Sunday, November 13, 2011

Buzzard Ex.

By Philip Gardocki

My first missile system was “Talos”, referred to as “the long arm of the fleet.” She was second tier of an envisioned 4-tier aircraft defense layer. The first tier was fighter aircraft, the second “Talos” with its official range* of 75 miles. Tier three was “Terrier”, with its official range of 20 miles and finally “Tartar”, with a 10 mile range. There was some rivalry between the missile men. As “Talos” had the longest range, I felt superior and sorry for my rivals. “Terrier” was newer and deployed on more modern ships, so they felt superior. Everyone I knew felt sorry for “Tartar” missile men. 

As technology improved, the range of “Terrier” and “Tartar” missiles improved, but “Talos”, which was so large it could only be supported by the converted hulls of World War Two cruisers, was destined for the scrap heap. In their thrifty way, the Navy decided to use a number of “Talos” missiles as targets for one and all to shoot at.

Somewhere in the Pacific, a Talos missile
launched by USS Oklahoma City, CG-5,
 as photographed by the author.
This targeting of “Talos” was called “Buzzard Ex”. All the newer antimissile/antiaircraft systems were chomping at the bit to claim a “buzzard kill”. How can you miss - these missiles are almost as big as MiG-17, and are going to move in a straight line. It was going to be a turkey shoot.
But my friend, Jeff, regarded this as a serious problem, and he and I put a lot of thought into it while building a pyramid of beer cans in the bar that was built on the pier, located half way between our two ships. Like all the shooters, Jeff would regard this as a serious personal coup if one of his “Terrier” missiles hit one of my “Talos” missiles.

There were a number of problems. The first is the crossing target problem. It is relatively easy to shoot down a target that is moving straight towards you, it is much harder to shoot one that is moving tangentially. The second was the speed problem. “Talos” actually breaks the speed of sound as it leaves the rail, so reaction time is very short. Also, “Talos” is faster than “Terrier” by a small amount -  mach 2.5 vice 2.2. This provides a very narrow window to shoot in.

On the “Talos” side, there was plotting to make a tough problem even worse. One suggestion was to break the missile's speed regulators. Since “Talos” was a ramjet, the faster it went, the faster it could go, until it lost structural integrity. There was also a conspiracy to mess up the count down so the firing ships would not have any advanced warning. Neither of these nefarious schemes were implemented and we needn’t have worried.
“Buzzard Ex” in the Pacific started with the Oklahoma City launching and five ships, including the Long Beach , also a “Talos” ship, and the Worden, Jeff’s ship, which sported a “Terrier” Mod 5 system. In the air were Tomcats from the Enterprise battle group with their “ Phoenix ” air-to-air missiles.

I heard later that, after the first “Talos” launched, our communications people heard all kinds of comments from the shooters, ranging from “What the?”, “Where is it?”, and, my favorite, “Ready when you are!” It was very gratifying. The Long Beach, with her phased array radar, had fast reaction software that was designed to automatically acquire and shoot at targets. Unfortunately, since the “Talos” missile was a crossing target, the computer assigned it a low priority. However, every other ship in the fleet was a high priority, as the radar failed to identify all the ships as friendly. Her four “Terrier” radars and two missile launchers slewed and acquired the nearest four ships, and only some quick thinking prevented a tragedy.

The second “Buzzard” launched with only one shooter getting a lock on, they fired, but missed. Four more “Buzzard” missiles were fired, with zero intercepts before it happened.

The Weapons Officer pressed the fire button, and the missile didn’t fire. As “Ut-Oh’s” go, this is somewhere between minor and major. Both specialized equipment and protocols have been developed to deal with this situation. The options are: 

A: Wait 3 hours for the batteries to drain, then, in theory, bring the missile into the missile house for diagnoses and repair.

B: Using 3,000psi of compressed air, "Dud Eject" the missile into the sea.
Our Weapons officer, in a career defining move**, chose option C: Bring the defective, and what turned out to be battery acid spitting missile, back into the missile house. Now all "Talos" missilemen go to the same school, and prominently displayed in the foyer of the school, was a picture of a target ship that had been hit by a by a “Talos” missile. In that picture, you can clearly see a bow, a stern, and nothing else above the waterline.  And this ship was hit by a missile without an explosive warhead, all the damage was just from the liquid fuel. If a missile ignited its engines in the missile house, the resulting explosion in the Pacific would be recorded by seismologists in Iceland . As soon as the missile house crew looked into the wrong end, and given the situation, there was no right end, of this smoking, sparking, and spitting telephone pole of death, they shut the armored missle doors, spun the launcher to a less dangerous angle, and ignored all orders to stow it.  When his order was rejected by missile house personal, the Weapons Officer went into a rage. This rant, performed before his men, his Captain, and the Commander of Seventh fleet, who was a three-star admiral in line for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was taped and provided us with amusement for weeks to come.

In the end, we followed option A: but “Buzzard Ex” was at an end in the Pacific. 

Despite nearly always having different assignments, Fate had placed Jeff and I together a number of times***. On one such time, in Jacksonville , he proudly showed me a broken “Talos” missile painted on his radar director.

Jeff had gotten a second crack at “Talos” after his transfer to the USS Dale. The ship was upgraded to “Terrier” Mod 8, and, with his experience, he was successful in shooting down a “Talos” missile launched by another good friend, Steve Miller, then stationed on the USS Albany. Steven and I had met earlier that year in San Francisco and he described his end of the shoot. But, that is another Cold War Story,
*A note on official capabilities. The rule of thumb is this: the British always understate their capabilities and the Soviets always overstate their capabilities. What the Americans do depends on how they are trying to convince Congress. For instance, we will understate an existing system, when looking to replace it. They will overstate a system when trying to convince Congress to buy it.

**The stake in the heart kind.
*** Yokosuka, Subic Bay, Damneck, Jacksonville, Naples and Houston .

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