From 1968 until 1973, the U.S. military spent about $1 billion a year on a new computer-powered initiative intended to end the war in Vietnam. Monday marked the 60th anniversary of that program known as Operation Igloo White.
Despite being a high-priced technological failure for the U.S. military, Igloo White was the first real-time, computer-driven surveillance operation program, set up during the Vietnam War. There were many lessons to be learned.
The goal was to build a virtual fence system dividing North and South Vietnam. According to the National Museum of the Air Force, the system became operational in late 1967.
It consisted of three elements: sensors dropped by aircraft along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an orbiting EC-121B “Batcat” or the QU-22B aircraft that picked up and relayed signals from the sensors, and the Infiltration Surveillance Center (ISC), which received the data.
Operated by Task Force Alpha at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base (NKP RTAFB), the ISC interpreted the sensor data and passed target information to combat commanders, who sent attack aircraft to the target. Some sensors detected seismic disturbances created by passing trucks; some sensors used microphones to pick up nearby voices; and other sensors detected both seismic disturbances and voices.
Dropped from F-4 Phantoms, CH-3 helicopters, OV-10s and other aircraft, they were designed to drive into the ground but leave the antenna exposed. The antennas were made to look like a small tree or bush to hide them from the enemy. Over 20,000 sensors were dropped in Laos, and 80 percent of the sensors were operational after dropping.
In the process the U.S. military helped to invent the modern electronic battlefield. These technologies came back to the U.S. in the early 1970s, where they were deployed against drug cartels, smugglers, and anyone else trying to cross the border from Mexico.
Igloo White is essentially the grandfather of the border surveillance that’s ongoing today. At the U.S.-Mexico border, drones stalk the skies and electronic sensors alert Border Patrol agents to anyone trying to cross into the United States.
Tech analysts believe what happened to Operation Igloo White is not unlike the tech transfer from battlefield to border that we see today. Many machines used by American military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have found their way to American streets. With a new focus on increased border security and refugee crises continuing across the rest of the world, it’s likely that we can expect more high-tech virtual fences in the future.
Featured image courtesy of the National Museum of the Air Force