This is post II of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.
1974. The Vietnam war was winding down. After been stationed at three fighter bases in Thailand (Ubon, Udorn and Korat) and working on Electronic Warfare suites on F-4’s, A-7’s, F-105’s and AC-130’s, I got orders to report to a Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 bomber base in Alpena Michigan. 74HGZA3MZ6SV
Imagine how hot, humid and unbearable the weather was in Thailand. Now I was on an airbase that issued some very ‘cool’ gear – bunny boots and arctic parkas. The downside was that the average winter temperature was about 10 degrees. I remember the few times I had to go out to the flight line, it was usually 15 below zero (Fahrenheit.)
The B-52 – When it Absolutely Had to Get There the Next Day
During the Cold War, the B-52 bomber was one-third of what was called our strategic triad – meaning, it made up one-third of the U.S.’s strategic weapons: ICBMs, nuclear submarines, and manned bombers. The notion was that while the Soviets could knock any one or any two of those out, we still had a retaliatory capability. (That was our strategic posture from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the ’80s, and I think maybe even through the ’90s. Now we have ditched the cold war triad in the 21st century since the Soviet Union became Russia again and discovered its own style of capitalism.)
Think of a plane the length of a 767 airliner (but with 30 foot longer wings and 8 engines rather than 2) whose only mission was to FedEx 70,000 pounds of nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union.
Soviet Air Defense – PVO Strany
The B-52s had to get through a massive Soviet air defense system that had been built and evolved over two decades and was designed to shoot down manned bombers. Not only did Soviet Air Defense have the same SA-2 missiles the North Vietnamese had (since they had given it to them), but the Soviet air defense environment was much denser with a layered defensive system of radars, Surface to Air Missiles (old SA-1’s and newer SA-3s, SA-5s) and a huge manned 1000+ plane fighter interceptor fleet. In fact, the Soviet Air Defense Forces, PVO Strany, was so important in the defense of the Motherland it was a separate branch of their military.
And just to make the problem harder, the North Vietnamese had shot down B-52s in December 1972 and given the Soviets the captured electronic countermeasures equipment. Even though the bombers we lost over North Vietnam were older versions, called B-52 D-models, many of the systems were the same. Now the Soviets had first hand knowledge of how their air defense systems would work against the nuclear armed B-52G and H models in an operational environment.
Ann Arbor to Alpena – 180 Miles and a Major Culture Gap
While I never got tired of looking at the planes, one my fondest memories of this base was driving down U.S. 23 to Ann Arbor when the leaves turned in the fall. Late September to mid-October the riot of the colors was so intense I pulled the car off to the side of the road to just stare for awhile. Each week as I would head down south, I could track the progress of the trees putting on their electric reds and yellows fall colors as they also headed south. I’d spend a weekend in a college town, without a uniform, in a world as far away from nuclear weapons and the Strategic Air Command in politics and culture as you could get. While it seemed a bit incongruous, it was fun listening to my friends in graduate school over dinner worrying about grades and jobs. Then I would return back north to the much drabber green palette of bombers and uniforms and continue to defend democracy. I had plenty of time in those three hour drives to ponder the value of universal National Service.
The Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) and the Nielsen Ratings
The largest payload next to the nuclear weapons on B-52s was the electronic warfare equipment, which was to designed to help the bomber jam its way through the radar environment in the Soviet Union. The bombers had wideband panoramic receivers and displays, chaff, and kilowatts of jammers up and down the frequency band. One of the six crew members was solely dedicated to get the plane to the target through the gauntlet of the Soviet air defense system: the EWO or Electronic Warfare Officer.
When I first got to this B-52 base, I started asking: “What are we working on?” Again, just like in Thailand, the answer was, “Just fix the damn boxes.” I’d always be the one in the shop going, well, “Why? What are we jamming, how many Soviet radar types are there what does each one of them they do, how do we know about them, how did someone know to build these jammers to these specifications, how do these bombers penetrate Soviet airspace, how, when and where did the EWO use his equipment?” People used to just look at me: why are you asking these questions?
But I was now running the part of the electronic warfare shop that repaired the receivers and could get some of my questions answered. The receiver I worked on, the ALR-20, when turned off looked like nothing more than a big orange TV display. But it was the main display for the EWO on the B-52 for situational awareness. When it was on, he could see every signal from one end of the electromagnetic spectrum to the other and for a long way out around the aircraft. Think of the most amazing spectrum analyzer you could build with 1960s technology. Then think some more.
In time of war, the B-52′s would be piloted into Soviet territory at 500mph at 500 feet above the ground (by eyeball and by using some pretty sophisticated low-light TV and infrared cameras.) Sitting behind the pilots, the EWO was also steering the plane, but he was taking it through the hostile electromagnetic spectrum. He was constantly looking at the multiple lines on the ALR-20 display and could see the Soviet radar order of battle: ground to air communications, what radars were around (search, acquisition, tracking, etc.), were they about to get locked on the bomber and whether they were going to get a SAM up their rear or was it going to be an air-to-air missile from a fighter. And because of his training, an EWO could identify and prioritize the threats.
The signals displayed by the ALR-20 were used to control the jammers of the rest of electronic countermeasures systems – putting out enormous number of kilowatts using brute force noise jamming and later on some much more sophisticated jamming techniques. All of this designed to make the plane if not invisible to Soviet radar, at least really difficult to lock onto and shoot down.
Just to rank how difficult it was to protect a B-52 in a dense defensive radar environment, our current B-2 stealth bomber has a radar signature of about an aluminum marble, while the B-52 designed in 1950 has the radar signature of a 170-foot sphere. It was like trying to fly a whale through a fish tank and not get noticed.
(I remember a few times when the bombers were flying practice missions over their test ranges. On the way home the Electronic Warfare Officer would “accidentally” turn on the communications jammers over populated parts of the U.S. and shut down television and FM radio stations for hundreds of miles. This stuff was so powerful it probably could affect the Nielsen ratings. When they landed, the EWOs would write it up as an “equipment malfunction.” I could never tell if they had a sense of humor or just wanted to see if the equipment would work in the real world.)
Peace Is Our Profession – Is It a Drill?
In front of the entrance to every Strategic Air Command air base was a sign that said, “Peace is our Profession.” No joke. Really. Yet every time I came back to base, I kept thinking about whether this was the day for the alert drills.
At this time in the cold war, several B-52s at every Strategic Air Command base were on ground alert – they were loaded with nuclear weapons, had their orders and targets and were cocked and ready to take off to execute their mission – to destroy some part of the Soviet Union with large nuclear weapons. All as an integral part of the Strategic Integrated Operating Plan – our war-fighting plan to destroy the Soviet Union. When the alert sirens sounded, the bomber crews and the ground crews raced for their planes and they and their KC-135 refueling tankers would take off − hoping to miss the incoming Soviet ICBMs and SLBMs intended to destroy the bombers, the base and a good chunk of Michigan.
The problem for the rest of us on the base was that when the alert sirens went off, you did not know it was a drill. I would always look at my watch and count down 10 minutes to see if we would be vaporized by a submarine-launched attack, and then hold my breath for another 15 minutes to see if there were ICBMs coming across the pole to take us out. I wondered if I would actually see the flash or feel anything. At these times, you never forgot that peace was the last profession we were in.
I never got used to it.
Stay Hungry, Stay Curious
When these bombers got their first modern Electronic Countermeasures suite (the ALQ-117 with automatic wide-band receivers and jammers), I got sent back to school for three months (to scenic Biloxi Mississippi again) to learn how to repair it. This equipment was modern in the sense that it used integrated circuits rather than transistors, and it responded to threats “automagically” rather than requiring the EWO to do something. Learning about integrated circuits in the mid 1970s was fun as it meant learning a whole new language of digital versus analog computing and learning how to use a logic analyzer instead of just an oscilloscope. Little did I know that these integrated circuits were coming from a place I would one day call home, and I’d be working at the companies who were designing them.
But once again, learning about the new electronic warfare equipment meant learning more about the Soviet threat environment and what we knew about the latest Soviet radar order of battle.
So now with a bit more “need to know” and a lot more “I want to know,” I started reading all the technical manuals I could get my hands on. One of the wonderful things about a classified location is once you are inside, you have access to everything and can read anything − and I did. I not only knew about my equipment but everyone else’s in the shop. And I began to understand a bit about the Soviet radar order of battle at the height of the cold war from reverse engineering what our jammers were designed to counter and what frequencies our receivers were looking at and how the EWOs were trained to use our equipment.
I was always kind of curious. I was always curious about, and asking about, the big picture.
I was 22.