By: Samuel J. Cox Rear Adm., USN (retired) Director of Naval History, Curator for the Navy Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Vice Admiral Edward Allen “Al” Burkhalter, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired) on July 1, 2020 at age 91. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1947 and served as a submarine officer and senior intelligence officer until his retirement in 1986 as the Director of the Intelligence Community Staff for the Director of Central Intelligence. His commands included Skate (SSN 578) Submarine Division 101, Submarine Refitting and Training Group La Maddalena, and Naval Intelligence Command, as well as serving as a Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence (twice). He played a key role in highly successful Intelligence collection programs.
After a year at Auburn University, Al took the oath of office at the U.S. Naval Academy on June 13, 1947 with the Class of 1951. He played 150-lb football and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Naval Science in June 1951 and was commissioned an ensign. His first duty assignment was aboard the destroyer Ingraham (DD 694) operating out of Norfolk for two deployments to the Mediterranean. Selected for submarine service, Lieutenant (junior grade) Burkhalter reported to the Naval Submarine School, New London, Conn. for training in December 1953. In June 1954 he reported to diesel submarine Trout (SS 566) operating out of New London as part of Submarine Squadron TEN for Atlantic exercises, operations and sonar evaluation tests. Among the earliest selectees for the nuclear-power program, Lt. Burkhalter reported to Naval Submarine School, New London in July 1957 and then to the Naval Nuclear Power Training Unit, Idaho Falls, Idaho in December 1957.
In July 1958, Lt. Burkhalter reported as Navigator in the commissioning crew of the nuclear attack submarine Sea Dragon (SSN 584) In August 1960, Sea Dragon commenced an Atlantic-to-Pacific transit via the Northwest Passage, with a side trip to the North Pole, surfacing on August 25, 1960, becoming the third submarine to reach the Pole and the second to surface (after Skate (SSN 578) on her second attempt) before proceeding to her new homeport at Pearl Harbor and subsequent operations in the Western Pacific and Korean waters. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in September 1960. In July 1962, Lt. Cmdr. Burkhalter commenced instruction at the Naval Guided Missile School, Dam Neck, Va., and then in November 1963 served as prospective Executive Officer (Gold) for the fleet ballistic missile submarine Alexander Hamilton (SSBN 617) under construction, and upon Alexander Hamilton’s commissioning in June 1963 became Executive Officer (Gold) for shakedown, trials and forward deployment to Rota, Spain for her first deterrent patrol.
Selected for command, Lt. Cmdr. Burkhalter reported to Division of Naval Reactors, Atomic Energy Commission, Washington, D.C. for training. In March 1965, Lt. Cmdr. Burkhalter assumed command of nuclear fast attack submarine Skate (SSN 578) while Skate was in Norfolk Naval Shipyard as the first submarine to receive the SUBSAFE package of upgrades in reaction to the loss of the Thresher (SSN 593) in 1963. Lt. Cmdr. Burkhalter was promoted to commander in August 1965 and took Skate to sea for a shakedown to the Caribbean, returning to her homeport of New London for development of new undersea tactics and equipment.
In April 1968, Cmdr. Burkhalter assumed command of Submarine Division 101, one of two divisions in Submarine Squadron TEN at New London, operating mostly PERMIT-class nuclear fast attack submarines. In March 1970, he reported to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations as Head of the Undersea Warfare Intelligence Branch, where he would be a key leader in the planning and execution of one of the most successful intelligence collection operations in naval history. Promoted to captain in July 1971, he assumed duty as the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence. As he was not an Intelligence Specialist, he had to return to operational duty to remain competitive for promotion, assuming command of Submarine Refitting and Training Group, La Maddalena, Italy in March 1974. In July 1976, he commenced joint duty as the Deputy Director of the National Military Command Center, on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.
In May 1977, he was a designated a rear admiral for duty in a billet commensurate with that rank, assuming duty on the Joint Staff as Deputy Director, Strategic and General Operations. He was promoted to rear admiral on June 1, 1977. In September 1978, he assumed command of the Naval Intelligence Command, with additional duty as the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence (OP-009B). As COMNAVINTCOM, he had four subordinate commands responsible for Navy Operational Intelligence, Technical Intelligence Analysis, Intelligence Collection, and Intelligence Systems. In August 1980, Rear Adm. Burkhalter reported to the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C. as Chief of Staff, before becoming the Deputy Director/Vice Director of Management and Operations.
In September 1982, Rear Adm. Burkhalter reported to the Director of Central Intelligence as the Director of Intelligence Agency Staff (subsequently known as the Intelligence Community (IC) Staff). In this role his mission was to bring some semblance of order amongst the fractious National and Service Intelligence Agencies, during a particularly challenging time following Congressional investigations of Intelligence abuses during the late 1970’s. Although it was a time of some extraordinary intelligence successes, Vice Admiral Burkhalter (designated in November 1983) also had to deal with damage assessment and security following some of the worst spy scandals of the Cold War (Walker-Whitworth, Howard, Pollard, Miller, all in 1985) as well as the beginnings of the Iran-Contra Affair. Vice Adm. Burkhalter retired in September 1986 with his reputation and integrity completely intact.
Vice Admiral Burkhalter’s awards include; the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal (2), Legion of Merit (3), Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Unit Commendation (for Sea Dragon), Meritorious Unit Commendation, Navy Expeditionary Medal (Special Operations), Navy Occupation Service Medal (Europe), National Defense Service Medal (2) Korean Service Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, United Nations Service Medal.
Following retirement from active duty, Vice Adm. Burkhalter operated a consulting firm, Burkhalter Associates, with contracts with the Department of Defense and the CIA. He also served as Board Chairman of SteelCloud, a technology and security company, until his retirement in 2012. In 2013, he received the Distinguished Submariner Award from the Naval Submarine League. He was also active in supporting U.S. Naval Academy alumni and athletic activities. His second wife of 44 years, since passed, was the widow of a Navy Officer who died in a submarine mishap.
Vice Admiral Al Burkhalter left and extraordinary legacy of service, sacrifice and exceptional leadership, described as a “tremendous submariner,” “one of the all time greats,” and “a fine man, kind, gentle and strong” by other senior Navy flag officers who held him in the greatest respect. He was a trailblazer in the early days of nuclear-powered submarines, navigating Sea Dragon to the North Pole (no easy feat) and other audacious submarine special operations that cannot be described here. He was undoubtedly a great submarine officer, but he had special talent and found a unique calling in the intersection between submarine operations and intelligence collection. His role in the development and execution of an extraordinarily successful intelligence collection operation that had major impact on the favorable outcome of the Cold War (and in avoiding several nuclear weapon “close calls” during the hair-trigger days of the peak of the Cold War) was profound. The impact of this program also cannot be fully appreciated here. At the culmination of his career, his steady hand and keen insight made a big difference during the tumultuous period for the National Intelligence Community in the early 1980’s. At the time, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency was also dual-hatted as the Director of Central Intelligence (a role now performed by the separate Director of National Intelligence) responsible for the mission and budget coordination amongst all the National and Service intelligence organizations, but with inadequate authority to do so; Vice Adm. Burkhalter had the difficult task on behalf of the DCI of trying to ride herd on Agencies that didn’t want to be herded. His implementation of President Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 had huge effect on bringing order amongst the Intelligence Agencies that with some amendments continues to this day. He also overcame immense challenges in “The Year of the Spy – 1985” in taking steps to counter the grave damage done by traitors to the U.S. Vice Adm. Burkhalter’s legacy of humane but highly effective leadership continues to this day in the Naval and National Intelligence Communities, and our national security is far better for his efforts.
Rest in Peace Admiral Burkhalter.