Military Tactical Communications: A Historical Perspective

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A brief overview of military communications displays the various and innumerable methods we have used information to wage war.

In the fifth century we can see two types of early military communications in the Battle of Marathon. According to Herodotus, the Athenian Pheidippides was dispatched from Athens to carry a request for assistance from the Spartans in combat against an invading Persian army. Pheidippides made the long trek between Athens and Sparta in the space of one day, traveling an unbelievable 140 miles. Most foot messengers were not as prolific, but still provided a relatively secure and efficient means of relaying messages from one party to another. In response to the Spartan reinforcements, Persia sent much of its navy to destroy Athens, initiated by a certain shield raised over Mount Pentelicon.

This was an early example of using telegraphy in battle. Telegraphy is the transmission of symbolic messages (e.g., a shield) without an actual exchange of an object or audible signal bearing the tactical communication.

Signal corps were developed by the Romans which would give communications its own specialized section in the military. A signal corps is a branch of the military that is responsible for communications (signals) to assist in developing and communicating tactical decisions. Cursus publicus was the Roman Empire's equivalent of a signal corps. According to historian Suetonius, the Roman Emperor Augustus stationed a relay system of runners—and later carriages—at points along the military roads to send and receive directives and news. This network made the expansion of Rome's military might possible, expanding its territory considerably.

Technology is a key component of telegraphy and communications, progressing in unison. Whereas primitive telegraphy included things like smoke signals, beacons and reflected light signals, more complex displays such as flag semaphore appeared within centuries. Innovations such as semaphore networks allowed for the inclusion of cryptography into telegraphy, using flags and shutters to convey coded messages. The development of electrical telegraph in the 19th century would advance the practice of telegraphy into the modern age and allow nations greater secrecy in their actions against their enemies.

In order to make the most of the Union's technology and telegraphy during the war with the South the United States Army Signal Corps was created in 1860. Again, the Union army used whatever means necessary for adequate communication, including primitive techniques like drums and lanterns, but the invention of the telegraph greatly expanded the capability of military communications. By the 1940s, military communications included new messaging utilities such as the telephone, wireless radios and other instruments of radiotelegraphy. Once more the advancements in cryptography and communication technology resulted in innovative new means of delivering messages quickly and securely.

Computing would revolutionize military communications, making messages even more secure with high level encryption and increasing the speed of the delivery thanks to new networks. Modern communications such as e-mail and instant messaging had their origins in military applications and other technologies relying on the Internet Protocol (IP) networks, such as voice over IP (VoIP) and intercom over IP (IoIP), are commonly put to work by the military. Recent years have even seen the signal corps and the like move from a supportive role in the military to being on the front lines with the emergence of network-centric warfare (NCW). What would the Greeks make of this?

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