D+4 began on a somber note for SACLANT. Word reached Norfolk at 0040 hours that HMS Invincible had sunk in the North Sea. The damaged baby carrier had been moving on her own power towards Scotland when she suffered a massive explosion, began taking on water, and rapidly developed a severe list to port. At that point, her skipper, Captain Michael Gretton, RN, ordered Invincible to be abandoned forthwith. Twenty minutes later ‘Vince,’ the pride of the Royal Navy, slid beneath the waves.
Scotland-based Nimrods, and the carrier’s escorts killed the Charlie II SSGN responsible for striking Invincible on D+3, but it provided little solace. The loss of the British carrier, and the ASW helicopters she carried, put a hole in NATO’s anti-sub screen from the Faroes Islands to Scotland. With convoys headed to Norway, and Strike Fleet Atlantic slated to transit the area in the next thirty-six hours, SACLANT now faced a dilemma. His original plan had been for Invincible’s task group to ride herd on the flank of the carriers as they move north, providing effective, mobile ASW coverage out ahead of them. That plan was all but buried now, and staff officers in both Norfolk, and Northwood were feverishly trying to come up with a new one.
Invincible’s untimely departure also created a coverage gap in the North Sea. Soviet submarines were active in the area attacking shipping, and oil platforms in the opening days of the war. Land-based Nimrods, and the Invincible group had managed to kill four enemy subs in the North Sea alone before the Charlie II struck. For the time being, defense of this body of water would be taken up by the frigates, and destroyers of the Dutch, Belgian, and British Royal Navy until another British carrier could become available.
To the west of the Faroes, NATO’s ASW forces were starting to shift south of the GIUK line. US Navy P-3s from Iceland, and British Nimrods out of Scotland continued to patrol the line, supported by a task group of ASW frigates and destroyers. Assets, especially the MPAs though, were becoming needed to support the Europe-bound convoys as they approached areas where Soviet attack subs were expected to be waiting.
Under no conditions did SACLANT intend to use the S-3 Vikings on board his carriers to support the convoys. The three US, and French carrier battlegroups comprising Strike Fleet Atlantic would remain sheathed for as long as possible. NATO’s doctrine for fighting a war at sea was no secret. His Soviet counterpart was under no illusions about the role US carriers would play in the coming days and weeks. At some point they would be moving north into the Norwegian Sea. According to the intel reports on SACLANT’s desk, the Soviets were already fortifying the Norwegian Sea for that contingency.
The timing was SACLANT’s to decide. In order to confuse the Soviets, and keep them off guard, Strike Fleet Atlantic’s northern transit included a number of abrupt speed and course changes. If a Bear, or RORSAT detected one of the carrier groups, or more, heading in any direction except north, it could plant questions in the Red Banner Northern Fleet’s mind about NATO’s intentions.
The carriers had been moving north for just over eighteen hours. From every indication, the Soviets had not yet caught on. A RORSAT pass was scheduled for 1700 Zulu. Despite the effort against the Soviet satellites, a handful remained functioning, and there were reports that two new ones were being moved to the launch pad at Baikonur in the coming days. The US Air Force had only two ASAT missiles remaining in its inventory, and was reluctant to use them against another RORSAT bird. SACLANT exchanged words with CINC-TAC over this, and the argument moved up the chain of command. Ultimately, it was settled by Secretary Weinberger. The remaining ASATs would be squirreled away until a high-value target presented itself in low-earth orbit.
The E-2C Hawkeyes aboard the carriers remained on the flight decks or inside the cavernous hangars. USAF E-3s operating from Iceland, and now the UK, provided the radar coverage for instead. The Sentries were staked out at locations that provided maximum coverage for the strike fleet, without revealing clues as to carrier positions. Quartets of F-14 Tomcats sat connected to the catapults aboard each one of the US carriers. On Foch, the birds were F-8 Crusaders. If Soviet aircraft were detected, the strike fleet had fighters prepared to defend it, but only as a near last resort. Even that afternoon, when the Bears were out searching for convoys, and Backfires were downbound, the Tomcats and Crusaders remained on deck.
The submarine threat was a different story. S-3s and LAMPS helos patrolled the inner, and outer perimeters of the carrier groups, dropping lines of sonobuoys, and lowering dipping sonars into the water. COMSTRIKFLTLANT’s nightmare was his carrier groups stumbling across the path of an undetected Soviet attack sub. The submarine transmits a report to Murmansk, and then fires off its anti-ship missiles at the nearest flattop. He was ferociously determined to protect his ships from detection and attack by Soviet subs and bombers for as long as possible.
The Europe-bound NATO convoys, on the other hand, were a different story.