The Backfire groups acknowledged the raid commander’s orders, coming around fully to the west and starting descents to the predetermined altitudes. One group would level off at fifteen thousand feet, another at six thousand and the third a scant five hundred feet above the sea surface. The plan was little revised from the earlier attacks, yet this was not entirely due to stagnant thinking on the part of the mission planners. The closer geographic proximity between the bomber’s home airfields and their targets enticed the planners, eventually winning them over.
As the Backfires descended, the Badgers continued lumbering northwest on their paths, following the plan as briefed. The raid commander had yet to receive contact reports from the Bears and was starting to get nervous. The lifespan of his jamming aircraft diminished considerably with every passing second and now it appeared the Americans were countering with their own offensive jamming. Most likely from carrier-borne Prowler aircraft. The waiting game continued.
The Soviet colonel did not know his jammers had already been targeted for destruction by four Tomcats. The fighters launched two AIM-54 missiles each when they were forty miles from their targets. One minute later the two Badger J aircraft went off the air, removing a thin but essential veil of protection from the forward-positioned Bears, who were now naked and vulnerable in the face of F-14s. Luckily, fate was smiling upon the raid commander. Two of the Tu-95s managed to get off contact reports before they were knocked from the sky. The reports were scant and did not include many details on ship types and emissions, but with luck it would hopefully be enough. Either way, the cat was out of the bag entirely now. The raid commander now ordered the Badger bombers to swing west as well and increase their speed.
The Americans now had an increasingly clear picture of the incoming bomber attack and responded accordingly. The Tomcats which had targeted the jammers and gone after the Bears were vectored towards the northern formation of Soviet bombers. That group was likely made up of Badgers judging by the speeds and courses. The remaining CAP streaking east towards the anticipated southern route as radar contacts filled the radar screens on the E-2Cs. These would be the Backfires. The senior controllers on the Hawkeyes went to work next, vectoring the two squadrons F-14s from Kitty Hawk and Forrestal towards the Backfires. These were the greatest and nearest threat to the task force. On second thought, however, he ordered four fighters from each squadron to peel off and head northeast towards the coming Badgers as well.
Behind the growing air battle, more fighters launched from the decks of the US carriers. F-14s from Eisenhower and Forrestal, and F/A-18 Hornets from Coral Sea. The smaller, newer fighters would provide point defense for Strike Fleet Atlantic.
The race was underway in earnest now to see which side got into range first. The Backfires and Tomcats closed on each other rapidly. At sixty miles, the F-14s activated their radars and started searching for targets while the Backfires went to afterburner. The raid commander’s Backfire was flying in the second group. Unsatisfied with the reports from the now-dead Bears, he ordered the bombers to activate their radars and go to afterburner. This order was given thirty seconds before the first Phoenix missile was launched by the Tomcats and roughly one hundred seconds more until the first flight of Backfires was in range to its own targets.
The rest of the air battle resembled a duel between determination on one hand and desperation on the other. The arrival of the AIM-54s forced the Backfire crews to take evasive action. It did little good in most cases. For the force as a whole, the launch sequence was disrupted entirely. As more Tomcats arrived and added their own missiles to the mix, success slipped farther out of reach for the Backfire crews. Only Group 1, on the low-level approach, avoided the near-wholesale destruction that its comrades at higher altitudes experienced. The second volley of Phoenixes from the Tomcats killed four Group 1 Backfires before a few of the surviving crews panic-fired their AS-6 Kingfishes at the American task force and turned for home, F-14s in pursuit. The remaining four Tu-22s bore in. Their orders were to pop up at the 120 miles mark and launch their Kingfish at point blank range. Eight Tomcats pursued these aircraft at low level, trying to close for shots with their Sparrows and Sidewinders. The Backfire crews had no idea that there were eight F/A-18s streaking towards them from the west.
Out of thirty-seven Backfires, only seven would survive to make it back to their bases. Thirty one would fall victim to US Navy fighters. The Badger survival numbers were even worse. Of twenty-three bombers, just three would land on the Kola Peninsula later in the morning. Between the Backfire and Badger formations, thirty-one Kingfish missiles were fired at Strike Fleet Atlantic. The Phoenixes, SM-2s and other shipboard defenses, as well as electronic countermeasures killed twenty-three. Another four malfunctioned, leaving three that struck targets. Two frigates and a cruiser were hit. All three would sink from the damage inflicted. A more detailed report on the effects of the Backfire-carrier battle and subsequent events which led to the loss of USS Kitty Hawk will be written up and discussed later in November when the Kitty Hawk’s demise is looked at closely.