Air Defense of the Giuk Gap: F-15 Eagle Territory

The Greenland, Iceland and United Kingdom air defense sector, better known as the Giuk Gap, was routinely utilized by the USSR’s long range heavy bombers and maritime reconnaissance platforms as a transit point towards the Atlantic Ocean. The pattern started when the Soviet Union decided to deployed their bombers or recon aircraft from bases located at Archangel and Murmansk. After departing the USSR’s airspace, the planes would stream down to the North Cape in Norway towards the Gap which was used as a doorway to the vast Atlantic. Most of the Soviet missions were destined to probe United States’ air defense along the North Atlantic and in the Caribbean where Cuba, the USSR’s most important satellite state outside continental Europe, rested. Such was the perceived threat from the Soviet incursions that it became a priority for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to demonstrate that the strategic Giuk passage would be monitored at all times. The best way to achieve this was to intercept and shadow all Soviet transits in and from the Gap.

The best opportunity to do this was when a formation flew through the relatively narrow space that separates Greenland and Great Britain. In the middle of this ‘gap’ lay the small country of Iceland. Iceland became a full time member of NATO in 1949, but due to its complete lack of military resources and the threat of Soviet air power, the country’s leaders officially agreed on May 5th 1951 to house what would become NATO’s most important North Atlantic base outside the UK, Keflavik. The new facility immediately became the home of the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) or the ‘Black Knights’, in the fall of 1954. At first, the 1951 agreement called for the FIS to take direct action only if the country’s territory was penetrated but things changed a decade later when Fidel Castro’s Cuba became a communist nation. From that moment on, Soviet aircraft utilized more frequently the Gap in order to make calls to Cuban airbases and airports in an attempt to probe deeper inside the US eastern seaboard defensive area. To meet this threat, the US Air Force equipped the 57th with advanced fighter aircraft. In 1962 the FIS was augmented by the amazing F-102. In 1973, the big F-4C Phantom replaced the 102 as the force mainstay. A new Phantom, the F-4E, was incorporated to the 57th in the summer of 1978.

By 1984, the USSR had amassed a considerable submarine launched ballistic missile capability which complemented their already powerful ICBM force. The vast majority of the Soviet SSNB submarines, known as ‘boomers’, were based at Archangel and Murmansk. Their pre-launch stations were usually in the White Sea sector. Because of this, the US Navy devoted a large portion of its SSN submarines or ‘hunter killers’ to locate and then follow the movement of all Soviet SSNB boomers in the White Sea. To perform this task, US SSNs ran through the Giuk Gap en route to their patrol areas. To counteract the Americans, the Soviet navy began a pattern of deploying an ever increasing numbers of modified Bears, called Bear F, in an effort to track the US SSNs boats before they entered the Sea.

In another countermove, the US assigned its best fighter jet, the impressive F-15C/Ds to the 57th FIS. In November 1985, the first of twelve F-15C/Ds arrived at Keflavik. The Eagles stationed at the Iceland base were different from its North American counterparts. They were fitted with Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT). Each CFT could add up to 9,800 extra pounds of aviation fuel. Enough fuel to extend the overall operational range of the Eagles, thus giving the aircraft of the Black Knights the ability to intercept the Bears at a longer range. More fuel also meant that the planes from the 57th could shadow its target for a much longer time than before. The CFT became an integrated part of the F-15 deployed at Keflavik.

From January 1962 to the winter of 1991, Black Knights intercepted almost 3,000 Soviet long range aircraft. The most active period was between 1985 and 1986 when Icelandic Eagles netted 340 interceptions. Nearly all Soviet inbound air traffic towards the Gap was detected and tracked by the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s air defense centers. The RNorAF, with the strategic support of USAF Boeing E-3A AWACS from the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing, painted all Soviet air movement in and around the Giuk Gap during their incursions. It was relative easy to spot a Bear. Its massive Kuznetsov NK-12MV turboprop engines contra-rotating four sets of large diameter propellers made a huge radar reflection. After the RNorAF notified NATO command, the E-3 fleet was scrambled to acquire and track the inbound bogey. At the same time, the F-15s would be placed on high alert status. Well prior to the Soviet aircraft’s incursion into the Iceland Military Zone, two Eagles would be dispatched to meet the intruders. A KC-135 refueling tanker would follow half an hour later to keep the Black Knights topped off thus maintaining their ability to divert and re-engage.

Early on the Bears, which were the Soviets most visible platform at Giuk, flew a very predictable pattern flying at an altitude of 25 to 27,000 feet at a relative low cruising speed. The low altitude profile coincided with the aircraft’s primary operational goal: the proving of the outer rim of the American Defense Zone in the North Atlantic Sector. On one occasion, a night flying Bear turned up its powerful spotlight which was mounted on the empennage, in an effort to disorient an intercepting Eagle pilot. The pilot did not enjoy the sight and raced out ahead of the Bear, turning around and pointed at the huge bomber nose to nose. He proceeded to lower his gear which shined its landing light in the faces of the Bears’ pilots. The two aircraft flew at a ‘too high for comfort’ combined speed of 500 knots in a pitch black sky. It is safe bet that Bear’s pilot never attempted the maneuver again.

Such as this, there are many more stories of encounters between Soviet aircraft and Black Knights interceptors. But the fall of Red Russia in 1991 signalled the end of the Cold War. After 1991, no Bear or any other type of Russian airplane approached the Iceland Defense Zone. As for the 57th, they maintained their twelve plane strength for another three years before eight were re-assigned to US continental bases. On March 1st 1995, the Black Knights were officially disbanded as its mission was taken over by rotating Air National Guard units. The Guard maintained Keflavik alert status until 2005 when the last detachment of USAF aircraft departed Iceland. But with recent Russian flybys is not out of the realm of the possibility the Air Force will once again deploy interceptors to the remote country.

– Raul Colon

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