21 July 2010

Talos versus Barlock

We EB -66 fliers had to be content to just make life difficult for the enemy; others, for example, the Wild Weasels, could take electronic warfare to the next level and actually reach out and touch someone. Others, I learned back in 1972, could also reach out and touch someone and they didn't have to get eyeball to eyeball with the bad guys the way the Wild Weasels did. This is the story about the US Navy light cruiser USS Oklahoma City, known as The Okie Boat by its crew, and a bit of electronic warfare its crew carried out in February 1972.

I happened to be working the Frag Shop at Korat one day in early February when a Top Secret message came across my desk. It was from the US Navy and I can't remember exactly where it came from. The gist of the message was to warn all flying units in Southeast Asia to stay well away from a particular set of coordinates in North Vietnam. The details of the message have long left my memory, but the general reasoning for the warning was that a Navy surface ship was going to attack a Barlock site with a Talos missile. In addition to the strike coordinates and designating an area to stay away from the message also gave a block of time the following day that would be the strike window.

Some background is in order for continuing with this story. US intelligence sources knew that the North Vietnamese air defense forces were working toward a network that allowed the various components to communicate directly with one another in order to make the job of tracking US aircraft easier and to make attacking US aircraft less predictable. We had been seeing the effects of the network since the previous autumn. On several occasions North Vietnamese SAMs and fighters made coordinated attacks on US aircraft and had downed at least a half dozen. In December of 1971 one of my friends in the 17th Wild Weasel Squadron attacked and destroyed one of the networked Barlock sites near the Gorilla's Head border area between Laos and North Vietnam. It turned out that the crew manning the Barlock site was not North Vietnamese. The networked Barlock sites were a major component to the network because their long range radars could track US aircraft and pass data to SAM sites that could lay in wait for unsuspecting crews that came within their kill rings. Any fixed Barlock sites had been long since destroyed; only mobile sites were able to operate with any degree of safety from US air attack.

So it was that one particularly elusive Barlock crew became the hunted in the electronic warfare scheme of things. The actual story comes from a now retired Naval Reserve officer by the name of Phil Hays. Hays was Nuclear/Special Weapons Officer aboard the USS Oklahoma City in February 1972. He was on watch as Weapons Control Officer on the February night that elusive Barlock site was attacked. Hays's story follows. I have taken the liberty to translate some of the Navy jargon.

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In the spring of 1971 the Oklahoma City executed an underway replenishment to take aboard the new, highly classified, RIM-8H anti-radiation version of the Talos. We conducted a test firing off Okinawa in March, 1971, to train the crew with the Anti-Radiation Missiles (ARMs).

In January 1972 the Oklahoma City steamed to the Gulf of Tonkin to rendezvous with the USS Chicago and do some "radar hunting." The USS Oklahoma City was 7th Fleet flagship, but we were assigned to a cruiser/destroyer squadron for this action. So, although we were carrying The Boss, we were under the command of the squadron commander who was on the USS Chicago. The Okie Boat was a light cruiser with a single end (stern) Talos missile battery. The Chicago was a heavy cruiser with double end Talos missile batteries (bow and stern).

We were sailing off the coast of North Vietnam one night in early February 1972 waiting for a chance to use the new missiles. It happened on my watch—the electronics warfare folks in Combat Information Center (CIC) detected emissions from a BARLOCK surveillance radar and the fun started. The EW watch provided continuous updates to the fire control team, watching for frequency changes that might interfere with the shot.

Of course, everyone wanted to be the first to use the new missiles. The squadron commander gave the first shot to his ship. The Chicago fired one missile and it self-destructed shortly after launch. I was told later that the data link antenna on the missile that maintained communication with the ship had not been lock wired in place, and it had fallen off in the ready service magazine due to vibration before the missile was launched. The Chicago fired a second missile and it failed. I don't know if a cause was ever determined.

Well, we were all a bit frustrated at this point. As I recall, our Captain sent the squadron commander a message asking if he would like us to show them how it should be done. We got the OK, fired one missile, and blew a 30 foot diameter hole where the radar van was sitting. However, at that moment we didn't know if we had hit the target. The Electronics Warfare people in CIC told us the radar signal had disappeared about the same time the missile arrived, but you can bet that if we had missed the radar operators would have noticed and shut down! However, the EW guys did hear a change in the signal just before it went silent. The next day our Weapons Department head, CDR Foreman, showed me aerial recon photos. The radar antennas were scattered all over Southeast Asia, and what remained of the van was lying on its side at the edge of the crater.

This was all classified Top Secret at the time, and our missile crews were told to keep quiet. Of course everyone aboard knew something was going on (missile shots were very noisy). I overheard one sailor say we had fired a nuclear warhead and he had seen the explosion! Such is scuttlebutt!

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The following is an account of activities by the electronic warfare specialist Doug Rasor, then a Radarman Second Class (RD2). Unlike the USAF at the time, Navy EWs were enlisted; Rasor was an E-5.

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I was on the Oklahoma City from Sept '70 - April '72. Turns out, I was on watch that night in the EW shack and was on the receiver that picked up the BARLOCK surveillance radar that the Vietnamese were using. I remember the incident pretty vividly; how long we'd trained to be able to pick up those threat emitters, determine the key characteristics so we could pass on just the kind of info that was used to program the TALOS that night. Some of the measurement gear was NOT part of a standard electronics package. A few OW-division buddies and I collaborated to put together a couple pieces of outboard 'off-the-shelf' test equipment (an audio signal generator and XY scope so we could accurately determine PRR frequencies of incoming signals). It was this set up that allowed us to pass on not one but three of the frequencies that BARLOCK was using that night. It was a Frequency Scanning (FRESCAN) radar to allow it to determine bearing/range AND approximate altitude.

 I remember passing parameters on to the fire control folks continuously as the missile was being prepared for launch (Barlock radars were notorious for changing frequencies during operation). I remember feeling/hearing the launch—I continued to monitor the signal as the missile was in-flight. After a minute or so (I didn't have a stopwatch on it) I remember hearing a weird screeching—then the signal went silent. Apparently that was the precise moment of the impact/explosion that killed the radar.

 I never saw the recon pictures of the site but heard that the launch was successful.

 I got a Navy Achievement medal for the effort. It's a real source of pride for me to this day.

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Rasor had been told by his supervisor that MiGs were expected to be airborne that night and that when the MiGs were airborne the Barlocks would be on the air. The NVAF liked to come out at night when the moon was at or near full. Since they needed to be under radar control to intercept an aircraft and make an attack a moonlit night gave the MiG pilot the ability to see what was going on during the final phase before he launched his Atoll missiles. There was a full moon on 30 January 1972. Phil Hays says they made the Barlock kill in early February. That means the moon was still bright enough for the MiGs to be able to fly in the first few days of February 1972.

From the USAF side, I recall seeing a BDA report, classified Secret, the next day that essentially said that all indications showed the Barlock site destroyed. The US Navy had a better take on the subject. Again Phil Hays:

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We did get a recon flight the next day over the site—don't know if it was Navy or Air Force—but they took a great photo of the hole in the ground. There was no doubt that the missile scored a direct hit! Someday I hope to find some of the official reports and photos from that shot.
I have heard that the USS Chicago and the USS Long Beach also conducted Talos ARM shots against RVN radar sites later in 1972.

Hays continues:

We didn't get to fire at NVN aircraft very often. There were three long range (45-70 miles) Talos kills over NVN. The USS Long Beach bagged two MiGs in 1968, and the USS Chicago got one in May 1972. There were at least two MiGs downed by Terrier missiles at close range over the Gulf. The NVN kept track of our ships and when a Talos ship was off the coast they didn't give us much opportunity to fire at them. As soon as we illuminated them the MiGs dove for the ground. Our biggest problem was our "airdale" admirals. They really didn't want missile ships in the gulf. They believed that airplanes should be engaged by airplanes, and rarely approved a mission for a missile ship.

There was a mining operation in 1972 at Haiphong harbor. In that
operation the Navy planes were to stay below 500 feet all the way in and
back. Anything over 500 feet was fair game for our SAMs. I think that is
when the Chicago bagged her MiG.

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Having been on the receiving end of a SAM launch, I can appreciate the concerns of the airdale admirals about having friendly missiles in the air. The aircrew is busy and really cannot tell whose missile that is burning up the sky in their vicinity. I guess you watch it for a few seconds: if it's racing across the sky it's not locked on to you; if there's no apparent motion and it just keeps getting bigger, you're the target. Hays comments on a Navy flight crew in the vicinity of a Talos missile.

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The Navy flyers really didn't like to be anywhere near a ship that was firing missiles, but there were a few times when missile ships engaged NVN aircraft while our planes were in the area. I heard from a Navy BARCAP pilot who saw a Talos passing overhead at Mach 2.5 and tried to catch it (he didn't know what it was at first). He and his wingman
witnessed the destruction of a MiG by the Talos.

Unlike most SAMs the Talos was powered by a ramjet rather than a rocket motor, although it was sent on its way by a rocket booster that got it into the flight regime where the ramjet operated. That made the missile difficult to see at night because there was no huge rocket motor plume. The Talos was unlike most SAMs in another way: it attacked from above. The missile would climb to 70,000 feet and then dive on its target. That capability was used to attack the Barlock site.

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As I was having my e-mail conversations with Hays, several disjoint facts and events suddenly came together and made sense. The following is informed speculation on my part.

The MiGs had become aggressive in the early months of 1972. There were several night attacks against US aircraft; the one that sticks in my mind is an attack against a B-52 cell that was dropping on Mu Gia Pass in the wee hours of one moonlit morning. The MiG pilot blew his chance and fired his Atoll missiles too early before diving for the treetops. The missiles exploded between two of the B-52s in the cell. That general aggressiveness, coupled with the fact that North Vietnamese air defenses were becoming increasingly networked made things more dicey than usual.

That air defense network could control SA-2s and MiGs and made setting up ambushes an easier thing to do. And then there is a discovery I made just recently from members of the Misty FAC community who did a return to Vietnam in 2000. The North Vietnamese had built a primitive runway between Mu Gia Pass and the DMZ from which MiGs could operate.  It was about 8000 feet long and made to look like part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail roadway. The Misty pilots who saw it and paced it off said that no American fighter could have used it – except for a Harrier. It was put into use in 1971 – 1972.

From at least December 1971 a buildup of NVA military hardware had been observed in Route Pack One. The buildup included tanks, heavy artillery, and lots of ammunition. It was pretty clear that another invasion of South Vietnam was being prepared. It is also the case that the Tet New Year occurred on 15 February 1972. It seems pretty clear to me that the North Vietnamese leadership was planning a Tet '72. However, General John Lavelle, 7th Air Force Commander in Saigon, ordered a series of strikes against the buildup in January 1972. The strikes put the NVA timetable off enough so that it could not kick off a Tet offensive. Lavelle's actions got him fired, allegedly because he violated policy about striking targets in North Vietnam.

As we were to learn when the NVA invasion did begin around Easter 1972, they came prepared to give their ground forces some cover from attacking US aircraft. About a week before Easter I recall receiving an intelligence briefing that photo recce sorties had discovered a number of abandoned SA-2 missile sites in North Vietnam. All the equipment associated with those sites seemingly disappeared and could not be accounted for. We found out what happened to all that equipment when the Easter Offensive began: the missing SA-2s had been taken south to give air cover to the invading ground forces.

It appears that the planned air cover also included MiGs being controlled by a mobile and networked Barlock site somewhere in central North Vietnam west of Vinh. The crew of the USS Oklahoma City engaged that Barlock site and essentially took MiG air cover out of the invasion plan. I have to wonder how the Easter invasion would have gone if the NVA had both SAMS and MiGs giving their ground forces cover.

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