The North Atlantic: 10 July, 1987 Part III

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Of the twenty Backfires that made up the Iceland strike group four were shot down by F-15s before reaching their launch points. A further three were destroyed  after launching their air-to-surface missiles. Another pair suffered battle damage but managed to return safely to their bases on the Kola Peninsula. Of the sixteen ASMs launched by the bombers, only four landed in the area around Keflavik’s runways, flight line and support facilities. A hangar was destroyed along with the P-3 it had housed, however the rest of the damage was mostly superficial. Air operations would continue undisturbed, and the lost aircraft was soon replaced by reserve Orion from NAS Brunswick.

The Soviets lost nearly half of their bomber force in return for causing less damage than the previous day’s raid had. For two straight days the bombers used similar attack profiles and tactics and had little to show for it aside from horrendous losses at the hands of Keflavik’s Eagles. New tactics had to be devised even quicker, the raid commander realized bitterly. Better yet, Iceland needed to be taken in order to be fully neutralized. Unbeknownst to him, that very argument was being made by senior officers in Severomorsk even before he landed.

 

There were four NATO convoys at sea at 0800 EDT. Another was expected to depart from Norfolk by dusk. After that there would be a twenty four hour pause as the second wave of convoys was formed and prepared for movement. The escorts and merchant ships that were to make up these convoys were still making their way to US east coast ports. SACLANT intended for the next convoys to be larger and better protected than those currently at sea. The almost instant transition from peacetime conditions to a period of heightened tension, and then war forced NATO to adopt a running start convoy strategy. Hostilities were underway and there was no time for a set piece plan to be devised and put in place. With fighting underway in Europe NATO forces there were in urgent need of reinforcement and resupply.

Convoy 27, the easternmost NATO convoy at sea, came under attack in the late morning. The convoy was 471 nautical miles northeast of Newfoundland and heading northeast at eighteen knots when a Charlie II class SSGN fired three SS-N-9 Siren anti-ship cruise missiles from a position twenty two miles northeast of the formation. All three missiles were intercepted by SAM-equipped escort ships and immediately ASW helicopters from the convoy, along with a land based P-3 began hunting for the sub. After two hours of unsuccessful searching the effort was called off. Later in the afternoon, a second Russian sub struck the convoy. Of four torpedoes launched only one found its mark, striking the Canadian destroyer HMCS Algonquin and sinking her. This time, the attacking sub, a Victor I, did not get away. ASW helicopters leapt into action once more and sent the Russian boat to the bottom of the Atlantic.

The other eastbound convoys remained untouched over the entire day, although a host of false contacts and unconfirmed reports of periscopes in the vicinities of convoy ships made matters interesting and tense. Westbound merchant ships and escorts sailing for their ports of embarkation on the eastern US coast found themselves contending with some enemy subs that were looking purely for targets of opportunity. An occasional torpedo was loosed or solitary cruise missile lofted and then the sub would run away. The Soviet intentions to keep their subs concealed until the main convoys entered the area was clear. Nevertheless, a handful of red boats did get lucky. Two NATO ships, a Greek merchant ship and Portuguese frigate were sunk, and a small number of allied ships suffered damage to one degree or another. One Soviet sub was killed three hundred miles northwest of the Azores. At the time it was believed to be a Foxtrot class sub, though records accessed after the war seem to indicate the stricken submarine was of the Tango class.

 

In the Western Atlantic, the second day of the war marked the end of a constant Soviet sub presence. Three submarines were destroyed within the space of ten hours. Two Yankee class ballistic missile boats were dispatched by US attack submarines shortly after 0200 hours. The USS Jack sank K-426 one hundred miles east of the Outer Banks, and the USS Tunny put two Mk-48 torpedoes into K-451 and sent her to the bottom one hundred and twenty nautical miles off of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The presence of the missile subs was no surprise to SACLANT and both were continuously tracked.  The delay in prosecuting them was the result of a debate in the White House. Some of President Reagan’s advisers were opposed to destroying strategic assets of the Soviet Union after the informal agreement on missile sub deployments was reached between Moscow and Washington. The close proximity of the Yankees to the US coast, however, and their ballistic missile armaments settled the debate. Reagan ordered them to be destroyed immediately and the US Navy obeyed this order with particular speed.

ASW efforts in the Western Atlantic continued. Close in to the coast the efforts were redoubled when a Kilo class submarine was caught laying mines off the Chesapeake Bay. P-3s were called in and made short work of the boat while mine countermeasure units were dispatched to clear the sea lanes. The possibility of a Soviet sub getting in close and launching a cruise missile attack on Norfolk or another east coast port was too alarming to discount. A respectable number of MPAs, frigates and destroyers, and ASW helicopters sanitized the coastal waters around the clock.

As the second day of the war ended in the North Atlantic, the attention of both sides was being focused on the waters in and around the GIUK gap. For the moment it appeared to SACLANT in Norfolk, and his counterpart in Severomorsk that the Third Battle of the Atlantic would be won or lost there.

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The North Atlantic: 10 July, 1987 Part II

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Deployment and preparation of the forces dedicated for defense of the GIUK gap continued through the afternoon and into the evening of 10 July. US Orions from Iceland and RAF Nimrods out of Scotland had already been patrolling non-stop since the start of hostilities and had scored a respectable number of kills already. The tempo of these operations was increasing as much as time and available resources would allow.  By mid-afternoon, the US Navy had additional P-3s operating out of Greenland to support the convoys, as well as GIUK operations, and more aircraft were scheduled to arrive at Keflavik within twelve hours. The RAF was working to free up more Nimrods for the North Atlantic. However, availability and commitments in other areas were likely going to keep the current numbers unchanged for at least the coming twenty four hours. To make up for any shortfall of maritime patrol aircraft in Scotland, the Invincible group and STANAVFORLANT were moving to support the Faroes-Shetlands gap. Defensive minefields had been laid in the same area in the days leading up to war. Now these were being reinforced and expanded at a rapid rate.

South of the Iceland-Faroes gap NATO was gathering  a formidable collection of ASW assets to backstop the Orions and Nimrods. Three nuclear powered attack submarines (two British and one American) were hurrying to take up positions to interdict the surge of Soviet subs heading towards the open waters of the North Atlantic. From US 2nd Fleet Task Group 24.3, an ASW surface group consisting of four frigates (two Knox, and two short-hulled Perry class)  and two destroyers (both Spruances) had formed and was moving towards the gap. 2nd Fleet was hoping to have a second ASW task group formed and positioned in near the Denmark Straits by this point as well, but with the convoys desperately needing every available escort ship it had not happened. For now the Denmark Straits would be defended solely by US Navy P-3s.

The SOSUS system hydrophones planted on the floor of the Atlantic could not be expected to detect every single Russian sub heading south, though it was expected, by both sides, to pick up a large majority of them. Backing up SOSUS were two Stalwart class ocean-going surveillance ships fitted with the SURTASS system. The exact position of these ships during the war remains classified, though it is fair to deduce that both of these vessels were in the North Atlantic. Even the names of the Stalwart class ships that took place in North Atlantic operations during the war have not been made public yet. Various third party sources, however, believe Triumph and Assertive were the ships directly involved with GIUK operations at the time.

By early evening SOSUS control in Norfolk was becoming a busy place. Data from the ocean hydrophones, sonobuoys and SURTASS was streaming in via FLTSATCOM. As the data arrived it was fed into the computer for processing and once this was accomplished, the end product was analyzed by career ASW officers and senior chiefs. Contact and potential target tracks were plotted and monitored with the information going to an ASW battle staff. These were the men who were responsible for working up an overall defensive strategy, and vectoring NATO ASW forces towards their Soviet prey. By good fortune, the US Navy’s Fleet Satellite Communication system did not sustain damage from Soviet anti-satellite weaponry the previous day and was functioning perfectly.

As NATO ASW forces in the vicinity of the GIUK line were going into overdrive, word of a possible downbound Backfire raid over northern Norway reached SACLANT. From the information provided by AFNORTH, Iceland looked to be the most likely target. The E-3 Sentry patrolling over central Iceland was ordered to a position farther north in the hopes of its powerful radar detecting signs of the Backfires over the Norwegian Sea. The four ship flight of F-15C Eagles on CAP at the time were sent to refuel from orbiting KC-135 tankers over Hellissandur. A second flight of fighters was launched from Keflavik and the remaining Eagles there were quickly being prepared for action if the Backfires were actually heading for Iceland.

Twenty minutes later, the AWACS detected the first radar signatures denoting a possible large group of contacts just east of Jan Mayen on a southwestern heading.

The North Atlantic 9 July, 1987 Part II

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The Russian attack on Keflavik accentuated the importance of the facility, and of Iceland as a whole, to both sides. The Russians were not going to be able to successfully fight a naval war without Iceland being knocked out of action for an extended period of time. For NATO, mounting a successful defense of the North Atlantic without Iceland would be extremely difficult, but not impossible. The timing of the  first attack also underscored the emphasis that the Russians had placed on closing Keflavik air base down. The early morning air raid on 9 July cannot be considered a smashing triumph or defeat, though it did provide some useful lessons for both sides to consider and apply to later operations.

For the Russians, the bombers that made up the Keflavik attack force took off from bases on the Kola peninsula and detoured far northwest before making the turn south into the Norwegian Sea. The longer flight time had a significant effect on fuel consumption and ordnance loadout. Instead of the Tu-22 Backfires carrying a pair of AS-4 missiles each as the mission profile called for, they could only carry one. The reason for the dogleg in the mission course was simply that the battle for air superiority over northern Norway had not begun at the time. If the bombers had been able to cut across northern Norway it would’ve cut flight times, given them a greater fuel reserve, and allowed the Backfires to carry two ASMs each instead of one.

Of the original thirty Backfires to launch, two had to abort because of mechanical and avionics issues. The remaining twenty-eight approached Iceland from the north and northeast, spread out on a line one hundred and twenty miles wide and into seven flights of four aircraft each. US Air Force E-3 Sentries patrolling over central Iceland and off the northern coast detected the bombers and directed the F-15s on combat air patrol to intercept the nearest ones. Warnings were flashed to Keflavik and the remaining F-15Cs of the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron were scrambled. Surprised by the swift NATO reaction, the Russian mission commander did not waver. He ordered his bombers to increase speed past Mach 1 sooner than he’d planned to. The moment the bombers were in AS-4 range, they popped up, launched their missiles and then turned back to the north, in many cases with Eagles in pursuit.

When all was said and done US fighters claimed eight Backfires and five AS-4s. Of the remaining twenty-three missiles only seven impacted inside of Keflavik’s base perimeter. The amount of damage done was not overwhelming, but three missiles struck the air bases runways, causing damage which would take some time to repair. Keflavik was closed during the repair time.

For the Russians, it was made clear that air superiority over northern Norway would be essential. Once this was accomplished, larger raids could be sent south against Iceland, NATO convoys at sea, and, most importantly, against the US carrier groups that might be steaming north at that very moment. The sting of Keflavik’s defenses also made an impression. Long Range and Naval Aviation commanders would ensure that future raids had accompanying ECM aircraft and jammers if they were available.

 

In the Norwegian Sea on the first day of war, the major NATO naval maneuver was the movement of STANAVFORLANT northeast to a position closer in to the central Norwegian coast. From there, the multinational collection of frigates and destroyers could better provide support for the convoys carrying the equipment of Royal and Dutch Marines, which would begin arriving in the area early the next day. SACLANT decided on the move after reviewing the progress of the air battle over northern Norway. Casualties were extremely high there, and he was anticipating that the Soviets might gain air superiority over the area for a 24-36 hour period of time. Should that happen, the air threat to NATO ships in the Norwegian Sea could double for a stretch of ti me. STANAVFORLANT’s ships could contend with both air and sea threats.

SACLANT’s third major concern on the first day of war was keeping a lid on the whereabouts of his carriers. Forrestal and her battlegroup was in the mid-Atlantic boring circles in the mid-Atlantic. Eisenhower was a day behind, and Kitty Hawk three to four. Until all three carrier groups were in the same staging area, they’d remain under EMCON in an attempt to keep their presence hidden. To avoid the RORSAT satellites searching for them from high above the earth, the carriers were undertaking periodic course changes whenever a Russian satellite was expected to be in the area. Thanks to USAF efforts early on 9 July, F-15s armed with ASATs were unleashed against some RORSATs in orbit. Two out of three targeted birds were destroyed, giving NATO convoys and carriers in the North Atlantic a brief respite.

 

Strategic Considerations: Red Banner Northern Fleet 8 July, 1987

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Commander of the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet Admiral Ivan Matveyevich Kapitanets looked down at the stack of yellow message forms on his desk and shook his head tiredly. He did not bother to even glance at them when they’d arrived, already aware of the disappointing news they carried. Each one was a report detailing the position, speed, and course of a ship under his command as of one hour ago. His operations chief had delivered a summary of those reports fifteen minutes earlier. To put it bluntly, the Northern Fleet’s timeline lay in shambles.

The majority of Kapitanets’ attack submarines were a half day north of where they should have been by this point. His largest, and most powerful surface groups were supposed to be steaming south and entering the Norwegian Sea at this very moment. Unfortunately, the ships were still gathering in the Barents Sea and would not be in position to open hostilities as per the fleet’s battleplan until M+12 hours at the earliest. This particular setback was going to cause the most havoc with the operational timeline, but there was nothing Kapitanets could do about it.

The fleet had sortied much later than he intended. Doctrine called for the Red Banner Northern Fleet to sortie fully seven to eight days previous to the outbreak of fighting. Because of vacillating on the part of Moscow, Kapitanents, as well as his counterparts in the Black Sea, Baltic and Pacific fleets, did not surge their forces as quickly as they wanted to. The delay would adversely affect his fleet more than the others because of distances between the main fleet bases on the Kola Peninsula and the Norwegian Sea, and North Atlantic. His attack submarines had gotten off at a moderate pace instead of one massive surge as doctrine had also called for.

Luckily, his NATO and US Navy opponents were responding sloppily to the tensions and this afforded Kapitanets precious additional time to move his assets into position. NATO convoys bound for Europe would not be in range of his submarines and, potentially, his bombers for at least three days. The amphibious assault groups carrying reinforcements into the Norwegian Sea would be struck as they came into range too. The admiral also wondered if the reports about the vaunted US aircraft carriers were true as well. Intelligence estimated it would be at least ten days before enough carriers were massed together to begin a move north into the Norwegian Sea. By that time, even after contending with early setbacks, the Red Banner Northern Fleet would be ready to do battle with them.

There were other strategic issues to contend with. Foremost was Moscow’s decree to keep all Soviet ballistic missile submarines in port for the time being. The Kremlin appeared reluctant to make any moves that might be considered as signs of escalation by the United States. Kapitanets understood the reasoning by his political masters. Unfortunately, they did not sympathize with the problems this decision had on his fleet and its war plans. Obviously, the US Navy would be gunning for his ballistic missile submarines. He intended to place them in a bastion, defended by an impenetrable wall of submarines, ASW forces, and aircraft as a counter. By rights, those ballistic missile subs should be under guard in the White Sea and beneath the ice pack right now. As it was, Moscow’s decree meant they would remain in port for the time being. As long as they stayed there, a sizeable portion of his ASW units, and some attack submarines did too.

Looking out of the large window in his Severomorsk office, Kapitanents thought about how dependent his command would be on airpower, especially in the opening days. Success or failure of the entire Norwegian Sea/North Atlantic campaign might very well be determined by the heavy bombers of Naval Aviation and their Long Range Aviation comrades. He was intimately familiar with what advantages land based airpower brought to the table, but having to rely so heavily on it went against his very nature. It was a necessary evil though, and one he could support for the moment. Thirty six hours from now if northern Norway and Iceland were not pacified, Kapitanets take on airpower might be entirely different.

 

 

Outpost Iceland 7 July, 1987

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For an island long considered to be one of the most peaceful nations on the planet, Iceland was a remarkably important element in NATO’s contingency plans and wartime strategy. Its geographic location is what made it so significant. Situated in the middle of the North Atlantic, almost directly between Greenland and Scotland, the island was a logical point to combat the expected surge of Soviet submarines transiting from the Norwegian Sea to the North Atlantic in a time of war. Submarines were not the only threat NATO convoys could expect in a time of war. Bombers loaded with anti-ship missiles would also range down into the North Atlantic from their bases on the Kola Peninsula. Therefore, Iceland was expected to be just as important in maintaining control of Atlantic skies during hostilities.

Keflavik Air Base was the centerpiece of military activity on Iceland. The combined US/NATO installation served as home to a squadron of USAF F-15C Eagles, and rotating detachments of E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, and US Navy P-3C Orions. In war, the primary role of the P-3s was to be hunting Soviet submarines around the GIUK gap, while the Eagle-AWACS team’s task was to interdict Soviet bombers coming south to hit the Atlantic SLOCs.

Along with the airbase, Iceland was also home to a small number of SOSUS stationed arrayed along the coast. These stations were critical nodes in the quest to detect and track Soviet subs moving south through the GIUK gap. NATO ASW aircraft especially would rely on vectors tracks provided by the information gathered at these stations. During peacetime the practice was a normal part of operations around Iceland. In wartime, the greatest difference would be the use of live torpedoes, as well as the possibility of some Soviet subs being equipped with hand-held SAMs on their periscope masts.

Bearing all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why Iceland, and Keflavik especially, was considered so valuable by NATO. Of course, the value and capabilities of NATO’s most isolated outpost were appreciated and recognized in Moscow as well. Where NATO war plans envisioned Iceland being used to bolster the effort to protect the convoys, Soviet plans called for the immediate neutralization of Iceland before it could play a pivotal role in a Third Battle of the Atlantic.

NATO was aware of this, yet the real mystery lay in exactly how the Soviets might neutralize Iceland. Imaginations ran wild when considering the possibilities. The effort could be limited to strikes by Long Range Aviation bombers in the Kola, and cruise missile attacks by SSGNs in the North Atlantic. Or, it could include airborne and amphibious landings to physically gain control of Keflavik and its environs. With this potential myriad of threats facing it, NATO was determined to ensure that Iceland was well protected in the event of war.

The best laid intentions of mice and men, however……

By 7 July, Keflavik was a busy place. Aircraft heading to and from Europe used it as a refueling spot. Additional P-3s and some KC-135s were arriving to augment the aircraft already there. Dependents had been evacuated and base defenses prepared. Air Force security personnel bore responsibility for this, though it was hoped that US Army or Marine troops would be available soon to bolster the sky cops. Plans called for the 187th Infantry Brigade, a US Army Reserve unit to be responsible for defending Iceland from a potential ground threat. That unit, however, was only receiving its warning orders from the Pentagon on the afternoon of the 7th. It would be at least two weeks before significant numbers of the brigade’s troops arrived.

In the meantime, the commander of Iceland Defense Force (A US military command) was frantically trying to rustle up additional reinforcements. More troops were desperately needed in the short term, as well as air defenses. The US Marines had offered a battery of I-HAWK missiles but until the Icelandic government gave its blessing, the batteries were sitting on the tarmac of MCAS Cherry Point, packed and waiting. Icelanders were already quite sensitive to the presence of so many foreign troops on their soil. Increasing the number even more was a matter that the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, was passionately debating at the moment.

The reluctance of Icelanders to accept what was happening in the world was especially frustrating to US personnel already on Iceland. As one unnamed USAF tech sergeant put it during an off-camera interview with a BBC reporter, “The natives are resistant to us bringing in more friendly troops to protect them. Fuck ‘em then. Let the ungrateful bastards live under Soviet occupation for a while and see what it’s like.”