In late July and early August of 1987, naval threat facing the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet and the Kola Peninsula had broadened to involve a potential amphibious assault on Soviet territory. The Northern Fleet no longer had the capability to challenge Strike Fleet Atlantic symmetrically. Most of the fleet’s major warships were, by this time, in their final resting places at the bottom of the Norwegian Sea. The remaining few had been tasked with defending the SSBN bastions in the northern Barents Sea. Thus, Northern Fleet did not have the surface assets available to offer battle on a grand scale.
In this dark hour, Severomorsk turned once again to the long-range bombers of Naval Aviation and Long-Range Aviation as its primary weapon to defend the homeland. It was of little significance that by this time the Backfires and Badgers had failed in each previous attempt to smash the US Navy carrier fleet. Desperate moments demand bold action, even if slightly repetitive.
On the morning of D+24 Naval Aviation and Long-Range Aviation boasted approximately seventy-three long range bombers available for combat operations on the Kola Peninsula; fifty Tu-22 Backfires and twenty-three late-model Tu-16 Badgers. With the exception of a limited number of aircraft earmarked for strategic attacks against targets in the United States in the event of further escalation, and a handful of aircraft remaining in the Black Sea and Pacific areas of operation, every operational Tu-22s remaining in existence was concentrated at bases on or near the Kola Peninsula.
With the enemy operating relatively close to the Kola at this point, the Backfires and Badgers were not limited by fuel constraints and could carry two anti-ship missiles each. With the gauntlet of F-14 Tomcats and SAM-equipped warships defending the enemy carriers, the surviving Backfire and Badger crews needed every advantage they could get. Carrying two Kitchens or Kingfish might prove to be the decisive factor. The American missiles, radars and ECM was excellent, Soviet bomber crews had learned first-hand. But they could be defeated.
When Severomorsk received orders early in the morning to prepare for a major bomber attack against Strike Fleet Atlantic, the aircrews at the airbases hosting Backfires and Badgers were hardly surprised. They’d been expecting such an order to materialize at any time. What they were not aware of at the time was that the original orders from the Kremlin specified both conventional and nuclear ordnance be used. This section of the orders was purposely left out by Marshal Akhromeyev. Romanov was informed it would take some hours to locate and track the enemy carriers. The plan of attack could not be completed until the American formation was found. Akhromeyev’s hope was to buy time for the worsening situation in Europe and at home to be deescalated before the general secretary demanded a status report on Northern Fleet’s bomber attacks.
The Backfire and Badger aircrews went about their mission and flight preparations blissfully unaware of just how bad the situation was, or how rapidly conditions were deteriorating.
“We simply had no idea things were so dire,” Vitaly Suzlov, a sixty-eight-year-old former Backfire pilot and Long-Range Aviation officer explained in an interview I conducted with him at his home in Lithuania last summer. “If we had, I assume our reactions might’ve been quite different from what they were. Even on that morning, in the final hours of the war, a sizeable portion of the aircrews still believed we were winning the war and the destruction of the American fleet would guarantee victory. I was not one of these men. By that time, I simply wanted to sink an American carrier because I had spent so much time and effort training to do just that.
“Had I known before that time just how many bombers and crews were lost trying to complete that same mission, I probably would’ve tried to shoot myself in the foot to avoid flying.”