The history of the Vietnam War would not be complete without some recounting of the role played by Navy Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).
Fortunately, forty some years after the end of hostilities, most of what was once highly classified information has now been released to the public. Unfortunately, many of those who could best tell the story are no longer available to tell it.
One thing became apparent as I started on this endeavor: a lot of information is available regarding the Army and Air Force SIGINT efforts in Vietnam; yet very little is said about what the Navy did, airborne or afloat. I don’t think this was due to the classification status of the mission (Army and AF operations were classified at the same level as ours); rather, it was more a reflection of politics within the SIGINT system.
NSA Did Not Own Us
Navy airborne and afloat NSG operations were Cryptologic Direct Support Elements (CDSE), which were not under the direct control of Director, National Security Agency (DIRNSA). During the life of Det Bravo, VQ-1 (including the NSG aircrew) worked directly for Commander, Seventh Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT). Additionally, in the case of VQ-1, not all of the flight crew were cleared for Special Intelligence (SI). On the afloat side, there were as many as 15 afloat CDSEs during the last year of the war, none of which were controlled or tasked by DIRNSA. The Navy tasked these afloat positions via the CHARGER HORSE coordinator. The CHARGER HORSE coordinator was a cryptologic officer (161X) or Chief Petty Officer (CPO, usually a Morse collection specialist or linguist – CTRC or CTIC respectively) assigned to the Commander Task Force (CTF) 77 staff. DIRNSA and its field stations provided technical support, advisory tasking, and first heard support, but they had no direct control over what we did. This flexibility allowed us to adjust coverage on-the-fly to meet the early warning needs of the situation at hand. This, in a nutshell, was the concept of direct support: getting info quickly to those who needed it, either to attack with an advantage, or to save lives. I think this is why we don’t receive much official mention by DIRNSA in their history, DIRNSA didn’t “own us”, and thus, we didn’t exist. So in the end, the burden is on us to tell our own story.
Finally, a short note concerning this history: What follows is an operational history with some personal reflections mixed in. Some things were left out, for instance, almost everyone has a “diving aircraft” story. Likewise, I’ve tried to limit rocket attack stories to those that were significant, i.e., those that were heavy attacks, and had an impact on our collective memories. The BIG LOOK spooks have established a web site and forum, other events, such as those experienced on “bennie trips,” are better told in the forum venue. Several fellow spooks have been kind enough to write a short reflection on their time as BIG LOOK Spooks. These are included in Appendix Two, verbatim, as I received them. Any other reflections would be welcome and will be included in future editions. This edition is preliminary: additional information based on future research will be included before the final story is told.
Some definitions might be useful before getting to specifics. We call ourselves BIG LOOK Spooks (BLS). BIG LOOK is a Navy cover name applied to the specially modified AN/APS-20 radar mounted in the big radome on the bottom of the EC-121M “Willy Victor” and EP-3B “Orion” reconnaissance aircraft flown by Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE (VQ-1). Modifications were made to this radar to allow it to function as a very high-gain, highly directional electronic intelligence (ELINT) receiver (specifically, to collect emissions from hostile radar sites). By extension, BIG LOOK was applied to the entire aircraft (EC-121M/EP-3B). BIG LOOK, along with some other ELINT features, which will be discussed later; and significant communications intelligence (COMINT) capability, made the BIG LOOK aircraft the most efficient and effective airborne collection and early warning platform during the Vietnam conflict. Other airborne platforms could do some of what BIG LOOK could, but only BIG LOOK was capable of simultaneous COMINT and ELINT operations. As a result, we flew a lot, averaging around two missions per day, even in periods of low activity. Typically, during major air strikes the VQ-1/Naval Security Group (NSG) team would provide 24-hour coverage if needed.
By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN (ret.)