Australia’s first use of a computer in a war zone

Australia’s first use of a computer in a war zone

Today marks the 50-year anniversary of Australia’s first use of a computer in a war zone.

27 March 2021

By Lindsay Cooper, with research by Colin Dobie, John Mungoven and Stuart Bennington

With no publicity either at the time or in the years following, it is no surprise that little is known about Australia’s use of computers in country during the Vietnam War. 

In the late 1960s, the highly secretive 547 Signals Troop began using an Olivetti Programma 101 personal computer followed by a DEC PDP8 computer to assist with calculations for the Single Station Location (SSL) direction-finding system.

Today marks the 50-year anniversary of the Australian Intelligence Corps (AUSTINT) use of a computer in Vietnam. Australia was very likely the first western nation to deploy a computer in a war zone, apart from the United States.

Following the completion of corps training at the Army Intelligence Centre, Woodside, South Australia in June 1970, I was selected to be part of the installation team for the ‘small’ computer system to be trialled for 12 months at the Nui Dat Headquarters of 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF).

The project was initiated in 1965 by civilian scientist Tom Millane who was employed with the then Weapons Research Establishment (WRE), Salisbury, South Australia. The software was originally programmed on an IBM 7090 mainframe computer by Tom and subsequently converted by a civilian at WRE, Peter Calder, to the PDP8 system.

The PDP8/L system that was installed in 1971 was small for the standards of the day. It was the size of a small fridge as opposed to the IBM 7090 which required an entire room. It also cost about $70,000 in today’s money and had a central processing unit with 4K of memory. 

The whole set-up comprised the PDP8/L processor, a TU-56 tape drive unit which recorded onto small reel-to-reel tapes known as DEC tapes. Also present were two teletypewriters which were used both to type up and read 5-hole paper tape, and to print out text on plain paper.

Originally, the PDP8 system was to be sent to Vietnam in November 1970. However, the system was damaged (by a power box that had broken loose inside and was swinging on its cable like a wrecking ball) when it arrived in Australia and this caused a delay in its implementation.

It was airlifted to Nui Dat in March 1971 in a purpose-built air-conditioned shelter. 

Captain Colin Dobie was the Trials Officer in charge, and Corporal Geoff Purdue and I were the original operators. I returned to Australia at the end of June 1971. Other operators included Corporals Graham Couper, John Mungoven, Bob King and David Walker.

Captain Dobie selected pertinent intelligence data from the daily 1 ATF and unit intelligence summaries, and reports from peripheral agencies. These were re-written in a standard coded format designed to facilitate retrieval of information.

Typically, data inputted might include references to enemy contacts (CON), confirmed enemy sightings (SIGT), caches found (CACH), enemy documents found (DOCS), and mine incidents (MINE), which were  cross-referenced with precise grid references and times of events. Information was graded on credibility and reliability of sources, and so on.

Taskforce units (e.g. SAS, regiments) could request a report using different search parameters, grid references and time periods. Patterns of enemy activity could then be overlaid over selected areas, including new and historical data going back to 1970.

Captain Dobie, assisted by Captains Tom Oldham and Greg Dodds, correlated the computer reports, historical data and other significant intelligence to use as follows:

  1. Immediate actions such as airstrikes.
  2. Preparation of daily intelligence briefs.
  3. Correlating new data with information going back two years.

Senior US officers were impressed that our computer reports were printed within hours of receiving the request compared to a day or more for the US reports produced by large mainframe computers. As an example, the US got immediate success with air strikes using our reports, instead of ’waiting 24 hours to hear from mainframes in Saigon to call in airstrikes on what was an enemy location yesterday’.

The database was used extensively during 1971 by various units in the task force for operational and planning purposes. Reports were frequently requested, often at short notice. Data entry was a constant task requiring long hours, but at least the shelter was air-conditioned.

More and more units started using the system.

The computer system was of great benefit to both the Intelligence Section and to the unit users. It could process information much faster than any previous manual system and also cover a greater range of topics.

The commander 1ATF, Brigadier Bruce Alexander McDonald regarded it as an operational necessity, despite it only being part of a research trial.

Being a commercial computer and with limited support in Vietnam and a lack of spare parts, there were a number of breakdowns with the equipment – both the teletypewriters and the PDP8. At one stage, the PDP8 had to be returned to Australia for repair, with a three-day turnaround.

The withdrawal of Australian forces in 1971 resulted in the premature end of the operational trial.

When the computer returned to Australia it was located at the Army Intelligence Centre and the trial continued with intelligence data from the earlier years of Australian deployment being added (1966–70). However, without the benefit of positive support from real operational users, interest in the computer system quickly faded.

This story could not be told without the outstanding research by Stuart Bennington, a curator at the Australian War Memorial. Stuart has provided most of the historical information in this article and was instrumental in retrieving data from the original computer tapes. This data represents the first digital official records created by Australian units in the field and used while at war.

We welcome articles written by members of the veteran community. Please email vetaffairs [at] dva.gov.au if you have a story in mind. Please note that responsibility for the accuracy of such articles lies with the author.

Two young men in uniform seated in front of teleprinters or similar.
PDP8 computer with operators Cpl Lindsay Cooper and Cpl Geoff Purdue. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

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