JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
(Editor's note: This is part two of a four-part series on the 25th Air Force's contributions to the nation.)
America’s air campaign continued after Vietnam and U.S. Air Force Security Service, or USAFSS, continued providing mission data for air operations ,as well as ground capabilities.
In early 1953, USAFSS personnel, flying aboard modified Fifth Air Force C-47 Skytrains in the Far East, conducted experimental airborne operations under Project Blue Sky. Beginning in 1958, they flew in RB-50s with C-130A Hercules, and in 1962, crews first flew missions aboard the Strategic Air Command’s RC-135 Stratolifter.
“USAFSS personnel pioneered modern airborne ISR operations,” said Gabe Marshall, staff historian, Twenty-Fifth Air Force Office of History and Research. “Beginning in the late 1940s through today, our Airmen, officers and civilians have played key roles in the development and deployment of the U.S. Air Force’s most important airborne intelligence collection platforms.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, USAFSS support to national level customers expanded rapidly. As a result, USAFSS ground units opened in out of the way places around the globe, to include: Samsun and Trabzon Air Bases in Turkey; Zweibrucken and Wiesbaden Air Bases in Germany; Royal Air Force Kirknewton in Scotland; and Peshawar, Pakistan.
By the mid-1960s, USAFSS installed AN/FLR-9 antennas, or "elephant cages," in strategic locations around the globe. By the end of the decade, seven antennas were in operation.
Ground operations in Vietnam expanded by the mid-1960s and beginning in 1966, USAFSS personnel began flying airborne radio direction finding missions over Southeast Asia aboard the EC-47.
“Vietnam saw USAFSS heavily involved on the ground and in the air,” Marshall said. “Our presence in the theater pre-dated the deployment of American combat forces by several years. Our contributions, particularly in the areas of airborne radio direction finding and airborne reconnaissance, made a difference in saving the lives of Americans and our South Vietnamese allies.”
As operations expanded and technology improved, the growth of USAFSS reached a peak strength of over 29,000 Airmen at more than 120 locations around the globe in 1969.
USAFSS activated the 6990 Security Squadron at Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan, on July 15, 1967, to provide crews to the RC-135 mission there.
On Sept. 12, 1967, just two days after the first aircraft arrived at the 6990 SS, an RC-135 flew its first operational COMBAT APPLE mission as the air war in Vietnam intensified. By November, daily scheduled COMBAT APPLE missions exceeded 18 hours.
In other air operations, USAFSS developed an Airborne Radio Direction Finding capability to support Vietnam combat operations. Collaborating with the Air Force and Tactical Air Command, USAFSS developed the C-47 HAWKEYE Airborne Direction Finding platform in 1964.
The program provided crucial intelligence information to U.S. and friendly tactical commanders throughout Southeast Asia until the program ended in 1974.
“USAFSS excelled in the air, on the ground, tactically and strategically during the Vietnam war,” Marshall said. “Our products and support enhanced U.S. air to air capabilities in the latter part of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.”
The growth of USAFSS continued into the 1970s, as it became thoroughly involved in electronic warfare. The command first demonstrated that operational capability in late 1978 during Tactical Air Command’s Blue Flag 79-1 exercise at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Read more about Twenty-Fifth Air Force’s move to the digital age in part three of this four-part series on ISR’s contributions to the Air Force in the last 70 years.