Late in the morning of D+17, a Soviet Victor II class attack submarine, one of the few remaining Soviet nuclear subs in the North Atlantic stumbled across a large formation of US Navy surface ships one hundred and seventy miles northwest of the Faroes. The formation was steaming north at thirteen knots. The captain of the Victor II maneuvered his boat as close in as possible and examined the ships through the periscope. He counted over twenty ships of various types and sizes. Frigates, guided-missile destroyers, amphibious assault ships, and even an Iowa-class battleship! He would not have been surprised to discover an aircraft carrier lurking on the far side of the formation either.
The submarine captain suspected this group was a heavily-escorted amphibious task force steaming north towards the Norwegian coast and probable employment there. There was no way to confirm or deny his suspicions and in any event that was not his mission. After twenty minutes stalking the formation and logging ship types and numbers, the Victor II slipped away from the enemy group and sprinted east, intent on putting as much space between itself and the enemy as possible. Just before noon the sub came up to periscope depth, raised its antenna and transmitted a short burst message. Then it went deep and scrambled south for an hour before turning northwest to catch up to the enemy ships again.
The message arrived at the Red Banner Northern Fleet’s headquarters around 1230 local time. Fleet commander Admiral Ivan Kapitanets received a copy of it less than ten minutes later. He was satisfied to see that at least one of the submarines that were surged into the North Atlantic back in early July was still in place and doing its job. The contents of the message, on the other hand, caused his mood to sour at immediately. Days ago, unconfirmed reports from the KGB and GRU about an alleged US amphibious task force gathering in the North Atlantic had appeared. With no corroborating evidence to back up the words, and with the situation closer to home becoming more critical, Kapitanets had all but forgotten about the phantom task force. But now its presence had been confirmed, and more disconcerting was the fact that these ships were steaming north. To land reinforcing troops in Norway? Or perhaps conduct an amphibious landing on Soviet soil.
The possibility was too reckless to even consider. Not even the Americans were that crazy, Kapitanets judged. Enduring US and NATO air attacks on Soviet soil was bad enough, but the prospect of US Marines landing on Kola beaches would send the Kremlin into a blind rage. At that point anything was possible.
The thought remained in Kapitanets head as he considered the problems this latest report would bring for him. At present, he had to contend with defending the ballistic missile subs in their bastion and keep the American carriers at bay. When the opportunity to strike them with land-based bombers presented itself, he planned to hit them with every available airframe. But now this new threat was moving into the picture and the harsh truth was that Kapitanets only had enough combat power left to direct against one or the other. Not both.
To make matters worse, the admiral would not be allowed to decide which target held the higher value, both politically and militarily. That was Moscow’s responsibility to determine. If given the opportunity to voice his opinion, Kapitanets wasn’t sure which way he would lean. Right now, the aircraft carriers sitting in his backyard was the obvious answer. But aircraft and ships, despite their capabilities, could not directly threaten Soviet territory by themselves. US Marines, on the other hand…..