The North Atlantic: 10 July, 1987 Part I

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Through thirty-eight years of multinational naval exercises from the Barents Sea to the Bahamas,  naval conferences, and spending innumerable hours at sea, NATO naval officers had developed a staunch respect for the significance of the North Atlantic to alliance plans. Senior officers especially recognized it as the lynchpin of the alliance in a time of war. Its importance inextricably linked it to every other theater. Norway, the Mediterranean, and especially Western Europe could not be reinforced unless NATO maintained control of the North Atlantic. Now that the balloon had gone up, SACLANT’s naval and air forces, as well as those of his counterpart in Murmansk were maneuvering and positioning themselves for the monumental battle both sides knew was coming within the next 24-36 hours.

In the Barents Sea there were ten NATO SSNs present. Three were staking out the homeports of Soviet SSBNs watching for telltale signs that the missile subs were preparing to sortie. Another three were evaluating the ASW defenses in the area or, in the case of the converted ballistic missile submarine USS Sam Houston, laying Captor mines along the routes Soviet SSBNs and their attack sub escorts were expected to use in the event of a sortie. The remaining four were tasked with acquiring the Soviet surface groups steaming south and tailing them, transmitting periodic location reports. As events in northern Norway played out, one of the subs, USS Minneapolis-St Paul, was diverted to take up station from a position where she could provide raid warning of Soviet bombers coming south.

SACLANT had a fairly accurate idea of where the Red Banner Northern Fleet’s surface action groups were located. Everyone already knew with certainty what direction they were steaming in. The time would come when sufficient NATO sea and air power was on hand to contend with these seaborne threats before they wrestled control of the Norwegian Sea and effectively cut off Norway from seaborne reinforcement. Regrettably, that time was not going to be soon in coming. The primary objective for NATO navies in the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic on 10 July were, respectively, to ensure the safe arrival of the first convoy carrying the equipment of 3 Commando Brigade and forming an impenetrable ASW barrier along the GIUK gap to defeat the main group of Soviet submarines as they transited the gap.

The first convoy carrying war material to Norway from England was under twelve hours from reaching port when it was attacked by a two Soviet Foxtrot diesel subs. The RFA Sir Lancelot suffered a torpedo hit that severely reduced her speed. HMS Brave, a Type 22 class frigate was less fortunate. A torpedo impacted directly amidships broke her back and she sank in under twenty minutes, taking over one hundred men with her. Lynx helicopters managed to localize and sink one of the Foxtrots as it attempted to depart the area. Sea Kings from HMS Illustrious spent hours hunting for the second diesel sub but came up empty.

Submarines were the greatest danger to the convoys bound for Norway on 10 July. Russian fighter bombers, Backfires, and Badgers did not venture that far south to engage the groups. Their attention was focused primarily on northern Norway, and air cover from land based fighters and the Illustrious’ air wing would make any effort a costly one. Over the coming days, the threats would expand somewhat.

In the early afternoon STANAVFORLANT was ordered to detached from supporting Norway-bound convoys and ordered to head southwest towards the GIUK gap. The multinational group of destroyers and frigates were not the only NATO warships heading in that direction either. HMS Invincible and her escorts, in the North Sea at the same time, received similar orders. Simultaneously, P-3s from Iceland and RAF Nimrods operating out of Scotland were increasing their tempo of operations, and SACLANT was querying his submarine commander as to the availability of attack boats in the vicinity of the Iceland-Faroes gap.

As previously mentioned, the focus in the North Atlantic was to establish an impenetrable ASW barrier along the extent of the GIUK line. The first group of Russian subs was expected to begin approaching the area before midnight.

 

 

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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.

 

The North Atlantic: 9 July, 1987 Part I

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Senior NATO commanders understood and accepted the fact that they would, in all likelihood, be forced to spend the first twenty-four to thirty-six hours of the war reacting to Soviet moves and intentions. NATO was, after all, a defensive alliance, and this conflict had been precipitated  by the Kremlin. For at least one day, the Warsaw Pact would have the initiative until NATO was able to identify their intentions on the battlefields, begin to exploit weaknesses, and inevitably, bring its own power to bear.

SACLANT accepted the reality of the situation for what it was. His command’s most pressing priority was to keep the SLOCs open and functioning. Every order given, and action taken revolved around that objective. In this war, the fate of Europe was invariably tied to the fate of the Atlantic. If the NATO navies could not keep control of the Atlantic and ensure the reinforcement of Europe, all was lost.

Predictably, it was a Soviet submarine that drew first blood. At 0430 Zulu, a Spanish merchant vessel was torpedoed 150 miles northwest of Lajes. Over the next six hours or so, another seven civilian registered freighters and ferries in the Eastern Atlantic were torpedoed or struck by missiles launched by Russian diesel or nuclear powered submarines. Across the rest of the North Atlantic, on 9 July, a further six merchant ships sailing independently were sunk or damaged, in every case by a Russian submarine. In each case, the targeted ship was steaming towards a port in either Western Europe or on the east coast of the US to join the pool of vessels gathering for convoy duty.

There were some thirty four Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic south of the GIUK line on 9 July, 1987 with nearly eighty two still surging southward towards the open Atlantic from the Barents Sea. NATO maritime patrol aircraft were out hunting Russian subs around the clock. From bases in Iceland, the Azores, Scotland, France, and the northeastern portion of North America, US Navy P-3 Orions, Canadian CP-140 Auroras, French Atlantiques, and RAF Nimrods ranged out into the North Atlantic. Hostile submarines that had been detected through SOSUS and tracked in the hours leading up to hostilities were the initial focus. Some were reacquired relatively quickly and dispatched to the bottom of the sea by air-dropped torpedoes. Others took more time and ultimately more resources. When all was said and done, NATO ASW aircraft were responsible for killing four diesel, three nuclear powered red submarines, and damaging a further three in the first eighteen hours of open hostilities. The total would have likely been higher if air operations out of Keflavik had not been disrupted for a three hour spell following the morning’s Backfire attack.

In the Western Atlantic, the first NATO convoy bound for Europe was approaching the southern tip of Newfoundland. This group was under the command of a US Navy commodore and made up of twenty four ships. Eight were escort warships and the remainder merchant vessels of one type or another. Six of the escorts were US Navy warships, with the other two coming from Canada. Behind the first convoy were others that had just left other east coast ports. In 24-36 hours the majority would be past Newfoundland and approaching the open Atlantic. Helicopters and land-based aircraft were sanitizing the waters around and ahead of each convoy, searching for signs of enemy submarines.  Although the main threat still lay ahead, submarines could still be inshore or tasked with trailing behind a convoy and waiting for the right moment to pounce.

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Flank: 9 July, 1987 0600-1800

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The Northern Flank was a geographic area vital to Soviet war plans. Northern Norway was of especially high value in the eyes of the Soviets. Capturing it entirely, or simply destroying the NATO airfields there was essential to the defense of the Soviet homeland, as well as the Soviet Union’s ability to fight a naval war in the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. Since the 1950s Moscow had designs on disrupting NATO’s Northern Flank early on in a war. Plans had evolved over the years to include or rule out amphibious assaults, commando raids, limited overland assaults, and the use of nuclear weapons. By the mid-1987, the Soviets had put together a comprehensive, periodically updated operational plan for contending with northern Norway and the rest of the Northern Flank. The opening phases of it relied heavily on airpower.

Air activity over the Kola Peninsula and Barents Sea was becoming pronounced in the early hours of 9 July. Although NATO  did not yet have the benefit of AWACS support in northern Norway yet, the array of radar and early warning stations in the region provided a relatively complete photograph of the air situation for a period of time. Of particular interest were two large formations of Soviet aircraft moving northwest over the Barents. Both had taken off from airfields on the Kola. Judging by the speed, altitude, and other characteristics, the first group of twelve radar contacts were thought to be Tu-16 Badgers, while the second group, made up of twenty-six contacts, appeared to be Backfire bombers. The plotted course positions made it seem that Norway was not either group’s target.

The bombers proceeded northwest farther out into the Barents and away from Norway, finally making turns that took them on southern headings. Soon afterwards, more aircraft were taking off from airbases on the Kola and beginning to mass over the southern Barents. These aircraft appeared to be tactical fighters judging from their increasing numbers. The Commander Air Forces Northern Norway (AIRNON) was anxious. On his own authority, he began issuing orders to scramble fighters from airbases in his AO, fearing this was the start of concentrated action against Norway and NATO’s northern flank.

He was right.

Hostilities began in earnest on the Northern Flank with Soviet airstrikes across the region. Tu-16 Badgers struck the NATO communications station on Jan Mayen causing significant damage, while a larger force of Tu-22 Backfires hit the NATO airbase at Keflavik, Iceland. In Norway, two waves of strike aircraft, primarily MiG-27 Floggers and Su-17 Fitters spread out to attack airbases and radar sites in the north with heavy jamming and fighter support.  The initial Soviet theater objective was to close the northern Norwegian airbases for a extended period of time. On the flip side, those same air bases were essential to NATO’s planned defense of Norway and the alliance intended to defend them fiercely.

Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s, supported by a limited number of RAF Tornado fighters rose to challenge the Russians. A series of fluid air battles broke out over northern Norway and raged through much of the morning. Losses were heavy on both sides and though damage was inflicted on a good number of airbases and civilian airfields from Kirkenes to Bardufoss, none were knocked out of action. But the day was not over yet. After licking their respective wounds, and evaluating which weapons systems and tactics worked and which ones didn’t, the battle would pick up and increase in intensity as the afternoon went on.

Like its sister service, the Royal Norwegian Navy had its hands full on the first day of war. The fast attack craft assigned to Naval Forces Northern Norway (NAVNON) as well as a handful of diesel submarines were heavily engaged in the morning and early afternoon hours. From the deep fjords in the North Cape area, missile armed fast attack craft sprang out to search for and locate the Soviet amphibious group that was expected to be moving southwest to the Norwegian coast. When they encountered Soviet fast attack craft, it was thought that they’d located the screening force for the amphibs. Little did NAVNON realize until mid-afternoon, the Northern Fleet’s main amphibious group was still farther east in the Barents Sea. It would not make its presence felt for another thirty six hours.

As described in a previous entry, Soviet and Norwegian fast attack craft and diesel submarines fought a running battle from Kirkenes to Akkarfjord. The Norwegians lost four out of seven ships and the diesel submarine Utsiera was damaged by a torpedo dropped by an Il-38 May. The sub skipper was able to surface his ship and get the surviving crew members off safely before scuttling her. Soviet losses were slightly higher. Six fast attack craft were sunk, all of which fell victim to the very effective Penguin anti-ship missile, and two Foxtrot class diesel submarines were sunk. By mid-afternoon both sides had retreated. There were smaller engagements throughout the remainder of the day, but nothing as intense as the day’s earlier battles. By the evening hours, NAVNON’s inability to locate any sign of major Soviet combatants led SACLANT to turn responsibility for the task over to NATO submarines in the area.

Farther south, naval activity was limited to a cat and mouse game played between Norwegian frigates and Soviet diesel submarines. Around 1500 a Tango class submarine managed to fire a pair of torpedoes at a Norwegian frigate south of Narvik. The fish missed and the Tango scurried off, beginning an intensive three hour search that yielded nothing. AFNORTH was cautious to allow the Norwegian frigates to move too far north. NAVNON was in need of help, but until the Soviet’s surface groups were located, AFNORTH was reluctant to push too many  naval assets north, especially with the air situation unresolved.

Round two of the northern Norwegian air battle began shortly after 1500 with Soviet airstrikes aimed again at airbases in that particular geographic area. Once more, Norwegian F-16s and RAF Tornados rose to defend, only their numbers were significantly less than they had been earlier in the day. To be fair, the number of Russian aircraft was also less, however, the Russians had more aircraft and pilots to spare. Banak and Bardufoss airbases received most of the attention, and subsequently, much damage. Both had been targeted earlier in the morning too, and damage from those first strikes had not yet been fully repaired. Banak remained open- just barely. Bardufoss had to close briefly in order to allow repairs to its taxiways and runway.

Allied airpower in northern Norway had inflicted heavy losses on Soviet air units, but it had come at a price. Of the forty Norwegian F-16s and twelve Royal Air Force Tornados that were committed to the air battle that morning, only four Tornados, and half of the F-16s remained. The Soviet 76th Air Army had suffered significantly heavier losses. Twenty four MiG-23s, thirty Su-17 and -22 Fitters, twelve Su-24 Fencers and eight MiG-25 Foxbats.

AIRNON saw the writing on the wall. Without quick replacement of his losses,  NATO would suffer its first strategic defeat with the loss of air superiority over northern Norway. And at the current pace it would happen within the next thirty six hours. Unfortunately, AIRNON’s superiors were reluctant to commit any of the squadrons tasked with the air defense of central Norway to the north until more reinforcements arrived. Convoys carrying the equipment of British and Dutch Marines were approaching their intended ports of disembarkation and AFNORTH wanted to be sure he had the air cover to protect those ships from a sudden Backfire or Badger raid.

At 1800, AIRNON’s screams for help were partially answered. Grudgingly, a contingent of additional Norwegian F-16s and NF-5s was chopped to AIRNON. Behind these reinforcements, though, there was little left in the pipeline and it did not appear that the operational tempo over the north was going to slow down anytime soon.

 

 

 

 

Strategic Considerations: SACLANT 7 July, 1987

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Inside of the operations center at his headquarters in Norfolk, SACLANT studied the large, computerized map display of the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea intently. Blue NTDS symbols indicated the current positions of NATO surface ships, submarines, and air units. Red symbols showed the known or suspected positions of their Soviet counterparts. At the moment, it was the Soviet subs not visible on the map that concerned him most.

The Red Banner Northern Fleet had not yet sortied en masse. Admiral Baggett was not surprised. The crisis had exploded in a flash and was evolving at a near reckless pace. Diplomats and general officers on both sides were having a difficult time keeping pace with events, let alone try to slow them down. His counterpart in Murmansk was doubtless contending with his own problems and would have preferred to have his surface ships and submarines at sea already. The Soviets had their own designs for the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. If the Northern Fleet’s assets were out of position when hostilities kicked off, their wartime tasks would be that much more difficult.

SACLANT’s intelligence chief estimated that the Northern Fleet would begin putting to sea within the next eight to ten hours. The latest satellite intel showed the main surface elements of the fleet preparing to get underway, and activity at the main submarine base at Polyarny was extremely high, with a large number of Red submarined getting ready to sail. When it happened, the news would reach Norfolk quickly. Baggett had three submarines operating in close to the coast up there.

It was widely believed in Norfolk, Brussels, and Washington that once the Northern Fleet sailed, hostilities would begin forty-eight hours from that point. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and SACEUR checked in with Baggett at the top of every hour for an update. Admiral Crowe had another reason for making frequent calls. One major component of Maritime Strategy, the playbook which the US Navy and its NATO partners would use to fight the Third Battle of the Atlantic, was being hotly debated in the White House and Pentagon; Taking out the Soviet SSBNs operating under the Arctic ice pack. There was growing question inside of the Reagan administration about the prudence of targeting Soviet strategic assets directly from the start of hostilities. Doing so could invite a disproportionate response which in turn might dangerously escalate the conflict. Right now, a number of US and British SSNs were moving north towards the Barents Sea exclusively for this mission.

SACLANT would not be disheartened if the SSBN hunt were postponed. Operationally, a delay would give him more subs to interdict Soviet surface ships and submarines heading into the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. As the situation stood, his command would need every additional asset it could get its hands on to keep the Soviets bottled up in the Norwegian Sea until Baggett was ready to move Strike Fleet Atlantic north and take control of the sea. To do this, he needed two or more carrier battlegroups to form the vaunted strike fleet. Forrestal and Eisenhower were steaming northeast through Atlantic waters right now. However, it would be at least four days until both were in position. Kitty Hawk was expected to leave from Philadelphia tomorrow. When the time came, he could move north with two decks if the situation called for it, though he was admittedly not comfortable with the possibility.

SACLANT was in ‘transition to war’ phase of Maritime Strategy, more commonly referred to as Phase One. It involved the marshalling of naval forces and their movement into the forward areas, specifically the Norwegian Sea, and to a lesser extent the Barents as well. The time frame of the phase served as preparation for Phase Two: seizing the initiative and taking the fight to the enemy.

Baggett’s forces were not ready to move north at the moment and would not be ready when the shooting began. Therein lay the first strategic problem of the war for SACLANT: To go north with what was available, or wait until significant forces were massed and ready. The Norwegian Sea, as well as northern Norway were a cornerstone of the alliance’s SLOC defense. If NATO was forced to withdraw from the waters north of Iceland, and cede control of them to the Soviets, the pressure then placed on convoys crossing the Atlantic could be overwhelming.

It was a race, Baggett realized, of which side could muster the needed forces, and begin its operations first. For the moment, neither SACLANT or the Red Banner Northern Fleet was in the position it wanted to be. With every hour that passed, the equation changed. However, for every hour that went by with the Soviets still in port, NATO benefitted.

 

 

 

 

 

SACLANT’s Concerns 5-6 July, 1987

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Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACLANT) Admiral Lee Baggett Jr, USN was NATO’s senior naval officer. His area of responsibility was vast, stretching from the North Pole to the Tropic of Cancer, and from the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada across the Atlantic to Portugal. In wartime, Baggett’s command was tasked primarily with keeping the sea lines of communication (SLOC) between North America and Europe open to ensure the reinforcement and resupply of Europe. Without a massive, and nearly constant stream of men, equipment, and ammunition going from North America to Europe, NATO would likely lose the land war.

From his headquarters in Norfolk, Baggett was receiving near constant situation reports from every element of his command. It was 2330 local time in Virginia. Dozens of merchant vessels from around the world, long with allied and US Navy warships were converging on US east coast ports. Those ports would become beehives of activity in the coming days, most likely, as heavy equipment and supplies from US Army arrived. Baggett was hopeful about having the first convoy underway for Europe within 24 hours.

Shortly after President Reagan’s address, Secretary of Defense Weinberger contacted Baggett to let him know the call up of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet would be augmented by the National Defense Reserve Fleet by 0300. This meant the nation’s emergency reserve fleet of merchant ships would begin activation the next morning. It would be helpful, but only a handful of the ships would be activated within the next 20 days. The majority would take far longer to be made seaworthy once again.

Merchant shipping was only one of SACLANT’s concerns as 5 July came to an end. With REFORGER beginning, the bulk of cargo aircraft were going to be busy moving troops across the Atlantic to Europe. Baggett had reminded the Secretary of Defense that his command also needed transport aircraft to move the 4th Marine Amphibious Brigade from Camp Lejeune to marry up with its pre-positioned equipment in Norway. Weinberger assured him the planes would be available when the time came. As of yet, though, no orders for the 4th MAB’s movement had been issued.

Aircraft carriers were another concern. At the moment, he only had two carriers in the Atlantic. Forrestal had been working up in preparation for a deployment to take part in the NATO exercise Ocean Venture 87 in August. As tensions began to rise in June, her orders were revised. Right now, Forrestal and her escorts were steaming towards the North Atlantic. The USS Dwight Eisenhower had been underway in the Caribbean Sea in early July. Now, she was 12 hours from Norfolk and a very brief turnaround before heading back out to sea. She would likely join Forrestal, and hopefully a third carrier (fourth even if all went well) and form the bulk of Strike Fleet Atlantic. From there, Baggett’s war plans called for a three-carrier group at least to steam into the Norwegian Sea and seize control of it from the Red Banner Northern Fleet. The third carrier, Kitty Hawk had just arrived in Philadelphia to begin her Service Life Extension Program, a three-year major overhaul. With tensions rising, the CNO decided that she would be of better use at sea. The carrier was scheduled to depart from Philadelphia within the next 48 hours, her air wing would come aboard and she’d be ready for sustained combat operations.

That was the plan at least. No war plan survives first contact, and Baggett knew all too well that he needed to be flexible. Battle losses in theater, or an unexpected turn in the conflict might call for a revamping of NATO’s maritime doctrine.

As things stood, Baggett suspected peacetime was drawing to a close. Sooner or later the shooting would start. The Soviet Union had begun mobilizing two days ago. The West Germans were now mobilizing on their own. Now the US was in the game and other NATO allies were recognizing the threat and also responding. Belatedly, in SACLANT’s eyes. REFORGER was a good start, but it was just the start. Additional reinforcements and callups of reservists were coming, Baggett was certain.

Midnight passed almost unnoticed. In SACLANT’s mind, however, the start of 6 July would be remembered as the moment when he began to accept the reality that the Third Battle of the Atlantic was on the horizon and the outcome for NATO would be his responsibility.