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 of this series here.
By Jon Solomon
Was U.S. Navy Tactical Deception Effective?
Since Backfire needed pathfinder support, the U.S. Navy’s key to disrupting if not decapitating a raid by the former was to defeat the latter. As part of my thesis research, I came across much circumstantial evidence that the U.S. Navy’s combination of strict Emission Control (EMCON) discipline, decentralized command and control doctrine, occasional use of lower campaign-value warships to simulate high campaign-value warships, and perhaps even occasional use of electronic jamming gave SOSS controllers and Soviet reconnaissance assets fits during real-world operations. Still, I did not come across any authoritative Russian perspectives on whether or how these U.S. Navy counter-targeting efforts affected Soviet doctrine, tactics, or confidence. That’s what makes the following comment from Tokarev so interesting:
“Moreover, knowing the position of the carrier task force is not the same as knowing the position of the carrier itself. There were at least two cases when in the center of the formation there was, instead of the carrier, a large fleet oiler or replenishment vessel with an enhanced radar signature (making it look as large on the Backfires’ radar screens as a carrier) and a radiating tactical air navigation system. The carrier itself, contrary to routine procedures, was steaming completely alone, not even trailing the formation. To know for sure the carrier’s position, it was desirable to observe it visually.”(Tokarev, Pg. 77)
He goes on to describe a special reconnaissance-attack group of sacrificial bombers that might be detached from an inbound raid to penetrate a naval formation and visually identify the primary targets. Only with positive target designations from these pathfinders, or perhaps from TU-95RT Bear-D reconnaissance aircraft preceding the raid, could Backfire crews have any confidence the single missile they each carried was aimed at a valid and valuable target (Tokarev, Pg. 72, 77). Even then, he observes that “Contrary to widespread opinion, no considerable belief was placed in the ability of launched missiles to resist ECM efforts” (Tokarev, Pg. 75), indicating recognition that the countertargeting battle hardly ended with missile launch.
The one exception to the above contact classification and identification problems would have been a war-opening first salvo attack, in which targeting-quality cues could have been provided to Backfires or other anti-ship missile-carrying assets by any tattletale ships following a carrier closely. While noting the tattletale tactic’s high potential efficacy, Tokarev makes clear it could only be used in peacetime and would never again be possible following hostilities’ outbreak:
“Despite the existence of air reconnaissance systems such as Uspekh, satellite systems like Legenda, and other forms of intelligence and observation, the most reliable source of targeting of carriers at sea was the direct-tracking ship. Indeed, if you see a carrier in plain sight, the only problem to solve is how to radio reliably the reports and targeting data against the U.S. electronic countermeasures. Ironically, since the time lag of Soviet military communication systems compared to the NATO ones is quite clear, the old Morse wireless telegraph used by the Soviet ships was the long-established way to solve that problem. With properly trained operators, Morse keying is the only method able to resist active jamming in the HF band… But the direct tracker was definitely no more than another kind of kamikaze. It was extremely clear that if a war started, these ships would be sent to the bottom immediately. Given that, the commanding officer of each had orders to behave like a rat caught in a corner: at the moment of war declaration or when specifically ordered, after sending the carrier’s position by radio, he would shell the carrier’s flight deck with gunfire, just to break up the takeoff of prepared strikes, fresh CAP patrols, or anything else.” (Tokarev, Pg. 80)
Preventing a tattletale from maintaining track on a carrier accordingly reduced the chances for successfully striking that carrier. Additionally, since not all carriers would be operating forward at the time of the first salvo, those withheld in areas tattletales could not readily access would be more or less immune from large-scale attacks. This would leave the Backfires overwhelmingly dependent upon pathfinders in any later raid attempt.
It should be obvious that EW (and its contemporary cousin, cyber warfare) or tactical deception capabilities on their own are not going to deter an adversary from embarking upon some form of conventional aggression. The adversary’s decision to seek war will always be politically-driven, and the possibility of aggression out of desperation vice opportunism cannot be discounted. To the extent that political and military leaders’ latent psychological perceptions of their forces’ strengths and weaknesses influence their war making calculus, though, efforts to erode an opponent’s confidence in his most doctrinally important military capabilities can induce him to raise his political threshold for resorting to war. Tokarev’s observations therefore imply that Soviet commanders understood the likely cost in their crews’ lives that would be necessary just to provide a raid a chance at success, and that complicating variables such as the U.S. Navy’s demonstrated counter-targeting competencies only made the whole endeavor seem more uncertain and costly. The impact upon general deterrence, while immeasurable in any real sense, obviously was not insignificant.
In part three of the series, an examination of the deception tactics that might have been employed by Backfire raids.
Jon Solomon is a Senior Systems and Technology Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. in Alexandria, VA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.