31 March 2011

Operation Teaball: Network-Centric Real-Time Intelligence During Vietnam

In 1972, US fighters had an added resource in the fight against MiGs
In past blog posts I've discussed some of the measures taken by the military to reverse the decline in air combat proficiency in the skies over Vietnam. This past November I had blogged about the origins of Red Flag as well as the top secret USAF program to obtain and fly MiGs. Back in March I wrote about the US Navy's own efforts that began with the Ault Report. While these were all steps that would benefit fighter pilots in the skies over Vietnam, there was another effort that took place that has received scant attention in the history books and presaged today's military buzzword of "network-centric" warfare. Between the bombing halt of 1968 and the start of the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive in 1972, air combat over North Vietnam was nearly non-existent. With the start of the NVA offensive in 1972, though, President Nixon reversed the gradual drawdown of US forces in Southeast Asia with a massive buildup and bombing offensive under Operation Linebacker I and Linebacker II. With the ramp up of offensive air strikes on North Vietnam, US aircrews found themselves embroiled in multiplane dogfights that were resulting in growing US losses. In the three months following the start of Linebacker in May 1972, the US lost 48 aircraft, 21 to VNAF MiGs and 27 to improved ground defenses. In the same period, only 31 MiGs were shot down by US aircraft and things worsened in the summer with 13 US aircraft lost to MiGs and only 11 MiGs shot down. 

At the same time, the policy of rotation of air crews meant that experienced personnel were rotated out of combat and replaced with novice air crews on their first combat tour. In the days before Red Flag and dissimilar air combat training, the loss rate of first tour air crews was staggering enough the General John Vogt, commander of the Seventh Air Force which oversaw combat air operations in Southeast Asia, ordered the minutes of mission critique conferences to be disseminated to all units in theater, not just the units involved. But it wasn't enough for General Vogt. He reported to the USAF Chief of Staff, General John Ryan, that the US was losing the air war over Vietnam in 1972. As a result, General Ryan ordered his staff to create a plan to assist US pilots in the skies over Vietnam- no studies, no plans, but what General Ryan wanted was something in place that could offset the fact that the VNAF MiG pilots were battle-experienced and had excellent GCI controllers who could relay the MiG air crews detailed descriptions of the tactical situation. 

General John Vogt, commander USAF Seventh Air Force
Ryan tasked a three-man "action group" with setting something up- USAF officers Lt. Col. William Kirk and Maj. Ernie Short teamed up with Delmar Lang, an intelligence specialist with the National Security Agency. Lang was brought in as he had several times in the years prior repeated offered to set up an eavesdropping facility that could listen in on the communications between the VNAF MiG pilots and their GCI controllers to provide real time information to US pilots. Lang's idea had historical precedence- during the Korean War, the USAF had a listening post on the island of Cho-do off the coast of Korea that was staffed with linguists and air control specialists that would listen in on North Korean, Chinese, and Russian communications to give US pilots a real-time picture of what was going on in "MiG Alley". Since the Korean War, the pace of technological progress in electronic and signals intelligence (ELINT and SIGINT) improved by leaps and bounds, but national security and a variety of compartmentalized secret programs kept many of these new methods out of sight to those on the front line. Delmar Lang's NSA position, however, coupled with the access given Lt. Col. Kirk and Maj. Short, intended to cut through the institutional resistance to using those technological resources to win the war in the skies of over Vietnam. 

On 26 July 1972, literally in just one month, General Ryan's "action group" set up the Operation Teaball Weapons Control Center at the Thai air base of Nakhon Phanom (nicknamed "Naked Fanny" by US pilots). Working with the intelligence specialists of the USAF's 6908th Security Squadron, the Teaball control room had map displays where data from a variety of intelligence sources already in place was collected and synthesized to form a single tactical picture that could be disseminated to US pilots in real time by specialist ground controllers. Orbiting high over the Gulf of Tonkin and Laos, specialist ELINT/SIGINT RC-135s listened in on communications between MiG pilots and their GCI controllers- this data was then relayed to a Lockheed U-2 orbiting high overhead that then relayed the information direct to the Teaball control center at Nakhon Phanom. Ground and ship-based (like "Red Crown" in the Gulf of Tonkin) radar pictures were added to refine the tactical picture. Finally, radar and SIGINT data from specialist EC-121s- such as the famous radar early warning EC-121 that used the call sign "Disco"- was also relayed to the Teaball specialists as well. Also little known was a US capability to trigger the IFF systems of the MiGs so they could be easily tracked. The stream of data from all these sources made use of a top-secret NSA computer system called "Ironhorse" that was designed to analyze and synthesize all the data to create a cohesive tactical picture that was then displayed on the map screens for the Teaball controllers to relay via another radio relay RC-135 to US pilots over North Vietnam. Once the system was up and running, the delay was as little as 45 to 60 seconds before the Teaball controllers were issuing advisories to US pilots!

"Combat Lightning" was one many specialist KC-135 variants used
Each combat air crew, regardless of service branch, were notified of a discrete UHF channel to monitor that advisories from the Teaball control center were broadcast. Teaball controllers also knew the call signs of each and every combat mission for that day going into North Vietnam. Positions of VNAF MiGs were given in relation to a notional point called the "Bull's Eye" which was Hanoi. Distance and bearing from the Bull's Eye was given and air crews often programmed the Bull's Eye into their aircraft's own navigational equipment. "Blue Bandits" were MiG-21s, "White Bandits" were MiG-19s, and "Red Bandits" were MiG-17s. The code word "Green Bandit" indicated an exceptionally experienced VNAF MiG pilot was airborne. "Heads up" meant MiGs were nearby. Teaball controllers and analysts noted that certain combat flights were targeted especially heavily by the MiGs at times, and these US air crews were designated "Queen for a Day". A Teaball controller might inform a flight of F-4s about "Red Bandits, 25 miles SE of Bull's Eye, heading NE 300 knots" over a designated UHF channel. In effect, the Teaball controller acted as a GCI controller for the US pilots, constantly feeding them information on the position and action of any MiGs nearby to allow the US pilots to exploit the situation.

Lt. Col. Kirk briefed every unit that was flying combat missions over Vietnam and warned them explicitly "Pay attention when I call you on that channel!" Within the first month of Operation Teaball's operation, American fighters had moved from a 1:1 kill ratio to a 3:1 ratio and by the end of the Linebacker operations, the ratio had risen to 4:1 in favor of US air crews. The system saved many an air crew's life in the skies over North Vietnam, to the point that inbound flights often checked in with the Teaball control center once they had taken off to be sure they had their call signs!

Operation Teaball was one of the earliest and most successful uses of data fusion and what today we would call "network-centric" warfare- to use diverse data collection sources fused together to give situational awareness to our men and women in combat. It was the first time that such diverse sources of intelligence that were once the sole realm of distant analysts in the United States were used to deliver real-time actionable information to win battles. 

Sources: The Linebacker Raids: The Bombing of North Vietnam, 1972 by John T. Smith. Arms and Armour, 1998, p95-97. Air Force Magazine, July 2008, Volume 91, Number 7. "The Teaball Tactic" by Walter Boyne.

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