During the Cold War, the prospect of war with the Soviet Union forced NATO to consider drastic measures to keep planes flying in wartime, including using stretches of the famous West German Autobahn as temporary airstrips. The destruction of friendly airbases would have sent aircraft such as the mighty A-10 Warthog and West German Alpha Jet onto freeways to continue their mission of destroying Russian tanks.
This Air Force news video, taken in 1984, shows NATO forces temporarily using a stretch of the West German federal highway system, also known as the Autobahn, as an airstrip for a variety of aircraft. The video shows American A-10 Warthogs and F-16D twin-seater jets, as well as West German , close air support aircraft, and all taking off and landing from the 7,000 foot stretch of highway.
All in all, 370 aircraft used the temporary airstrip without problem, although one U.S. Air Force officer says the Autobahn was a little narrower than regular military airstrips. The Autobahn was fully converted into an emergency airbase, including the installation of visual approach and takeoff lights and the presence of a temporary control tower, firefighting and ambulance services, radar, and refueling equipment. There are also brief shots of what might be air defense guns or missiles on the highway shoulder, but the video is fuzzy. It would certainly make sense they were there, but it would also make sense to hide them.
The extreme volume of firepower in Cold War Europe meant fixed locations such as air bases would have been subject to repeated attempts to shut them down. Air base crews would have struggled mightily to operate around the clock, all while down enemy aircraft, fill holes in the runway, scrub away lethal nerve agents, and prevent enemy commandos from overrunning the base. Distributing air power across the country to smaller, less conspicuous airfields was a smart backup option.
The video says the exercise took place near Alhorn in northern Germany, probably near the Alhorn NATO air base. , at the time Alhorn was host to a detachment of A-10s from the U.S. Air Force’s 81st Tactical Fighter Wing. (Today Alhorn is an , although it appears it would be relatively simple to convert it back to a military air base.) Just a half mile west is the , the location of the temporary airfield.
NATO no longer practices highway exercises as much as it used to, but that is slowly changing as Russia’s aggressive stance on the alliance’s eastern flank has the alliance worried. In 2016 four A-10s to takeoff and land. A handful of other countries, including Finland, Sweden, and Singapore still practice turning highways into airstrips.