The Backfire attack on Keflavik accentuated the importance of the facility, and of Iceland as a whole, for both sides. The Russians were not going to be able to successfully fight a naval war without Iceland being knocked out of action for an extended period of time. For NATO, mounting a successful defense of the North Atlantic without Iceland would be extremely difficult, but not impossible. The timing of the first attack also underscored the emphasis the Russians had placed on closing Keflavik air base down. The early morning air raid on 9 July cannot be considered a smashing triumph or defeat, though it did provide useful lessons for both sides to consider and apply to future operations.
For the Russians, the bombers that made up the Keflavik attack force took off from bases on the Kola peninsula and detoured far northwest before making the turn south into the Norwegian Sea. The longer flight time had a significant effect on fuel consumption and ordnance loadouts. Instead of each Backfire carrying a pair of AS-4 missiles each as the mission profile called for, they could only carry one. The reason for the dogleg in the mission course was simply that the battle for air superiority over northern Norway had not begun by that time. If the bombers had been able to cut across northern Norway it would’ve cut flight times, given them a greater fuel reserve, and allowed the Backfires to carry two ASMs each instead of one.
Of the original thirty Backfires to launch, two had to abort because of mechanical and avionics issues. The remaining twenty-eight approached Iceland from the north and northeast, spread out on a line one hundred and eighty miles wide, divided into seven flights of four aircraft each. US Air Force E-3 Sentries patrolling over central Iceland and off the northern coast detected the bombers and directed F-15s on combat air patrol to intercept the nearest bombers. Warnings were flashed to Keflavik and the remaining F-15Cs of the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron were scrambled. Surprised by the swift NATO reaction, the Russian mission commander did not waver. He ordered his bombers to increase speed past Mach 1 sooner than he’d planned to. The moment the bombers reached AS-4 range, they popped up, launched their missiles and then turned back to the north, in many cases with Eagles in pursuit.
When all was said and done US fighters claimed eight Backfires and five AS-4s. Of the remaining twenty-three missiles only seven impacted inside of the base perimeter. The amount of damage done was not overwhelming, but three missiles did impact the air bases runways, causing damage which would take some time to repair. Keflavik was closed during the repair time.
For the Russians, it was clear that air superiority over northern Norway would be required for sustained bomber operations in the future. Once this was accomplished, larger raids could be sent south against Iceland, NATO convoys at sea, and, most importantly, against the US carrier groups that might be steaming north at that very moment. The sting of Keflavik’s defending fighters also left an impression. Long Range and Naval Aviation commanders would ensure that future raids had accompanying ECM aircraft if available.
In the Norwegian Sea on the first day of war, the major NATO naval maneuver was the movement of STANAVFORLANT northeast to a position closer in to the central Norwegian coast. From there, the multinational collection of frigates and destroyers could better provide support for the convoys carrying the equipment of Royal and Dutch Marines. These would begin arriving in the area early the next day. SACLANT decided on the move after reviewing the progress of the air battle over northern Norway. Casualties were extremely heavy there, and he was anticipating the Soviets gaining air superiority over the area for a 24-36 hour period of time. Should that come about, the air threat to NATO ships in the Norwegian Sea could double for a period of time. STANAVFORLANT’s ships could contend with both air and sea threats.
SACLANT’s third major concern on the first day of war was keeping the location of his carriers concealed. The Forrestal battlegroup was approaching the mid-Atlantic. Eisenhower was a day and a half behind, and Kitty Hawk three to four. Until all three carrier groups were present in the pre-determined staging area, they’d remain under EMCON in an attempt to keep their presence hidden. To avoid the RORSAT satellites searching for them from high above the earth, the carriers undertook periodic course changes whenever a Russian satellite was expected to be overhead. Thanks to USAF efforts early on 9 July, F-15s armed with ASATs were unleashed against some RORSATs in orbit. Two out of three targeted birds were destroyed, giving NATO convoys and carriers in the North Atlantic a brief respite.