WASHINGTON -- Soviet Backfire bombers closed within striking distance of American aircraft carriers and conducted simulated cruise missile attacks against them during recent U.S. fleet exercises, intelligence sources said Monday.
Operating from bases in the Soviet Far East, eight of the long-range Backfires for the first time staged mock attacks against the nuclear-powered carrier Enterprise and the convention carrier Midway Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 during maneuvers in the northern Pacific near the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, the sources said.
Four of the nuclear-capable twin-engine bombers launched their simulated cruise missiles from a 120-mile standoff range from the 15-ship carrier battle groups, said the sources, who declined to be identified.
The Backfire incident was the first involving Soviet and allied forces since Sept. 14 when Japanese fighters intercepted five of the bombers and photographed them, verifying for the first time that the aircraft had come within striking range of Japan, the sources said.
The swing-wing Backfire is similar to the Air Force's B-1 bomber, now under development in a $20 billion program. The jet-powered cruise missile flies at subsonic speed and is difficult to detect because of its small size and ability to hug the terrain or ocean surface.
Disclosure of the Backfire incidents in the Pacific coincided with a tour of the region by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and his repeated warnings of 'a very large and growing ... dangerous' Soviet threat to the western Pacific.
And the news leak and partial Navy confirmation came just as the Reagan administration faces a growing threat from Congress to cut the $209 billion military budget for the current fiscal year.
With the election results perceived by Democrats and some Republicans as a demand for a change in course because of a 10.4 percent unemployment rate, President Reagan's plans to spend $1.6 trillion to 'rearm America' between 1982 and 1987 may be jeopardized when Congress returns Nov. 29.
The Navy declined to comment specifically on the incidents in the Pacific, but acknowledged the Soviet Union ordered its Backfires to approach U.S. carriers for the first time. It did not specify the number of aircraft, NATO code-named Backfire, or whether Navy planes intercepted them.
'It is the first time Backfires operated in relative proximity to the carriers,' said Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Jurkowsky. 'Any discussion of carrier detection or aircraft intercept capabilities would be inappropriate.'
The TU-22M Backfire Bs, with ranges of 5,000 miles fully loaded, can operate from the Soviet Far East as far into the Pacific as Midway, Guam and the Philippines without refueling. They reportedly are based on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
Adm. Sylvester Foley, commanding the 7th Fleet in the Pacific, said recently that more than 130 different Soviet aircraft conducted simulated missile attack and reconnaissance operations against the battle groups during their 12-day exercise in the northern Pacific and the Sea of Japan.
He did not specify whether Backfires took part in the missions.
Rather than complain about the Soviet intrusions, he said they served as realistic training opportunities.
'There can be no more effective training, no more realism, than that provided by those Soviet aircraft as they flew close to our ships while escorted by our own fighter aircraft,' the admiral said.
'We could have provided our own forces simulating the Soviets, but I thought you ... would appreciate the cost savings involved in having the Soviets provide us with these free services.'