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15 July 2007

Historical perspectives on military and intelligence privatization – codes and ciphers in China’s warlord era

Intelligence as an organized activity in the modern era began as an amateur’s game, made more serious by the deadly business of war throughout the 20th century. And while much attention has been paid to the evolution of the early effort of pioneers which became the basis for the major nation-state programs of the major conflicts that convulsed the globe in the three world wars of the last century, we occasionally have reason to be reminded of, and to reflect upon, the efforts which the intelligence studies history has nearly forgotten.

Among those are an interplay of requirements, technology, and actors which resulted in one of the most interesting artifacts we have ever had privilege to lay eyes on – one of the earliest codebooks used by a private military company. (An item that we had hoped one day to be graced to acquire, but unfortunately as the years have passed it seems that is not to be.)

The nearly continuous conflicts of the Chinese warlord period resulted in the development of a major market for mercenaries and arms merchants engaged by the various factions to support and supply their forces. Communications of the day were primitive, but the telegraph had made ingress to the country and represented the only effective link between the forward representatives of the private military companies of the day (often individual entrepreneurs and adventurers) and their larger networks of investors, suppliers, and strategic level intelligence (usually provided solely through open sources and RUMINT).

The security of these communications were however a paramount consideration in the ever shifting political currents of an intensely factionalized country. Thus, a variety of code systems and ciphers came to be employed by those smart enough, or experienced enough, to pay attention to such matters.

The technology of the day required almost all messages to be sent via Morse, and messages would pass through any number of hands during transmission, receipt, and delivery. Further, the system was a heavily Anglicized development which did not handle Chinese characters well, although a numeric transliteration system was in use. Additionally, major companies (especially in the banking and shipping industries) had adopted a series of brevity codes in order to save telegraph transmission costs when handling routine message traffic (although not without push-back from the major telegraph providers, who saw lost business opportunities in the shorter messages and increased costs due to the greater difficulty and greater error rates which were incurred in sending enciphered text – the net neutrality battles of the Victorian Internet).

It is out of those commercial codes that the early efforts arose to provide for secure communications amongst those in the private military industry of the day. A number of firms published primitive codebooks for both brevity and security purposes - a commercial market for cryptology which would preserve elements of the nascent American signals intelligence establishment during the turbulent days following World War I. Many of these codebooks were adopted throughout the private military industry in China, and evolved in modified fashion throughout the course of operations. In one surviving example which we are familiar with, the phrase tables had been extended to cover a wide range of situations the original designers had no doubt never envisioned. The sometimes hastily scrawled handwritten notes of nearly a hundred years ago are still quite familiar to anyone that has ever been in the field, attempting to obtain logistics support or to acquire new munitions and matériel.

The 21st century has seen the world of cryptography come full circle. Now, it is again commercial technology - commonly available at the individual level through public key and elliptic curve encryption as well as widely published, mathematically robust algorithms such as AES / Rijndael - that is featuring prominently in the forward theatres of the Long War, where the private military industry finds its most active current markets and the field of communications security has some of its most interesting opportunities for substantial new contributions.

We would wish to see this sort of history better explored by the academics of the intelligence studies field, and the longstanding nature of the private military enterprise taken into account during the all too often overwrought discussions around the privatization of intelligence and of warfare. The literature of intelligence, and of national and international security studies, would no doubt greatly benefit - and who know what young minds might thus be inspired to accomplish?

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