AFNIC celebrates diverse mobile communications history

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Justin A. Schoenthal
  • Air Force Network Integration Center

The Air Force Network Integration Center is celebrating 75 years in military communications. Looking back through its rich history, the 1950s showed exponential growth in the mobile communication sector.


When one is presented with the concept of “mobile communications,” the first thoughts usually match up with the popular web-based dictionary definitions describing scenarios around talking, texting or sending data and image files via a handheld device over a wireless network. Mobile technology like cellular communications, tablet and laptop systems also spawn in one’s mind, but when you look back in time to the 1950s, a very different concept of mobile communication was at the forefront of the Air Force and the military.


Mobile communications for the AFNIC are currently focused around smart devices and how we, as a center, can provide enterprise mobility management allowing for worldwide communication over these mobile technologies. During the 1950s, AFNIC’s predecessor, the Airways and Air Communications Service, was more focused on regional mobile communication support.


On May 1, 1951, the 1860th AACS Mobile Communications Squadron, the first mobile communications squadron in Europe, was activated at Munich-Riem Airport, Germany, with an authorized strength of 20 officers and 427 Airmen. AACS had been operating elsewhere as a system since 1938, providing air-ground and ground-air communications, but the use of mobile units and detachments had only been utilized since the mid-1940s.


The 1950s in Europe, when an AACS member was operating a mobile system, they would have been referring to something such as a Military Auxiliary Radio System mobile van which could provide mobile, or moving, communication during operations and emergencies. While nowhere near as portable, tiny or powerful as a cell phone fitting in one’s pocket today, these vans could travel across the country providing communication to remotely located military members. These rugged beefed-up combat styled trucks ensured mission essential information continually and securely flowed giving the military member the same sense of connectivity that all desire and are accustomed to today.


Nothing beats being able to receive a response in a “Can you hear me now?” type of situation when the status quo of the day would often be “No.  I can’t hear you.” 


In addition to voice transmissions, other mobile communication tools in use by AACS during the 1950s included the AN/MSQ-2 Close Support Control sets which were used for command and control over various missile and bombing systems. This helped the Air Force continue their “warheads on foreheads” in any environment with the most precise tools of the time.


Much like today, mobile communications in the 1950s were not always everyone’s priority. In 1952, Headquarters Tactical Air Command requested that AACS create a mobile unit dedicated solely to the support of TAC operations. However, U.S. Air Force headquarters rejected the request as not being justified. Regardless, this did not slow down the spread of mobile communications nor the creation of new units within AACS dedicated to this effort.


This can be seen mirrored in today’s environment with the different attempts to implement mobile technologies such as tablets across the Air Force with varying levels of success.  Currently, as in the past, AFNIC leads the Air Force with the most widely used mobile technology solution that encompasses the best communication features available for the warfighter.


In 1952, it wasn’t a tablet that the warfighter was interested in, but aircraft low approach guidance. What got these 1950s communicators excited was the completely revised Instrument Low Approach System program, which saw the installation of the older SCS-51 mobile and newer AN/MRN-7 and 8 systems to be installed.  This change was prompted by requirements during the Korean War.


More commonly known as the Instrument Landing System (similar systems still in use today), this system was operated by AACS at several locations and consisted of a mobile, self-contained unit in a truck and trailer but could also be permanently deployed. This equipment consisted of three independently operated components: runway localizer transmitter, glidepath transmitter and three 75 MHz marker beacon transmitters. The system provided the pilot with a straight-line glidepath beam and a runway localizer beam. Any pilot reading this article could confirm the benefit of such a system for difficult landing situations.


September 1954, Headquarters AACS established Detachment 1, 3d AACS Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and attached it to Headquarters Tactical Air Command for operational control. This detachment was the first AACS mobile combat unit to be dedicated solely to TAC use, something the community continued to feel was necessary since it was first rejected in 1952.  The detachment supported TAC until September 1959.


Another large AACS mobile achievement occurred in 1957 with the 1st AACS Squadron supporting Project DOVECOT, the atomic weapons testing effort by the British government at Christmas Island, today called Kiritimati. Located in the central Pacific Ocean, Kiritimati is hundreds of miles away from any form of civilization, a perfect location for AACS mobile abilities to shine.


Initially a classified project codenamed Operation GRAPPLE by the British, AACS provided weather observation, communications and associated administrative support for the effort.  Twenty-four hour radiotelegraph support was provided to all of the locations to include Hawaii, Palmyra and Penrhyn Atolls, as well as twenty-four hour air and ground radio service between Palmyra and Penrhyn.  Without mobile communications, the tests may have never been as successful as they proved to be.


In the 1950s, AACS paved the way for mobile solutions to continue their valuable contribution to the military and solidified the need for communication anywhere and everywhere on the planet. Celebrating 75 years of dedicated service, the men and women of the Air Force Network Integration Center will continue their legacy of integrating mobile communications services and the cyberspace tools needed for today’s warfighter.