In Short: Nerve wracking and a relief.
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.
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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