Tools of the Com-El trade- Old School

Since I was talking about Army jargon, and the tools of command (C4ISR), I had a flashback to some of the toys I used to play with.

As a young PFC in Hawaii in 1986, I was the senior (of two) Radio Telephone Operators (RTO) in my light infantry platoon. And so it fell upon me to maintain not only my weapon and personal equipment, but also ensure the rest of the Communications-Electronics (or Com-El, a little more jargon for you!) of the platoon were properly maintained.

In addition to radios, the platoon had a generous amount of other equipment. Going by memory, here’s a run-down of the equipment:

Two AN/PRC-77 man-pack radios, with accessories

Four AN/PRC-68 walkie talkie radios, with accessories

One RC-292 long range antenna

Five AN/PVS-2 night vision weapon sights (starlight scopes)- later replaced by AN/PVS-4 starlight scopes

Six AN/PVS-5 night vision goggles

Four TA-1 Sound powered telephones

One TA-312 Sound/battery powered telephone

One switchboard (I’ll admit, I cannot for the life of me remember the nomenclature, and never once used it in Hawaii. I did set up a switchboard complex once in Colorado, just to see how it was done)

Two DR-8 Wire laying reels, each with about 1000 feet of WD-1 aluminum telephone wire

Two AN/PAS-7 handheld thermal viewers

One AN/TRS-2 Platoon Early Warning System

I didn’t have to do all the maintenance on this pile by myself. But I did have to ensure everything was cleaned and serviceable, and ensure all the maintenance paperwork was up to speed (and in the Army, if the paperwork doesn’t say the job was done, it wasn’t done).

For a platoon that rarely had more than 30 people able to deploy to the field, that’s a pretty good haul of equipment. So even back in the Stone Age of the 1980s, the Army clearly put a lot of emphasis on both communications, and owning the night. The emphasis has only grown stronger since then.

Craig had an excellent series of posts about tactical radios in the Army a while back, so let’s talk a bit about two of the “own the night” systems.

The AN/PAS-7 was an early thermal imaging system. And for a piece fielded in the early 1980s, it actually worked fairly well. It was somewhat bulky and heavy, and the resolution was terrible. Humans would show up as reddish white blobs. But it was enough. Unlike starlight scopes, thermal viewers don’t need any ambient light. They work just as well on the darkest nights as in bright moonlight. You couldn’t really spot anything through vegetation, but if you had a fairly open area to watch, it could be pretty handy. The batteries didn’t last long, and they too were bulky (and unique to the system, so you never had enough), but you could in fact tell that people were out there. But improvements to image intensification systems like the PVS-7 night vision goggles and PVS-4 starlight scopes led to the PAS-7 being dropped as obsolete.

The TRS-2 PEWS was an interesting approach to a vexing problem. Light infantry platoon were just that- light. They relied a great deal on surprise and stealth for their effectiveness. So they couldn’t afford to be surprised themselves when in a patrol base or the defense. The PEWS was a set of 10 seismic sensors that would radio back to a central monitoring base with the platoon to warn of any foot or vehicular traffic. Platoons would emplace the sensors on the most likely avenues of approach, and monitor the base station. Of course, this didn’t obviate the need to maintain security the old fashioned way, but when the system worked, it did provide cueing to the leadership as to which way a threat was approaching from. We didn’t use the PEWS very often, but we did use it and even came up with some interesting variations on its employment.

We would generally try to have a squad sized ambush emplaced on the most likely avenue of approach. But there was always a good chance that the enemy wouldn’t cooperate, and would find some other way of approaching our position. So instead of just using the PEWS for early warning, when we laid in our sensors, we would also coordinate with our mortar and artillery fire support to pre-plan fire missions on those locations. That way, if we sensed troops coming at us, but knew they weren’t going to run into our ambush, we could still attack by a “bolt from the blue” artillery strike. Now, we never actually fired artillery or mortars at our comrades portraying the forces of evil, but the times we tested it, it seemed to work pretty well.

But the PEWS was very finicky. The range from the sensors to the base station was never nearly as good as advertised, and like so many items of its day, the batteries were in short supply, and had short lives. Further, the sensors were not terribly robust. After a few days in the field, you’d be lucky if half of them still worked. And spare parts were tough to come by. And woe, woe! to the platoon that emplaced a sensor, and then couldn’t find it in the morning. You’d be there all day looking for it. Finally, these factors led to us just leaving the PEWS behind, and concentrating our training on the meat and potatoes of our jobs, patrolling, raids, and ambushes.

7 thoughts on “Tools of the Com-El trade- Old School”

  1. The switchboard you are referring to was probably the venerable SB 22.
    Battery powered with a crank. (the crank was great for stunning fish)
    The SB 22 had little indicators that dropped and it made a light buzzing sound when someone rang in.
    The SB 22 also came with an ‘Ernestine’ headset.
    There was, i believe, a non-battery powered SB called the SB 1.
    It had little posts that lit up when someone rang in.

    1. Nah, this was a tiny little thing that came in a metal case about half the size of a carton of cigarettes. Weighed maybe a pound or so. It was just a bunch of wire terminals that you could plug into the case in various ways.

  2. Oh wow. A trip down voice communications memory lane. As recently as 1995, some of the USMC AN/PRC-77s were actually AN/PRC-25s, with a port cut into them for the crypto to be stuffed in, and the plate soldered back on. They had an alphanumeric serial # ID’d them as being old 25s, re-designated.

    Anyone remember the KY-38? With all those little 3-position keys? Sneeze, and you would disrupt them, and not be able to talk to anyone until the comm chief came by to un-ass you. I swear, no comm chiefs got any sleep at all in the field between the mid 1970s and about 1986, when they finally replaced them with the KY-57s.

    Fun times……

    1. We only had KY-57s. But the platoons didn’t normally have them. The company commander had one for the Bn CMD net, but normally the Co CMD net was unsecured.

    2. The biggest problem with the KY-38 was having to use the KYK-38 as a fill device. The pins kept bending, and if they bent enough, the fill was wrong.

    3. I trained on the KY-38s. Never had to use them in system, as they were mostly retired by the time I went to the school. KY-57s were temperamental, but easier than KY-38s.

      I wrote a bit about the differences between the PRC-25 and 77s back in December. The crypto support was a key feature for the 77.

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