Published Airpower Journal - Summer 1990
DISTRIBUTION A:
Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF

SOVIET MARITIME AIR
OPERATIONS

IMPLICATIONS FOR

US MARITIME STRATEGY

Dr Donald D. Chipman

OVER the years, the US Air Force and Navy have forged joint operational plans to fight the Soviets at sea. This cooperation began in 1982, when the USAF signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Navy. Thereafter, the USAF increased its commitment to maritime operations by assigning B-52s to fly mine-laying missions and Harpoon missile strikes. In recent years, B-52s, E-3As, and F-15s have joined with naval forces in several maritime exercises.

In the fall of 1988, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conducted Teamwork 88, a major exercise in the Norwegian Sea in which the USAF flew more than 50 sorties in 17 days. The highlight of this exercise occurred when B-52s planted capsulated torpedo (CapTor) minefields and then flew several Harpoon strikes against an opposing fleet. Teamwork 88 allowed NATO to evaluate the allies' ability to conduct a maritime campaign in the Norwegian Sea and project forces ashore in northern Norway.1

To ensure a nuclear second-strike capability, the Soviets have established a defensive strategy to protect their ballistic missile submarines stationed in the Barents Sea. Despite all the political changes in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the Soviets have continued to upgrade this submarine program, and defense of these assets remains a high priority. If threatened, the Soviets' Northern Fleet, whose home port is along the Kola Peninsula (USSR), would maneuver into the Norwegian Sea in an attempt to deny an enemy this theater of operations. A large portion of the Northern Fleet's capabilities would come from Soviet air power.

In recent years, the transformation of the Soviets' maritime air operations has caused changes in the nature of this naval air threat. Twenty years ago, Tu-95/142 Bear and Tu-16 Badger aircraft comprised the primary threat over the Norwegian Sea. Then in the late 1970s, Tu-26 Backfire aircraft were assigned to Soviet Naval Aviation (SNA) and were soon flying missions out of the Kola Peninsula and into the Norwegian Sea theater. This sweptwing airctaft--with its low-altitude ability, transonic dash speed, and firepower--significantly enhanced SNA's strike capabilities and complicated allied air defense plans.

Yet, the addition of the Backfire is only the first step in this transformation. Current signs indicate that the Soviets intend to integrate Su-27 Flanker and 11-76 Mainstay aircraft into SNA.2 In addition, by the mid-1990s the Soviets will have a large deck carrier which undoubtedly will be stationed with the Northern Fleet. Ultimately, this carrier will be the centerpiece of a new Soviet naval battle group designed to extend tactical air coverage across the Norwegian Sea and into the North Atlantic.

These are the obvious signs that Soviet maritime air operations are in rapid transition. With Flankers, Mainstays, and a new attack carrier, the Soviets will be able to fly combat coverage across the entire Norwegian Sea. Indeed, this transformation will enhance the Soviet Maritime threat against allied sea-lanes and force US commanders to reconsider tactics in the conduct of Harpoon missile striker, mine-laying missions, and air-to-air combat. To understand this transformation and its implications for US maritime operations, one must examine how those SNA operations originated.

Soviet Naval Aviation, 1970-1989

After World War II, SNA's primary mission was to defend the Soviet Union against US carrier attacks. Toward that end, in the 1950s the Soviets transferred Bears and Badgers from long Range Aviation to SNA.3Thus, by the 1970s Bears and Badgers constituted SNA's primary air defense. To perfect their tactics, these aircraft participated in various maritime exercises, such as Okeon 1975. This exercise began when a Soviet naval task force, posed as an aggressor, sailed out of the North Atlantic and into the Norwegian Sea. Working with reconnaissance aircraft, the older Bears and Badgers--the primary striking force--flew out of the Kola Peninsula and attacked the opposing task group. These sorties were coordinated with strikes against the enemy by Soviet submarines.4

In 1976 the Soviets enhanced their maritime air operations by assigning about 40 Backfires--half of their inventory--to SNA.5 Unlike the Bears and Badgers, the Backfires came directly off the production line into a maritime role. Able to carry two AS-4 Kitchen air-to-surface missiles, the high-speed, long-range Backfire dramatically increased both the SNA's strike capabilities and the threat against NATO's maritime forces.6 In 1979 the US Department of Defense commented on the initial appearance of Backfires:

There is increasing evidence that the Soviet bomber and cruise missile force may be over-taking their submarine force as a threat to our fleet and to our forces necessary for the resupply of Europe. They can concentrate aircraft, coordinate attacks with air, surface, or submarine-1aunched missiles, and use new technology to find our fleet units, jam our defenses and screen their approach.7

From 1976 through the 1980s, the Soviets worked to perfect the Backfire's maritime tactics. For instance, in September 1982 four Backfires approached the carriers USS Midway and Enterprise as these ships were conducting fleet exercises near the Aleutian Islands. At a distance of 120 miles from the carriers, the aircraft simulated release of their cruise missiles. The following day, four more Backfires approached the fleet in another simulated air strike. According to one report, this was the first time that Backfires had flown outside Eurasia.8 These simulated carrier attacks provided an- indication of the Soviets' tactical priorities.

As if to confirm the Backfire's role, late in 1982 Soviet Naval Digest published several articles describing British and Argentine air operations during the Falklands War. The Soviets noted that, in general, air-launched cruise missiles were effective antiship weapons. With only a limited supply of Exocet missiles, commented one Soviet writer, the Argentines successfully hit their targets 50 percent of the time.9 Another article stated that "on the whole, the high effectiveness of cruise missiles in destroying surface ships has been confirmed."10 A 1984 US Navy analysis of SNA's reaction to the Falklands War claimed that the Soviets were quick to see the value of the air-launched missile strikes. This study concluded that since air-to-surface missiles comprised a large part of the SNA's arsenal, Soviet praise of the Exocet was not surprising.11 Thus, the Falklands War provided a rationale for the Soviets to continue perfecting their maritime air operations.

In 1983 the journal Soviet Aerospace estimated that the Soviets were building at least 30 Backfires per year and that SNA had approximately 100 of these aircraft.12 Then in 1984, Backfires flew numerous sorties over the North Atlantic during one of the largest Soviet maritime exercises in over a decade. These operations 'began when the Kirov battle cruiser, escorted by approximately 15 ships, departed the Barents Sea and sailed south into the Norwegian Sea. At the same time, another Soviet surface squadron departed the Baltic Sea and headed toward the Norwegian Sea. Subsequently, Backfires deployed to the Kola Peninsula and began flying simulated strikes against this force.13

The Soviets conducted yet another Norwegian Sea exercise on 4 April 1984. Again, maritime strike aircraft flow several attacks against a simulated enemy task force.14 According to John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy, until 1984 most Soviet maritime exercises defensive in nature; however, the appearance of the Backfires in such numbers and the presence of numerous Soviet ships in the Norwegian Sea clearly eradicated the offensive nature of these maneuvers.15 Thus, by the mid-1980s, there were obvious signs that the Backfire had developed its tactics and was fully integrated into the Soviets' maritime air operations.

After 1984 the Soviets scaled down their naval maneuvers, preferring to conduct exercises near their own coasts. However, they continued to perfect Backfire operations in 1985 by simulating attacks against one of the Kiev-class carriers. In March of that year, the carrier Novorossiysk and an escorting task force departed the Sea of Japan, sailed to the south of Okinawa and then made their way east across the Pacific. After approximately eight days, the ships turned and headed northwest toward the Kuril Islands, simulating an enemy carrier strike against the Soviet Union. As the Novorossiyskapproached the islands, about 700 miles east of Japan, Bears flew reconnaissance missions near the battle group and helped vector some 20 Backfires to their targets. A U.S. Navy description of the Novorossisysk exercise notes that

the force was hit by simulated air strikes and probably by submarines firing torpedoes and cruise missiles from 1120km east of Japan, on 14 April. They came at it with submarines and aircraft--everything they had.16

Throughout these various exercises, the Soviets coordinated their air attacks with submarine strikes. Apparently, the Soviets intend to attack en masse, using every available weapons system and striking from all directions. But recent evidence suggests that even these tactics are changing. In 1987 Norwegian air surveillance spotted Flankers escorting Badgers during simulated ship strikes in the Norwegian Sea.17 Although not officially assigned to SNA, the Flanker has excellent capabilities, including a flight range of approximately 600 miles.18 Marc Liebman states that the Flanker could substantially enhance Soviet maritime air operations:

Su-27s may be tasked to escort Badger/ Backfire bombers to a point where they could launch their long-range cruise missiles at US/ NATO ships or naval bases in Iceland or on the Shetland, Orkney, or Faroe Islands. NATO fighters patrolling the Greenland-Iceland-Norway Gap to protect surface action, convoy, and carrier battle groups would have to engage the Su-27 escorts before they could attack the bombers.19

In addition to the Flankers, the Soviets have deployed Mainstays--airborne early warning and control aircraft--to the Murmansk (port in northwest USSR) region.20 A Soviet version of the USAF's airborne warning and control system (AWACS), the Mainstay can detect remote threats and vector an interceptor such as the Flanker. Its mission is to detect low-flying aircraft and missiles and to help direct fighter operations.21 Apparently, Mainstays, Flankers, and Backfires will fly in concert on coordinated strike missions. These changes are indicative of the progressive transformation of Soviet air operations. indeed, the likelihood of finding and fighting unescorted Backfires is quickly diminishing.

Soviet maritime air operations will be further enhanced by the deployment of the Tblisi,a large deck carrier that will accommodate about 60 aircraft. Although we are not certain about the numbers and types of planes, the now carrier's inventory apparently includes an upgraded Yak-38 Forger--a vertical and/or short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) aircraft.22 Further, Rear Adm Thomas A. Brooks, director of US naval intelligence, told members of Congress that the Soviets plan to launch a second attack carrier by 1993. Aircraft mentioned for service on these carriers include the MiG-29 Fulcrum, the Su-25 Frogfoot, and the Flanker. However, Admiral Brooks points out that "aircraft carrier compatibility testing with Flanker aircraft was accelerated last summer,most likely to develop a credible air wing by the early 1990s."23

Consequently, the assignment of one of these carriers to the Northern Fleet in the early 1990s will allow the Soviets to deploy a carrier battle group to the Norwegian Sea and provide extended combat air patrols for their fleet. With these additional assets, the Soviets will be able to project air power to the North Atlantic and threaten NATO's sea lines of communication. In a recent article in Military Technology, US Navy Lt Comdr Joseph Striewe speculated on the composition of this Northern Fleet carrier battle group. Given the current order of battle, he thinks that it would consist of the following ships:

The Tblisi and Kiev, carriers would provide approximately 90 aircraft of one kind or another for fleet defense. In addition, a Soviet carrier battle group situated in the Norwegian Sea would be sailing within the operating radius of land-based Flankers, Mainstays, and Backfires. Thus, by the early 1990s Soviet battle groups will no longer conduct operations outside of a comprehensive air defense screen. The integration of the Tblisi--along with Flankers, Backfires, and Mainstays--into Soviet Naval Aviation will transform the air operations picture in the Norwegian Sea and complicate US and USAF maritime strategy.

Implications for US Maritime Strategy

These improvements in Soviet maritime air operations have two major implications for US maritime strategy. First, contrary to current Soviet pronouncements, there appears to be no apparent change in Soviet naval policies. Second, US military commanders will have to rethink how B-52s, AWACS aircraft, F-15s, and the US striking fleet will counter the new Soviet maritime threat.

The configuration and deployment of the aforementioned Soviet assets indicate that the USSR wishes to extend tactical air coverage at sea and sustain a sea-power building program developed by Adm Sergei Gorshkov, father of the modern Soviet navy. Evidently, the late naval commander in chief's plans for a balanced navy have not been curtailed by the current Soviet administration. As early as the 1960s, Gorshkov wanted a balanced, blue-water navy which included air assets, In his book The Sea Power of the State, Gorshkov claimed that during World War II, the Germans never appreciated how aircraft could complement fleet operations: "The German Command under-estimated the role of aviation in the operations at sea." Indeed, he continued, "This to no small degree was promoted by the resistance of Goering to the creation of naval aviation."25

Thus, Gorshkov set out to ensure that naval air would be included in plans for constructing a balanced fleet. Because the Soviets had no aircraft carriers in the late 1960s, they had to use land-based aircraft for distant tactical air coverage of their fleet. In the 1970s under Gorshkov's direction, the Soviets built the first Kiev-class aircraft carrier and stationed Yak-38 Forgers on board. However, because Forgers performed poorly, the Kiev provided only limited maritime air defense. After launching more of these smaller vessels, the Soviets decided to fulfill a Gorshkov dream by building two large attack carriers.

Basically, then, the recent transformation of Soviet maritime air operations is a manifestation of Gorshkov's plan to build a balanced, blue-water navy around an attack carrier battle group. Even though General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev has offered to scrap older ships and has discussed ways to disarm, the Soviets have not significantly altered their shipbuilding programs. Nor have they abandoned Gorshkov's dream of launching a balanced navy. Indeed, one report claims that the Soviets have started building third major attack carrier similar to the Tblisi.26 Despite Gorbachev's pronouncements, the deployment of Flankers, Mainstays, and now attack carriers indicates that Soviet naval policies have not changed and that building a balanced navy remains a high priority.

The changes in Soviet maritime air operations also have implications for US maritime doctrine. At present, Air Force and Navy air tactics call for attacking the Backfires before they can launch their missiles. Because Backfires formerly flow without escorts and without long-range radar coverage, Navy F-14s or Air Force F-15s planned to fly straight toward the Backfires and attack them. However, if Flankers--vectored by Mainstays--are to escort Backfires, our old air tactics will not suffice. Obviously, the F-15s and F-14s will have to fight their way through combat air patrols to get to the Backfires. Thus, their success will depend on our ability to destroy or deceive the Mainstays. This in itself is sufficient justification to support the stealth fighter program and the deployment of advanced tactical fighters on board US aircraft carriers.

As mentioned earlier, in Teamwork 88, unescorted B-52s flew Harpoon strikes and mine-laying missions. But if attack carriers provide combat air coverage for Soviet fleets, B-52s will no longer be able to fly without protection. The Air Force, therefore, should consider stationing F-16s and KC-10s at Loring AFB, Maine, and tasking them to fly with the B-52s. After tanking off a KC-10 and receiving vectors from an Iceland-based AWACS, F-16s could accompany B-52s on Harpoon missions and provide air coverage while the bombers are planting minefields. Just as long-range P-51 Mustangs accompanied B-17s over Germany in World War II, so could F-16s from Loring and F-15s from Iceland escort B-52s On future missions against the Soviets.

In most NATO maritime exercises, American carrier battle groups face a simulated enemy comprised primarily of surface ships and land-based aircraft. Seldom, if ever, is the enemy force endowed with the fighting power of an attack carrier. And when AWACS aircraft participate, they are assigned only to the friendly forces. But if the USSR is able to deploy a carrier battle group and Mainstays to the Norwegian Sea, NATO should add these aspects of the Soviet threat to its maritime exercises. Specifically, NATO should screen the simulated enemy carrier with submarines, surface combatants, and aircraft. Furthermore, Air Force E-3As should be used for Mainstays; F-14s, F-15s, or F-18s for Flankers; F-111s for Backfires; and A-6s for Yak-36s. In short, before the Soviets actually deploy their new carrier battle groups, allied maritime air operations need to be tested under realistic conditions.

Although detailed tactics for opposing Soviet carrier battle groups have yet to be perfected, one fact remains clear: the Soviets are upgrading their maritime air operations. In the 1960s they had no carriers and, therefore, relied on their Bears and Badgers. However, the 1970s and the 1980s saw the addition of Backfires and the construction of attack carriers. If two new attack carriers--together with Backfires, Flankers, and Mainstays--are available by the mid-1990s, the Soviets will have substantially enhanced their maritime capabilities. Now is the time to prepare for this threat by adapting US maritime tactics and weapons to effectively counter the improvements in Soviet air operations.

Notes

1. Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, Public Affairs Office, "NATO Amphibious Forces Land in Northern Norway" (Norfolk,Va.: Commander in Chief Atlantic, Fleet Compound, 19 September 1988).

2. Tonne Huitfeldt, "Soviet Tu-16 Badgers in Norwegian Sea Exercise," Jane's Defence Weekly, 27 June 1987, 1345; Nick Cook, "Soviet 11-76 Pictured over Kola Peninsula," ibid., 12 December 1978, 1338.

3. Peter H. Rasmussen, "The Soviet Naval Air Force: Development, Organization and Capabilities." International Defense Review, no. 5 (1978): 689-95.

4. Bruce W. Watson and Marguerite Walton, "Okean-75." US Naval Institute Proceedings, July 1976, 93-97.

5. Rasmussen, 689-95.

6. John W. Taylor, ed., Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1986-87 (London; Jane's Publishing Co., 1987), 267-79.

7. Ibid., 268.

8. "New Soviet Bombers Fake Strike against U.S. Navy," Washington Post, 9 November 1982, 16; "Soviet Backfires Simulate Attacks against U.S. Carrier," Soviet Aerospace, 15 November 1982, 70.

9. B. Rodinov and Y. N. Novichkov, "Electronic Warfare in the South Atlantic." Selected Translations from Morskoi Sbornik, no. 1 (1983): 61-77.

10. I. Uskov, "Lessons of the Anglo-Argentine Conflict and the Role of Surface Ships in Conflict at Sea," Selected Translations from Morskoi Sbornik, no. 11 (1982): 102-13.

11. Richard N. Papworth, Soviet Navy Reactions to the Falkland Island Conflict, Defense Technical Information Center Technical Report (Alexandria, Va.: Defense Technical Information Center, 1984), 78-79.

12. "Soviets Building 26-40 Backfires a Year," Soviet Aerospace, 21 March 1983. 77-78.

13. Rodney Cowton, "Pact Ships Mass in Atlantic," The Times (London), 3 April 1984, 6.

14. R. van Tol, "Soviet Naval Exercises,1983-85," Naval Forces, no. 6 (1986) 18-35.

15. William Smith, "Moscow's Muscle Flexing," Time, 16 April 1984, 28-30; Fay Willey, "Strategy: A Test for NATO at Sea," Newsweek, 16 April 1984, 46.

16. Walter Andrews, "Soviets' 9-Ship Show Impressed Most." Washington Times, 18 April 1985, 4; Richard Gross, "Soviet Naval Forces Simulate US Aircraft Carrier Attack," Jane's Defense Weekly, 27 April 1985, 701; Kensuke Ebata, "Speed Is the Key for Soviets in Pacific," ibid., 18 May 1985, 833.

17. Huitfeldt, 1345.

18. "Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker Fighter in Close-up," Jane's Defense Weekly, 22August 1987, 338-39.

19. Marc Liebman, "Flanker Aircraft Threatens Norwegian Sea," Armed Forces Journal International, October 1987, 52.

20. Cook, 1338.

21. Ibid.

22. Marc Liebman, "The New Soviet Carrier," Defense Electronics,March 1989, 55-60.

23. "Soviets Launch Second Large Aircraft Carrier," Soviet Aerospace, 6 March 1989, 1-5.

24. Joseph Striewe, " Soviet Carrier Battle Group on the Horizon?" Military Technology, June 1989, 26-31.

25. Adm S. G. Gorshkov, The Sea Power of the State, (Annapolis, Md.; Naval Institute Press, 1979), 262.

26. Peter Howard, "Soviet Third Carrier Built Confirmed," Jane's Defence Weekly, 8 April 1989, 583.


Contributor

Donald D. Chipman (BA, California State University, Chico; MS and PhD, Florida State University) is the educational advisor to the commandant, Squadron Officer School, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and a retired commander in the US Naval Reserve. Dr Chipman is coauthor of two books on the philosophy of education and has published articles in several academic and military journals, including Air University Review.


Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


[ Back Issues | Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor ]