Plans were even made to send a letter to President Carter.
Eventually, British Secretary of State for Defence, Fred Mulley decided to reject the reactivation in May as it would mean tanker aircraft would have to fly very close to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and concerns that some aircraft might stray over it with serious safety implications. In the event, a home for the tankers was found at the former SAC base of RAF Fairford which had been largely redundant since the RAF withdrew in 1971.
New details soon emerged though that the base might become a site for the TR1 reconnaissance aircraft formerly known as the U2. A news report in August 1978 claimed that Greenham Common was one of three bases the USAF was considering using deployment of 15 planes from the 1980s. Mildenhall saw periodic use by reconnaissance planes from 1979 where the TR1 was used for a few years. In the event however, Greenham was not chosen as the TR1 base and the aircraft were eventually deployed to RAF Alconbury.
The end of the 1970s represented turbulent times. It was becoming clear that the Soviets had actually used the relative quiet of the Détente years to rearm, greatly expand and modernize its armed forces. The Western world found itself in a period of economic stagnation following the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. Consequently, its armed forces faced either cutbacks or little in the way of modernized equipment. Unlike the Warsaw Pact states, NATO equipment was rarely interoperable or in any way standardized. The US found itself increasingly reluctant to intervene in trouble spots following the conclusion of the Vietnam war. The Soviet Union however was, in many ways at its very peak of world influence and was supporting several waves of communist activity in the third world which came to be known as "the arc of crisis" (from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan). Most alarmingly from all this was that Soviet nuclear strength had moved from rough numerical equality with the US in 1970, to an outright superiority by the mid 1970s. Among the new weapons they deployed was an intermediate range ballistic missile named SS-20 by NATO. From October 1977, the Soviet Union was deploying this 2,500 mile range mobile missile in ever greater numbers.Western European cities (and possibly North America) also lived under the shadow of the new Tupolev Tu-22M BACKFIRE jet bomber which could carry a nuclear payload to Western targets at supersonic speeds. NATO faced a serious threat against which it found itself increasingly poorly able defend against or respond to. Western European leaders called upon the United States respond to these new military, and what were to become intense, political issues.
Mobile SS-20 missiles carried up to 3 warheads Tupolev TU-22m "Backfire" bomber