Combat Communications in Retrospect
There is much to learn from the ten years in Vietnam. The always constrained nature of the war affected tactical communications in many ways. In World War II, four years when the technological might of the United States was fully committed to the conflict, unbelievable advances were made in every field. Radar progressed from infancy to a decisive weapon. Propeller aircraft gave way to jet aircraft. Radios were rapidly designed to keep pace with the armored and mechanized divisions that ultimately won the battle in Europe. Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the dawn of nuclear war.
In Vietnam, over a time span more than twice that of World War II, there was no. matching technological progress in communications-electronics equipment. Perhaps the nature of the war itself militated against it. Perhaps the war's not being considered one of national survival stifled the motivation of the technological base. Riverine operations in the Mekong Delta and the incursion into Cambodia in 1970 taxed the ingenuity and skill of the tactical communicators to the limit and they responded admirably, with the same equipment doing the same job that it did in 1963. Some progress was made with single sideband operation of newer high frequency radios, and a degree of voice security was finally provided for FM radios. But telephone switchboards remained slow and unsecured. The promise of tactical satellite terminals that could free U.S. troops from the constrictions of terrain never materialized. Heliborne command and. control consoles were still scarce, mainly "jury-rig" affairs which never achieved a standard configuration because it seemed everyone wanted something just a little bit different. Crypto keying of what few security devices there were became a logistic, maintenance, and operational nightmare. Preparation and transmission of situation and intelligence reports were so cumbersome and time consuming that messengers were often used instead of electrical means. In short, it was more a war of individual improvisation than of equipment modernization, at least for the tactical communicator. Yet, so handicapped, he did
well, getting more mileage from what he had than the designers ever thought possible and seldom if ever causing an operation to fail because of a lack of communications.
The scope of the improvisations was certainly driven by the constantly changing character of the conflict and the varied environments in which it was waged. Major combat units were organized in Vietnam. Some Army units were attached to Marine units; others found themselves committed full time to what could only be described as semi-amphibious operations in the Mekong Delta. Divisions were given tactical areas of responsibility exceeding anything in their past experience. These departures from conventional ways of doing things were orchestrated over the full gamut of terrain and climatic conditions that characterized South Vietnam.
Another major. factor which reflected in the individual initiative shown by the tactical communicators was the peculiar structure of the combat zone outside of the division tactical areas of responsibility. There were never any corps in the doctrinal sense of the word nor a field army that could be identified as such. When the division signal battalion looked to the rear (and the rear, itself, was sometimes pretty hard to find) it saw the multi-channel systems and equipment of the First Signal Brigade. The brigade networks normally did not link the divisions to the field force headquarters, the closest thing to a corps headquarters in Vietnam, but generally to either U.S. Army, Vietnam, or Military Assistance Command headquarters in Saigon. In almost every division, in fact, elements of the First Signal Brigade were meshed with the battalions because the division signal battalion by itself was often unable to handle the large area that the division had been assigned. It is little wonder, then, that multi-channel improvisations in the 9th Division in the delta varied greatly from those employed by the 1st Cavalry Division in the highlands. Each major combat unit had its own story to tell.
The workhorse of tactical communications in Vietnam was, without question, the FM radio-backpack, vehicular, and airborne. If the FM nets failed, the battle had to be fought with reduced command and control, a not impossible task but risky at best. But, because of limited security devices which were hard to key and maintain, it was hard to make everyone radio security conscious, and the North Vietnamese, as General Abrams put it, "read our mail" far too often. In the closing days of conflict, after U.S. combat forces had been withdrawn, the FM secure radios were still calling in B-52 strikes. These radios often provided the only link between the air operations center at Military Assistance Command
headquarters and the beleaguered military district where their lethal efficiency was so sorely needed.
Communications combat narratives consistently reflect the struggle between the FM radio operator and his unfriendly environment. It seemed always that the trees were too high, the ground was too flat, the frequencies were too few, or the congestion was too great. But somehow he would make the FM radio work in spite of these obstacles, it seems almost incongruous that, recognizing the importance of FM, a reliable radio wire integration system (RWI) was not developed and fielded during the long war years. The need was great enough and the technological base was sound enough. Commanders at division and brigade level probably spent more time in the air in Vietnam than they did on the ground, and signal officers were constantly agonizing over ways of keeping them in touch with subordinate units and staffs when they were airborne. It seemed every major combat unit ended up with its own way of doing this, and some did not succeed in doing it at all. Throughout the whole conflict, most radio wire integration was accomplished by an SB-22 switchboard married to a black box that linked the FM radio and the switchboard so the radio call could be extended to the appropriate telephone subscriber. The radio wire integration operator manipulated this Rube Goldberg contraption manually and not easily.
multi-channel radio ran a close second to FM in importance and varied methods of employment. If a division did not establish multi-channel links to its brigades, task forces, and fire bases quickly, the FM nets become so overburdened that the crucial combat information sometimes was lost in the shuffle. On the other hand, heavy vegetation and flat terrain often inhibited multi-channel even more than FM transmission. Many reports reflect the conflict between the need to erect towers for better multi-channel and FM coverage and the need to conceal command posts. The units, again, improvised.
The final days that preceded the withdrawal of remaining U.S. ground forces from Vietnam seemed an ironic flashback, from a communications point of view, to 1962 and 1963. In the four military regions the small military advisory group that remained was supported by a company-size communications unit that tied the advisory headquarters at Da Nang, Yleiku, Bien Hoa, and Can Tho to the Military Assistance Command headquarters in Saigon. Tactical communications, in the context of providing command and control for U.S. combat units, had played its role and had left the stage. The durable "backbone" communications system, for years
the hallmark of the legendary First Signal Brigade, had undergone a major transition, operated first by U.S. Army signalmen, then by U.S. contractors, and finally by South Vietnamese forces. T he familiar antenna-studded hilltop relays remained, but the reliability and traditional quality had eroded to a point where use of the system was a struggle, not a virtue. Nevertheless, the nontactical voice security equipment that linked these four regions to Saigon and provided the only means of vectoring in B-52 strikes "rode" this tenuous system, until the waning days of our involvement.
Thus, Army communications left Vietnam in much the same way as it arrived-a single-thread umbilical supporting a small group of military advisers. But the impact of its presence and influence on combat in a remote country against an unsophisticated but resourceful and tenacious enemy was etched in a thousand narratives of this most difficult war. We may well fight again under similar conditions-somewhere. If we do, the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the American tactical communicator will surface again, as it always has.
Last Updated 3 October 2003
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