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First-Hand:NTDS in Desert Shield/Storm 1990-1991: Limitations and Capabilities in Joint Coalition Operations

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NTDS in Desert Shield/Storm 1990-1991: Limitations and Capabilities in Joint Coalition Operations

Rear Admiral Thomas F. Marfiak, USN Ret.

From October 1990 to March 1991, I was the AAWC for the Arabian Gulf Battle Force during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm while commanding USS BUNKER HILL (CG-52). During the latter operation, wherein the U.S. Navy operated up to four carriers, and the 3rd Marine Air Wing, in company with some nine different allied nations, and units of the United States Air Force, I also acted as the Eastern Sector Air Warfare Commander for the USAF operation covering the entire theater of war, from the Red Sea (western sector), to Saudi Arabia (central sector) and the Gulf (eastern sector). The following observations demonstrate the limitations and capabilities of the Link 11/NTDS system as we operated under the unprecedented conditions of multinational coalition and joint operating forces in combat.

NTDS had grown from the needs of the battle force off Okinawa during WWII to the rigors of Yankee Station off Vietnam, through the Cold War and the Soviet threat in the Atlantic and Pacific. It would be put to an ultimate test in the confined waters of the Arabian Gulf. Despite limitations, it served admirably to coordinate the efforts of some 120 ships, hundreds of allied aircraft amidst constantly changing operational conditions.

Desert Shield Operations =

Arriving in the Arabian Gulf as the lead element of the USS MIDWAY Battle Group, we found a very loose and ineffective data sharing arrangement in place. We rapidly put in place link protocols based on our experience as a forward deployed unit of the Seventh Fleet, incorporating our Royal Navy units (two Type 22 destroyers), and the Navy's shore based facilities in Bahrain. This was a limited operation, with only minimal coalition involvement, and the NTDS system had no problem handling the data load. It was also apparent that atmospheric conditions would impact daily operations, as the sun warmed the atmosphere, for example. Data frequencies would need to be changed, sometimes several times a day, to ensure data connectivity. Since we were operating on NATO crypto, there were no problems operating with our Royal Navy counterparts.

The key tasks to be performed were to provide air defense for the Gulf with minimal resources and to provide a picture of the Gulf air space to commanders in the region. The Iraqi Air Force had over five hundred operational aircraft. Against that threat, we had one cap station, continuously manned by USMC F-18 and RCAF F-18 aircraft, sometimes in dual national pairs, tanked by USAF tankers operating over SA.

In addition, we had the additional challenge of Iraqi mining, which continued throughout Desert Shield. Floating mines would be rolled into the Gulf from occupied Kuwait, from whence they would drift into the current and be carried along south and east towards our operating area. It simply would not do to lose the key data link in the Gulf to a mindless yet powerful threat. (The closest missed us by a few yards). We had an embarked EOD detachment that would swim over to detected mines to destroy them. Needless to say, the lookout teams were vigilant, night and day, equipped with night vision goggles (mines absorb heat during the day) and high power binoculars.

Desert Storm Operations

The world changed in early January when I was named the AAWC for the Arabian Gulf Battle Force. We knew then that at least three carriers were headed for our region, with different operating procedures, depending on their origin. We had to rapidly develop coordination and communication procedures to ensure they could all operate together. Nothing on this scale had been attempted before. Lessons learned from US Seventh Fleet operations in the Western Pacific during Vietnam (Yankee Station) were important. Fortunately, we had the experience on board. We developed a daily coordination message that provided the structure for all three to come together without too much difficulty.

Dual crypto loads were required because some US Navy ships did not have NATO crypto on board, while some coalition partners were not NATO allies. This led to problems on the EWC&R circuits, when a NATO unit would call out “Bandits airborne” based on a faulty interpretation of an EW intercept, while non-NATO units would not hear the same alert and not know how to respond. It took action at the three star level to release crypto to non-NATO units to resolve the issue. While not strictly speaking an NTDS issue, it emphasized the importance of coordinating track data and EW data to confirm the identity of aircraft operating in the theater. When those aircraft included French aircraft, being operated by both the Iraqi Air Force and various allies, the situation was even more acute.

DLRP location was a major issue at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm. The USAF wanted DLRP to be located at the point of origin at the Black Hole in Riyadh, SA. However, given the limits of the octal system ( a 512 mile square could be covered), that would have placed the limit of the eastern sector along the mid-line of the Gulf, leaving a large segment uncovered along the Iranian coastline. This was unacceptable, since we had to surveil Iranian airspace continuously throughout, both with respect to Tomahawk tracks and to guard against Iraqi intrusion into the central Gulf via the passes in western Iran. I prevailed upon the Air Force to have it shifted eastward.

It should be apparent from this discussion that Link 11, and the NTDS system, designed to provide for carrier battle group defense, were being pressed to address the needs of a multiple carrier battle force, spread over a large area, with four simultaneous CVOA's (MIDWAY, ROOSEVELT, RANGER, AMERICA).

This was most clearly demonstrated by the limited number of PUC's available. Only eight were assigned to the battle force, necessitating real time PUC swapping to accommodate operations. They would be assigned to the E-2C Hawkeyes operating with the strike packages. Outbound strike packages would have a PUC assigned, and relinquish it when they turned inbound. The remainder would be assigned to the Aegis units (four) operating with each of the carrier groups. One would always be assigned to the AAWC.

The size of the task may be appreciated when one considers that there were some 32 missile ships operating as part of the battle force. In addition, there were ground stations (USMC link forwarding stations in eastern Saudi Arabia) and the four carriers as well as allied forces operating from PSAB and the USAF AWACS aircraft and Saudi AWACS augmenting the air picture. The entire theater was involved. Engagements could take place anywhere within the theater, at closing rates in excess of 1000 knots, over great distances. Refresh rates had to be managed to keep a good picture to permit rapid evaluation.

Frequency hopping was required for both coordination frequencies and data frequencies. Since NTDS Link 11 was transmitted via radio frequencies, it was susceptible to degradation when atmospheric conditions deteriorated. That could occur with cooling of the troposphere, or a layer of dust during the shamal. When we started to hear the muzzein's call to prayer over the coordination frequency, it was generally time to kick it from 3K KH to 10K KH.

A word on the Track File Density management of Aegis combat system is in order, since it impacted the management of the surface NTDS picture. We were operating with Aegis Baseline 2.2, which gave us a capacity of some 256 tracks. Normal fleet operations would only bring the track loading to 40-50%. However, under these circumstances, particularly at the beginning of combat operations in January 1991, we saw track file densities of 95% and more. That was a matter of concern. It we had exceeded TFD limits, the program would have started dropping the outermost tracks, precisely the highest interest tracks, since that is where Iraqi and Kuwait airspace began. To avoid that eventuality, I directed the suppression of all surface tracks, to the consternation of the surface warfare commander, since the threat from Iraqi surface attack was minimal (we eliminated the Iraqi surface threat in the first six days of the war). The additional track capacity kept us from exceeding the limit and allowed uninterrupted coverage of the air war. We subsequently restored surface tracks once the high density issue had subsided.

Coalition differences were another consideration. While the Royal Navy operated as an integral part of the force, other units were not so capable. The Argentine Navy had sent a frigate, with no English speakers. I was able to put aboard a radioman who spoke Spanish to interpret link management messages and keep them in the loop, but operationally, they were kept out of harm's way in the southern Gulf. The Australian Navy frigates assigned did better, and were assigned to escorting the lumbering pachyderms of the Combat Logistics Force operating in the central Gulf region known as the “OK Corral.”

AWACS coordination was crucial to maintaining an accurate picture of the air war. There was generally a single AWACS available. The majority of the missions were flown by USAF assets, A key factor was the embarkation of an experienced USN officer on board, call sign “Tailhook” who could be contacted by the TAO to unscramble an erroneous track or resolve a communications difficulty. When an erroneous track, say a hostile symbol with no hard contact to back it up, was detected, it could have consequences. Rapid resolution was necessary to avoid an unwarranted firing with so many friendly aircraft in the region. Saudi AWACS were not as approachable. We lived from moment to moment during those sorties.

Coordination of AWACS and tankers was critical to maintaining the strike flow into Kuwait and Iraq. At any time, there were four tanker orbits, with three slices, or sub-orbits, apiece, a total of twelve possible tanker locations. Beneath each one was an NTDS capable ship, often a DDG or NTU cruiser, responsible for the management of that tanker orbit. This system worked well. The major issues encountered had to do with refueling rig compatibility (drogue vs. boom) and aircraft-tanker communications frequencies.

Iraqi missile firings of SCUD missiles from mobile transporters were a major issue. Significant resources were devoted to SCUD hunting without much success. Early on, we had TRAP/TRE installed, so that launches could be detected seconds after they occurred. In an early version of Ballistic Missile Defense, we could detect and track, up to a limiting altitude, Iraqi missile launches but, at that date, had no missiles or radar to support an actual engagement. An azimuth of about 260 degrees indicated a target in Israel. An azimuth of 190 degrees indicated a target in Saudi Arabia.

In one of the tragedies of the war, we detected the Iraqi missile launch against the USAF and Saudi Facility that resulted in the deaths of so many young airmen but we had no means of alerting anyone in useful time, even if targeting information had been available.

During the Iraqi attack south of Al Kafji, we lost the shore based data link from our USMC forward data team on the beach. In the past this had happened when a humvee drove over the cable. Reaching them via secure communications, they assured us the data link would be restored, once the firefight had slowed down. It was a classic example of real combat data transmission issues. Who says Marines only fight with rifles?

Tomahawk missile firings, critical during the first days of Desert Storm, were coordinated by GP, embarked aboard USS WISCONSIN. However, once airborne, the missiles were flying in Gulf airspace, and so their successful journey became my responsibility. We had designated corridors, one headed northwest toward Iraq, and another northeast through the passes of western Iran. The first corridor passed over oil platforms that in some cases reached seven hundred feet or more. Consequently, we set fly out altitudes of 1000 feet for those strikes. The NTDS system would track them until they were beyond radar coverage, after which the on board guidance system would direct them to their targets. It was sobering to see them flying out in a long line, winging their way to open the war.

The most essential mission we had was deconfliction. That involved identifying every aircraft as it returned to the battle force from in country strikes.

Some aircraft had damaged IFF, so we might have a track, but no positive ID until another aircraft, specifically assigned that responsibility, had flown alongside to identify the returning warrior. By assigning a specific turn point in the northern Gulf, and vectoring each strike package to its respective carrier from that point, under the control of an E-2C, we managed to return several thousand aircraft safely, without a single “blue on blue” engagement. That achievement was the result of Red Crown and PIRAZ procedures refined over years, a determined and disciplined crew with years of forward deployed experience, and strong leadership.

SAR coordination emerged periodically as a key mission. On one occasion, a KC-130 gunship was lost over Saudi Arabia. Was it at sea or ashore? The initial indications were that it was ashore but the data link could not provide a definitive answer. In the event, it would not have made a difference, since the aircraft was lost with all hands. On another occasion, an F-18 with damage was guided to a water landing near its carrier so that rescue could be carried out without delay. At no time did lack of data connectivity prevent prompt response to an emergency.

ASW was not an issue, given the lack of threat and the operating depths involved. The only submarine assets in theater were Iranian, and they were kept under close watch by national means. Our sonar spaces were used as mine plot, where a record of every mine sighting, however questionable, was plotted. In that way we determined what areas might be at higher risk for mines, and so would not assign AAW units to those regions. USS PRINCETON's encounter with mines occurred after I had been relieved as Gulf AAWC, while we were refitting in Jebel Ali, so I cannot shed any light on why she was assigned to that station.

There were mine warfare ships in theater, but they did not sortie into the northern Gulf until after the war. The memory of that lack of combat mine sweeping led to the suggestion, later advanced, when I was Director of Surface Warfare Plan and Programs, that we should develop an autonomous surface mine sweeping capability. That led to the current AMSR program.

Had ASW been an essential task of the battle force, it would have significantly complicated the picture, requiring the coordination of multiple air assets and surface assets, as well as submarines, to address the issue. It is to be hoped that the present version of NTDS, based on Link 16, will be up to the task.


In many ways, Link 11 and NTDS reached their summit during these two operations. They performed admirably throughout, providing real time information to a far flung battle force during a time of great importance to our nation. In that regard, generations of technicians and engineers, who worked tirelessly to provide us the tools, can take great pride. It was much greater than any one ship, or crew. It was, in the final analysis, a victory for all those who gave their lives to the force of freedom.