Deception and the Backfire Bomber: Part Three

The following article is part of our cross-posting partnership with Information Dissemination’s Jon Solomon. It is republished here with the author’s permission. It can be read it in its original form here.

Read part one and part two of this series. 

By Jon Solomon

The Great Equalizer: Backfire Raiders’ Own Use of Deception

The key to improving a Soviet maritime bomber raid’s odds of success appears to have been its own use of EW and tactical deception. Tokarev observes that SNAF doctrine developers closely monitored U.S. Navy carriers’ Combat Air Patrol (CAP) tactics and operational patterns, with particular interest on patrol cycle durations and aerial refueling periods, to identify possible windows of vulnerability that could be exploited in a large-scale attack (Tokarev, Pg. 69). He further observes that SNAF doctrine developers concluded U.S. Navy CAP crews were “quite dependent” upon direction by tactical controllers embarked in area air defense-capable surface combatants or E-2 Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft. This meant

“…the task of the attackers could be boiled down to finding a way to fool those officers—either to overload their sensors or, to some degree, relax their sense of danger by posing what were to their minds easily recognizable decoys, which were in reality full, combat-ready strikes. By doing so the planners expected to slow the reactions of the whole air-defense system, directly producing the “golden time” needed to launch the missiles.” (Tokarev, Pg 75)

In practice, this entailed extensive use of chaff to clutter and confuse the E-2s’ and surface combatants’ radar pictures, not to mention to create ‘corridors’ for shielding inbound raiders from radar detection. This probably also involved using elements of the sacrificial reconnaissance-attack group mentioned earlier to draw attention away from the other penetrating pathfinders. Most interestingly, Tokarev mentions that the raid’s main attack group included a “demonstration group.” When combined with his statement that only seventy to eighty of the bombers in an air division-strength raid would be carrying missiles, this suggests some of the bombers might have been specifically intended to attract their opponent’s attention and then withdraw from contact—the very definition of a deceptive demonstration (Tokarev, Pg 73, 77). As a Backfire raid would be conducted from perhaps two or three attack axes, a demonstration group could hypothetically cause a significant portion of available CAP resources—not to mention the carrier group’s overall tactical attention—to be focused towards one sector while the main attack would actually come from other sectors. Any missiles launched by the CAP against the demonstration group (or the reconnaissance-attack group for that matter) would obviously no longer be available when the main attack group arrived on scene. In this way, enough of the main group might survive long enough to actually launch their missiles, and maybe longer still to escape homeward.

The reconnaissance-attack and demonstration groups might also have been used to induce the carrier group to break out of restrictive EMCON and thereby help clarify the situational picture for the rest of the bombers. Enticing warships to light off their air search radars—and for the pre-Aegis combatants, missile-directing radars—would have provided some high confidence indications of which contacts were surface combatants and which were not. A similar effect might result if the Soviet tactics resulted in U.S. and NATO warships ceasing radio-silence as the carrier group oriented itself to defend against the perceived inbound threat. Still, as the carrier and any carrier-simulating decoy ships present might refrain from radiating telltale radars or engaging in telltale radio communications even under these conditions, the raid’s deceptions would not necessarily help pinpoint the carrier. They would, though, reduce the number of contacts requiring direct visual identification by pathfinders—perhaps dramatically. They would also likely help the raid’s air defense suppression group designate targets for jamming or anti-radar missile attack.

None of this should be surprising to those who have read Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. The novel’s famous first battle at sea begins with a Badger group lobbing target drones towards a NATO carrier task force from far outside the latter’s AEW radar coverage. Equipped with ‘radar blip enhancers’ that allow them to simulate bombers, the drones present themselves using a formation and flight profile that easily convinces the task force’s air defenses they are facing an actual raid. The resultant ruse fools the task force’s F-14 fighters into wasting their AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missiles against these decoys, essentially denuding the task force of its outer defensive layer. This is readily exploited by a Backfire group approaching from a different axis, with disastrous consequences for the task force’s warships.

Nor should any of this be surprising to students of the first Gulf War. While U.S. Air Force F-117’s were rightly heralded as having penetrated all the way to Baghdad with impunity on Operation Desert Storm’s opening night, their ease in doing so was paved by a joint U.S. Air Force and Navy deception titled SCATHE MEAN. In this little-known mission that closely emulated Clancy’s fictional scenario, the two services launched BQM-74 target drones and ADM-141 Tactical Air Launched Decoys to distract Iraqi Very High Frequency surveillance radar operators from detecting the inbound F-117s, seduce the Iraqis into expending precious Surface to Air Missiles against the bait, and induce these SAM sites into exposing their search and fire control radars to U.S. anti-radar missile attacks.

In Part Four, the ingredients for countering such deceptions.

Jon Solomon is a Senior Systems and Technology Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. in Alexandria, VA. He can be reached at The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency. These views have not been coordinated with, and are not offered in the interest of, Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. or any of its customers.

One thought on “Deception and the Backfire Bomber: Part Three”

  1. This excellent article again reinforces the fact that at the tactical level of war at sea, one key to success is denying the enemy the information required for targeting of US forces. As evidenced in this series of articles, the planning and execution of efforts to deny, deceive, disrupt, and/or destroying enemy capabilities for the targeting of the fleet is complex and nuanced. It requires detailed and sophisticated planning supported by detailed technical intelligence on enemy sensor and platform performance characteristics; “eye watering” tactical situation awareness when in EMCON; rapid transition of active sensors and data links from standby to active operation; and, systems capable of denying information to or deceiving enemy attacking forces.

    These activities at the tactical level fall under the definition of Information Warfare. However, the Navy Information Warfare Community remains overwhelmingly focused on the warfare support activities provided by the Naval Intelligence, Naval Cryptology, and METOC support specialties. While this community supports shipboard EW and cryptologic capabilities, there is little evidence to indicate that the community has accepted responsibility for mission analysis, war gaming, doctrine, tactics, capabilities, manning, readiness and training for all of the somewhat esoteric aspects of Information Warfare at the tactical level.

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