That time the Air Force dropped a 'waterfall of bombs' - We Are The Mighty
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That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’

When American intelligence detected the massive buildup of North Vietnamese troops that preceded the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, Gen. William Westmoreland gave the base priority access to all American airpower in theater, leading to Operation Niagara and a “waterfall of bombs.”


Khe Sanh was the westernmost base in a strong of installations along the crucial Route 9 in late 1967. It was in the perfect position to block North Vietnamese Army forces and other fighters moving in from Laos or other NVA areas.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
NVA Troops with Chinese SAM launcher (U.S. Air Force Photo)

But Westmoreland believed that Khe Sanh was crucial to victory and worth heavy investment despite its relatively small size as home to one Marine regiment and 5,000 support troops. To ensure the Marines could hold out against anything, he ordered improvements to infrastructure on the base and the installation of thousands of remote sensors in the surrounding jungle.

By the first week of January 1968, sensors and reconnaissance data made it clear that the NVA was conducting a massive buildup in the area of the base. All indications were that the North Vietnamese wanted to recreate their success at Diem Bien Phu in 1954 when a prolonged siege led to the withdrawal of French forces.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Second battle for Khe Sanh began on Jan. 20, 1968 when Marines from 3/26 attacked a North Vietnamese battalion between Hill 881 South Hill 881 North. Above, Marines stack mounds of expended 105mm casings after constant pounding of enemy forces. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Artillery rounds were stockpiled at the base and intelligence was collected. The intel cells were able to get a good idea of where Communist forces were concentrating forces, artillery, and command elements. They were also able to track tunneling efforts by the North Vietnamese trying to get close to the base.

And the North Vietnamese were able to get close — in some cases within a few thousand meters.

On Jan. 21, 1968, the North Vietnamese launched a simultaneous attack against Khe Sanh itself and some of the surrounding hills. Their massed forces would eventually number 20,000, more than three times the number of the 6,000 defenders.

The U.S., with a mass of intelligence and stockpiled weapons, went on the offensive against the North Vietnamese. Artillery shells shot out of the base against pre-identified targets, and a waterfall of bombs started pouring from B-52s.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52F Stratofortress drops bombs over Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The long-planned Operation Niagara II was underway. Over the following 77 days, strike aircraft from the Air Force flew 9,691 sorties and dropped 14,223 tons of bombs, those from the Marine Corps flew 7,098 missions and dropped 17,015 tons of bombs, while the U.S. Navy strike aircraft dropped 7,942 tons of bombs over 5,337 missions.

The heavy lifters were the Air Force B-52s who dropped 59,542 tons of bombs. The combined total of ordnance dropped around Khe Sanh by air was 98,721 tons, approximately 5,700 tons more than the total weight of the USS Enterprise.

Initially, the bombs were dropped relatively far from the base. The B-52s tried to stay three miles out, but the communists figured out the restrictions and moved their fighters in close, forcing the B-52s to operate closer to the base and making the ground pounders rely more heavily on strike aircraft and the AC-47 gunship.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Night attack of a U.S. Air Force Douglas AC-47D Spooky gunship over the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) Team 21 compound at Pleiku in May 1969. This time lapse photo shows the tracer round trajectories. (Photo: U.S. Army Spec. 5 Thomas A. Zangla)

Of course, not everything went smoothly for the Marines and their support. An enemy artillery strike by the North Vietnamese managed to hit the ammo dump, destroying 90 percent of the stockpiled rounds in a single hit.

Marines patrolling the jungle were also hard-pressed time after time. One patrol, conducted by two squads from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, on Feb. 25, 1968, was almost completely wiped out and became known as the “Ghost Patrol.” One survivor was taken captive and reported dead for nearly five years before he was released in a prisoner transfer.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
F-100 strikes close to the lines, Khe Sanh, Vietnam, on March 15, 1968. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Moore)

While the leadership did entertain the idea of calling in tactical nukes of necessary, the efforts of the Marines on the ground — sometimes conducted by nearly starving troops after 11 weeks of rare resupplies — combined with the Herculean-levels of air support were enough to keep the North Vietnamese at bay.

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Hollywood’s best and worst fictional US Presidents

Not all presidents have an equal place in history (looking at you, James Buchanan), and not all fictional presidents have an equal place in Hollywood. If you were a great President, you get Daniel Day-Lewis portraying you on screen. If you were a terrible President, Hollywood would rather make up a fake President than make a movie about you.


That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Suck it, Buchanan.

There are two criteria for this list. First, this about fictional U.S. Presidents, so even though Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln was the greatest President to appear on screen ever, he doesn’t qualify. Also, the most consequential aspect of the U.S. Presidency to WATM’s military audience is the President’s role as Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, so as much as we all loved Kevin Kline’s Dave Kovic’s Bill Mitchell from the 1993 movie “Dave,” America never really faced a crisis in the film.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
That sentence only makes sense if you’ve seen the movie. Pre-9/11 America was fun.

BEST

Josiah Bartlet – “The West Wing”

Jed Bartlett was Plato’s ideal philosopher king. Not content to simply make America the best country it can be on the home front, he deploys peacekeeping troops to finally take care of that pesky Israeli-Palestinian Conflict everyone has been talking about. He also confronts terrorists by assassinating their patron, ends a genocide in Africa, and deploys 140,000 troops to Kazakhstan. 140,000? That’s a lot of troops.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
President Bartlet apparently learned global military strategy from playing Risk.

Thomas J. Whitmore – “Independence Day”

Despite some early setbacks (like nuking Houston), some dubious advisors (he only learned about Area 51 because of an old widower who somehow got aboard Air Force One), and waking up for work at 10 am, President Whitmore is a Commander-In-Chief who wanted to take the fight to the enemy at the first opportunity. Sure, his administration wasn’t the best (approval rating was 40 percent before the invasion … how do you like him now?) but he sure disproved the pundits who called him a wimp when he led freaking fleets of aircraft against aliens with shields and lasers.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
It could only have been more awesome if he flew an A-10.

Tom Beck – “Deep Impact”

Yes, that guy from Armageddon hatched some cockamamie scheme to send oil rig workers to an asteroid. Morgan Freeman’s President Tom Beck did come up with a similar plan, but also planned on that first plan not working, because honestly, does it sound like the best plan for averting a global catastrophe? The answer is no. The President of the United States had to try something. He couldn’t just send 800,000 Americans underground to rebuild civilization later and bid good luck to the rest. He did that, but he tried to save everyone else too.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
I would watch every political speech if it were in this voice.

David Palmer – “24”

When confronted with the possibility that a loose nuclear weapon could be detonated in the United States, President Palmer does exactly what every other President, real or imagined, probably wishes they could do: Call Jack Bauer. He reinstates Agent Bauer, who finds the bomb and detonates it in a safe place, within 24 hours. He’s also smart enough not to start bombing countries because of some fake recordings. For all his trouble, he’s removed from office, then assassinated. We didn’t deserve President Palmer anyway.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
We were in such good hands, too.

President Henry Fonda – “Fail-Safe”

Imagine being President and accidentally ordering a nuclear attack on Moscow in response to a perceived missile attack. Now imagine that missile attack isn’t real, but you can’t call off the bombing of Moscow. When your bombers nuke the Russian capital, would you be able to make a deal with the Russians to nuke New York yourself in order to avert a global war? Could you do it while your wife is in New York? I’m guessing not. But Henry Fonda could.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
The producers of Fail Safe could at least have given the President a name.

Honorable Mention: Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho – “Idiocracy”

Some might argue that President Camacho both enabled his stupid people while being one of them, but realizing the problem of not being able to grow food while being smart enough to enlist a smart guy to fix that problem is some good Presidenting.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’

 

WORST

Merkin Muffley – “Dr. Strangelove”

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’

If someone is the President of the United States during a time where nuclear annihilation was just a button push (or case of mistaken identity) away, one would think they might learn everything there is to know about how nuclear war could be triggered from their side. President Muffley had no idea. Granted, he tries to talk everyone down and prevent the attack on the USSR, but it would have been averted entirely if he had just known what the hell his own military was capable of in the first place.

Benjamin Asher – “Olympus Has Fallen”

 

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
I sure hope he’s getting advice from a *good* President here.

North Koreans take over the White House, execute the South Korean Prime Minister, and take President Asher and some of his Cabinet hostage, looking to remove U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula and detonate American nuclear missiles in their silos. To do this (why is this even an option?), he needs three sets of “Cerberus codes,” which he promptly orders two of his cabinet secretaries to give up in exchange for their lives, obviously not realizing there is a situation where millions of American lives are at stake, and is bigger than just what’s happening in front of him.

James Dale – “Mars Attacks”

Even in the face of unprecedented violence, a Martian invasion, and the Martians slaughtering Congress, President Dale still sought a diplomatic solution.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
America can do better. I mean, we *could* have, but now we’re enslaved by Martians.

James Marshall “Air Force One”

Harrison Ford plays President James Marshall, a Medal of Honor recipient in his previous time in the U.S. military. Now, Air Force One is hijacked by Russians posing as journalists (because anyone can get aboard Marshall’s Air Force One, apparently). After allowing many on board to get killed, he almost brings down the Air Force pararescue jumpers and C-130 crews who rescue him in the end because he just won’t leave the stupid plane. Also, for a Medal of Honor recipient, he sure doesn’t fight, move, or hold a weapon like someone trained to fight.

The President from ‘Escape from New York’

If you’re going to allow the borough of Manhattan to be a contained prison just for inmates with life sentences, why would you allow Air Force One to fly over it? Also, how are so many people taking over Air Force One in these movies? It’s so easy for people in movies to take that plane, unless you’re the good guys. Steven Seagal died trying to sneak aboard the President’s jet in “Executive Decision,” but some dudes can take it over while the POTUS is carrying secret bomb plans in “Escape from New York.”

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
I hope Snake Plissken ran against him before his second term.

Dishonorable Mention – Julian Navarro – “The Brink”

Tim Robbins’ Secretary of State Walter Larsen should have been the President on this show. It was like the actual President didn’t know anything at all about the modern world’s trouble spots, his intelligence assets, or how to deal with any of it. His first response is just to bomb the crap out of everything at the suggestion of his Secretary of Defense.

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President Trump proclaims Armed Forces Day

In a proclamation signed before he left on the first foreign trip, President Donald Trump proclaimed the third Saturday of May to be Armed Forces Day.


“For almost 70 years, our Nation has set aside one day to recognize the great debt we owe to the men and women who serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard,” Trump said in a statement. “On Armed Forces Day, we salute the bravery of those who defend our Nation’s peace and security.  Their service defends for Americans the freedom that all people deserve.”

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
(DOD Poster)

According to the Department of Defense website, the celebration of Armed Forces Day first began in 1950, following a proclamation on Aug. 31, 1949, by then-Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson. Johnson’s intention was to replace separate holidays for the Navy, Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

“I invite the Governors of the States and Territories and other areas subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to provide for the observance of Armed Forces Day within their jurisdiction each year in an appropriate manner designed to increase public understanding and appreciation of the Armed Forces of the United States.  I also invite veterans, civic, and other organizations to join in the observance of Armed Forces Day each year,” Trump said in the proclamation, which has been issued by his predecessors in virtually the same form, including George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
West Point U.S. Military Academy cadets march in the 58th Presidential Inauguration Parade in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret)

Trump’s proclamation did make special note of the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, citing the 4.7 million Americans who served in that conflict. Trump also re-tweeted a Defense Department tweet featuring a video.

“Finally, I call upon all Americans to display the flag of the United States at their homes and businesses on Armed Forces Day, and I urge citizens to learn more about military service by attending and participating in the local observances of the day,” Trump’s proclamation concluded.

 

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5 epic parties troops threw when the world wars ended

When years of world war come to an end, the troops who fought are going to party hard. From New York to Moscow to Paris, the Allied cities celebrated their victories with abandon.


1. The end of World War II in Europe saw Moscow run out of booze.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: Wikipedia/Bundesarchive Bild

Russia suffered some of the worst devastation of any of the Allies during World War II, possibly even worse than France. So, when the German surrender was announced in Moscow at 1:10 in the morning, the Soviets sure as hell weren’t waiting for the sun to start partying.

Russian soldiers and citizens spilled into the streets in their pajamas and started drinking the town dry. And that’s not an exaggeration, the party got so boisterous that people reported that vodka just didn’t exist in the city by the time the partying ended.

2. Canadian authorities tried to limit drinking at the surrender of Germany and sailors rioted.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
The party in Toronto on VE-Day had nothing on Halifax. Photo: Public Domain/John Boyd

Across the Atlantic, Canadian authorities predicted the drunken antics that would ensue and tried to control it by closing bars and liquor stores. Sailors, soldiers, and civilians broke into the largest two liquor stores and 207 other businesses and stole the contents before burning a police car, a wagon, a tram, and 20 other vehicles.

A federal inquiry later blamed the navy for the sailors’ conduct and fired a senior officer in charge of the men.

3. Paris celebrations started slow and then built to a crescendo.

France tried to hold off the celebrations until noon on May 8 after Germany surrendered, but her people were having none of it. People closed their shops and milled towards the building where Gen. Charles de Gaulle announced the official surrender of Germany and Paris really got the party going.

Aviators from all the allied countries started flying around the city at treetop level as a group of men fired celebratory cannon shots nonstop. Soldiers lined up to receive kisses from French girls. Crowds gathered around Allied flags and sang the anthems of each nation as soldiers stood nearby and joined in.

4. The Polish army got drunk on the front lines.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: Imperial War Museums

For units on the front line, the parties celebrating the end of the war started as soon fighting stopped. For the Polish units “Vodka was supplied for the units in unlimited quantities. Kisses and embraces, salvoes from all arms, marked this great event.”

5. Liquor flowed through Paris after the World War I armistice was signed.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: Imperial War Museum

Paris is apparently the place to be when a world war ends. After the first one, Allied soldiers found themselves plied with liquor, celebrated as heroes, and in some cases, surrounded by mobs singing their praise.

“Honest to goodness,” U.S. soldier Alton Lawrence wrote in a letter to a friend, “I never celebrated so in my life before. I ate, drank, and yelled until I almost gagged. Oh what a head the next morning. France has less wine and cognac than she had a week ago.”

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US launches over 50 cruise missiles at Syrian airfields over chemical attack

The US Navy has reportedly launched 59 cruise missiles at airfields controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to a chemical attack that killed at least 80 people in the northwestern part of the country on Monday.


Tomahawk missiles were launched from two Navy warships stationed in the Mediterranean according to CNN, and NBC News.

No casualties have yet been reported but officials tell NBC News that no people were targeted.

Missiles hit runways and military infrastructure used by Syrian and Russian forces, who the US blames for using chemical weapons in the attack on Monday.

Several prominent GOP Senators and Representatives urged strikes on Syria after evidence of chemical attacks surfaced. The strike, while not targeting troops themselves, carried a high risk of killing Syrian and Russian servicemen in collateral damage.

This story is developing. Click here for updates.

Articles

The Air Force’s anti-missile laser airplane actually took down missiles in testing

Anyone who hates on an airplane with a nose-mounted laser designed to shoot down missiles is wrong. The only problem is that we’re limited by the technology required to make the lasers powerful enough. The Air Force may not have the patience or cash to make it happen, but they proved a long time ago, the concept is sound.

We live in the age of hypersonic missiles, ballistic missiles that can take down aircraft carriers, and potentially dozens of other kinds of warhead-toting rockets just waiting to be tried out on some of America’s finest. There’s no doubt we need some kind of defense.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
A Russian Bulava ballistic missile, launched in June 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

The good news is that the U.S. Air Force has been testing anti-missile lasers for years, and has actually been able to take down missiles in flight. The effort to bring an anti-missile laser to an aircraft was actually kind of a heartwarming supergroup of defense contractors and the story has been a long time coming.

In the 1980s, many may recall the Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as the “Star Wars” program. It was one of the earliest efforts to create a laser-based missile defense system. Although mocked by many, throwing money into something like that yielded results.

By the end of the 1980s, the Air Force Airborne Laser Laboratory actually was shooting down missiles with lasers. By the mid-1990s, the Air Force was reaching out to Boeing to get these laser weapons onto an aircraft. 

The 2000s saw a large group of defense contracting companies coming together to create an entirely new airborne defense system. Boeing repurposed an old 747-200 purchased from Air India. It prepared the aircraft to mount a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) that was prepared specifically for the purpose of airborne defense. 

The COIL, provided by Northrup Grumman, created a powerful, infrared laser that was not only capable of taking down missiles, it was tested and used in a way that was “representative of actual operational engagements.” For those unfamiliar with “govspeak,” this means that the laser was a viable weapon, capable of being used in combat. 

When it came time to build the actual prototype of an anti-missile laser plane, Boeing brought a new 747-400, modified it to fit a nose turret and fire control system created by Lockheed-Martin, and mounted the Northrup Grumman COIL weapon on the front. 

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
The COIL mounted on the YAL-1 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Boeing YAL-1 was ready for action. Its job would be taking down ballistic missiles while still in the boost phase, actually taking its first flight in 2002. The program lasted a few short years, but produced some mixed yet hopeful results.

Although the weapon worked, it was not operationally viable. Though the laser could shoot down missiles, it would have needed 20-30 times more power to fire the laser a significant distance, according to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. 

Gates went on to note that shooting down missiles in the boost phase, without knowing exactly where they would be fired, might require dozens of these aircraft, flying continuously might require more money than the project was worth. The Air Force didn’t request more funding for the laser project and the prototype was ultimately scrapped. 

Although the program itself ended up not producing a significant weapon, it did prove that lasers could be used as short-range aircraft defense. It also showed that lasers could be a sub-orbital defense against ballistic missiles, something the “Star Wars” program was widely ridiculed for.


Feature image: screen capture from YouTube

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Watch the crazy way MARSOC trains operators to shoot and drive

The U.S. Marine Corps has a reputation for making amazing videos about their training and capabilities, but Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command’s new video about defensive driving and precision shooting takes the cake.


It’s like “Top Gear” had a baby with “Hot Shots”:

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
GIF: YouTube/Marines

The Marines going through the training do some awesome stuff in the video, like executing actual rollovers:

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
GIF: YouTube/Marines

And it shows them apprehending simulated targets who attempted to flee in a vehicle:

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
GIF: YouTube/Marines

The whole video is pretty great, but be warned that it increases the desire for an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor by at least 13 percent. Check it out below:

(h/t Doctrine Man)
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The story of the most important Cold War spy most people have never heard of

One of the most significant US intelligence operations in modern history took place in the heart of Soviet Moscow, during one of the most dangerous stretches of the Cold War.


From 1979 to 1985, a span that includes President Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, the 1983 US-Soviet war scare, the deaths of three Soviet General Secretaries, the shooting-down of KAL 007, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA was receiving high-value intelligence from a source deeply embedded in an important Soviet military laboratory.

Over a period of several years and 21 meetings with CIA case officers in Moscow, Adolf Tolkachev, an engineer overseeing a radar development lab at a Soviet state-run defense institute, passed the US information and schematics the revealed the next generation of Soviet radar systems.

Tolkachev struggled to convince the CIA he was trustwory: He spent two years attempting to contact US intelligence officers and diplomats, semi-randomly approaching cars with diplomatic license plates with a US embassy prefix.

When the CIA finally decided to trust him, Tolkachev transformed the US’s understanding of Soviet radar capabilities, something that informed the next decade of US military and strategic development.

Prior to his cooperation with the CIA, US intelligence didn’t know that Soviet fighters had “look-down, shoot-down” radars that could detect targets flying beneath the aircraft. Thanks to Tolkachev, the US could engineer its fighter aircraft — and its nuclear-capable cruise missiles — to take advantage of the latest improvements in Soviet detection and to exploit gaps in the enemy’s radar systems.

The Soviets had no idea that the US was so aware of the state of their technology. Tolkachev helped tip the US-Soviet military balance in Washington’s favor. He’s also part of the reason why, since the end of the Cold War, a Soviet-built plane has never shot down a US fighter aircraft in combat.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: U.S. Navy

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David E. Hoffman’s newly published book “The Billion Dollar Spy” is the definitive account of the Tolkachev operation. It’s an extraordinary glimpse into how espionage works in reality, evoking the complex relationship between case officers and their sources, as well as the extraordinary methods that CIA agents use to exchange information right under the enemy’s nose.

It’s also about how espionage can go wrong: In 1985, a disgruntled ex-CIA trainee named Edward Lee Howard defected to the Soviet Union after the agency fired him over a series of failed polygraph tests. Howard was supposed to serve as Tolkachev’s case officer. Instead, he handed him to the KGB.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Adolf Tolkachev in KGB custody. Photo: CIA

Business Insider recently spoke with Hoffman, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for The Dead Hand, an acclaimed history of the final decade of the Cold War arms race.

Hoffman talked about some of the lessons of the Tolkachev case. Successful espionage, he said, is like a “moonshot,” an enormous effort that only works when cascades of unpredictable variables are meticulously kept in check.

And as Hoffman notes, his book is a unique glimpse into how such an incredibly complex undertaking unfolds on a day to day basis.

“You can read a lot of literature about espionage but rarely do you get to coast along on the granular details of a real operation,” Hoffman says, in reference to the over 900 CIA cables relating to the Tolkachev case that he was able to access. “That’s what I had.”

The archive, along with the scores of interviews Hoffman conducted in researching the book, yielded unexpected insights into the realities of spycraft: “I was really surprised by both the sort of quest for perfectionism” among the agents who handled the Tolkachev case, says Hoffman, “but also by the enormous number of things that can and did go wrong.”

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

BI: Your book the story of a CIA triumph: They run this source in the heart of Moscow for 5 or 6 years and get this bonanza of intelligence. But it’s also a story of organizational failure — about how this asset was eventually betrayed from within the CIA’s own ranks.

Is there a message in these two interrelated stories about the nature of intelligence collection and the challenges that US intelligence agencies face?

David E. Hoffman: On the first point, I think the big message, which is still very valid today, is the absolutely irreplaceable value of human source intelligence.

We live in an era when people are romanced by technology, the CIA included. Between what you scoop up from people’s emails and what satellites can see and signals intelligence, there always seems to be a new technological way to get various kinds of intelligence.

But this book reminded me that there is one category of espionage that is irreplaceable, and that is looking a guy in the eye and finding out what the hell is going on that isn’t in the technology — that can’t be captured by satellites. Satellites cannot see into the minds of people. They can’t even see into a file cabinet.

Even in the cyber age, it seems to me that you still have to get that particular human source, that spy that will do what nobody else will do: to let you sort of bridge the air gap, plug in the USB thumb drive if that’s necessary, to tell you something that nobody has written down …

Tolkachev was that kind of human source, an absolutely sterling example of someone who could bring stuff that you couldn’t get any other way.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: Wikipedia/NVO

The second point is, you called it institutional dysfunction but I think there’s a larger factor here which is counterintelligence …

[Intelligence] cannot simply be a matter of collection. You also have to have defenses against being penetrated by the other guys.

We live in a world where the forces of offense and defense are in perpetual motion. Counterintelligence is part of that. And counterintelligence is what really failed here.

I think it was also institutional dysfunction in the way they treated Howard. That wasn’t a counterintelligence problem so much it was a sort of incompetence: They fired a guy, they said get lost, and he was vengeful.

But I also think that — maybe not particularly in this case but just generally — the CIA did not value counterintelligence highly enough for a long time. Really the events that followed Tolkachev — [Aldrich] Ames [see here], [Robert] Hanssen [see here], that whole period of the 1985-86 losses [see here] — were a failure of counterintelligence …

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Aldrich Ames spied for the Russian for nine years before being arrested on February 24, 1994.

There were really some big vulnerabilities there. In the end Tolkachev was exposed and betrayed by a disgruntled, vengeful fired trainee. But there were other losses soon to follow that were caused by essentially not having strong enough counterintelligence in place.

BI: It’s interesting how much the success of the operation had to do with these agents understanding Tolkachev’s state of mind based on these very short meetings that would be spaced months and months apart.

And from that they would have to build out some kind of sense of who this guy was. From the looks of it they did so fairly successfully for awhile.

DEH: That’s my toughest question. Espionage at its real core is psychology. You’re a case officer, you’re running an agent — what is in the soul of that man? What’s in his heart, what motivates him?

These are all questions that you have to try to answer for headquarters but also for yourself, in trying to play on his desires and understand them. Sometimes it can be a real test of will as you saw in this particular narrative. This psychological business can be very difficult …

A couple of times early in the operation Tolkachev revealed his deep antipathy towards the Soviet system. He said I’m a dissident at heart, he describes how fed up he is with the way things were in the Soviet Union.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Joseph Stalin. Photo: YouTube/ITN

He gives only a very very skimpy factual account of his wife’s parents travails, but I was able to research them in Moscow and discovered that his wife grew up without her parents. Her mother was executed and her father was imprisoned for many years during Stalin’s purges. And Tolkachev was bitter about that.

He also came of age in the time when [Nobel-prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn] and [Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov] were also sort of coming of age as dissidents.

All of that rumbled around behind these impassive eyes. It’s not as if he handed over a book saying, I’m a dissident and here’s my complaint. Instead he handed over secret plans and said, I’m a dissident and I want to destroy the Soviet Union.

This psychological war and test of nerves of constantly trying to read a guy is really the most unpredictable and most difficult part of espionage. In this case, I’m not sure it was always successful.

The case officers did grasp that Tolkachev was determined. He expressed this sort of incredible determination, banging on the car doors and windows for 2 years to get noticed.

And when he’s working for the CIA he gives them his own espionage plan that takes years and multiple stages that he had mapped out. He’s a very, very determined guy. But what’s driving that isn’t always clear to the case officers.

BI: How does Tolkachev’s story fit in to the larger story of the end of the Cold War arms race?

I don’t think you could make the extravagant claim that he ended the Cold War or that he ended the arms race. But that’s not to minimize what Tolkachev did do. One of the things I discovered was how uncertain we were about Soviet air defenses in that period at the end of the Cold War …

There was always a funny thing going on with the Soviet Union. They had a lot of resources and were a very large country and the state and the military industrial complex was a big part of it. They always built a lot of hardware.

In fact they had a huge number of air-defense fighters and bases positioned all around their borders. [Air defense] wasn’t such a big deal for us but for them, the enemy was at their doorstop, right in Europe. They also had the world’s longest land borders. They had a lot to defend.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Thanks to Tolkachev, the US knew all about the radar capabilities of the Soviet-built MiG-29, the advanced interceptor introduced in the mid-1980s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to Tolkachev, the US knew all about the radar capabilities of the Soviet-built MiG-29, the advanced interceptor introduced in the mid-1980s.

The US saw all the deployments but there was also evidence that Soviet training was poor, that the personnel who manned all these things were not up to it, [and] that there was a goofy system where pilots were told exactly what to do by ground controllers and had very little autonomy.

The intelligence about whether the Soviets had look-down shoot-down radar was very uncertain. Some people said no, they don’t have it, some said yeah. And here’s were Tolkachev stepped into the breach.

Within a few years of his work, we knew exactly what they had and what they were working on. Tolkachev was also bringing us not only what ws happening now but what would be happening 10 years from now. A

nd if you think about it in real time, if you were in the Air Force and thinking about how you were going to deal with Soviet air defenses, getting a glimpse of their research and development 10 years ahead was invaluable …

There was also a fine line between [air defenses] and the nuclear issue. There were two aspects to strategic nuclear weapons that depended on air defenses and the kind of stuff Tolkachev brought us.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
A Tomahawk cruise missile launches from the stern vertical launch system of the USS Shiloh (CG 67) to attack selected air defense targets south of the 33rd parallel in Iraq on on Sept. 3, 1996, as part of Operation Desert Strike.

One was obviously bombers. In the early days of the Cold War [the US had] a high altitude strategy. B-52s would fly at a very high altitude and bomb from 50,000 or so feet.

Then we made a switch and we decided that the Soviets’ real vulnerability was at low altitudes. And it’s true. They did not have good radars at low altitude …

The strategic cruise missile scared the living daylights out of the Kremlin, because they knew they could fly right under their radars.

BI: Much of this book consists of reconstructions of scenes that were top-secret for many years but that you put together through researching the cable traffic and conducting interviews.

What do you see as the biggest challenge of writing about these dark spaces in American national security?

There are all kinds of missing jigsaw pieces in these narratives that we think we know, say, about terrorism, or about WMD. One of the things you find out if you’re one of those people who go with a pick and shovel at history and try to unearth rocks and tell stories is that pieces are missing — tiny little pieces, and also important things.

In this story there were a bunch of gaps that I had to report. I had enough to tell the story, but you never feel at the end that you know the whole story …

I still think there are big parts of what Tolkachev meant that are still in use and that are legitimately still classified. Even though this case is three decades old, it’s quite likely that some of that stuff is still considered pretty valuable intelligence.

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This was the US Navy’s cutting-edge stealth ship

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: US Navy


In the early 1980s, Cold War tensions were at their post-Cuban Missile Crisis height, and the US was looking for any strategic advantage it could get against its Soviet adversary.

Although submarine-based missiles were a well-established leg of the nuclear “triad” (along with ballistic missiles and strategic bomber aircraft) the US realized the strategic applicability of stealth for vessels at sea. Specifically, US military researchers wanted to test the viability of making nuclear-armed submarines invisible to sonar.

This effort resulted in Lockheed Martin’s experimental stealth ship, a razor-like surface vessel called the Sea Shadow.

First acquired by the US Navy in 1985, the Sea Shadow remained secret until it was unveiled to the public in 1993. The ship continued to be used for testing purposes until 2006, when it was removed from service.

Built with help from DARPA and funding from the US government, Sea Shadow was designed to test if it was possible to construct ships that could be invisible to Soviet satellite detection systems and X-band radar.

Additionally, the ship was more highly automated than previous vessels, and the Sea Shadow was partly aimed at testing how well surface ships could perform under the command of a very small crew.

First acquired in 1985, the Sea Shadow was never intended to be mission capable.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: US Navy

Instead, the ship was built to test stealth and automation technology. The sharp angles on the ship reflect designs that had previously proven successful for Lockheed’s stealth Nighthawk attack aircraft.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: US Navy

The Sea Shadow’s raised hull builds upon older technology that is widely used in ferry design for enhancing stability. The Sea Shadow was designed to be able to withstand 18-foot high waves.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: US Navy

The Sea Shadow was small and cramped. It was only 160 feet long, could only fit 12 bunks, and only had a small microwave, refrigerator, and table for the crew.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: US Navy

Although the Sea Shadow was taken out of service in 2006, it still influenced later classes of ships. Its low radar cross section, for instance, informed the design of subsequent US Navy destroyers.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Photo: US Navy

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This is what happens when the Army puts a laser on an Apache attack helicopter

The United States Special Operations Command just tested a high-energy laser on the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, marking the first time such a weapon has been deployed aboard a rotary-wing aircraft.


According to a press release from defense company Raytheon, the test was a complete success, “providing solid experimental evidence for the feasibility of high resolution, multi-band targeting sensor performance and beam propagation supportive of High Energy Laser capability for the rotary-wing attack mission.”

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Matthew Ketner, branch chief of the High Energy Laser Controls and Integration Directorate at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, Virginia, shows the effects of laser hits on materials during Lab Day in the Pentagon, May 18, 2017. (Photo Credit: Mr. David Vergun (Army News Service))

“This data collection shows we’re on the right track. By combining combat proven sensors, like the MTS, with multiple laser technologies, we can bring this capability to the battlefield sooner rather than later,” the release quoted Raytheon vice president of Advanced Concept and Technologies for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems Art Morrish as saying.

The Apache used a HEL mated with a version of Raytheon’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which combined electro-optical and infrared sensors, against a number of targets. The data from this test will be used to future HEL systems to address unique challenges that stem from their installation on rotary-wing aircraft, including the effects of vibration, downwash, and dust.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
(DOD photo)

The Apache has had laser systems since it entered service in 1984, but the lasers were low-power systems that are used to guide AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. A HEL will have the ability to destroy targets.

An Army release noted that the service has also tested lasers on the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck in April 2016 and the Stryker this past February and March. In both cases, the lasers downed a number of unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy has a laser on board USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15, formerly LPD 15), which is currently operating in the Persian Gulf.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
The Afloat Forward Staging Base USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf. | US Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

Lasers offer a number of advantages over artillery and missiles. Notably, they are invisible, and the power of the weapon can be adjusted to handle a specific material, like steel plating or Kevlar. HELs can even be set for non-lethal effects on people.

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House votes to allow female WWII pilots to be buried at Arlington

In a unanimous vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow WWII-era Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Martha McSally (R-Az.), a former A-10 pilot who flew missions over Iraq.


That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
McSally, pictured, preparing to distribute BRRRRRT.

“The WASPs opened the door for people like me being able to serve,” McSally said.

The women were denied burial rights when the Army reinterpreted a bill from the 1970’s. The decision excluded the WASPs, who ferried combat aircraft and trained male pilots from 1942-1944. The female WWII pilots were not considered active duty troops under the reinterpretation despite having since received the Congressional Gold Medal, as well as benefits under the VA system.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’

Space at Arlington is becoming increasingly scarce as time goes by. The acting Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy insists only Congress can change the internment rules. The bill now goes to the Senate, where similar bills have been introduced.

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Here’s what the Pentagon thinks about those bases China keeps building around the globe

China’s construction of a military outpost in Djibouti is just the first of what will likely be an ongoing expansion in friendly foreign ports around the world to support distant deployments, a new Pentagon report concludes, predicting that Pakistan may be another potential location.

The annual assessment of China’s military might also notes that while China has not seized much new land to create more man-made islands, it has substantially built up the reefs with extended runways and other military facilities. It has also increased patrols and law enforcement to protect them.


The Djibouti base construction is near Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. base in the Horn of Africa nation. But American military leaders have said they don’t see it as a threat that will interfere with U.S. operations there.

“China most likely will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries,” the Pentagon report said. “This initiative, along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, both reflects and amplifies China’s growing influence, extending the reach of its armed forces.”

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
A Chinese destroyer pulls into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 2006. (Photo by: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ben A. Gonzales)

The military expansion ties into a broader Chinese initiative to build a “new Silk Road” of ports, railways and roads to expand trade across an arc of countries through Asia, Africa and Europe. Countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan welcome it as a path out of poverty.

But India and others would be unhappy with additional Chinese development in Pakistan, particularly anything linked to the military.

China has cited anti-piracy patrolling as one of the reasons for developing what it calls a naval logistics center in Djibouti. Construction began in February 2016. Beijing has said the facility will help the army and navy participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations and provide humanitarian assistance.

But the expanded presence around the world would align with China’s growing economic interests and would help it project military power further from its borders.

The report cautioned, however, that China’s efforts to build more bases “may be constrained by the willingness of countries to support” the presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army in one of their ports.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’

Unlike previous reports, the new assessment doesn’t document a lot of new island creation by China in the East and China Seas. Last year’s report said China had reclaimed 3,200 acres of land in the southeastern South China Sea.

Instead, the new report focuses on the military build-up on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

It said that as of late last year, China was building 24 fighter-sized hangars, fixed-weapons positions, barracks, administration buildings, and communication facilities on each of the three largest outposts — Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs. Each has runways that are at least 8,800 feet long.

Once complete, the report said China will be able to house up to three regiments of fighters in the Spratly Islands.

China has also built up infrastructure on the four smaller outposts, including land-based guns and communications facilities.

The report added that, “China has used coercive tactics, such as the use of law enforcement vessels and its maritime militia, to enforce maritime claims and advance its interests in ways that are calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict.”

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This commando unit was a real-world ‘Rogue One’ searching for Nazi superweapons

In the hours after Paris was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, three Allied vehicles — two French tanks and an American Jeep — slipped into the city on a dangerous, top secret mission carrying an intelligence agent and a handful of nuclear scientists.


The operatives were members of a special detachment of the Manhattan Project called the “Alsos Mission.” They were hand-picked to scour the recently-liberated countryside for intel on a German nuclear superweapon.

In 1938, German physicists Otto Han and Fritz Strassman were the first to split the atom, putting the Nazi Reich far ahead of the Allies in developing nuclear weapons. And with the development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets, the threat of a long-range destructive superweapon was very real.

The U.S. needed to know just how far along the Nazis were and they needed specific skills – in this case, nuclear scientists – to understand and determine their progress.

In the upcoming Star Wars film “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the Rebel Alliance recruits Jyn Erso to work with a team led by Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor to steal the schematics of the Imperial superweapon, the Death Star. Erso’s unique skills and connections as a criminal are what make her the right choice.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’

And her covert op looks a lot like the clandestine work of the Alsos Mission, says a noted intelligence historian.

“Essentially, these are spy movies at heart,” says International Spy Museum curator Dr. Vince Houghton, in an exclusive interview with WATM. A U.S. Army Armor veteran and historian, Houghton admits he’s also a huge Star Wars fan.

“The backbone of all the movies are spy issues, whether it’s stealing the plans for the original Death Star, or stealing the plans for the second Death Star which turns out to be a big Imperial deception operation,” he says.

Teaming up a unique skill set with a commando group is exactly what the Alsos Mission did in WWII. It was formed in 1943 to gain intel on Axis technological progress. American para-intelligence soldiers and scientists moved with the Allied lines — and sometimes even behind enemy lines — to capture enemy atomic weapons scientists and records, Houghton says.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
The Alsos Mission dismantling a German experimental nuclear pile at Haigerloch, Germany April 1945 (U.S. Army photo)

“That’s actually probably the most direct lineage for Rogue One,” he added. “You’re looking at a superweapon – in the case of the Alsos mission, a German atomic bomb would be a superweapon.”

The Alsos Mission was a little-known part of the Manhattan Project that coordinated foreign intelligence. Their mission was to gather information about the development of atomic weapons abroad while preventing foreign powers from making progress. They did it on the bleeding edge of the Allied advance.

“They’re trying to find secret information and doing it right under everyone’s noses,” Houghton says.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Col. Boris Pash, commander of the Alsos Mission in Europe (U.S. Army photo)

The mission’s first action came in Italy after the Italians surrendered to the Allies. A unit of American, British, French, and Italian researchers were to enter Rome right behind the Allied lines. They captured prominent Italian scientists and secured university laboratories, Army history documents show.

A month after the Normandy landings in June 1944, the Alsos Mission was in France and had to fight its way across the country and into Belgium and the Netherlands in the search for French and German scientists and their labs.

Of special interest to the team was 150 tons of missing Uranium ore – which were never found.

The nuclear labs in France were finally discovered on the hospital grounds in Strasbourg, along with intelligence indicating other nuclear sites inside Germany. The Army’s extensive review of the Manhattan Project shows the team discovered that Nazi scientists were unable to enrich Uranium and thus did not have a nuclear weapon.

That time the Air Force dropped a ‘waterfall of bombs’
Replica of the German experimental nuclear reactor captured and dismantled at Haigerloch.

Once inside Germany, Alsos operatives captured prominent scientists and their research, and destroyed processing plants, removed experimental technology and nuclear material, and – most importantly – kept all of it out of the hands of the Soviet Union.

“It’s because no one was really paying attention to them,” says Houghton. “Everyone was paying attention to the conventional forces, so they were able to move around Europe and capture up all these scientists and all this nuclear information. They’re able to eventually determine that there was no German bomb, but they were very worried at first. The rumor persisted well into the later days of the war.”

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is in theaters Dec. 16th. You can catch more of Dr. Vince Houghton on the International Spy Museum’s weekly podcast, Spycast, on iTunes and AudioBoom.

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