The start time for Sixth Fleet’s planned airstrikes on the Soviet amphibious group in the Black Sea had been pushed to 0500 in order to coincide with other NATO air attacks set for the early morning hours. Kennedy’s airwing, with it’s two A-6 Intruder squadrons, was tasked to hit the Soviet amphibs. CVW-17 off Saratoga would strike the port and refinery facilities at nearby Burgas on the Bulgarian coast at the same time. The US carriers had repositioned themselves north of Crete shortly after midnight in order to reduce the distance to the target area for the shorter-legged Corsairs.
NATO reconnaissance and EW aircraft tracked the progress of the Soviet ships through the night and early morning. The data obtained was fed to the Sixth Fleet carriers and the air wing staff updated the mission planning on an almost constant basis. Not very long after midnight, the course of the enemy formation had shifted, causing some alarm on the carriers. It appeared the Soviet ships were no longer heading towards Varnas, as originally believed. Their new course would put them off Turkish Thrace by mid-morning at the latest, raising the prospect that an amphibious operation against the Bosphorus was 12-15 hours away.
The Soviet amphibious group was estimated to consist of two dozen ships, give or take. Fifteen of these were amphibious assault ships carrying troops and equipment for a naval infantry regiment. In some instances the ships were holding more men and material than was considered safe. However, in wartime, rules such as this were often bent. The remaining ships were escorts. A mixed-bag of modern and obsolete warships specializing in ASW or AAW. Passive monitoring by NATO aircraft had identified three Krivak I class frigates, one cruiser of either the Kara or Kresta II class, one Kashin class destroyer, as well as two unidentified ships.
The squadrons of Harpoon-armed A-6E Intruders from Kennedy made up the sledgehammer which Sixth Fleet planned to use on the Soviet ships. Owing to maintenance issues and previous battle damage, the Intruder squadrons would launch eight Intruders each. Four EA-6B Prowlers, with their powerful jammers, would stake themselves out ahead and on the flanks of the strike group. ARM-equipped A-7E Corsairs were positioned 50 miles ahead of the Intruders and were tasked with knocking back the radars of the Soviet ships once they went active. Covering this intricate ballet would be two squadrons of F-14 Tomcats perched overhead. While all of this was going on, Sara’s airwing was tasked with striking the port facilities at Burgas, along with the nearby Neftohim refinery, a target that had been hit only twice before by NATO aircraft, and remained fully operational.
The first aircraft were launched off the flight decks of Saratoga and Kennedy promptly at 0500. The respective carrier air wings formed up and headed northeast towards their target areas. As they approached, other NATO aircraft from bases in Turkey and Greece began to hit their own targets across Bulgaria. Soviet and Bulgarian air defense forces and MiGs threw their attention at these efforts, allowing the US Navy aircraft a fairly quiet, but still tense, transit northeast. As they approached the Bosphorus and the entrance to the Black Sea and entered the coverage of GCI stations in southeast Bulgaria, at least a few Pact air defense commanders realized what was going on. A moderate number of remaining MiGs were scrambled to meet the threat, and warnings were broadcast to the Soviet ships in the area.
In the end, the warnings mattered little, proving to benefit the US pilots more than anything. Upon receiving the communication, the commander of the Soviet amphibious group ordered his escort ships to activate their radars to provide a clear picture of the airspace around his ships. What it did was provide the Americans with a clear picture of the formation. It was not long before the Prowlers activated their jammers. Next came the volleys of HARMs and Shrikes launched by the Corsairs, permanently knocking out the radar receivers on four Soviet ships, and causing some catastrophic shipboard damage.
Behind the anti-radiation missiles came the Harpoons. Of the thirty-two launched by the A-6Es at max-range, twenty-eight remained. The boosters on two of the anti-ship missiles failed to ignite and they dropped into the ocean below. Another pair malfunctioned while in flight, straying off course and coming down a good distance away from the Soviet ships. Of the remaining missiles, six were destroyed by SAMs fired by the Soviet warships, and three others were fooled by electronic countermeasures. The rest found targets. As was the case with their Baltic Sea counterparts, the sailors of the Black Sea fleet learned first-hand just how deadly Harpoon missiles could be against amphibious assault ships with minimal air defense capability. Eleven amphibs were Harpooned, with eight of them sank in minutes. Two others stayed afloat for a while longer, giving the crews and embarked naval infantry the opportunity to abandon ship. The other damaged amphibious ship, a Ropucha class vessel remained seaworthy. Two frigates, a destroyer and cruiser also fell victim to the Harpoons with half eventually sliding beneath the waves.
The battle was a clear victory for the US Navy and hammered home the need for land-based aircover to accompany surface warships when there are no aircraft carriers available. This lesson was learned perhaps too late in the conflict to benefit the Soviet Navy, and it came at a terrible price in men and ships.