The Story Behind the Secret History Part II. Getting B-52s through the Soviet Air Defense System

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 Oscoda Michigan.

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 Oscoda – 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.


Part III of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

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If I Told You I’d Have to Kill You: The Story Behind “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”

About a month ago I had one of the strangest phones call of my life. “Steve my name is Donald xx, and I’m the head of external affairs of the CIA’s venture capital firm and we’d like you to keynote our conference.”  CIA?  “Do you mean the Culinary Institute of America?  And you’d like me to do my talk on Customer Development and startups?”   “No, we’re the other CIA.”  74HGZA3MZ6SV

So I gave my “The Secret History of Silicon Valley” talk as the keynote to the CIA’s venture capital conference.

Their VC firm, In-Q-Tel, has been in business for 10 years, and like most VC firms they have an annual event where they show off their new portfolio companies to their limited partners and other VC partners.  Except at this VC conference, 100 or so of the 300 attendees had badges that had their first name and only the last initial of their last name.  (And I could have sworn they all had the same badge.) They were all from somewhere in the intelligence community.

As I was leaving someone asked me, “You must have been working on this story for awhile.” Until then I had never thought about how long I had been thinking about this.  But as I got into my car I realized that this talk was the result of my never-ending asking “how come” for 36 years. So this post is how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”.  (I’ll post more about the history itself later.)

So here it is in five parts.

Part I. Thailand: Bats, Moths and John Scoggins

I was 19 in 1973 and in Thailand in the Air Force working on electronic warfare equipment on fighter planes, gunships and Wild Weasels, at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  I remember asking out of the blue one day, “Where does our equipment come from, what is exactly that we’re doing?”

My sergeant looked at me like the dog just talked: “What do you mean, what are we doing?  We’re fixing this equipment; that’s your job. When the pilots say it doesn’t work we take the stuff out of the plane, bring it to the shop make sure it really is broken, you know, and unbreak it.”  And I went, “No, no, no, but why are we doing this?”

I wanted to understand more about the North Vietnamese and their surface to air missiles and radar guided AAA they got from the Russians, and how we were trying to out-smart them with receivers to pick up their radar and jammers to jam the acquisition radars and missile guidance uplink signals — a little of which I had learned in my one year of training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi.  Since it was the military and I was a lowly airman (I was outranked by the rest of the entire air force), the answer I got was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Shut up and keep fixing that equipment.”

But I kept on asking enough questions until finally I got the attention again of the guy who had brought me off of the very hot and humid flight line into the shop in the first place, John Scoggins.  John said, “You’re really interested in this stuff, aren’t you?”  I said, “Yeah, you know, like where did it come from, I mean, how long have the Russians had this stuff? Why did they build it? How did we figure out how to build jammers?” There was no public history about surface to air missiles, though I’m sure there were probably some good classified histories, which I didn’t have access to.

John said, “Well, Steve, it’s been going on for tens of millions of years.”  I said, “What are you talking about?  I’m asking about electronic warfare and countermeasures.”  He said, “Tens of millions of years.”  And I said, “What?”  And he said, “Meet me at the tennis courts tonight.”

John was a lifer, who I guess in hindsight was a nerd and was in his element as an enlisted guy, but a master sergeant.  He must have been in his 30s, so a real “old” guy to a 19 year old.

So, he said, tennis courts, 8:00 PM tonight.  You’re on an airbase with 180 fighter planes, but we had a tennis court and gym and all kinds of accoutrements to give thousands of airmen in the middle of a war zone an alternative to almost free drugs and women (note to military, nice try but it didn’t work.)

The tennis courts had these very bright lights, and they would attract all kinds of bizarre tropical insects, including these large flying water beetles. I don’t know their actual genus, but they were called “Baht Bugs” because the Thai locals would come and capture them and sell them for a nickel each since they were a delicacy, and the Thais would take the raw bugs and literally slurp out their insides in real time.  So, they would be running around the tennis courts collecting Baht Bugs.

Baht Bugs

Baht Bugs

There were also these large moths that would attract bats.

So, I go to the tennis court, and there’s John Scoggins, and there’s a pile of electronic equipment in the corner, and it’s night, and no one played tennis at night, even though they lit the tennis court.  But there’s a pile of electronic equipment under one of the lights with a parabolic dish antenna, kind of a miniature setup of stuff we had in the labs and our shop.

And I said, “What on earth is this?”  John put on headphones, and he gave me a set of headphones, and all of a sudden I could hear this chirping sound.  And I said, “What are we listening to?”  He said, “Bats.”  “What?”  “Bats.”

John explained that bats have the equivalent of radar.  Not radar in terms of microwave radar frequencies, but they use ultrasonic frequencies to locate their prey at night, and so it’s essentially radar to locate bugs.  And since they fly at night, they don’t use vision; their ultrasonics are essentially their eyes.  They’ve build up a mental map −– just like our vision −– with echolocation.  They send out these chirps, and when one bounces off an object, it comes back.  Then they would go after the moths. That’s what I was hearing was the radar signals of a bat.

We’re listening, and it’s very cool.  And John was recording all this stuff on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, recording the flight of the bats as they were going after bugs.  Every couple minutes he’d say, now listen to this one, and you’d hear the bat chirp, and then every once in a while you’d hear even a higher frequency but lower volume sound.

John said, “Listen, you can hear the jammer.”  The what?  “The jammer,” he said, “Watch the moths.”  It turns out the moths, through evolution, had developed their own electronic countermeasures to jam the bat radar. They had developed ultrasonic receivers and ultrasonic jammers and physical countermeasures. When they picked up the bat radar illuminating them by sensitive hairs on their antennas, they would send out their own little squirt of ultrasonics by rubbing their legs together, jam the bat radar, and then they would immediately take evasive action and dive to the left and right.

Through Darwinian selection over millions of years, these moths had developed an entire electronic warfare, electronic countermeasures, electronic countercounter-measures suite, and here was a guy in 1973 in Thailand who was figuring this stuff out.  To be honest, it was my first insight that there was really a bigger picture.

So, John’s point was, “I keep trying to tell officers way above me that there’s probably a ton we could learn from watching these natural systems.  What we’re doing in the air war over the North is just nothing more than something that’s been going on in nature for millions of years, but I can’t seem to get anybody’s attention.”  (Thirty years later MIT would develop the Insect Lab and work on swarm behaviors for UAV’s and robotics.)

Years later, I searched Google for anything written on moth/bat radar and countermeasures, and while now there are quite a few papers, John had never published anything on the subject.  If he did he would have been 20 years ahead of everyone else. But I always had thought the bat and moth thing was incredibly cool, and it answered a question I had never even asked: where is all this coming from?

In exchange for helping John with his bats and bugs, I learned about the big picture −– about the North Vietnamese air defense radar network and SAMs and what systems our equipment were trying to shut down, what the Wild Weasels were doing, and what John had heard from friends in Utapao and Guam on why we lost all those B-52’s in Linebacker II, what worked and didn’t over the north, almost all which was classified way past my pay level (and his.)

But I was always a sponge for new data and curious about where it came from, and what the history was, and what we were trying to do.  Most of it went in one ear and out the other.  But some of it was sticking.  And all of it was interesting.  It gave me a sense of purpose for the rest of the war.  Under John’s tutelage I ended up running a small shift and part a very large shop and was being sent to other bases in Thailand to train others how to repair the new equipment.

Thanks John, wherever you are.

I had just turned 20.

Steve at 19

Part II of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

Listen to the podcast here

Download the podcast here

Watch This Space

I am going to post on Mondays and Thursdays – at least until I run out of war stories. Posts are going to be a mix of topics: entrepreneurship, secret history and conservation. I’ll try to mix the topics up during the week. BTW, keep the comments coming, they’re read and appreciated.

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