An intense naval battle inside the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 set the United States on a course for conflict in Vietnam. During the fight, two U.S. Navy destroyers expended hundreds of rounds of ammunition, rattled the dark waters with defensive depth charges, and raced through a series of evasive maneuvers. It initially was reported that North Vietnamese forces had attacked the American ships, drawing a retaliatory response. However, no enemy combatant was present. The battle was a phantom fight waged by undermanned and underequipped ships duped by weather-related radar returns.
Six decades later, many of the same readiness issues that triggered the phantom fight continue to trouble the Navy. This comes amid China’s aggressive military rise in the same South China Sea waters. The Secretary of Defense has reported that China poses a “significant, persistent” cyberattack threat against adversary’s military and critical infrastructure and is refining its capabilities to deny radar, communications, and space-based sensors. The Navy must heed lessons from the Vietnam-era phantom fight and correct readiness shortfalls so that its ships and sailors are not haunted by the same ghosts.
A Spark Ignited
The USS Maddox (DD-731) was ordered to the Gulf of Tonkin to conduct covert signals intelligence gathering missions dubbed Desoto patrols. At the same time, the United States secretly backed South Vietnamese raids into North Vietnam under a separate clandestine operation codenamed OPLAN 34A. These operations were carried out separately, with Desoto patrols only providing intelligence support to the OPLAN 34A raiders.
However, the Maddox’s proximity to the North Vietnam coast at the same time as the raids ignited a spark in the Gulf of Tonkin. On 2 August, two days before the phantom fight, the Maddox engaged in a real skirmish against three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The Maddox suffered only a single bullet hole and continued on patrol, joined soon after by the Turner Joy.
On 4 August 1964, the crews of the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy (DD-951) believed they again were under attack. However, several signs pointed to the fight being a figment. For example, the ships requested air support from the nearby USS Ticonderoga (CV-14), but when then-Commander James Stockdale flew overhead, he reported seeing “nothing there but black water and American firepower.”1 Despite uncertainty about the legitimacy of the attack, Congress passed a retaliatory resolution that gave President Lyndon Johnson authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” This legislation—known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—propelled the United States into war without an official declaration.
While the narrative of the phantom fight is a source of debate, the readiness issues on the Maddox and Turner Joy cannot be disputed.
Equipped to Fight
Radar anomalies were a significant factor in the phantom fight.2 These were compounded by numerous malfunctions of shipboard equipment, including the Maddox’s SPS-40 long-range air-search radar and the Turner Joy’s SPG-53 fire-control radar.3 These equipment faults caused the Maddox to report erroneous air contacts and produced radar data of “dubious quality.”4
Today’s Navy still struggles to send ships to sea with fully functioning equipment. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that, from 2011 to 2021, the Navy experienced “persistent and worsening sustainment challenges,” with increases in parts cannibalization, casualty reports, and maintenance delays. The Navy has tackled maintenance and sustainment issues with initiatives such as Performance to Plan, a data-driven system aimed at analyzing root causes of readiness challenges. This program has reduced delays and improved shipyard processes, but the daily upkeep of shipboard systems remains a significant challenge.
Training deficiencies also were a significant factor on board the Maddox and Turner Joy. The bulk of sonar evidence of torpedoes being fired at the ships came from an inexperienced operator who likely mistook the sound signatures of his own ship for enemy fire.5 Meanwhile, several radar operators became confused while managing contacts that likely were caused by atmospheric anomalies.6 A decade after the phantom fight, an officer from another Vietnam-era destroyer stated weather phenomena in the Gulf of Tonkin became “widely noted, but never adequately explained,” and nearly caused other ships to fire on phantom contacts.7 Here, the Navy failed to prepare its ships for the unique challenges of the region. The Navy must consider if the same can be said for the ships patrolling the Pacific today.
China has added sophisticated military technology to a group of artificial islands in the South China Sea, including communications-jamming equipment on its Spratly Island outposts. Like the weather events in the Gulf of Tonkin, cyber and electronic warfare threats are widely known, but nonkinetic warfare must be adequately explained to the sailors who will be affected by it. The crews of the Maddox and the Turner Joy did not know how to respond when their equipment did not perform as planned, a valuable lesson to drive modern tactics and training.
Sailors need sustained access to warfighting training. Many sailors leave boot camp for complex accession schools, where they learn the technical foundation to earn a rate as a fire controlman, sonar operator, cryptologist, or other warfighting trade. When they reach the fleet, however, they often face significant delays in employing their newly learned skills. They may be required to temporarily fill a food service position or support a damage control maintenance team, or they could be assigned to a ship in an extended maintenance availability. While it is important for sailors to provide support outside of their specific ratings, these manning practices create a chasm between accession training and implementation of warfighting skills.
In 2020, the Navy announced sailors would not be required to obtain their enlisted surface warfare qualification until reaching the E-5 pay grade, to allow them to focus on learning in-rate skills. However, most of these young sailors still spend months away from their primary divisions performing other duties. This does not best prepare the Navy’s newest talent for future conflict. Live, virtual, and constructive environments are a positive step to providing more realistic training, but the Navy is far from perfecting this technology. This type of warfighting education must be more rigorously pursued and implemented in fleet so that even the Navy’s newest talent can spot phantoms in their systems.
Knowing the Enemy
A congressional study in 2021 examined the fighting culture of the Navy and found a force wanting fewer administrative distractions and more focus on warfighting and understanding the enemies they face. The Navy must take this criticism to heart and foster a better understanding of great power competition and the role each sailor plays in ensuring maritime superiority.
Another officer in the survey noted that there is a hunger for a “cultural and political understanding as well as the warfighting implications” of future wars. The Navy could incorporate this training using existing models such as the command-driven Sailor 360 or find other creative methods to ensure warfighting is part of the daily drumbeat for every sailor.
Knowing the enemy is a timeless warfighting principle. Rear Admiral Paul Becker, a retired intelligence officer, wrote in 2017 that “the deep penetrating understanding of the enemy,” which included culture, language, and fighting styles, was a deciding factor in the Battle of Midway. The opposite was evident in the Gulf of Tonkin. The crews of the Maddox and the Turner Joy did not have access to an accurate order of battle, and, as a result, overestimated the capability of the North Vietnamese torpedo boat fleet. If the ships had possessed a greater awareness of the enemy’s capabilities, they likely would have concluded the phantom fire was highly improbable. In one instance, the Maddox and the Turner Joy reported a North Vietnamese ship maneuvering after a torpedo run nearly 6,000 yards away, even though the patrol boats had ranges of only approximately 1,000 yards.8 The destroyers also never detected emissions from Vietnamese surface search radars.9
The Navy has a better grasp of modern adversaries such as Russia and China, although, as Admiral Becker notes, the service faces “a data glut and information deficit.” Finding the balance between data and information, and implementing it in meaningful training, should be one of the Navy’s top priorities.
Doing More with Less
Reliance on junior operators was likely a symptom of manning shortages on both the Maddox and Turner Joy. There was only one senior enlisted sonar operator between the two ships.10 Furthermore, the Turner Joy staffed its loading and magazine rooms with 11 sailors, 8 fewer than required. This was a contributing factor to the ship losing a third of its firing capability.11 Crews on those ships were so undermanned that some sailors made makeshift mattresses to respond to calls more quickly.12
Today’s Navy still does not have enough sailors at sea. In 2022, the Navy suffered a deficit of 5,000 sailors on ships. A host of incentives have been introduced reverse this trend, but the problem remains. Sailors are frequently reassigned from vessels with lower priority to operational ships, spreading the burden of managing operational tempo and in-port requirements across multiple platforms. Short-notice deployments are far too common, intensifying some of the fleet’s most difficult challenge—including mental health and retention. This manning crisis also causes many ships to leave for deployment with a large percentage of the crew never having participated in workups, widening the gap in warfare knowledge.
The sonar operator on board the Maddox did not expect to be at the tipping point of war. Summer 1964 seemed routine, even with escalating tension in Vietnam. An officer in charge of the ship’s intelligence mission said he assumed it would be a “leisure cruise” suitable for catching up on administrative chores.13 Mere hours before the 2 August incident, the crew was enjoying the holiday routine, lounging and grilling steaks topside.14 The escalation occurred in a flash.
The same could happen today. In 2018, the United States deemed 18 interactions with the Chinese military unsafe or unprofessional. Like the events of 2 August1964, those interactions could provoke a high-seas shootout. Other scenarios could mimic the 4 August phantom fight. It is plausible to envision a junior sailor fighting fatigue on a seemingly routine midwatch inadvertently overlooking anomalies on a radar screen because of interference in the electromagnetic spectrum. The same could happen to the ship’s bridge watch team, navigating through the night when their satellite sensors suddenly produce spurious waypoints. Will those sailors know how to detect the anomalies or how to respond? Facing these ghosts starts with correcting readiness shortfalls that still haunt the fleet after 60 years. The Navy must face this reality and ensure every ship and sailor is ready to fight any enemy, including unseen phantoms.
1. James Bond and Sybil Stockdale, In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 23.
2. Edwin E. Moïse, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, rev. ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 124.
3. Robert J. Hanyok, “Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 24 August 1964,” Cryptologic Quarterly (1998): 18.
4. Hanyok, 21.
5. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and Escalation of the Vietnam War, 17686.
6. Moise, 124.
7. Moise, 124.
8. Hanyok, “Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds,” 21.
9. Hanyok, 31.
10. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and Escalation of the Vietnam War, 181.
11. Moise, 127.
12. Moise, 111.
13. Moise, 61.
14. Moise, 85.