The Southern Flank: 10 July, 1987 Part II

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It was generally accepted that the Southwestern Theater of Military Operations (SWTVD) would constitute a secondary theater in the opening days of a war against NATO. The Western TVD (WTVD) was the theater of highest priority and understandably so. SWTVD objectives in the first 3-4 days of hostilities were to halt any NATO air or land countermove against WTVD, and prevent a major conflict in the SWTVD while preparations for offensive operations were underway. The preparatory phase for land operations against Thrace and the subsequent battle for the Dardanelles was still underway on the second day and was expected to continue for another 24-48 hours. The Bulgarian Army was fully deployed on that country’s border with Turkey and Greece, along with a limited number of Soviet units. The main Soviet ground forces allocated to SWTVD were still deploying into the region. When the time came, the bulk of the initial Warsaw Pact thrust into Thrace would be made up primarily of Bulgarian forces.

SWTVD air operations on the second day continued to be chiefly focused against Turkish air defenses, radars, and airbases. With more air assets becoming available as elements of the 24th Air Army arrived in theater, the attacks were becoming focused and intense. The airstrikes were not limited to targets only in the western half of Turkey. A portion were being directed against Hellenic Air Force bases and radar sites, but the center of attention was Turkey. The Commander, Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force (COMSIXATAF) was becoming more concerned about his losses as the day went on. From his headquarters at Izmir, Turkey he monitored the air battle and directed the air defense of Turkey. Twice he and his staff had to head to the shelters when installations around Izmir were targeted by Soviet aircraft.

Sixth ATAF’s fighter squadrons and air defenses were inflicting losses on the attackers, but it was costing them. As the day went on and the tempo of air strikes peaked, Turkish F-4 Phantoms, F-16s, and F-104s allotted to defending Turkey were almost fully committed. Losses in aircraft and pilots were heavy and climbing. Almost as disconcerting was the grim fact that, as losses climbed, COMSIXATAF was losing its ability to take the fight to enemy forces in Bulgaria. He concluded, quite correctly, that without a swift infusion of NATO air reinforcements, air superiority over Thrace and much of Turkey could not be guaranteed for more than the next 24 hours.

In Naples, CINCSOUTH was fully aware of the situation in Turkey. He agreed with COMSIXATAF regarding the reinforcements equation and was working to get additional squadrons to Turkey rapidly. Unfortunately, CINCSOUTH could not begin moving squadrons from 5th ATAF in Italy east until reinforcing squadrons from the US arrived in significant numbers. As desperate as the situation in Turkey was becoming, CINCSOUTH couldn’t afford to strip 5th ATAF of fighters right now and leave Northern Italy naked. Thus far, Soviet forces in Hungary, and their Hungarian comrades had not moved into Austria or Yugoslavia. A move into Yugoslavia was not anticipated, however, a thrust into Austria would pose a grave danger to AFSOUTH.  Italian forces guarding the Gorizia Gap, and corridors in the Austrian Alps were going to need air cover and close air support. For the moment the Northern Italian subregion was quiet. Moving fighters and attack aircraft from Italy to Turkey could inspire the Soviets to move and take advantage of the situation. For the moment, 6th ATAF was on its own.

 

 

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The Southern Flank: 10 July, 1987 Part I

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The destruction of the Soviet surface action groups in the Eastern Mediterranean marked the end of the 5th Eskadra. Every major surface combatant belonging to the Soviet Navy’s Mediterranean squadron was at the bottom of the sea, along with their escorts, and a number of submarines. The squadron’s commander, Rear Admiral Vladimir Yegorov had perished aboard his flagship. The fact that the 5th Eskadra had taken a French carrier group down with it was of little consolation. Saratoga had survived and it was the US carrier which was almost singlehandedly responsible for the destruction of the 5th Eskadra. When all was said and done, the shootout between NATO and Soviet naval forces on the first day of hostilities had been won and lost decisively. Surviving Soviet submarines in the Eastern Med were ordered to go defensive and evade NATO ASW forces for the time being.

Saratoga was the undisputed champ of the East Med, though she would not be rewarded with reinforcements any time soon. The Suez Canal was blocked indefinitely following the scuttling of a Bulgarian freighter on the 9th. USS Constellation was now prevented from joining Saratoga in the Mediterranean as planned. Connie was returning to the Arabian Sea where the Seventh Fleet would be glad to have her. Sixth Fleet was in a pinch, though. Kennedy was being hurriedly prepared to depart from Norfolk and be sent to the Med. It was going to be at least ten days until her and her battlegroup arrived east of Sicily. And that was only if SACLANT did not steal her away.

For the time being Sixth Fleet, and AFSOUTH had to make do with one flattop. France was keeping its last remaining aircraft carrier in the Bay of Biscay and out of harm’s way. The loss of Clemenceau was regarded as a national disaster. The French were mourning, however, beneath the sadness was a burning desire to settle the score. The French Navy would return to the fight. The Italians had the baby carrier Garibaldi available, but no fixed wing aircraft to fly from her deck.

Syria remained on the sidelines for now, even as Soviet warplanes flew missions from its territory. Israel had adopted a purely defensive posture for the time being at the urging of Washington. Following the Suez Canal incident Egypt was stringently patrolling its airspace and waters and this did not appear likely to change. President Mubarak did not want to be dragged into a conflict where he might find his country on the same side as Israel. The situation in the Persian Gulf was a different story entirely. Egypt would aid the United States in keeping the Soviets away from the Saudi oilfields if necessary. As far as the Eastern Med went, Cairo wanted nothing to do with the fighting there.

In the Central and Western Mediterranean surviving Soviet submarines were making their way to the Gulf of Sidra and Libyan waters to regroup and prepare for future operations in conjunction with Libyan naval forces. So far, the Libyans had yet fired a shot in anger. The time for their forces to make their presence felt had not yet come. In the near future, the Colonel’s ships, submarines, warplanes, and anti-ship missiles would play a role.

With Saratoga slated to remain south of Crete for the moment, units of the Italian and French navies were moving to cover the Strait of Sicily. US, Italian, and French maritime patrol aircraft and fighters operating out of Sicily would support them, as were a handful of NATO attack submarines. AFSOUTH was satisfied that the combination of forces in the Central Med was sufficient to handle what the Soviets and Libyans had in the area.

 

 

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: 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.

 

 

The Northern Flank: 10 July, 1987 Part II

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The loss of air superiority over Northern Norway brought immediate ramifications for NATO’s entire Northern Flank defensive strategy. Air and sea surveillance of the Norwegian coast and Barents Sea would now be severely limited. The same was true for subsequent air and naval operations north of Tromso and Bardufoss. NATO land units in the northern areas, primarily elements of Norway’s Brigade North, were now faced with the grim reality of operating without friendly air support for the time being. It did not take very long after the air raids against Andoya and Bardufoss for AFNORTH to appreciate that NATO’s position in Northern Norway was on the verge of unravelling entirely.

Losing air and sea surveillance in the Barents was perhaps the most consequential development of the second day. It was known that the Soviets had multiple surface groups at sea in the Barents. Two, perhaps three were surface action groups (SAG) making up the bulk of the Red Banner Northern Fleet.  This would be the force responsible for breaking out into the Norwegian Sea and seizing control of it. The remaining group was built around a quartet of amphibious assault ships. This was the group NATO was most concerned with for the time being. A Soviet landing somewhere along the Norwegian coastline was anticipated, however, without accurate intelligence there was no way to determine when or where the event might take place. The last known position of the amphibious group was  71° 52 North 26° 14 East at 0800 CEST.

AFNORTH, with SACLANT’s reluctant approval ordered all Norwegian and attached allied surface ships operating in the northern Norwegian Sea and Barents to speed south and regroup in the waters off of the central Norwegian Coast. Their survival in northern waters was doubtful without air support. Only nuclear powered attack submarines were exempt from the orders. NATO fast attack boats operating in the Barents Sea were undertaking vital missions separate to the action going on in Norway and had to continue. They could not be diverted to support the Northern Flank right now regardless of how dire the situation was becoming.

AFNORTH’s plan was to concentrate most theater air and sea power in and around central Norway for the moment. Three convoys carrying equipment of the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade, and a Dutch Marines unit were approaching their disembarkation ports. Troops of the US 4th MAB were arriving at a steady pace, marrying up to their prepositioned equipment as air reinforcements from the US Marines, and RAF were beginning to arrive at airbases in southern and central Norway. This defense of this area was essential at the moment to allow NATO forces additional time to arrive and prepare ahead of an effort to reestablish control in Northern Norway.

The Soviets, for their part, were making every effort to consolidate their hold on the northern region as rapidly as possible. Paratroopers were dropped on the airfields at Kirkenes, and Hammerfest in the afternoon and by the evening both facilities were secure and under Soviet control. Closer to Norway’s border with Russia, air strikes were now being launched against the Norwegian Army garrison at Sor-Varanger. As the remainder of the day and evening went on, additional strikes were made against garrisons at Alta, and Porsanger. Their purpose was clearly to keep the Norwegian forces there pinned down, unable to disrupt Soviet operations at the airfields.

By 2100 hours Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Northern Europe, British General Sir Geoffrey Howlett had grown increasingly frustrated by his command’s inability to directly affect the situation in the north. Howlett understood it was simply a matter of time before the Soviets began deploying combat aircraft to the captured airfields. Then there was the prospect of Soviet motorized forces crossing the border at any given moment. The limited reconnaissance photos and reports from the area painted a picture of growing activity on the Soviet side of the border. That evening, Howlett’s opponents in Murmansk started making use of their newly established air corridor through Norwegian airspace. A large force of Backfire bombers was reported to be transiting the area on a southeast heading. Raid warnings were sent out to naval units in the region, but as time went on it became obvious the Backfires were heading for Iceland. The incident unnerved Howlett and pressed home the urgency of closing off the air corridor before its existence could have an adverse effect on NATO’s efforts to keep the sea lanes across the Atlantic open.

Unfortunately, there was little AFNORTH could do about it for the moment.

 

The Northern Flank: 10 July, 1987 Part I

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10 July, 1987 began with redoubled Soviet efforts to establish air superiority over Northern Norway and pave the way for future air and sea operations farther south. The  Northwestern TVD, like its sister commands, was contending with sizable delays to its  timeline of operations. The air situation over Norway especially was a half day behind schedule in spite of the gains made against NATO air defenses in the region on 9 July. With NATO convoys a day or so away from entering range of Long Range Aviation and Naval Aviation heavy bombers, it was imperative that an impervious air corridor be established over Northern Norway and the Soviet air defense perimeter be expanded to cover the northern third of Norway and the Norwegian Sea.

Losses in aircraft, namely tactical fighters, had so far been higher than anticipated. The experiences and lessons learned on the first day of war underscored the strengths and shortcomings of the Soviet Quantity vs NATO Quality argument. Soviet air commanders had openly expected NATO’s fighters, sensors, and weapons to be technologically superior to their Soviet counterparts. Nevertheless, they were still shocked by the loss ratios and the stories that surviving Soviet pilots were bringing back after their missions.

It was evident that a maximum effort had to be made to break what the Soviets viewed as a deadlock in the skies. On the morning of the 10th, that effort commenced.

NATO’s assessment of the situation was strikingly different. The Royal Norwegian Air Force was hanging on by a thread in the northern counties. The reinforcements reluctantly dispatched to AIRNON from airbases in the south were a welcomed addition, however, their numbers were  nowhere what was needed to plug the hole in Norway’s air defenses.  Difficult decisions were made regarding priorities and assets were allocated accordingly. Airbases and radar sites essential to NATO’s overall defensive plan for the North Flank would be defended extensively for as long as possible. Other less critical installations were to be left practically naked.

Right after dawn, the first formations of Soviet fighter-bombers and their escorts crossed into Norwegian airspace virtually unmolested. Air defense radars that survived the first day’s effort, and forward airfields in Finnmark were the first priorities. The northern-most radars had already been written off by AIRNON. Minimal effort was made to intercept the attacking MiGs and Sukhois. Ground based SAMs in the area did manage to inflict some losses before they too were silenced by air-defense suppression missions. Banak air station was a different story. F-16s and NF-5s defended Banak as much as circumstances allowed. Unfortunately, in most cases the Norwegian fighters expended their ordnance against Soviet aircraft that had already expended their air to ground ordnance. The hit and run type tactics employed by the Norwegians minimized their losses, however, the damage done to the air station was too great to warrant further effort. Banak was declared ineffective and surviving support personnel and the few aircraft to survive the morning’s airstrikes were evacuated to bases in the south. By midafternoon, two companies of Soviet heliborne troops assaulted Banak and after a brief firefight with Norwegian security troops that had been left behind, took control of the base.

Later that morning much larger Soviet air attacks were launched against the airbases at Bardufoss. and Andoya. Both suffered major damage, though the HAWK missile batteries at both acquitted themselves quite well. At Andoya, five of 333rd Squadron’s six P-3C Orion aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The survivor was in the air at the time of the attack and survived. It was these attacks that brought AIRNON to accept the bitter reality that the Soviets had achieved air superiority over the whole northern area of Norway.

 

 

Vital Peripheries: Central America & the Caribbean 7-8 July, 1987

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*Author’s Note: I forgot to add this post in the Pre-War section over the summer. Better late than never*

Central America and the Caribbean was a potential tempest in a teapot for the United States with Nicaragua and Cuba, two firm Soviet allies, situated squarely in the geographic backyard of the US. Fidel Castro was still running Cuba despite decades of US efforts to remove him from power, while in Nicaragua, leftist strongman Daniel Ortega ran the nation. It was believed in Washington that both of these men would take their marching orders directly from Moscow if war broke out. If left unchecked, Castro and Ortega could cause major damage to United States at a critical time.

Cuba’s close proximity to US shores called for an increased military presence in and around Florida to deter Castro from possibly launching military action against the US. Guantanamo Bay was another prickly issue for the US to contend with. As tensions rose, the Pentagon wrestled with what to do with the base. There were three realistic choices available to select from; Reinforce Gitmo with additional US Marines and aircraft, evacuate dependents and non-essential personnel from the base, or undertake a mass evacuation of everyone, civilian and military. The Cubans, for their part, were behaving very cordially with regards to the US base on their soil. Cuban MiGs and other aircraft gave Gitmo a wide berth. Regular troops stationed in close proximity to the base were replaced by the local militia. In the Caribbean, Cuban naval vessels were not straying far from home waters.

The behavior by the Cuban military was curious, to say the least. Some voices in the Reagan administration wondered if the low activity was part of a ruse. A much smaller group of advisers and aides suspected the drop in activity was due to a rift between Havana and Moscow. Publicly, Fidel Castro had welcomed the coming of Romanov to power. The General Secretary had a history of making anti-Castro remarks when he had been a member of the Politburo. The US State Department was making preparations to reach out quietly to Havana and attempt to decipher where the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union stood at the moment.

Until that was clarified, precautionary steps had to be taken. On 7 July, the evacuation of non-essential personnel from Gitmo began. The Florida Air National Guard began dispersing fighters to a number of locations around South Florida. The US Navy could not afford to spare an aircraft carrier to station in the Caribbean at the moment, though it did part with a handful of reserve frigates and destroyers which were originally expected to head north to take part in convoy duty.

Nicaragua was another matter altogether. Daniel Ortega and his Sandinistas would blindly follow Moscow to hell and beyond. He could cause trouble in a variety of ways if he chose to and Washington was fully aware of this. The fattest target for Nicaragua in Central America was the Panama Canal. Disabling it would severely delay the transfer of US Navy ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Instead of transiting the canal, they would be forced to take the long trip south around Cape Horn and up the eastern coast of South America. The methods available to disable the Panama Canal were varied. A bomb exploding at one of the locks would put the canal out of commission indefinitely. A Sandinista attack on the canal could cause equal amounts of damage. Just as effective would be scuttling a merchant ship or other vessel of a similar size somewhere in the waterway.

To prevent either from happening, security at the canal was redoubled. US Southern Command doubled the number of troops it currently had guarding the canal and a number of Panamanian workers were sent home for the duration of the crisis. These men and women were soon replaced by US Navy civilian workers from the United States. Ships belonging to Eastern Bloc and Soviet allied nations were denied permission to transit for the time being. On 7 July, less than 48 hours before war broke out, the US military officially took control of the Panama Canal Zone and would maintain that control until the end of fighting in Europe.