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Two Forgotten Cold War Vehicles
Remembering the tactical SIGINT war
The photo on the left is from the NSA.gov website. It shows a US Army vehicle in the military intelligence network that became the National Security Administration. It was taken somewhere along the West German border with Czechoslovakia circa 1968. A soldier on the tailgate of the Jeep is adjusting a microwave antenna for secure communications with a TOC (Tactical Operations Center). Note the paddle-shaped microwave receiving antenna mounted on the back, next to his right arm. The antenna pole on the left side of the photo is used for communication within the platoon, which consists of a series of teams using similar equipment to do the same mission, with all the information they produce being collated and analyzed by a team at the TOC. Two soldiers can sit on watch at one time, stuffed inside the shelter, using the two direction-finding radio sets, each of which is connected to one of those odd-looking antennas on the front of the shelter that look like empty gumball machines. Whenever a soldier finds the enemy talking, he alerts the rest of the platoon to the frequency. After tuning in, the operators take Lines of Bearing (LOBs) on every transmitting station. Wherever possible, they record call signs and even audiotape of the transmissions for further analysis. The information gleaned is transmitted to the TOC, where the LOBs are triangulated to locate the emitters. As you might imagine, this is a complex, highly technical activity that cannot happen without significant training and resources.
On the right, and below, is an example of the AN/TRQ-32 Teammate, a tactical signal intelligence (SIGINT) platform that had my name on the driver’s side of the windshield when I took the photo. It is more or less an improved version of the earlier system. Mounted on a Humvee with a reinforced suspension, it has a single direction-finding antenna serving both crew positions inside. The twin antennas on the front are connected to radios for the platoon and company networks. Everything worked the same as before, but with digital networking and computers greatly simplifying the business of picking out radio emitters. In theory, anyway. Our equipment was cantankerous to say the least. It cost as much as a luxury home; the hard drive alone cost as much as a Lexus. Yet everything inside had been supplied by the lowest bidder, and this had consequences. On one memorable field exercise, a short in a $3.50 generator part shut us down for days. On another joyous field trip, an M-16 strap buckle and a loose slave cable post conspired to give us yet another short that left our system jittery for weeks.
Because the engines had run 24/7 to supply power, these vehicles had to be refueled every few hours. Because nuclear weapons produce electromagnetic pulses that kill electronics, the shelters had to be shielded. Because the electronics produce so much heat that they can melt down, the shelter had to have air conditioners mounted on the front of the shelters (they were not for the comfort of the crew, trust me). These platforms are filled with things that few soldiers are capable of fixing on demand, that require extensive supply chains and technical expertise to maintain, as vulnerable to Murphy’s Law as anything in the Cold War arsenal. So why did we have them?
The short answer is the Korean War.
When the United Nations forces fell back onto their beachhead, pursued by the 1950 North Korean offensive, they were not numerous enough to man the entire Pusan Perimeter as a continuous front. SIGINT supplied a critical force multiplier throughout the fall and the winter. Because the Soviets had supplied Kim Il-sung with so many trucks, and his troops were so chatty with the radios mounted in them, the US Army was able to outflank and defeat every offensive against the UN position. Radio intelligence thus quite literally prevented the annihilation of an American army with its allies. So you can see why the Cold War-era US Army developed an interest in having a SIGINT component built into its formations, particularly its armored combat elements. Our platoon had been designed to serve an armored brigade, and our company was supposed to serve the division, with supporting elements from III Corps headquarters in the event of war, adding aircraft to the network. We even held exercises in which we tried to accomplish all of this whiz-bang integration for real, with mixed results.
Since then, the world order has changed and American missions became very different. As I have written elsewhere, the electronic battlefield did not diminish in America’s recent wars, it merely changed shape. The big tank armies are mostly mothballed relics of state-on-state confrontation now, useless in the 21st Century environments were the Army found itself. Tactical SIGINT formations have apparently been rather reduced, though the job is still happening. Equipment has gotten smaller and more efficient and far cheaper. All the high tech, James Bond radio stuff we had — a Global Positioning System, encryption, rapid frequency-hopping transmission, etc. — is now built into your smart phone.
This photo below is the highest-resolution picture of an AN/TRQ-32 on the internet. Look for further information on this system and you will find some, but only a couple of small, low-res photos. It was taken at Ft. Hood, Texas circa 1998. If you zoom in close enough, you can make out the unit markings on the bumper.