The North Atlantic D+12 (21 July, 1987) Part II


The last confirmed sighting of the Baku/Kirov group came at 2200 hours on D+11 from a British Nimrod, putting it 75 miles east of Bear Island and steaming southeast at eighteen knots. After transmitting the report, the British maritime patrol aircraft disappeared. When the information reached Strike Fleet Atlantic’s commander, he ordered two of the attack subs serving as part of TF 20.5’s advance guard to break off and head north to join the search effort.  The search for the Soviet force continued into the early morning of D+12. The efforts were passive instead of active, essentially limited to listening and watching for electronic emissions that could give away the location of the Soviet anti-carrier group.

The Soviets were out searching for their prey this morning as well. As the NATO carrier groups converged on their rendezvous area a complete EMCON blanket remained in effect. No emissions, or communications, and no aircraft were launched. The precautions were necessary to help keep the NATO carriers hidden from prying electronic eyes.

TF 20.5 and 21.3 both reached the rendezvous area around 0920 hours. The groups never came within visual range, keeping a 30-mile separation. This was close enough to provide mutual support, and assistance if needed. Officers moved via helicopter between the two groups as they turned north. Strike Fleet Atlantic’s commander held a short conference aboard Mount Whitney to map out the plans and objectives for the next two days. The first was to find and kill the Baku/Kirov group. Put simply, it was the last major Northern Fleet piece remaining on the board. It had to go before a major campaign against the Soviet ballistic missile submarines, and targets on the Kola Peninsula could start.

Going on the data obtained in the last day or so, the Soviet force was comprised of the aircraft carrier Baku, nuclear powered battlecruiser Kirov, and up to ten escorts. The escorts included at least four cruisers. Kirov’s capabilities were well known, but Baku was largely a mystery. It was the latest of the Kiev class aircraft carriers and had been undergoing sea trials when the crisis began. The Soviets wasted little time preparing the carrier for active service and when the shooting started, Baku was ready. Unlike the previous Kiev’s, Baku was heavily modified according to intelligence sources. It carried a phased array radar system, and SA-N-9 surface-to-air missiles in vertical launch cells, replacing the SA-N-3 and SA-N-4 SAMs onboard the previous ships in the class. This change allowed room for two or three additional SS-N-12 Sandbox launchers to be installed. Whether or not these were presently onboard was unknown. Baku’s airwing was no different from its sister ships.

By this time, a relatively good idea of the group’s general location was known. Strike Fleet Atlantic’s commander decided the time had come to put a medium-sized Sierra strike up and take a chance. If the attack force found the Soviet group, and inflicted some damage, it would be followed up by a larger, more expansive Sierra strike encompassing the attack birds of two full carrier air wings later in the day.

Eisenhower’s air wing was tagged for the first attack. An E-2C Hawkeye would provide radar coverage and coordinate the mission. Ten A-6E Intruders armed with Harpoons, and eight A-7E Corsairs loaded with HARMs made up the strike force. EA-6B Prowlers would ride in with the strikers and provide jamming while a squadron of F-14s escorted the entire strike force. The Tomcats were armed with Sparrows, and Sidewinders. No Phoenix missiles would be carried since using them against Yak-38 Forgers would be a waste of ordnance that could be better employed on Backfires and Badgers.

The strike took off and headed northeast. The last known position of the Soviet force put it between Bear Island and the North Cape. It didn’t take long for the E-2 and Prowlers to start picking up signs of emitters, and even ship-to-ship communications. Helpful, but not enough to paint a detailed picture of the target. It was at this point that the Sierra strike received a bit of help from friends who wear dolphins.

USS New York City, a Los Angeles class attack submarine, was one of the subs that moved north from TF 20.5 around midnight. The sub had found the Soviet group earlier in the afternoon and was tracking it, as ordered. She radioed the data in, and it was immediately transmitted to the commander of the inbound airstrike who was aboard the E-2. SUBLANT ordered the attack boat to keep shadowing the Kirov/Baku group, transmit post-strike BDA, and then move in to conduct her own attacks.

The strike went off flawlessly. The Intruders popped up and fired their Harpoons before turning back for the carrier. The Corsairs and Tomcats continued in. F-14s splashed the four-plane CAP and AEW Helix the Soviets had up, but not fast enough to prevent one of the pilots from transmitting a warning to the carrier before dying. As more Forgers rose from Baku, air-search radars aboard the carrier, and some other warships were activated. The Tomcats orbited just outside of SAM range, baiting the Forgers to come to them. As this developed, the A-7s continued charging in. Now that radars were coming on, the Corsairs had targets. They fired off their HARMs, and then turned for home. The Soviets were able to get off some SAMs at the retreating Corsairs though and two aircraft were downed.

As more Soviet equipment came on, including powerful ship-based jammers, the radar pictures were becoming a mass of confusion and bedlam. Controllers aboard the Hawkeye, and loitering Prowlers could see SAMs coming up from the Soviet warships and watched as the first wave merged with the Harpoons less than 10 miles from the main formation. It was unclear what Harpoons were impacting ships, and what ones were falling to SAMs and CIWS guns before reaching their intended targets. Three ships were definitely hit, and two of the symbols were no longer visible on the screens. But it was impossible to determine exactly which ships had been damaged or sunk. That would come later in the afternoon when New York City was able to transmit more accurate BDA.

The carrier aircraft were returning to Eisenhower as Forrestal turned into the wind and started a launch cycle. More Hawkeyes, Prowlers, and Tomcats went up, establishing patrol stations, and a heavy BARCAP. Subtlety was pointless. The Soviets knew Strike Fleet Atlantic was in their backyard now and the Backfires would be coming soon. How soon depended on a host of intangibles.

It was nearly impossible to launch and recover so many aircraft quietly, and the Soviets were searching, and hunting as determinedly as their American enemies were. A Tu-95 operating west of Bear Island had caught some of the radio chatter. It descended to just under 200 feet and moved south, searching for the source of the traffic. Unbeknownst to the Bear’s crew, they were also trailing the last flight of A-7s back to their home deck. This fact was not realized until they were approaching the outer ring of TF 20.5. The silhouette on the horizon unmistakably belonged to a US Navy destroyer.

The Bear’s crew activated the radar and climbed, broadcasting a detailed report over open airwaves until an SM-2 from USS Scott exploded it. The news reached Severomorsk within minutes and shortly thereafter, the alert regiment of Backfires was preparing to launch.

6 Replies to “The North Atlantic D+12 (21 July, 1987) Part II”

    1. No way. Kuznetsov came a couple or years later. Or do you mean Admiral Gorshkov, because that’s what they re-named Baku after the Union broke up.


  1. Well then.

    Cat is out of the bag now. Backfires now have to hope the US/French flattops don’t have a heavy CAP up.

    Fat chance of that not happening.

    I stand by my prediction…. so time to make popcorn. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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