Electronic warfare and surveillance are increasingly becoming topics of discussion. The nature of that type of warfare (and indeed combat itself) calls for a certain amount of creativity. To see but not be recognized or seen oneself begs for innovation and novel solutions to life-threatening problems. But even the most brilliant plans can be rendered moot if one builds an idea on a false assumption.
Such is the nature of the ingenious yet flawed TURDSID.
The short-lived TURDSID and other systems were developed in response to the critical but elusive nature of targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. The difficulty prompted U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) officials to explore the application of new technology to the interdiction problem.
The systems they would explore and implement, the TURDSID among them, emerged from an earlier DoD effort to create an electronic anti-infiltration system across the width of the demilitarized zone in South Vietnam and into Laos. The effort became known as Operation Igloo White. The purpose of the operation was to interdict the infiltration of supplies and personnel occurring in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Igloo White was designed to accomplish electronically what had been previously planned for with the McNamara Line.
While the barriers of the McNamara Line would have required physical construction and troops on the ground, Igloo White had its own air force and depended on thousands of sensors on the ground. The operation lasted from late 1969 to the end of 1972 and was considered one of the most secretive, expensive, and successful operations of the Vietnam War. The method of the operation was to air deliver sensors from high-speed, specially modified Navy OP-2E Neptune antisubmarine aircraft traveling as fast as 600 mph. Missions were conducted first by the joint Navy/CIA Operation Muddy Hill, and later by elements of Squadron VO-67, nicknamed the "Ghost Squadron" for its clandestine activities, and more ironically for their participation in a secret war that neither the U.S. nor the North Vietnamese wanted to acknowledge was being waged next door to Vietnam.
The sensors were dropped in strings along trails, roads, and suspected routes of enemy infiltration. A string was the word used to describe the sequential emplacement by air of sensors in a line. As a vehicle or group of soldiers would pass by the sensors, they would sequentially report "hits," which would show the location and rate of movement of the enemy as well as differentiate between vehicles and personnel. The data would then be transmitted to EC-121R aircraft, and, later in the life of the program, to unmanned QU-22B Pave Eagle planes continuously circling overhead. These aircraft, in turn, relayed the data to the Infiltration Surveillance Center (ISC) at the U.S. Air Force Base at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, at that time the largest single structure in that country.
Inside the 200,000-square-foot ISC building, IBM 360-65 computers—at the time, the world’s most powerful—recorded, stored, and processed the information received from the sensors. Intelligence analysts searched for patterns in the processed data, and sought to determine the speed, location, and direction in which the trucks or enemy personnel were moving. Once this was achieved, FACs in Laos conveyed the target information they received to attack aircraft pilots. According to one estimate, the time between target acquisition and the delivery of ordnance was on average a mere five minutes, and in some cases, as short as two minutes.
The critical sensors at the heart of the operation had to remain unseen and camouflaged in order for the advanced network to function.
Thus, enter the TURDSID.
It is a small, battery-operated Seismic Intrusion Device (SID) consisting of a seismic detector (vibration sensor), a transmitter, an internal antenna, and a battery pack, all fit into a small rubber case disguised to look like the excrement of a dog. Because of their small size, battery life was no more than a few days. Its function was to cue a larger sensor nearby.
The outer casing was a specially-designed plastic polymer designed to disguise the sensor as dog droppings. It takes no large amount of imagination to figure out how the "TURD" prefix originated. The sensors worked as designed, and the device quite effective, but with one major flaw: There were no dogs running wild along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
On learning this critical, overlooked, information, the sensor was hastily redesigned (at great expense) to look like a piece of wood.
The story of the TURDSID reveals at least one very important lesson: There is no idea, however ingenious, nor any effort too expansive, to be undone by a small but overlooked reality.