The PONY EXPRESS
PONY EXPRESS was the code name for a DoD program to collect information on Soviet missile tests. There were several components to the program. Two large tracking ships, USNS GENERAL H.H. ARNOLD (T-AGM-09) and USNS GENERAL HOYT S. VANDENBERG (T-AGM-10), used sophisticated telemetry antennas and radars to track the missiles and collect telemetry in the mid-course and reentry phases.
Land-based radars in the Aleutian Islands also tracked the missiles in the mid-course phase. Aircraft from Japan and Hawaii would also attempt to collect telemetry signals. One or two specially-configured Destroyer Escorts (DEs) from a group of four stationed at Pearl Harbor would attempt to collect re-entry telemetry and retrieve any floating debris in the target area. I was assigned as one of the NSG division officers for these DEs. The DE portion of the PONY EXPRESS operations was also called POINTED FOX, as noted in one of my fitness reports. We never used that name and referred to all the operations as PONY EXPRESS.
This is an excerpt from the Kindle book The SECGRU Years: Five Years in the Naval Security Group by Mark Borgerson. The manuscript, with redactions, has been cleared for public release by the NSA Pre-Publication Review Team. The photos at the end of the excerpt are either from non-copyright US Government sources or were taken by the author. This excerpt is released without restrictions by the author.
The collection of data from Soviet missile testing had a very high priority in the early 1970s. The Soviet Union was making rapid improvements in its ballistic missile arsenal. During this era the US launched its first geosynchronous-orbit telemetry intercept satellites. The Navy converted four CLAUD JONES class DEs to collect telemetry in the mid-Pacific impact zone. A particular concern for the Navy was the improved capability of the Soviet Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). In the early 1970s Soviet SSBNs carried the SS-N-6 missile which had a maximum range of about 1300 miles. This mean that the SSBN had to sail quite far from its base to be within range of targets in the continental United States. The U.S. Navy had become quite adept at tracking these submarines through HFDF and other means. In 1970 and 1971 the Soviets started testing the SS-N-8 missile, which had a range of 4200 miles. This was a tremendous shock to the US Naval establishment. The longer range of the SS-N-8 meant that the Soviet SLBMs could strike the United States from “bastions” of Soviet-controlled waters near their Murmansk or Petropavlovsk bases. Furthermore, in 1973 and 1974, the Soviets began to test the SS-N-18 missile which had multiple warheads.
The CLAUD JONES class DEs were built in the late 1950s. The ships were round-bottomed, diesel powered, about 300 feet long, and mounted two 3" guns. During 1969 and 1970 the ships had received a major upgrade which included the addition of a special electronics compartment and several million dollars’ worth of telemetry intercept equipment. The telemetry intercept compartment was just aft of the ship’s radio room and connected to that room with a door having an electronic lock. Only a few of the ships company, among them the Captain and Executive Officer, could enter the Telemetry room during operations.
The four 1033-class DEs were:
- USS CLAUD JONES (DE 1033)
- USS JOHN R. PERRY (DE 1034)
- USS CHARLES BERRY (DE 1035)
- USS MC MORRIS (DE 1036)
During 1970, they had participated in IVY GREEN telemetry intercept operations for which they later received the Meritorious Unit Commendation. I received the copy of the citation for that commendation via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The citation is shown, as a scan of the original, is shown as Figure 28. The citation doesn’t specify anything about IVY GREEN. In 2012 a declassified CINCPAC Command History had this to say about IVY GREEN:
IVY GREEN operations were supplementary collection operations against foreign missile and space activities. Soviet tests monitored by the United States were conducted periodically during 1970 both in the mid-Pacific broad ocean area and in the Kamchatka Peninsula area. Substantially the same PACOM forces participated in these tests in 1970 and had done so in previous years, and once [REDACTED],
On occasion ships or aircraft rendezvoused with Soviet observation ships when no actual tests took place.
PACOM forces monitored the deployment of Soviet Missile Range Instrumentation Ships and movement of such ships to probable test impact sites. Usually tests were announced in advance by the U.S.S.R., who asked that certain impact areas be closed to ships or aircraft.
On 5 August, CINCPACFLT informed CINCPAC that one of the destroyers observing a test series had reported impacts at ranges of 3,500 yards east and 2,000 yards down range from him.
Since the text has been properly declassified, I have removed the paragraph classifications from the quoted text. Later CINCPAC command histories have no further references to IVY GREEN. Apparently, the program name was changed to PONY EXPRESS sometime in 1971.
I sailed on the CLAUD JONES and MCMORRIS for PONY EXPRESS missions. Two of the DEs were generally in port at Pearl Harbor and on call for PONY EXPRESS operations. The other two might be on western Pacific deployments or other cruises. The ships would rotate through the PONY EXPRESS operations so that each ship would have sea time for other activities necessary to keep the crews ready for service in general naval operations. PONY EXPRESS operations were broken down into several phases which are described in the following paragraphs.