Along with the aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers that deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea in late 1964 and early 1965 were detachments from Seventh Fleet’s specialized aerial reconnaissance squadrons. Units flying RF-8 Crusaders, RA-3B Skywarriors, and RA-5C Vigilantes photographed potential targets. Once those sites received the attention of the attack squadrons, the reconnaissance planes photographed the results, called “bomb damage assessments (BDA).”

Flying over targets that had recently been struck and whose air defense forces were fully alerted was risky business. To get the clearest, most detailed pictures, the reconnaissance pilots had to fly a steady, unflinching course over the target even in the face of heavy antiaircraft and surface-to-air missile fire. Despite this caution, aircrews and planes of the photo reconnaissance squadrons suffered high casualties. During the war the enemy shot down 12 RA-5Cs and 20 RF-8s, a significant loss in the relatively small aerial reconnaissance community. The enemy killed seven RF-8 pilots and captured another five, while U.S. search and rescue units plucked eight men from the sea or the jungle.

RF-8A and, later in the war, RF-8G Crusaders from Light Photographic Squadron 63 (VFP-63), nicknamed “Fightin Photo,” were the mainstays of the carrier based tactical reconnaissance force. RF-8As employed stationary cameras with 3-inch, 6-inch, and 12-inch lenses but upgraded RF-8Gs introduced panoramic cameras that swept from horizon to horizon. Both camera types worked well; former Crusader pilot Lieutenant (j.g.) Jay Miller related that the cameras rarely failed him. The best cameras, planes, and pilots, however, could not guarantee successful exploitation of the intelligence they captured. Rolling Thunder’s overly restrictive rules of engagement required that combat aircraft could not strike a SAM battery, for instance, until the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington authorized the mission, which, along with the Navy’s need to recover the reconnaissance aircraft, process the film, interpret the imagery, and launch a reaction strike, could take hours if not days. Following the advice of their Soviet advisors, the North Vietnamese frequently moved their SA-2 surface-to-air missile battalions, which often negated U.S. reconnaissance efforts.

At NAS Agana, Guam, in January 1965, a RA-3B Skywarrior from Heavy Photographic Squadron 61 (VAP-61) displays the incredible versatility in the photographic film formats, cameras, and lenses it is able to carry. (National Archives and Records Administration)

U.S. intelligence agencies devoted enormous resources to collection efforts not only with regard to North Vietnam but also the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Complementing Navy and Air Force aerial reconnaissance and Army special forces ground surveillance operations, the NSA monitored North Vietnamese troop and supply infiltration activity on the trail. In late 1964 NSA reported the first major movement of troops on the trail when it identified the 325th Division of the North Vietnamese Army heading for South Vietnam. In October 1967 agency personnel intercepted the voice network used by way stations on the trail, opening what came to be known as the “Vinh Window.” This coup enabled NSA to document which enemy units were on the trail, their probable destinations in South Vietnam, and their arrival times. Unfortunately, the intelligence gathered from this source did not provide information that was timely or that identified terrain features, routes, or kilometer posts that would have facilitated precise targeting information for air attacks on truck parks, way stations, or troop concentrations. The commanders of the Navy’s carrier force appreciated all the intelligence they could get with regard to infiltration on the trail but, according to an NSA report, naval leaders “made it known that they were ‘very unhappy’ with the lack of support and targeting data.”

RA-3B Skywarriors operated by Heavy Photographic Squadron 61 (VAP-61, supported by the Atlantic Fleet’s VAP-62) flew two-thirds of their missions at high altitudes during daylight hours. VAP-61 carried out the other third at night, when the planes employed low-level runs and their specialized infrared cameras to document enemy vehicular traffic on the trail. Each year of the war, RA-3Bs completed almost a thousand combat missions. VAP-61 also conducted oblique photography of the North Vietnamese coast from the DMZ to the 20th parallel in support of Task Force 77’s Sea Dragon naval bombardment operation. The reconnaissance unit was especially adept at identifying river crossings or “choke points” where enemy vehicles often bunched up and offered the carrier forces lucrative targets.

RA-5C Vigilantes proved to be the Navy’s most technologically advanced tactical reconnaissance aircraft during the war. Like the Crusaders and Skywarriors, Vigilantes carried out intelligence collection flights along likely enemy logistics routes and poststrike BDA. The planes recorded imagery (black and white and color) with their KS-69 panoramic infrared cameras and side-looking radars, and electronic emissions with their Passive Electronic Countermeasures (PECM) system. The infrared cameras, even though they took hours to warm up before a mission, proved able to differentiate between natural vegetation and vegetation used to camouflage trucks, way stations, and pontoon bridges. The cameras, with 18-inch lenses, also provided horizon-to-horizon coverage. Nighttime and foul weather did little to impede a Vigilante’s photographic work.

An RA-5C is lined up on the starboard forward catapult of a Kitty Hawk-class carrier. (National Archives and Records Administration)

One of the keys to the accurate and timely exploitation of camera footage and taped electronic intelligence data captured by the RA-5Cs was the Integrated Operational Intelligence Center (IOIC). The Navy established computer-enhanced IOICs on the large-deck carriers off Vietnam. In less than ten minutes, IOICs could produce photographic prints and readouts of vast amounts of information that significantly improved the bombing effectiveness of Task Force 77’s carrier planes.

Other aviation detachments operating from the carriers and from shore bases focused on the collection of signals intelligence. Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 (VQ-1), the Navy’s largest aviation unit, handled the vital responsibility for collecting signals intelligence from North Vietnamese air defense radars. Based at Atsugi Naval Air Station, Japan, VQ-1 deployed detachments to the carriers and shore bases in Southeast Asia throughout the war and also retained responsibility for monitoring Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean emissions. Naval Security Group communications technicians complemented the squadron’s naval personnel. During the war the Navy reinforced the unit’s initial 13 EA-3B Skywarriors and EC-121M Warning Stars, the latter converted from Lockheed Super Constellation passenger planes, with more than 30 EA-3Bs, EKA-3Bs, and E-1Bs, some from the Rota, Spain-based VQ-2. The unit focused its efforts on the Tonkin Delta of North Vietnam, the DMZ, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Radar operators monitor their consoles aboard their P-3 Orion. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The primary mission of the airborne intelligence squadrons was to provide U.S. combat units with almost immediate warnings, and VQ aircrews cumulatively issued thousands of near real-time warnings of threats posed by North Vietnamese SAMs, MiGs, and antiaircraft artillery. Captain Sidney Wood, an intelligence officer with VQ-1 throughout Operation Rolling Thunder, later observed that he and his VQ-1 EC-121 crewmen flew their tedious 10- to 12-hour-long missions in the gulf within sight of North Vietnam seven days a week. Wood related how crews on the EC-121s, with “six to eight ELINT positions and a like number of COMINT positions correlated intelligence [on enemy SAM, MiG, and antiaircraft threats] in near real time and [provided] it to the U.S. aircraft over the beach.”

As related by William B. Leppert, a former VQ-1 petty officer who flew 38 missions off Vietnam, the plane also embarked Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese linguists and personnel to operate the KW-7 crypto equipment and a teletype, which enabled the plane to send messages to the fleet below. Speed was essential, so the VQ-1 crew sent their warning messages in clear, unencrypted voice with reference to a previously established and daily-changing code word for a reference point ashore. As soon as the plane landed, the crew prepared comprehensive, all source Electronic Warfare Operational Reports for use with the next day’s strikes.

From 1965 to 1969 NSA deployed to the Western Pacific signals intelligence ships Oxford (AGTR-1) and Jamestown (AGTR-3), one of which operated in the South China Sea at all times. The agency took this move in response to Admiral Sharp’s fear for the vulnerability of the SIGINT stations in South Vietnam and to reinforce the overall collection effort. Manning these ships were more than 300 Sailors and other personnel,

130 of whom operated from 85 individual work stations (compared to four or five on a destroyer) to gather strategic-level information from North Vietnamese and Cambodian communications systems on military, internal security, and naval forces. NSA often used the ships as “firemen,” positioning them in areas poorly covered by the shore-based sites. The Navy valued the intelligence gathered from these ships but wished more of it could have been related to the fleet’s tactical needs.

By Richard Mobley and Edward J. Marolda

About the Authors

Richard A. Mobley retired as a commander in the Navy in 2001 and has since worked as a military intelligence analyst for the government. During his career as a naval intelligence officer, he worked closely with many of the organizations discussed in this book. He participated in the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 while serving in the intelligence center aboard Enterprise (CVAN-65). Subsequent Pacific tours included Chief of the Analysis Section in the Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facility WESTPAC in Kami Seya, Japan, in the mid-1980s, and Chief of Indications and Warning, U.S. Forces, Korea, in the mid-1990s. Mobley has written Flash Point North Korea: The Pueblo and EC-121 Crises (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003) and over a dozen professional articles dealing with intelligence, crisis decision making, and military history in the Middle East and Korea. He is a graduate of the National War College, Georgetown University (MA, History), and University of California, Davis (BA, Political Science).

Edward J. Marolda has served as the Acting Director of Naval History and the Chief of the Histories and Archives Division of the Naval Historical Center, designated in December 2008 as the Naval History and Heritage Command. He holds degrees in history from Pennsylvania Military College (BA), Georgetown University (MA), and George Washington University (PhD). He is the author of a number of works, including Naval Air War: The Rolling Thunder Campaign (Naval History and Heritage Command, 2009), from which the material within this issue of The Daybook was drawn, and was used by permission.

Featured image: An RF-8G Crusader from Light Photographic Squadron 63 (VFP-63) detachment Golf, based aboard attack aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA 34), rolls in for a photo run over South Vietnam on July, 20, 1966. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Source: Vietnam Daybook Vol 21 4 Final