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Around the World in 80 Seconds
The Strategic Air Command's Amazing Communications Net
July 1960 Radio-Electronics

July 1960 Radio-Electronics

July 1960 Radio-Electronics Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Electronics, published 1930-1988. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Around the World in 80 Seconds, July 1960 Radio-Electronics - RF CafeWhen this "Around the World in 80 Seconds" editorial was published by Radio-Electronics magazine editor Hugo Gernsback in 1960, the Cold War was reaching a crescendo level. Iron Curtain countries were saber rattling about imminent nuclear strikes against Capitalist Pig entities like the United States and Western Europe. Movies, books, and newspaper and magazine articles by the scores were produced to warn the public about the potential for mutual assured destruction (MAD) between nuclear armed countries. At the time, that included the U.S., Russia (USSR), the UK, and France had at least performed nuclear detonations, then China in 1964. 1962 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This article extols the capabilities of the Strategic Air Command's (SAC) worldwide communication capabilities as witnessed personally by Mr. Gernsback during a publicity demonstration. Of the three branches involved, land-based (telephone) comms was declared to be 99% reliable, narrowband radio rated 95% reliability. The reliability of the "third and most important," the ground-to-air Bomber Control network (aka "Short Order"), was deemed to be ... not disclosed. It must have been top secret. They could have told him, but then they would have had to kill him.

Around the World in 80 Seconds

Around the World in 80 Seconds, July 1960 Radio-Electronics - RF CafeHugo Gernsback, Editor

The Strategic Air Command's Amazing Communications Net ...

As an editor, we are inclined to take electronics pretty much for granted. TV, color TV, radar, bouncing signals off the sun, we've heard about them all. You can't blame us for being a little bit hard-boiled and blasé.

But every once in a while something happens to restore our enthusiasm. Recently we were flying at 250 miles an hour 15,000 feet over Ohio in a plane of the SAC-Strategic Air Command. Our host picked up a microphone and called a ground station in Guam, in the Pacific. Guam answered immediately. He called another in Tokyo. Tokyo answered at once. Then in rapid succession he called Okinawa, Hawaii, Alaska, Greenland, Labrador, California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, England, Spain, Libya and Saudi Arabia. All answered their calls in seconds. We had talked our way around the world in less than 2 minutes.

Stunt? No - it happens regularly every day. This demonstration occurred aboard the military plane assigned to Lt. Gen. Francis Griswold, Vice Commander in Chief of SAC. (He is also an active ham, K0DWC.) We, together with a group of other editors, were en route to see SAC's remarkable world-wide communications headquarters and underground command post at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Neb.

The primary purpose of SAC's communications web is to get orders to its bombers and missiles in seconds, should this be necessary. Actually there are three separate communication networks, all converging on the underground command post in Nebraska. The first is a one-way telephone system with better than 99% reliability which connects Offutt with SAC's Air Forces around the world. It terminates at the famous "red telephone." The telephones in this system differ from conventional desk sets in one respect:

They each have an acknowledgment button. In an alert, SAC headquarters may wish to pass frequent orders over the system. Yet it must be certain that the orders have been received by all. Upon receipt of a call, each station listens to the message and is asked to acknowledge it. This it does by pressing the acknowledge button. As each button is pressed, a corresponding light flashes on the central panel at the commander's desk back at Offutt.

It's impossible to describe adequately our feelings during a test. Within 10 seconds, we watched more than three score of tiny lights glimmer on one by one in acknowledgment. Lights turned on by the push of a button in Saudi Arabia, in Guam, in Greenland, in Spain!

Being primarily a wire system using commercial facilities, this network could be disrupted by sabotage or enemy action in an emergency. To backstop it, SAC has its Commander's Net. This is a single-sideband voice radio system, normally used as a ground-to-ground system interconnecting the commanders of the various segments of SAC. The air-to-ground demonstration mentioned earlier used this Commander's Net. Since SAC is on a continuous alert, commanders must be able to communicate instantly even when airborne. Hence commanders' planes are specially equipped with equipment similar to that at the ground stations, The performance of the single-sideband (SSB) equipment is remarkable, especially when one considers that 500 watts is the maximum power used. Despite this modest power, the system has a reliability of about 95%. It also provides almost instant world-wide communication. The Commander's Net is made up of stations at 26 locations throughout the world. Each station can operate on three different frequencies ranging from 2 to 35 mc simultaneously, if prevailing traffic should make it necessary.

One of the great advantages of the system is its relaying capabilities. Frequently, ionospheric conditions make it impossible to talk directly to some stations in the net. At the flick of a switch the operator at anyone station can convert his equipment to a two-way relay station, picking up the signals from one station and retransmitting them instantaneously to another. In one demonstration we witnessed at Offutt, the operator could not reach Hawaii, although he could talk with Guam, a more distant point. He asked Guam to relay Hawaii. This was done instantly and Offutt talked with Hawaii via Guam. Except for a slight deterioration of clarity, it was impossible to know whether communication was direct or by relay.

The third and most important communications net operated by SAC is the ground-to-air Bomber Control net known as "Short Order." This is the net which would give the "go" order to SAC's bombers in the event of an enemy nuclear attack. Short Order is also SSB. The ground stations (two are in operation and two are in construction) consist of three 45-kw and six 10-kw transmitters at each location together with 16 directional and omnidirectional antennas. The associated receiving stations use essentially similar antennas and two receivers. Operating frequencies for the 45-kw transmitters and the receivers as well as individual antennas can be selected instantly by a telephone type dialing system in the underground command post. Complete system control can be taken over by anyone of the stations on a moment's notice.

Another interesting feature of the SAC command post is a closed-circuit color TV system. This chain is used to transmit the status information displayed on the panels in the operations and intelligence centers to staff officers within the SAC headquarters. Five separate program channels are available. Color is used because much of the information displayed is color-coded. A separate black-and-white closed-circuit system connects the SAC command post with the Combat Operations Center of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) at Colorado Springs, Colo. Through this circuit, NORAD surveillance of North America is simultaneously displayed in front of the SAC controller.

Flexibility of control is the outstanding feature of the SAC nets. This requires complex control circuits. Maintenance and repair problems are compounded and skilled service technicians are of vital importance. Much of the test gear seen at the Short Order station sites would be strange to the average service technician, although familiar to the laboratory man. Precision frequency standards, laboratory type scopes and frequency counters are standard. The not-so-old cliché that modern armies (and air forces) are made up of technicians is nowhere better illustrated than at SAC.

A taxpayer's first reaction to SAC's installation is pride and satisfaction. But this is jolted aside by General Griswold's blunt complaint that communications development has not kept pace with missile and nuclear technology advances and that progress for many years has been primarily the result of improved technology rather than real breakthrough. One reason for this, in his estimation, is the relatively small amount of money devoted to communications research compared to that spent on atomic and missile research. He cited two relatively simple problems still crying for solution: Elimination of precipitation static interference on planes and development of really good antennas for planes. - M.H.G.



Posted July 5, 2023

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