For a brief, shining moment, the most
powerful ship the Soviets possessed was a warship named MINSK.
His designation (Russians feel warships are masculine) was a TAKR, or
Aircraft-Carrying Heavy Missile Cruiser.
That pretty much summed up this Man o' War. From an Empire built on
repression and darkness, this looming steel leviathan came under the Southern
Cross, and toward us.
He was built in the Black Sea, and with
fitting out completed, the MINSK
was assigned to the distant Red Banner Pacific Fleet. The Point A of this math problem is in
Euro-Asia's land-locked Black Sea, some 20,000 sea miles from Point B, the Far
East Russian city of Vladivostok.
This class of ship is hugely expensive to
build. The economy of the Soviet Union sagged under the burden of producing
gigantic submarines and warships such as these.
For propaganda purposes though, nothing could compare with the image of
an aircraft carrier launching warplanes.
So, the Russian shipyards at Nikolaev began to
crank out these giants.
The lead ship was called KIEV, and it caused quite a stir the first
time it sailed. The Western/NATO nations
had grown accustomed to owning the oceans and these new ships were built to
take some of those waters away. KIEV had the muscle to do
Unlike any other Carriers, the KIEV-class
carried more offensive punch than just his jets. Heavy, long range anti-ship missiles bristled
on the deck, along with rapid fire cannons in several dual mounts. Some 20 weapon systems studded the brute,
most all from its blunt bow. Everywhere,
there was another gun, torpedo, missile, or radar.
But, of course the jewelled daggers in any
Navy are its jets. KIEV had a long, straight orange flight deck
that could handle two dozen rocket-armed jump jets, similar to our HARRIER
jump-jets. In addition, the ship carried
a handful of helicopters adapted to guiding passing missiles to distant
targets. The whole package sailed with
several heavy cruisers, acting as a nucleus for a Strike Battle Group, capable
of operating anywhere we could. And some
places, apparently, that we could not.
This was unacceptable to us. With each trip, we followed the KIEV and its
escorts. Strangely, it preferred home
waters, and rarely peeked out from under its protective umbrella of land-based
Early in 1983, Unit #2 was completed, and the
pristine, proud warship was christened MINSK. It was a near copy of KIEV, with the exception that its ceramic
tile Flight Deck was pale green, vice the odd orange of the earlier ship.
Immediately, it was dispatched to join the
fleet at Vladivostok
on the far side of the Asian Continent.
The journey would truly begin at the Dardanelles
Strait, at Istanbul,
then out of the Mediterranean and South down the coast of Africa. Next, around the Cape,
within spitting distance of Antarctica and across the trackless void of the Indian Ocean.
That was the first half of the voyage!
On through the Mallaccan Straits at Singapore,
the South China Sea, Sea of Japan, and
ultimately to the chill waters of Vlad. We had 20,000 miles to study
the Soviet's shiny new toy, as it travelled intently toward the Far East.
MINSK rounded the lower tip of Africa and headed North, into the range of
stationed on Diego Garcia in the center of the Indian Ocean.
We calculated that the enemy ship would be
within range of our bombers for two weeks.
I trained on anti-submarine helicopters,
but the Navy had attached me to a Patrol Wing command unit on the little rock
called Diego Garcia. It was an odd
setup, but I filled a niche in RECCO (Warship/aircraft Recognition) and
Tactics, preparing the flightcrews that went out
against the Soviets.
During this time, I briefed the crews, then rode along as an extra set of trained eyes and my
photographs were sometimes better than those of the crew.
A crew showed up, bleary and bouncy from
the ride from Splinterville to begin the three-hour
preflight of the large, capable
bomber. One Command crew briefed the
crew and provided information on Order of Battle
(who has what toys), radars and weapons, and probable sailing routes of the
opposing ships. In the night, a
satellite had detected only scattered ships, but we felt we knew where the MINSK might be.
We realized that an educated guess might
bring us as close as our technology
and there was a logical reason for our wager.
Besides, Admirals don't like to hear, "I don't know."
The dispersed group, now called the Soviet Indian Ocean Squadron
(SOVINDRON), was monitoring every radio call we made from the air or the
island. Each transmission brought a
subtle shift on the board, as we each made our gigantic chessboard moves. The large scale version of chess was
intricate and had been fatal to each participant in the past.
The big four-engined
ORION bomber flew out, climbing North toward 18,000
feet. There is nothing in the skies over
the steel gray Indian Ocean, except clouds
that stretch on forever. We were heading
to the "Eight
Channel", a common path that any sailor of
these oceans knew well.
There were several ways to transit across
the expanse from Cape Town to Singapore, but the most efficient way led North
to the un-allied country of India, then due East toward the Mallaccan
straits. It was a very long passage with
little to disrupt the tedium for the Soviets, except hiding from us.
Just South of the
tip of India,
we approached the Eight-Degree Channel with dawn streaking the heavens. Dawn happens as much as half an hour earlier
up at altitude than at sea level, and the clouds in
the middle play havoc on visibility as they pass through the day/night
demarcation. Under these conditions, it
is impossible to see down through the clouds, or up.
Ten US Navy flyers sat at windows on the
bomber, straining our eyes to catch sight of a wake. It seems strange that we have so much in
common with the men who fought in the 1942 Battle of Midway, hoping to catch
sight of their enemy under identical circumstances. So much for technology!
The Major, a 3P (Third,
or spare pilot) that I didn't know, and Gabe the Flight Engineer, all sat in
the cockpit driving us northward. The cloud layer was scattered perhaps five to
eight thousand feet below us making visibility truly horrid.
I walked up the tube to the radar operator
to check his logs. He also handled the
equipment that would detect any probing flashes of the Soviet's RADARs, as they in turn, searched for us. That day, there were no intercepts to guide
us. Chess by feel, in the shadowed
I climbed up into the ORION's
cockpit and slid into the corner behind the Major's elbow. He wore big padded headphones and Raybans, looking like he would be comfortable hunting
U-Boats 50 years earlier. A career
long-range pilot, he was completely at ease in these skies South of India.
"Nothing yet, Spy." I looked out his side window at the
impenetrable patterns of cloud and shadow on the water below. The mist hid everyone, friend and foe. We had arrived in our search area, so the Major
nosed the big plane into a shallow dive, picking up speed as we dropped. Each lower level of clouds seemed to dissolve
as the suns advancing rays brushed against them. Our thick white contrail strung out behind us
like an exclamation mark through the clouds.
Breaking through a layer, Gabe (shaven
headed, muscular, guitar playing Gabriel) pointed out ahead of our diving
bomber and announced, "Ship!"
The ship slowly coalesced into a
recognizable shape, and in a moment, I realized that I knew what it was. My job, stupid.
"That's a Soviet water carrier. Called a MANYCH, I'm pretty sure. No reason for it to be out here
alone." The Major nodded, and as
the crew discussed the probabilities, we rose and turned,
regaining the clouds. In our aircraft's
tactical gray paintjob, we were invisible as we passed the ship's stern.
The crew clicked into a different mode,
with each man performing their own precise chore as we approached the lurking
Red carrier. Just two days earlier, the
aircraft carrier's lead escort ship (the cruiser TASHKENT) had fired on this same American
ORION. The short range missile was
judged to never actually have been a "threat". After 23 years of duty against the Soviets,
it appeared this old bomber was heading toward yet another confrontation at
"That..." The nose of our ORION nudged slightly further
North. The Major leaned forward in his
seat, intently eyeing the distant horizon.
He did not put any other words in his sentence, but the word quickly
passed through the crew. We began a full
power climb, leaning back until the Lockheed P-3 bomber was pointed at the
still dawning sky. The MINSK was nearly under us as the clouds
poured by - the
time to "on top" ticked off.
We were going to "pop up", then dive low on the water,
simulating one method of attack.
Now, my question is, why do this over a
warship crew that is new and itching to prove itself for its own Navy, and
Nation? Well, on that day in 1983, it
was our job.
Gabriel leaned forward and left, in concert
with the Major's control imputs. The big bird obeyed, and we swum up and over,
to dive upon the enemy warship, 18,000 feet below.
Like every war movie, our aircraft raised
its voice to a howl as it fell out of the sky toward its prey. We made a dive to a point some three miles
away, to suddenly appear off the Soviet aircraft carrier's side, to fly over
the wake or past the nose of the giant warship.
With glaring finality, the dawn arrived to
wash the night away. On board the Red
warship, men yawned and stretched after a long night on watch or sleeping to
the machinery sounds of their ship.
Astern, an American destroyer from a bygone
era slipped into the MINSK's
broad wake, and the game is on again.
The much larger, newer, and more efficient Soviet ship began a
high-speed run toward the 8-Degree Channel, only a couple of nautical miles
distant. With all the speed the 1950's
had to offer, the USS Towers pursued the retiring MINSK.
The sailors on the bridge of the MINSK must have enjoyed
that brief moment, as the American fell further and further behind. Then, the tension of the second was broken
loudly by the cry of the Starboard Watch.
Seamen swung their heads to the direction of the new threat. We had arrived.
In a classic profile of a torpedo attack
from amid-ships, we strained out of our dive at 100 feet above the Indian Ocean. The
Soviets were within sight of the Channel, and the entry to the Bay of Bengal.
Hundreds of miles from any American base, we roared low and fast and
LOUD at our enemy.
Klaxons wailed, men ran to their posts,
powerful systems sprang to life all over the Aircraft Carrier. The numerous weapons systems that the ship
was so well known for began to wink into awareness.
Our approach happened too fast for a
coordinated response. The general
confusion of the moment multiplied by another factor as one of our own lookouts
sang out that a second bomber, a big Ilyushin, was
coming down too! My mind ticked down the
various likely bases for this new intruder, but its Soviet origins were pretty
As we rampaged by at full power, the other
bomber began its run, drawing some of the MINSK's
attention. We sailed by, caught in the
bright illumination of the massive search radar. In that quick, firing-pass second we had time
to snap off dozens of photographs of the new ship, as it scrambled to respond
to our insult.
Scrambled was the operative word! As we CPA'd
(Closest Point of Approach), we were quite close enough to see an immaculate
row of polished, baby blue fighter jets parked tightly on the aircraft
carrier's deck. Of the many men running
across the flightdeck, at least one was clearly a
pilot, in helmet and camo
It was now time for us to make speed out of
there. The pass was over, and we were a
long way from home.
From down the tube, the head of the Sensor
3 poked out to pass the word that we were still being tracked by the ship, rapidly
fading behind us. The specs on that
radar said we had miles to go under their guns and missiles. Gabe coaxed a few more knots out of our old Lockheed, that probably had a huge reserve of untested
Our radio blared to life with an authoritative
voice named "Sky King". On
encrypted circuits, Sky King called, "There is radio traffic on the Soviet
GCI (Ground Control for Interceptor Aircraft) channel. Expect launch imminent." They ended with our callsign,
but we already had figured out who was in trouble. That radar had us spotlighted for the hounds.
Far behind us, the 45 seconds it took to
cold-start a stubby Yakovlev fighter ticked down to
zero. With an ear-shattering bang, the
engines belched to life, screaming like a harpy. The jet's single pilot girded the VTOL
fighter into wobbly, ungainly flight.
The tricky little YAK-38 had a notorious reputation among Soviet pilots,
but on this day, it was a completely unknown quantity to us. We only knew he was coming.
The safety of the wavetops
was now reduced to nothing, so we made the old airman's trade of altitude for
airspeed. You pull up, you loose
speed. The trick is to have the right
mixture of each. Ahead and above us, the
skies were filled with the clouds we had so recently left.
Our information said that the Yak jump jet
was not all-weather, which to us meant that it had trouble doing its mission in
anything except clean air. We ran off,
desperate to find a rain shower.
A few more grains of sand passed, when the
Port Aft Observer yelled, "One bandit, passing under us!" The Major pulled up abruptly to keep us from
getting thumped by the Soviet fighter's close pass. For one dazzling second, we danced an
improbable aerial ballet
-- a propeller-engined, antique ORION
bomber and a shin
ey blue Yakovlev
vertical takeoff fighter. Our size
difference was around 6:1...
Steeply, we swooped up to the protective
anonymity of the clouds while our antagonist rolled past us.
In the next tick, we shuddered and slammed
our way into the whiteout of an open-ocean squall. The large Lockheed was swallowed whole,
forcing the nearly blind jump jet to break off and scoot for home. The YAK-38s Achilles' Heel was extremely
short range, but we were unaware of it.
The aged bomber's many years of active duty
had led to many improvements that created a sturdy, solid airframe,
that was not intimidated by the sudden spring storm. We plowed on ahead,
through the storm, and out of danger.
Far behind us now, the probing spotlight of the Soviet's main search
radar suddenly shut off, and our meeting with the mighty MINSK was over.
Two hours South,
heading home to an island of palm fronds and calm coraline
beaches, we passed another P-3, making the trip to locate the MINSK.
Our contact report was sent, and the second Lockheed continued outbound,
looking for trouble.
Our mission ended with tires smoking on the
runway of Diego Garcia, in the midst of a torrential tropical down-pour. The photos came out excellent -- the type of sortie was our
equivalent of "tagging the bear".
went on to serve with distinction in the Red Banner Pacific Fleet, until the
fall of the Soviet Union. Freedom ripped its teeth out, and sold its
engines and deck tiles for scrap. With
sadness, I watched the moment of this ship's vitality pass.
The gleaming symbols of the vanquished
empire sank quietly at their piers in the harbors of Vladivostok, victims of
neglect and the passage of time. Rust
claimed the MINSK, the TASHKENT, and dozens of others.