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By William S. Frisbee Jr.


The ability to receive and use information is of critical importance on the battle field. It can often spell the difference between victory or defeat. The Battle at Midway, in World War 2 was won because Americans were able to intercept Japanese communications and use the information to their advantage.

This is a prime example of the importance and weakness of communications. Communication allows you to direct your troops but in doing so the enemy can listen into your communications and devise a counter strategy.

In World War Two Navajo Indians were used to transmit important information because the Navajo language is virtually impossible to figure out unless you are a native speaker. The Navajo language was one 'code' the Japanese simply could not break.

With computers, intercepting and breaking codes is much easier. Elaborate methods are often employed to deceive or confuse the enemy. Call signs and frequencies may be changed daily, or every couple hours. This can confuse the living daylights out of friendly forces if they don't get the new changes for some reason. By changing the so frequently anything the enemy is able to figure out by radio is usually obsolete shortly thereafter.

Furthermore, a radio transmitter can be located with the right equipment and enough time. This means the enemy can locate who is talking to who if the conversation goes on for very long. This is usually when the enemy instructs the radio operators to be quiet with an artillery barrage or air strike.

As units become more dispersed and spread around the battle field communication becomes more important. In the old days when knights rode horses a commander could see almost all his troops and the enemy. Giving orders was as simple as yelling them or sending a messenger. With the distances involved and the lethality of the battle field a messenger is not usually practical.

Commanders often pore over maps trying to figure out what is going on and how they can kill more of the enemy. People with radios tell them what is going on.

While I was in the Marines, the Company Commander and his staff were frequently identified as the antenna farm. One radio for artillery, one for communicating with the battalion commander, one for talking with his platoon leaders, one for close air support, and so on. Wherever the company commander went so did all the marines toting radios on their back. In the desert of Saudi Arabia it was almost a comical sight with all those antenna sticking up. Police command vehicles frequently have several different antenna. Tank command vehicles have several antenna and so on.

It is usually no secret that the more antennas a person has following him around the more important he is. Switching channels back and forth is not practical because critical information might be missed. Everyone transmitting on the same channel is impractical because only one person can talk at a time.

This communication nightmare becomes more predominant the higher up the chain of command a person goes. Everyone needs a radio, a call sign and a frequency. When that information changes daily you can begin to understand how confusing it is. If that is not enough different branches, usually very secretive and uncooperative with other branches, must communicate. Grenada was a nightmare in that regard. Many of the different branches didn't have each other's call sign or radio frequency. Some had the same radio frequency and kept 'stepping on' each other's communication. If one of the two were to change to a quieter frequency nobody would be able to contact them.

The communication nightmare is not likely to get easier either. Radio operators frequently do more than just carry the radio, they are trained to use it. If provided with a map and coordinates they can usually do everything themselves except issue and receive orders. More often than not it is easier and quicker for an officer to call in a fire mission because he knows exactly what he wants.

Small units, like squads are issued only one radio when the go on patrol (sometimes two). Their primary frequency is the company or maybe the platoon frequency. If they are assigned close air support or some naval gunfire support they might be assigned a radio specialist to handle the fire mission otherwise they will have to switch to the needed channel and might miss information from the platoon or company. Another option is to relay the mission through the company headquarters which is usually what happens. During a close air support mission however, the person on the ground will talk directly with the aircraft when possible.

A 'magic' radio that can monitor and transmit on several different frequencies may sound good on paper but in reality it would be a nightmare. One man cannot hold three different conversations. For example. A company commander who is leading an attack on an enemy fortress has artillery, naval gunfire, close air support and his own company mortars. We will disregard the communications with his platoons and battalion for the moment.

Naval gunfire is devastating and would be used first in conjunction with close air support. Since naval artillery rounds travel through the air the CO (Commanding Officer) must consider which direction they are coming from so a plane is not hit by accident (very, very rare but possible). He must then relay the information to the aircraft and inform the aircraft of when the rounds will hit so the aircraft is not in the vicinity when the artillery rounds explode. Artillery comes in at a different angle and so does mortars so this must be considered when creating a window for an airstrike.

When the airstrike does come in the pilot will be asking for directions and verification of his target. Naval gunfire, artillery and mortars may be asking for a battle damage assessment or if they need to repeat the fire mission. Fire must be maintained on the enemy position until friendly units are close enough. As the line platoons get closer the CO would tell the naval guns to cease fire or shift fire further back (to prevent an enemy retreat). As the troops got still closer the strike craft would have to cease or shift fires along with artillery. Finally mortars would have to cease or shift.

All of this would take very delicate timing on part of the leader. Not exactly seconds, but minutes. To have so much firepower concentrated against a target is usually great but it can be extremely wasteful. Marines are famous for having so much fire support but the Army usually isn't so lucky.

Fire control computers and other aids may make things easier for the commander but unless he has assistants who can monitor different channels and speak for him a 'magic' radio is not the answer.

Radios are also a god send to small unit leaders. They allow a leader to communicate with his subordinates without having to yell or expose himself to enemy fire. Radios can also be used to quietly alert other squad members.

The reason radios are not issued to US troops currently is their cost. If troops want their own squad radios they have to buy them at Radio Shack or order them from the US Cavalry. There are all sorts of problems with these from unsecured communications to ease of detection. Also many models have only one to five channels. Special operations units frequently have the budget to get quality radios but the poor grunt in the field has no luck.

One thing I should note about small unit radios is the fact they should be hands free. An infantryman has other things to worry about besides pulling out his radio and putting it back in the case. It wont take much for the radio to fall out of its case and get lost. Hands free radios that are the headset type are also good because they are more silent and one can whisper into the radio and still be understood.

Voice operated radios are good, however, on the battlefield too much can go wrong with them. Heavy breathing can 'jam' the channel and the heavy breather might not notice it. The sounds of weapons going off is also likely to trigger the sound sensitive microphone. Someone who is hit and screaming will trigger the microphone and 'jam' the channel and so on. If a computer could filter this out it would be good but the military would prefer something simple in this case. A squad leader does not want to hear his troops complaining about the food or mission. Ordering radio silence is an option but will get real old after a while. Also, whispering might not be picked up and the trooper won't know if he transmitted or not.

The best option is a trigger, or the PTT, Push To Transmit. For instance a pressure pad on the grip of the weapon or on the trooper's finger. By applying pressure the comm is activated to stop talking, pressure is released. This makes it easier to whisper into the mike. If a person is nervous or hurt he might unintentionally trigger the switch and 'jam' the circuit.

Another option is the 'open channel' where everyone can talk at once. Heavy breathing will not affect communications but if someone gets hit and starts screaming it will make talking hard and be very bad on everyone's morale.

There is no 'easy' answer but a writer could make things more realistic by having things go wrong. Experienced troops would know what to do, newbie troops would need some time to figure things out.


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