01 January 2010

Re: Establishing the Net

SHERPA SENDS: Back in the day, when men were real men, and U.S. Army uniforms were a hardy coffee-stain-resistant green, and tactical radios were Vietnam-era VHF hot-boxes, you had to wait at least a half-second after pushing the radio-handset to talk, then limit your message in 3 to 5 seconds in order to avoid Radio-Direction Finding (RDF). In the latter, extremely constrained conversational environment, radio-telephone operators (RTO) were real RTOs, and they rode herd daily on the radio by formally opening and closing the "nets."

Radiio-frequencies were then dictated by printed sets of "Signal Operating Instructions," or "SOI": Spreadsheets assigning the daily frequencies, callsigns, and identification codes for each organization on the battlefield. The documents were allegedly randomly generated by magic black boxes located at the National Security Agency. The SOI was designed to confound any enemy's attempt to listen in our conversations, figure out who was where and doing what to whom, and to otherwise crack our battle plans. Oftentimes, however, it ended up confusing our own soldiers.

Keep in mind that, at the time, most voice-radio traffic was "in the clear" and unencrypted. Any 12-year-old with a Ruskie-knockoff of a Radio Shack Bearcat scanner probably could have intercepted our radio conversations. Then again, 12-year-olds back then were real 12-year-olds.

Following the SOI, every organization changed to a different frequency each day; if someone was listening in on 72.50 yesterday, they'd find someone else there today, or no one at all. And every organization used a different callsign, too. If you were "Victor-Two-Zero" yesterday, you might be "Yankee-One-Six" (or anything else) the next.

No sexy "Hollywood" or "Clint Eastwood" or "John Wayne" callsigns were allowed--made up names and numbers that users would want to keep from day to day. No "Red Bull Six." No "Stonewall Niner." That way lay not only chaos, but also massive leaks in your organization's operational security (OPSEC), and almost certain death by radio-detecting artillery shells. No, Hollywood callsigns would be authorized later, after the Army fielded the next generations of frequency-hopping tactical radios.

The RTOs sitting in the battalion (or company, or brigade) Tactical Operations Center (TOC) would, if operating a "closed net," require each party wishing to use a particular frequency to, in order: formally call them, request for permission to enter the net, authenticate that they were actually who they said they were using some special codes in the back of the SOI, then, finally, "request permission to use "abbreviated" callsigns--three-character shorthand forms of the five-character alphanumeric callsigns listed in the SOI. After successfully running this procedural gauntlet, the RTO would probably instruct the calling station that they were to monitor this frequency at all times, and that they would be expected to quickly reply to any radio-checks conducted by RTO.

(Sometime, I'll relate some old RTO war stories here. Like when an RTO buddy of mine attempted to kick the battalion operations officer off his own net for not using the correct procedure: "Son, I OWN this net!" Classic. Echoes of Ronald Reagan's "I paid for this microphone ...")

All this formal RTO procedure was all very time-consuming, but it kept the TOC-rats at both ends busy and half-awake, if not exactly happy. Today, however, soldiers have frequency-hopping radios, which jump around the radio-dial thousands of times a second, preventing RDF. If someone wants to listen in on your radio conversation, they'd need to have a radio in sync with the same frequency-hopping sequence as you. And, even then, they'd also need the same encryption key--otherwise, all they'd hear was a scrambled set of sounds. There is simply less need for formal RTO procedure. Kids these days have no radio manners.

That's assuming, of course, that you're even talking via terrestrial radios. Like much of the civilian world, Uncle Sam has invested big in satellite-based communications systems: "Hitting the bird" from wherever you're at, particularly in a mountainous land, is much easy than trying to broadcast an FM signal from a high enough point with power sufficient to be heard. And there's probably people, not always unfriendly people either, trying to jam your signals to boot.

What's with all this radio-headed reverie? No. 1, I'm probably feeling yet another Happy New Year older, and realizing that I've become that soldier I didn't quite understand when I first put on the uniform more than two decades ago: I'm now officially the guy who probably has more useless knowledge about "How We Used to Do Things" than he does "The Way We Do Things Now." That's not to say that I'm ready to go to that big Bullpen in the Sky, of course, or even just to fade away. I'm living proof that you can teach an Old Bull new tricks. That doesn't prevent me from feeling more Old than Bullish sometimes.

No. 2, I think I'm done kicking the tires of this ding-dang Internet thing, and am now ready to buy. The first rule of troubleshooting a radio is: "Check to see if it's plugged in." The second rule is: "Hit it with a hammer." I've plugged the 1.0 version of this blog in, hit it with a few hammers (uploaded images, validated different ways to post) to check functionality. I'm ready to rock--or, probably more accurately, as ready to rock as I ever was. (Note to self: I probably need to put that on a T-shirt.) More details and changes to come, I'm sure.

In developing this site, I've also been tweaking my "tasks-and-purposes." You'll find them listed at the bottom of the page. So, finally, let me celebrate this first day of 2010, by welcoming you to Red Bull Rising net. Hollywood callsigns are (obviously) authorized. Have an Army day.

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