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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.