So Much, Yet So Little, Has Changed in 60 Years

September 2006
By Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.)

The relevance defined by AFCEA’s founding fathers still holds.

Six decades ago a band of signalmen and combat photographers returned from the battlefields of World War II to form the Army Signal Association (ASA), adopting a goal to “perpetuate and strengthen the ties that were fashioned in battle” and to “maintain and improve cooperation between the armed forces and industry in the design, production, maintenance, and operation of communications, electronics, and photographic equipment.”

A key product of that association was a magazine called SIGNALS. The ASA’s first president, Brig. Gen. David Sarnoff, USA, wrote in SIGNALS that the organization’s goal would be a “never-ending effort to ensure that never again will America be so pitifully weak that it is a temptation for an aggressor nation to attack us as was done at Pearl Harbor.”

The ASA goal of readiness has proved to be a never-ending task, and Gen. Sarnoff’s call to attain and sustain a powerful nation resonates today as soundly as it did in the 1950s during the Korean War; in the 1960s during Vietnam; during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; and in Afghanistan and Iraq today.

If the ASA’s founders could visit AFCEA today, they would discover that converging digital technology has eliminated the once clear distinction among communications, electronics and photography. It has altered both the trade and tradecraft of signalmen who now are accountable for content, security and authenticity of messages as well as connectivity. They would see that communications has become “as operationally significant as the command and control and weapons it helps to form” (SIGNAL Magazine, May 1965, page 27) and that information specialists have become cyberwarriors, using the Internet, chat rooms and instant messaging to coordinate, collaborate and plan through social stovepipes. Also, signalmen soon may be empowered by electronics and directed energy that could rival mass and kinetics in achieving desired military effects on the battlefield.

Further, they would note that “jointness” in transformed military affairs is more than a slogan and that most of the troubling and disruptive turf battles among the services over roles and missions now are played out on athletic battlefields or adjudicated by joint commands.    

On the other hand, the ASA’s founders would discover that the U.S. armed forces are dangerously dependent on cheap but vulnerable information products and systems, the design of which reflects the purchasing power of consumers only belatedly becoming concerned about lack of security, privacy and civil liberties.

Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army ground to a halt in Europe during World War II because it outran its fuel—not just petroleum, but communications as well. “How do we match communications technology with the mobility of modern warfare” ponders an editorial in the fourth issue of SIGNALS “in an era when passengers on a Pan American Airways Clipper floating on Persian Gulf waters can send messages halfway round the world, … New York taxicabs had $1,000 radios, and President Harry Truman could send and receive radio teletype messages between his plane and his train while both are in motion … and … fourteen airborne stations can blanket the nation?” (SIGNALS, July-August 1947).

SIGNAL Magazine and the reports of AFCEA’s panels and committees provide the history of this revolution in technology. They also yield some of the earliest critiques on such contemporary problems as the looming chaos in the radio frequency spectrum; the impending shortage of scientific and technical personnel in the national security work force; the lack of system interoperability and technical standards; the need to stabilize a military work force that has become too dependent on the guard and reserve; and even whether enough radios are available to “evacuate a city.”

“Any future war will be fought with new weapons,” wrote Gen. Sarnoff in SIGNALS’ May-June 1948 issue, in a rare lapse of clairvoyance that clashes with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recent remarks that “you fight a war with the army you have.” How does one reconcile these two observations? An AFCEA study group provided one answer in the 1970s when it proffered “evolutionary acquisition” (buy a little, test a little), which now has been adopted under the term “spiral development and acquisition.” The association’s relevance continues unaffected by the passage of decades.

One hopes that the founders would conclude that, with record-level individual and corporate members in AFCEA, their 60-year-old dream lives and thrives.


Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.), is a distinguished life member of AFCEA, past president of the London Chapter and past vice president of the European Region, former manager of AFCEA International Press and contributing editor to SIGNAL since 1966.

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