When the Birds Didn't Fly

By Commander Thomas B. Buell, U.S. Navy (Retired)

As the missile officer I naturally rejoiced at his effusive commendation. I felt even happier when the ebullient admiral came to the missile house to praise the crew. His words were glowing and sincere. He concluded by saying, "Men of the King , I take off my hat to you." The admiral removed his gold-encrusted cap and with a flourish swept it before him as he bowed to the dumbfounded sailors.

The admiral's expressions of gratitude were perhaps overstated but nonetheless genuine. The Surface Navy had blundered into the missile age and was desperately attempting to recover. Since the end of World War II, the fleet had been vulnerable to air attack from modern aircraft, and its archaic gunnery systems were the equivalent of throwing rocks at eagles. Salvation was envisioned in three kinds of surface-to-air missiles—Talos, Terrier, and Tartar—which had entered the fleet in quantity at the beginning of the 1960s.

Little had been done to prepare for them. The fleet had neither specialized training facilities for the crews nor doctrine for their use. Fleet training centers were without a clue as to operating procedures, because none existed. Cobbled crash courses were so lacking that commissioning details were on their own when they reported aboard. They discovered that their dazzling new ships were equipped with elaborate weapon systems of baffling complexity and were supported with neither spare parts nor technical manuals. In short, they failed to work. While the warships were glamorous to behold at their commissioning ceremonies, few if any were able to track an aircraft or launch a missile.

The Navy had failed utterly to anticipate the risks and pitfalls of rushing quantities of unproved missile ships into the fleet. While components of the systems usually had been tested individually (computers, directors, fire-control radars, weapon direction systems, air-search radars, gyroscopes, switchboards, generators, telemetry, launching systems, and the missiles themselves), they had not been integrated and tested as an entity before being installed in the ships themselves. When for the first time all the wires had been connected and power applied, sparks flew and equipment fizzled. When the magnitude of the technological catastrophe ultimately became apparent, the remedy remained elusive. Meanwhile, the momentum of the shipbuilding program repeatedly incorporated unresolved defects into successive ships, until an entire generation of warships had entered the fleet with weapon systems unable to function.

A contemporary, retired Captain Fred Howe, recalled:

My view of the coming of missiles is the same as yours. It was a real watershed, a technical watershed. Suddenly, without fair warning, the ante was raised by perhaps an order of magnitude. The gun ordnance world was unceremoniously dragged into the age of the digital computer and large, multidisciplinary combat systems that had tiny tolerances for error. Gunners were being asked to shoot at targets they couldn't even see, at altitudes and speeds that were just difficult to comprehend with our existing mindsets. There were tracking, capture, and guidance systems for the beam riders and illuminators and rear-reference signals for the homers and, for success, everything had to point in the same exquisite direction. Dry air and chill water and stable power were critical, as was continuous, intense systems testing. The result of Daily Systems Operability Tests became a routine part of twelve o'clock reports in most ships. It was a whole new ball game.

The Bureau of Naval Personnel assigned its most talented officers and sailors to commission the new warships and hoped their initiative to some extent would permit the fleet to muddle through until the Navy Department fixed the problems it had created. As a consequence, each ship went her own way, relying largely on trial-and-error as standard operating procedure. The wonder to this day is that we did not kill ourselves, although close calls were countless. We did kill others.

Missile officers exchanged horror stories over beer at the "O" clubs. A classmate told me how a live Terrier had been lifted from the magazine and latched to the loading rail, where it remained suspended above the open magazine doors beneath it. As a technician adjusted the torque of the "suitcase" latch that connected missile and booster, the latch suddenly shattered. The missile separated from its booster, plunged 15 feet into the magazine, and buried its warhead into the bulkhead. (We thanked God that the warhead's safety and arming device had worked correctly and prevented a detonation. It was one thing we knew how to design.) An investigation revealed that the failed latch had been over-stressed in a shoreside test and then, fatally weakened, returned unaccountably to the supply system for reissue. The technician's torque wrench had been the final straw.

The Terrier had been installed on the newer carriers, and the launchers were mounted on sponsons on their port and starboard quarters. The missile rounds were loaded by ramming them along an overhead rail, through open doors, then onto horizontal launcher arms. Once the missile was latched in place, the launcher was ready to train and elevate for firing. A carrier was in drydock as the missile gang practiced loading a dummy missile on the launcher. Instead of stopping on the launcher, the half-ton missile continued on its way and descended in a graceful arc to the bottom of the drydock—which explains why the Brown-Shoe Navy removed the Terrier systems at first opportunity.

The much larger Talos had similar problems. A cruiser was about to leave her shipyard for homeport after an extraordinarily long and difficult conversion from guns to missiles. Dependents and shipyard workers alike cheered and waved, for she had seemed like a permanent building that would never again get under way. The weapons officer wanted to put on a show and had ordered the dummy Talos missiles to be loaded and elevated in a salute as the ship left the pier. While the mooring lines were being singled up, the huge dummies were rammed onto the launcher rails. One, however, continued on its way and crashed on deck among the terrified line handlers. The captain never blinked. "Double up all lines and secure engines," he said quietly, and he went to his cabin.

Certain ratings on board ship did not entirely understand the peculiarities of the new-fangled missile systems and indeed regarded them as annoyances. A converted light cruiser had her Terrier missile house located aft. A drain hole in its bulkhead emitted a steady drizzle of salt water, which discolored the otherwise immaculate teak deck. An exasperated boatswain's mate ostensibly solved the problem by inserting a wooden damage-control plug into the drain hole. Several hours later, the magazine's sprinkler system turned on and immersed all 120 missiles in salt water. Someone later discovered that the drain hole was part of the fire main pressure equalization system, and when it was plugged the increased pressure opened the main sprinkler valve. All 120 missiles on board had to be off-loaded and refurbished. With no spare missiles in the supply system (in the event of a war a missile ship could not expect replenishment), the unfortunate cruiser had been disabled by a ten-cent wooden plug.

Each Terrier frigate had two dummy missiles used for testing and display. Commanding officers could paint them as they wished, and we in the King chose gold missiles and blue boosters. The captain of a sister ship decided that his would be white, coincidentally the same color as a live missile. The gunner's mate at the launcher control console presumably knew the difference. Missile ships in southern California waters tracked civilian air transports routinely along the coastline as targets of opportunity. Part of the routine was to load the dummy missiles and simulate firing at the aircraft. Throughout the day, the white dummies had been loaded and unloaded repeatedly, and the safety gunner became complacent. Hence, he did not realize that a live Terrier had been loaded inadvertently on the launcher and was aimed at an airliner. The weapons officer in the combat information center pulled the trigger.

"I was standing near the launcher and heard a hissing sound," a bystander told me later. "I saw smoke coming out of the rear of the missile and knew it was from the APS (Auxiliary Power Supply, a small solid-fuel electrical generator). I realized I had perhaps two seconds to live, because the missile was about to launch, and I and everyone else on the fantail would be killed by the booster blast." Fortuitously, the launcher malfunctioned and the booster did not ignite. Shortly thereafter, the type commander ordered that all dummy missiles would be painted blue and gold.

The close calls got closer and closer. In the mid-1960s I had become weapons officer on the USS Brooke (DEG-1). As she was the lead ship of her class, we had the satisfaction of testing new, improved versions of the Tartar weapon system. One such series of tests took us to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, where we toured the firing range control center. The control officer proudly showed us the huge display screen that tracked the positions of all ships and aircraft within the firing area. "We'll know at all times the exact locations of your ship and the target drone and chase plane. When I say `Condition Green,' you are free to fire at the target. If I say `Condition Red,' do not fire." We were impressed.

On the range, we locked on the target—an F9F drone—and prepared to fire as it closed. "We have multiple targets," reported the fire-control radar operator. I relayed this to the range-control officer, who radioed back that the chase plane had broken away, so there could not be a multiple target. "Condition Green," he said. "We still have multiple targets," said fire control, but again range control insisted that the chase plane had left the area. "Condition Green," he said. "Fire at your discretion." I decided to wait until I could see the target on the TV monitor. Shortly, I saw the drone . . . and the chase plane on its wing tip. "There are two planes in my crosshairs," I reported to range control. After a long period of silence came the reply, "Condition Red."

Eventually, someone's luck would run out, as it did at the Point Mugu missile range in southern California, where the USS Preble (DLG-15) prepared to fire a warhead Terrier at a target drone. A target return came onto the radar screen that coincided with the anticipated time and flight path. Point Mugu control announced weapons free, and the Terrier lifted off. It was a clear day, and the crew watched the missile climb toward its target, a distant silver glint to the naked eye. "We got it," said the observers with satisfaction when they saw the explosion. The smoking wreckage of a navy A-4 aircraft spiraled into the ocean before the horrified crew. Its pilot had entered the firing range just ahead of the target.

The Navy tackled its technical crises with jury rigs and expediencies. Those of us from the early days will always remember the collimation towers, the missile-age equivalent of gun-battery alignment. The first Terriers were beam riders—that is, the missile attempted to stay in the center of an electromagnetic guidance beam, which in turn was focused on the target. If the Terrier stayed in the beam, it eventually would intercept the target. The problem was that the beams were unstable; the guidance beam and the radar tracking beam would diverge, and in some instances one or both beams would jitter. The result was a miss. Hence, before a scheduled missile firing, the Terrier ships would go pierside to collimate (align) the beams on the tower.

Collimation was a long, frustrating process, and I well remember seeing an exhausted fire-control technician holding a radar component on his lap connected to wires leading to the equipment cabinet, twiddling dials and reading a tattered technical manual, all in an attempt to prepare the system for an impending missile shoot. What we realized, of course, was that not a single Terrier ship was combat ready because we could not take the collimation towers to sea with us.

One of the culprits, we eventually discovered, was the erratic output of 400-hertz generators, which caused sensitive fire-control equipment to malfunction. Another was the switchboards, which distorted the electrical signals passing through them. As competing technical bureaus controlled the various pieces of equipment that comprised the total weapon system, each protected its own turf. Finger-pointing and accusations took precedence over cooperation and coordination.

The missile systems test (MST) was another glaring anomaly. These tests were predicated on the bogus assumption that repeated testing would improve the reliability of an unreliable missile. Hence, the technical bureau required that a given missile be subjected to an MST every 30 days, which required moving the missile from the magazine to a test stand, attaching a huge electrical cable, and testing the missile with an "automatic" test station. The need for repeated testing was never clear, as the missiles were stored undisturbed in a magazine with a controlled environment, and we wondered what could go wrong between tests under those conditions.

Compounding the uncertainty was the unreliability of the test equipment itself, a hodgepodge of sticking relays and flashing lights that rarely passed its own self test. Thus, the missile technicians rarely believed the MST results, whether they were "Go" or "No Go." As a consequence, the shipboard testing program was a farce, the most predictable result of which was a reduction in missile reliability and readiness.

As ships rarely carried sufficient spare parts, weapons departments had a special reverence for ingenious supply officers who seemingly could pull parts out of the air. For instance, the Brooke was scheduled for a critical missile shoot, but on the night before getting under way her sole air search radar suffered a casualty. Without it we could not shoot. As usual, no spares were on board, so we arranged to cannibalize the part from the contractor's plant in Los Angeles. The part wended its way onto the last Greyhound bus heading south that night. I went to the San Diego bus depot at 0200 to get the package and was forced to rummage through scores of parcels stacked on storeroom shelves. Eventually, I found what I was looking for; we slapped the part into place and the radar was made well shortly before under way time. Such experiences reinforced in our minds that the fleet was pathetically lacking in combat readiness.

The ship's officers were ambitious professionals who realized that getting hits during missile firing exercises was in their best interest. Hence, with no incentive to shoot at a difficult or elusive target with, say, a high bearing rate or at low altitude, the firing runs were planned for the greatest chance of success. Targets repeatedly flew straight in, at or about 30,000 feet, so that intercepts would be in the middle of the envelope. Given such easy conditions, hits were recorded now and then. In the Old Navy this was called gundecking, and the tradition had found its counterpart in the Missile Navy. The subsequent statistics indicated modest successes that masked the utter wretchedness of the entire surface-to-air missile program.

With the missile fleet about to go under, the Navy Department sought quick fixes with various "Get Well" projects headed by tough-minded officers whose names became legendary. My particular hero was Rear Admiral Eli T. Reich, who seemed a godsend to those of us in the fleet struggling to stay afloat by our bootstraps. His "Tiger Teams" always will be well-remembered. Remedies nonetheless came slowly, and years of toil passed before the Missile Navy approached respectability. I hope we are there now.

Recently, I went to sea on an Aegis cruiser, and I marveled at its capabilities, light years advanced over the missile ships on which I had served. I wonder now if these problems were endemic to the Surface Navy. Other Navy communities were able to master technological challenges of far greater magnitude, particularly the Polaris and the nuclear-propulsion programs. On the other hand, those programs had two giants in charge of them—Red Raborn and Hyman Rickover—whose budgets and spans of control gave them the wherewithal necessary for success. The Surface Navy had no counterparts; indeed, no one person was in charge. Instead, the responsibilities were so fragmented and the budgets so restricted that failure was preordained. In the overall scheme of things the Surface Navy was on the bottom of the pecking order, and the Robert McNamara era and the Vietnam War only worsened matters.

Now and again I see those once-handsome yet deeply troubled ships—the DLGs and the DDGs—moldering in remote places as they await their final journey to the breakers' yards. It is a depressing sight to a retired naval officer who remembers them with nostalgia and affection, when both he and the ships were young and filled with promise. Still, I reflect with pride that we did as well as we did, ships and crew together. For better for worse, those ships were all we had, and we who served in them pressed on as best we could. It was altogether a grand time, and I am glad I was there to enjoy it.

Commander Buell is Writer-in-Residence, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of several books, the latest being The Warrior Generals (New York: Crown Publishing, 1997).


Cdr. Thomas B. Buell, USN (Ret.), who died in 2003, was a noted naval historian and the author of several books, including The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance.

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