05 November 2017

Where It Began

I've been writing about radios on and off on my other blogs for a few years, mostly in relation to other topics under discussion like disaster response or preparedness. But since I've recently renewed my interest in ham radio and found myself writing more and more about it on social media I figured it was time to stand up a blog devoted to communications where I could indulge in longer, more focused discussions.

So why 'PRC-77', or more accurately, AN/PRC-77? I grew up in the Army, joining right after graduating college in 1979 and retiring over 20 years later in 2002. I wasn't in the Signal Corps, I was in the Engineers. For me and the Soldiers in the units I served in radios were just a tool. A critical tool to be sure, but they were the means to an end - effective command and control. From that perspective I was always impressed that our radio systems just worked. Pick up a microphone, mash the push-to-talk button and throw out a callsign. The people or units I needed to talk to almost always came right back. I didn't think about the magic or effort behind making this all work. It just worked. Of course I understood that there was always a layer of Signal Corps support standing behind all this magic, from our company-level signal section to national-level satellite-based digital C3 systems, but there was no need (and often no time) to marvel. Just as the Engineers had the task of building roads, bridges and airfields the Signal Corps had the task of making sure guys like me could talk to who they needed to, when they needed to. We all had our jobs to do, and the Signal Corps guys and gals did theirs superbly.

Since most of my time was served in separate company, battalion or brigade level units we relied a lot on smaller portable radios for team level communications. Right up through Desert Storm, and beyond, this meant the ubiquitous AN/PRC-77. The radio was designed by RCA in the late 1960's as an all solid-state update to the AN/PRC-25 and was quickly adopted and shipped in staggering numbers to Vietnam. It was the right radio at the right time; rugged, waterproof, reliable as a brick and highly configurable. It was just the radio we needed to make the new tactic of vertical envelopment by helicopter work. As much as the M-16 rifle and the UH-1 helicopter, the 'prick-77' provided a visual benchmark for the war in Vietnam. Look at any wide angle picture of ground operations in Vietnam taken from 1968-on and you'll see at least one PRC-77 in the shot, usually strapped to a Soldier's back.

AN/PRC-77 being used during an airbmobile operation in Vietnam

By the early 1980's the PRC-77 design was showing its age and the Army desperately wanted to upgrade their tactical communications suite. But money was tight and more critical systems like the new M-1 Abrams tank and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle were getting all the funding. The PRC-77 soldiered on far longer than it should have, but its length of service was a testimony to its excellent original design and overall ruggedness.

And that's how I came to appreciate the AN/PRC-77. It was the radio I turned to time and again to accomplish the mission. Whether you were directing a convoy, running a rifle range, setting up a drop zone, conducting a recon or chasing bad guys around the desert, it got the job done. By today's standards the PRC-77 is obsolete; it's all analog, it's heavy, it puts out a weak signal, it isn't narrow band, it eats up batteries and it doesn't offer the communications flexibility needed on the modern battlefield. But like a '65 Mustang that is underpowered, doesn't handle well, has no trunk space and is uncomfortable on long trips, the PRC-77 is easy to love. In its time the PRC-77 was the best tactical manpack radio available and there's still a lot to admire about its ruggedness, simplicity and reliability. It just worked.

So while this blog will focus on ham radio and general communications topics, it is also take an occasional look back at the radio gear that defined an era in military communications.


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