Fort Leavenworth leads push to forge new armor for electronic warfare

Legend has it that Pheidippides dashed mile after mountainous mile from Marathon to Athens to announce the Persians' defeat, then promptly dropped dead.

The Greek soldier could have taken an easier route — and perhaps spared himself the deadly strain. Instead, he opted for the steeper path to dodge the enemy and increase the chances that his message, one of victory, would get through.

In some ways, 21st-century commanders are in the same fix as Pheidippides' field marshals 1,900 years ago. They need to pass messages — now in a world crowded with electronics and electronic snooping — to and from their troops. Like the ancient Greeks, they go out of their way to avoid enemy intercepts.

"We need to be able to talk to each other," said Lt. Col. Fred Harper, one of the officers working on the Army’s electronic warfare issues at Fort Leavenworth. “We need to be able to protect our information from an adversary. … It can get complicated.”

Even as the consumer market in communications gadgets exploded, the U.S. Army largely let its electronic warfare muscles atrophy. It had become so weak, in fact, that Army commanders in Iraq were forced to bring in Navy specialists to make their radios work and to counteract insurgents using garage-door openers and cell phones to trigger roadside bombs.

Now the Army is on the verge of a new electronic warfare doctrine — drafted at Fort Leavenworth and awaiting approval from base commander Gen. William Caldwell — recognizing that the Army needs to squeeze its operations into an electromagnetic spectrum crowded with all manner of civilian communications.

That doctrine will be carried out by a new cadre of specialists, perhaps more than 1,500 strong, working in Army units at every level. Those electronic warriors would make sure that troops can radio each other without fear of eavesdropping and that U.S. ground forces can shut down, or listen in on, the chatter of the enemy.

Perhaps most pointedly, they also would work to shut down the remote-control explosives favored by insurgents.

Analysts say that the Army's update is long overdue and that electronic warfare is an ever-trickier business made all the more critical by a digital age in which data can gush in torrents from one wireless, pocket-size device to the next.

Technology has come a long way from Pheidippides' sandals. Some historians point to the Civil War as the first conflict — by way of the telegraph — when communications could outrun a man on horseback. That profoundly altered the way a commander could shift troops and materials.