What It’s Like to
(Almost) Defend a Ship from Enemy Aircraft

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In Short: Nerve wracking and a relief.

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I spent twenty-plus years in the U.S. Navy. I served in several ships as a Firecontrolman, responsible for the ship’s Missile Defense system. Over the course of that time, I was involved in a number of exercises during which we launched missiles against remotely operated drones.

Aircraft carrier underway on a beautiful blue sea.
The USS America (CV-66) underway in the Indian Ocean in 1983. One of three Kitty Hawk-class conventionally powered aircraft carriers, she was commissioned in 1965. She was decommissioned in 1996, and destroyed in weapons tests near Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 2005 despite protests from former crewmembers who wanted the ship preserved as a museum. It was the largest warship ever sunk. (Photo: U.S. Navy, by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Robert D. Bunge, via the National Archives.)

During the Balkan conflict of 1996, I was deployed aboard the USS America. This was to be both my final cruise, as I would be retiring shortly after we returned, and the ship’s, as she was due to be decommissioned upon return to stateside.

One night, while cruising north on the picket line (the imaginary line between Italy and the Balkans), showing no lights, and being as quiet and invisible as an aircraft carrier can be, I was on watch in the Combat Information Center (CIC) as the Ships Weapons Coordinator (SWC). My job was to monitor the various radars for aircraft, and protect the ship from incoming aircraft or missiles. We were operating in “Warning Yellow/Weapons Tight”, which meant that radars were on and tracking, and the missile launchers were armed, but to shoot at anything required several layers of permission.

Then we saw an incoming aircraft on our air search radar. Even before the missile guidance radars were turned to track the “bird,” we could tell that it was a helicopter. But it wasn’t issuing any type of identification signal — not radio, radar, or Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) signal, and was flying South and well across the demarcation line in Balkan territory.

We went to “Warning Red/Weapons Hold”, which meant that I assigned the missile radars to track the bird, and the protocols were that if it turned toward us, I would get a verbal “Clear to Fire” from the ship’s captain, at which I would hit one button, the launchers would be assigned, and we would launch at least two missiles. The bird would have no chance to evade the Mach-2 SeaSparrow missiles.

We couldn’t launch any aircraft, because ours was a stealth monitoring mission. The folks in the Balkans would have interpreted us protecting ourselves as aggressive activity. If the Helo turned toward us, we would have sufficient grounds to fire. This led to what was a tense several minutes for all of us on watch, waiting to see if the helicopter would turn, or continue on its way down our Starboard quarter. Needless to say, we all breathed a sigh of relief when it went on its way.

The next morning we received a message from the NATO Command at Civitaveccia, Italy. They had been informed of our “tracking exercise” of the night before, and wrote to thank us for not shooting down the helicopter full of NATO bigwigs that were traveling to a meeting at the air base. The pilot of the helicopter had been met on the landing tarmac by his commanding officer — at something-dark-thirty — who proceeded to tear into him for the endangering events of the night’s flight.

Thankfully, that was the closest I ever came to actually having to fire my weapons in defense of my ship — something that I had been training for my entire career.

Alan Haggard spent over 20 years serving in the U.S. Navy, aboard several ships operating in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

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5 thoughts on “(Almost) Defend a Ship from Enemy Aircraft”

  1. Yeah, tense, … all the way.

    Me, too. Mine was in the Persian Gulf before Desert Storm or even before Iraq invaded Kuwait. We had an inbound squawking IFF (identification code) showing itself to be military but we had no other information. It was coming from the general direction of Iran. Nerves were running very high and I was relieved when the Captain made it to CIC — because that meant it was “his call” (and I was personally off the hook).

    Again, we followed protocol to the letter and came within inches of shooting but did not: by a whisker the aircraft did not meet the rules of engagement to be shot at. Later it turned out it was a Pakistani military aircraft (friendly) who did not know we were there, and did not comply with the agreed general rules for that area. We would have been cleared had we shot him down, but nevertheless would have felt awful about it.

  2. I know it has become rather trite, but thank you for your service. My folks met in the Navy, and my extended family were Navy. My ex-wife is a former Marine — one of the reasons I married her.

    You would think whoever setup the flight of the NATO bigwigs would have let the warships in the area know of the flight, just as a general principle thing. I am assuming the pilot followed a flight plan. Who made up the flight plan?

    It would be interesting to hear the CO chewing out the pilot. I suspect it would become a classic.

  3. Talk about a big Oops! There’s a good reason for IFF signals, not to mention sharing flight plans with interested (i.e. affected) parties.

    We hear so much about the mistakes that I, for one, appreciate hearing about someone who followed protocol, did the right thing, and avoided making a nasty conflict even worse.

    Thanks for carrying on a family tradition in a thinking and honorable way!

  4. Thanks for your story ~ we hear enough of ‘those with toys’ tragedies so very glad to read of a responsible person with good training who stays inside the lines. I trust the pilot of the chopper shifted into maturity that night.


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