In 2013, a former Soviet Navy officer named Maksim Y. Tokarev penned an article in the U.S. Naval War College Review called Kamikazes: The Soviet Legacy. In the piece, Tokarev details how the USSR intended to use its Tupolev-22M Backfire bombers, a plan that had not been previously released.
The Soviets looked at Japanese tactics in WWII. They recognized Japan still had a fleet of capital ships but by then the nature of naval warfare had changed. Massive U.S. carriers became roving air forces in the oceans. Since much of their own naval and air forces were at the bottom of the Pacific, there was no way for the Japanese to effectively engage the U.S. forces.
The best way they could devise was a strategy as old as aviation in warfare: conduct the earliest possible strike to inflict such damage that the opponent is unable to launch its air forces. By 1944, the Japanese began these asymmetrical suicide attacks, widely known as kamikaze.
By the late 70s and early 80s, the Soviets were unable to create a carrier fleet to compete with the U.S. economically and politically. But they still had to create a strategy to deter U.S. Navy carrier task forces. So their idea was still centered around air combat, but their forces would be land-based, close to Soviet coastlines.
The tactics weren’t intended to look like kamikaze attacks, but in practice, not many Soviet sailors and airmen would be returning from these missions.
The USSR’s naval air force planned to send a fleet of 100 bombers armed with anti-ship missiles against any US aircraft carrier battle group, fully expecting to lose half of them to enemy action. This number would increase by 100 for every carrier. In their defense, these were calculated losses. Soviet planners wanted to slow the reactions of the task force’s entire air-defense system, to produce a “golden time” to launch a calculated missile strike.
Soviet planners learned U.S. interceptor crews were dependent on the opinions of air controllers, so the planners needed to find a way to fool those officers, to overload their sensors or relax their sense of danger by making attacking forces appear to be decoys, which were in reality full, combat-ready strikes.
In contrast, Soviet naval air forces did not trust the targeting information they got from satellites or other intelligence methods. To Soviet pilots, the most reliable source was the direct-tracking ship, a ship shadowing the U.S. fleet constantly sending back coordinates just in case war breaks out.
That’s not all. If war did break out, the shadowing ship was toast, and her captain knew it. So he was prepared to take appropriate action. Tokarev writes:
“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 attacking planes would launch missiles from maximum range to distract the American crews while two reconnaissance TU-16 Badgers would attempt to breach into the center of the task force formation to find carriers visually, their only task to send its exact position to the entire division by radio.
No one in the Badger crews counted on a return flight. They were very aware they were flying a suicide mission.
“Why we are not getting a full tank of fuel, Vasily?”
Once the carrier was located, the main attack group would launch their missiles. Two to three strike groups would approach from different directions and at different altitudes. The main launch had to be made simultaneously by all planes.
The “golden time” opening for the missiles was just “one minute for best results, no more than two minutes for satisfactory ones. If the timing became wider in an exercise, the entire main attack was considered unsuccessful.”
The Soviets calculated twelve hits by conventional missiles would be needed to sink a carrier but single nuclear missile hit could produce the same result.
Because of the difficulty and accident rates associated with bailing out of, abandoning, or even in-flight refueling many Soviet-designed bombers, Soviet Naval Air Force bomber crews considered themselves suicide bombers anyway (even without an enemy). Officers on guided-missile ships assisting in a Soviet air raid counted on surviving a battle against a U.S. Navy carrier air wing for twenty or thirty minutes, tops.
All in all, the expected loss rate was 50 percent of a full strike, whether or not the objective number of U.S. or NATO warships were successfully hit.