A Soviet Backfire bomber escorted by a Norwegian F-16, 1988. (Wikipedia.)

My thanks to colleague Anthony Bubalo for alerting me to this extraordinary 2013 paper published by the US Naval War College all about how the Soviet Union planned to hit America's aircraft carrier fleet in the event of war (h/t also to Information Dissemination, where Anthony found the paper).

The article is written by former Soviet naval officer Maksim Tokarev, and contains a depth of detail about Soviet military operations that I have never seen before. So there's plenty of red meat for the military wonks, including the fact that the Soviets planned to send a fleet of 100 bombers armed with anti-ship missiles against a US aircraft-carrier battle group, fully expecting to lose half of them to enemy action.

But there's also wit and drama, which you rarely find in these types of papers. Here's an account of an air-crew briefing for a mock raid by Soviet Backfire bombers (pictured) on a US carrier fleet somewhere in the Pacific:

...a young second lieutenant...fresh from the air college, asked the senior navigator of the regiment, an old major: “Sir, tell me why we have a detailed flight plan to the target over the vast ocean, but only a rough dot-and-dash line across Hokkaido Island on way back?”

“Son,” answered the major calmly, “if your crew manages to get the plane back out of the sky over the carrier by any means, on half a wing broken by a Phoenix (ed. note: the name of a missile carried by the US Navy's F-14 fighters) and a screaming prayer, no matter whether it’s somewhere over Hokkaido or directly through the moon, it’ll be the greatest possible thing in your entire life!”

Tokarev also writes that the naval air force, tasked with sending its bombers against US carrier fleets, did not trust the targeting information they got from satellites or other intelligence methods. 'The most reliable source of targeting of carriers at sea was the direct-tracking ship' or 'd-tracker', a destroyer or other ship that shadows the US fleet constantly in peacetime, sending back coordinates just in case war breaks out. And when it does?

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...He could even ram the carrier, and some trained their ship's companies to do so; the image of a “near miss,” of the bow of a Soviet destroyer passing just clear of their own ship's quarter, is deeply impressed in the memory of some people who served on board US aircraft carriers in those years.

One other incredible detail about the targeting of US carrier battle groups:

...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 US 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...While obsolete, strictly speaking, and very limited in information flow, Morse wireless communication was long the most serviceable for the Soviet Navy, owing to its simplicity and reliability.