Jamie Bisher worked as a junior engineer for a support contractor in the Naval Air Systems Command TACAMO Engineering Office (AJR-53342) 1981-1984.
Submarine communications have occupied strategists, worried submariners and fascinated the public since World War I. For half a century, the mission of submarine communications was straightforward: simply to transfer mission support and minimal command and control information to distant boats whose independent commanders were accustomed to relying on experience, instinct and initiative. Then came the Cold War: Nikita Krushchev and the aggressive, formidable Russian threat of the early 1960s made survivable submarine communications a key to nuclear deterrence. This threat begat T ACAMO, a naval oddity that entails cutting edge technology, a port in Oklahoma and the heaviest aircraft in the fleet inventory twirling wires five miles long in the sky.
In 1963, Soviet technological advances and the absolute necessity for assuring the twin objectives of the strategic Submarine Force-survivability and effectiveness- forced US naval planners to acknowledge that contemporary methods of submarine communications were dangerously outmoded. The haste with which a new submarine communications project was launched suggests the urgency felt by Washington. The proposed solution was an airborne communications concept, a cutting edge, high-risk idea fraught with technological risk. The solution was the responsibility of Rear Admiral Bernard F. Roeder, Director of Naval Communications, who thrust the concept upon young Lieutenant Jerry 0. Tuttle and ordered, “TAke Charge And Move Out!” The project became the namesake of Roeder’s memorable order-TACAMO, a moniker that would baffle hostiles and friendlies alike for decades.
TACAMO initially took flight with a Lockheed KC-130 Hercules shanghaied from the Marine Corps. Engineers equipped the aircraft with a very low frequency (VLF) radio transmitter and sent it to communicate with the subsurface force. The experiment succeeded, and, as a result, four Air Force C-130s were diverted from the Lockheed production line to the Navy, christened C-130Gs, and stuffed with a roll-on/roll-off van of strange communications hardware. In 1966 the Navy expanded the TACAMO program. As a result, eight new EC-130Q aircraft with fixed communications suites were ordered, and a new unit, Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron FOUR (VQ-4), was established at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. AT ACAMO contingent at Barbers Point, Hawaii evolved into a Pacific squadron, VQ-3, that was soon moved to Agana, Guam.
It was the beginning of a twenty five-year vigil for the EC-130s of VQ-3 and VQ-4. TACAMO was working 2417 years before the term came into common use: one aircraft over the Atlantic, another over the Pacific, and others on the ground on 15-minute alert, constantly until the end of the Cold War. Each flight departed just in case the unthinkable- a nuclear attack on the United States- might happen during the next ten and a half hours.l They were the link between the National Command Authority (NCA) and the strategic submarine fleet, the finger on America’s nuclear trigger. The other links- a number affixed VLF and LF shore stations- were doomed in a global nuclear exchange. However, TACAMO was a moving target and deemed survivable.
Survivability demanded rigorous operational security measures. TACAMO aircraft would start a mission from one airfield and end at another, and fly random patterns to mislead unauthorized observers. Even tail numbers were classified confidential. Rumors circulated of suspicious civilian vehicles and watercraft lurking around bases, but no arrests were made, or rather, no arrests were made public. TACAMO certainly aroused interest in Soviet intelligence.
Submarine communications have always pushed the envelope of technology. In the first days of World War I, the German Admiralty took over Telefunken’s famous Nauen wireless station near Berlin, and in 1918 used it to command undersea cruiser operations off the coasts of New England and West Africa. During World War II German scientists constructed the Goliath VLF station near Magdeburg, a huge contraption true to its name with an antenna two-thirds the height of the Eifel Tower. Goliath’s signals could be received by submerged U-boats off Capetown and in the Strait of Malacca. The Soviet Navy inherited Goliath during the Allied occupation in 1945, and eventually developed a powerful extremely low frequency (ELF) transmitter near Murmansk. In the United States, controversy over the environmental impact of ELF transmissions brought submarine communications into the public eye. The plot of the 1995 movie Crimson Tide hinged upon the difficulty and dire consequences of submarine communications.
TACAMO communications equipment has always been extraordinary. EC-130s carried the usual complement of ultra-high frequency (UHF), HF and satellite communications (SATCOM) gear to communicate with surface ships, shore stations and other aircraft. However, TACAMO VLF equipment was unique: in the 1970s and 1980s, it entailed a 200-kilowatt (kW) transmitter that transmitted over two trailing wire antennas, one five miles long, the other two miles long. Since VLF transmissions require a stationary vertical antenna, the EC-130 had to slow to a near-stall and fly a tight two-to-three minute orbit to broadcast. Transmissions trickled into the submarine at extremely low data rates via an external antenna to the VERy low frequency Digital Infonnation Network (VERDIN) terminal, which were reserved for fateful Emergency Action Messages (EAMs) such as terse orders to launch, stand-down or surface for more verbose orders across a broader bandwidth. TACAMO could also relay EAMs from the Emergency Rocket Communications System (ERCS), a Minuteman II missile which would broadcast prerecorded force execution messages to alt units within line of sight of the missile’s apogee flight, presumably in case the National Command Authority was unavailable or had become extinct. Survivability also demanded that the aircraft be shielded for electromagnetic pulse (EMP), so a massive wooden scaffold held together by huge wooden screws was constructed in New Mexico, strong enough to support an EC-130 during EMP tests. The airplane was so heavy that it regularly raced down 5,000 feet of runway before climbing into the air, prompting at least one crewmember to add three ‘Hail Mary’s ‘ and an ‘Our Father’ to his regular checklist.
A veil of mystery has surrounded TACAMO since its’ inception. Indeed, the mission’s secrecy bred fanciful tales in the first decades of the program, and mischievous airmen added to the hysteria by making up wild stories. A VQ-3 crew that frequently landed at Hickam Air Force Base let slip to overly curious technicians that their EC-130 actually carried a nuclear reactor onboard. The bizarre orange cones on the tips of the trailing wire antennas contributed to the nuclear aura. One night, an innovative reel operator cut open a light-stick and dribbled the luminescent chemicals on his flightsuit and face. After the aircraft parked, the Air Force technicians tried to steal a peek inside the aft doors. Out of the dark interior appeared the the glowing reel operator, frantic, running and shouting, Reactor breach! His colleagues hustled him onto the crew bus and raced away, leaving three shaken young airmen, one snickering Senior Chief and one smiling Master Sergeant.~ The patch of the VQ-4 depicts the silhouette of someone in a fedora and trenchcoat grasping three lightning bolts, contributing to a mistaken belief that the Shadows (as they are known) are a spook squadron. Even now that the mission is public knowledge, T ACAMO continues to inspire the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. Some websites associate the aircraft with the Taos hum and paranoid chem-trail conspiracies.
The mission of 21st century TACAMO has expanded to encompass the entire US nuclear triad. The evolution began in 1989 when VQ-3 took the first of sixteen Boeing E-6A Mercurys that would replace the EC-130 by 1992. The E-6As were the last of the 707 line, and their 320B airframes were modified to accommodate the trailing wire antennas (one under the mid-fuselage and the other from the tail cone), mount electronic equipment in enlarged wing tip pods, strengthen the fuselage structure to support the hefty communications suite, and harden the aircraft for EMP and nuclear blast. VQ-4 received its first E-6A in January 1991, and moved to Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma in November 1992. In 1995 a 737-type autothrottle and a software revision to the flight management computer incorporating a TACAMO orbit algorithm fine-tuned the maneuver required to broadcast VLF messages. In 1997, the Navy started converting the Mercurys to E-6Bs to replace the Air Force’s aging EC-135 Airborne Command Posts. This dual mission began in October 1998. To accomplish it, Strategic Communications Wing One, the umbrella for VQ-3 and VQ-4, flies the heaviest aircraft ever fielded by the Navy at 350,000 pounds, yet has a mission range of 6,600 nautical miles and endurance of fifteen hours without refueling and 72 hours with in-flight refueling.
A sizeable community of military personnel and civilians has evolved to support the T ACAMO mission. By the early 1990s, VQ-4 grew into one of the largest operational aviation squadrons in the Navy, with approximately 400 officers and enlisted personnel. Over the years, thousands of people have worked in the program- pilots and other aircrew, maintainers, engineers, technicians, logisticians, administrators, assemblers and many others in uniform, in the civil service and in industry. Their collective efforts during the past forty years have enabled our strategic submarine fleet and dispelled the fear of annihilation that originally spawned TACAMO.