The Northern Flank was a geographic area that the Soviet military regarded as being vital to its war plans. Northern Norway was of especially significant value. Securing it, or neutralizing the NATO airbases located there was essential to the defense of the Soviet homeland, as well as the Soviet Union’s ability to fight a naval war in the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. Since the 1950s Moscow had designs on disrupting NATO’s Northern Flank early on in a war. These plans evolved over the years to include or rule out amphibious assaults, commando raids, limited overland assaults, and the use of nuclear weapons. By 1987, the Soviets had put together a comprehensive, periodically updated operational plan for contending with the Northern Flank. The opening phases relied heavily on airpower.
Soviet air activity over the Kola Peninsula and Barents Sea steadily became pronounced in the early hours of 9 July. NATO did not yet have the benefit of AWACS support in Northern Norway, but the array of radar and early warning stations in the region provided a relatively complete photograph of the air situation until mid-morning when enemy jamming measures took effect. Of particular interest were two large formations of Soviet aircraft moving northwest over the Barents. Both had taken off from airbases on the Kola. Judging by the speed, altitude, and other characteristics, the first group of twelve radar contacts were thought to be Tu-16 Badgers. The second group, made up of twenty-six contacts, appeared to be Tu-22 Backfire bombers. Their plotted positions, and courses made it clear that Norway was not the target for either group.
The bombers proceeded northwest, farther out into the Barents, before finally making turns that placed them on southern headings. Soon afterwards, more aircraft were detected taking off from airbases on the Kola, and massing over the southern Barents. These aircraft appeared to be tactical fighters. The Commander Air Forces Northern Norway (AIRNON) was becoming anxious. On his own authority he issued orders to scramble fighters from airbases in his area of operations. The Norwegian general feared this was the start of a concentrated effort against Norway.
He was right.
Hostilities began in earnest on the Northern Flank with Soviet air attacks across the region. Tu-16 Badgers struck the NATO communications station on Jan Mayen causing significant damage, while the larger force of Tu-22 Backfires hit the NATO airbase at Keflavik, Iceland. In Norway, two waves of strike fighters, primarily made up of MiG-27 Floggers and Su-17 Fitters, spread out to attack airbases and radar sites in the north with heavy jamming and fighter support. The initial Soviet theater objective was to close the northern Norwegian airbases for a extended period of time. These air bases were essential to NATO’s planned defense of Norway, however, and the alliance intended to defend them fiercely.
Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s, supported by a limited number of RAF Tornado fighters rose to challenge the intruders. A series of fluid air battles broke out over northern Norway and raged through much of the morning. Losses were heavy on both sides and though damage was inflicted on a good number of airbases and civilian airfields from Kirkenes to Bardufoss, none were permanently knocked out of action. But the day was not over yet. After licking their respective wounds, and evaluating which weapons systems and tactics worked and which ones didn’t, the battle would pick up and increase in intensity later in the afternoon.
Like its sister service, the Royal Norwegian Navy had its hands full on the first day of war. The fast attack craft (FAC) assigned to Naval Forces Northern Norway (NAVNON) as well as the majority of Norwa’s diesel submarines, were heavily engaged through the morning and early afternoon hours. From the deep fjords in the North Cape area, missile armed fast attack craft slipped out out to search for and locate the Soviet amphibious task force expected to be moving southwest to the Norwegian coast. When they encountered Soviet fast attack craft, it was believed these ships made up the outer screen of the amphibs. NAVNON didn’t realize until mid-afternoon that the Red Banner Northern Fleet’s main amphibious group was still positioned farther east in the Barents Sea. It would not make its presence felt for at least another thirty-six hours.
As described in a previous entry, Soviet and Norwegian fast attack craft and diesel submarines fought a running battle from Kirkenes to Akkarfjord. The Norwegians lost four out of seven ships and the diesel submarine Utsiera was damaged by a torpedo dropped by an Il-38 May. The sub’s skipper managed to surface his ship and get the surviving crew members off safely before scuttling her. Soviet losses were slightly higher. Six fast attack craft were sunk, with all of them falling victim to the very effective Penguin anti-ship missile. Two Foxtrot class diesel submarines were lost as well. By mid-afternoon both sides had retreated. Smaller engagements continued throughout the remainder of the day, but none of these were as intense as the day’s earlier battles. By the evening hours, NAVNON’s inability to locate any sign of major Soviet combatants led SACLANT to hand responsibility for that mission over to NATO nuclear attack subs operating in the area.
Farther south, naval activity was limited to a cat and mouse game between Norwegian frigates and Soviet diesel submarines. Around 1500 a Tango class submarine managed to fire a pair of torpedoes at a Norwegian frigate south of Narvik. The torps missed and the Tango scurried off, beginning an intensive three hour search that yielded nothing. AFNORTH was reluctant to allow the Norwegian frigates to move too far north. NAVNON was in need of help, but until the Soviet surface groups were located, AFNORTH did not want to push additional naval assets north, especially with the air situation unresolved.
Round two of the air battles over Northern Norway resumed a little after 1500 with a fresh wave of Soviet airstrikes aimed again at airbases in that particular geographic area. Once more, Norwegian F-16s and RAF Tornados rose to defend. Their numbers were significantly reduced from what it had been earlier in the day. To be fair, the number of Russian aircraft was also less, but the Russians had more aircraft and pilots to spare. Banak and Bardufoss airbases received most of the attention, and subsequently, much damage. Both had been targeted earlier in the morning too, and damage from those first strikes had not yet been fully repaired. Banak remained open- just barely. Bardufoss had to close temporarily in order to allow repairs to its taxiways and runway.
Allied airpower in Northern Norway had inflicted heavy losses on Soviet air units, but the success came at a price. Of the forty Norwegian F-16s and twelve Royal Air Force Tornados committed to the air battle that morning, only six Tornados, and half of the F-16s remained. The Soviet 76th Air Army had suffered significantly heavier losses. Twenty four MiG-23s, thirty Su-17 and -22 Fitters, twelve Su-24 Fencers and eight MiG-25 Foxbats.
AIRNON saw the writing on the wall. Without quick replacement of his losses, NATO would suffer a strategic defeat with the loss of air superiority over northern Norway. At the current pace, it would happen within the next thirty-six hours. Unfortunately, AIRNON’s superiors were reluctant to commit any of the squadrons tasked with the air defense of central Norway to the north until more reinforcements arrived. Convoys carrying the equipment of British and Dutch Marines were approaching their intended ports of disembarkation and AFNORTH wanted to ensure there was sufficient air cover available to protect those ships from a sudden Backfire or Badger raid.
In the early evening AIRNON’s screams for help were partially answered. Grudgingly, a contingent of additional Norwegian F-16s and NF-5s was chopped to his command. Behind these reinforcements, though, little remained in the pipeline, and it did not appear the operational tempo over the north was going to slow down anytime soon.