How far is a klick in military terms? The shortest answer is that a klick equals one kilometer. PBS.org reports this in a glossary of terms used during the Vietnam War, and there are other resources (with varying explanations of the origin of the term) that also identify a klick as a military unit of measure equaling one kilometer.
One of those resources is the online dictionary Merriam-Webster, which simply defines “klick” as “kilometer.”
But where did the term originate? Like many aspects of military culture, this term is shrouded in a bit of mystery. Depending on who you ask the term originated with Australian forces serving in Vietnam, or it may have been adapted when U.S. forces began doing operations with French forces which used kilometers and other metric-system measurements instead of miles, inches, etc.
Speaking Of France…
The entire “miles versus kilometers” issue has its origins in France, which developed the meter as a unit of measurement in the 18th century. Using meters became popular in a variety of disciplines and it was declared an official international unit of measure by something known as the Metre Convention of 1875.
Some had used a different descriptor for 1000 meters, the distance we know today as one kilometer–but in 1935 the International Committee for Weights and Measurements announced the official retirement of the term “myriameter” to denote 1000 meters, switching to kilometer instead.
How Using “Klicks” Might Have Started
In spite of the popularity of the term “klick” as military jargon from the Vietnam War era and onward, some sources report the possibility of klick or a similar early modification of kilometer being used as early as World War I. Speculative as that may be, here are some facts.
World War One began in 1914, with the United States entering the conflict officially in 1917. American troops worked side-by-side or in coordination with other nations including the U.K. and France. American forces have always been keen on interoperability between forces and there have been disastrous results when that level of coordination is not respected.
Why Standardization In Military Measurement Counts
Why did America need to get on board with a foreign unit of measure? There’s an old joke on this topic that goes, “Oppose foreign rulers–down with the Metric System!” But in a military context, standardization can save lives even if it means adopting a way to measure distances that is unfamiliar (at first).
A good example of this necessity came during the infamous Gulf War-era friendly fire incident that occurred in 1994 when an American AWACS mission mis-identified two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters as enemy aircraft over northern Iraq. The Army helicopters were fired upon by Air Force F-15s, killing all on board the Army choppers.
One of the findings of the subsequent investigation was that the Air Force “friend or foe” electronic identification system did not include the Army’s “friend or foe” signifiers–a lack of interoperability was at least partly responsible for the deaths of those on board the helicopters.
And while that is a far more contemporary example of how a simple miscommunication in military operations can have fatal results, the lesson is clear–military forces must coordinate in levels of detail that go all the way down to the need for standardized units of measure in order to avoid miscalculations in firing weapons, identifying the position of friendly forces, etc.
World War One And The Need For A Common Measurement
In World War One, this standardization included the need for a common unit of measure, and since kilometers were used by many of the participating nations in “the War to End All Wars”, America adapted the use of kilometers instead of miles. It’s thought that the influence of French troops might have been responsible for the widespread use of kilometer in U.S. planning.
What’s more, at the end of World War Two, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mandate was issued requiring all military maps used by NATO must be standardized–further reinforcing the need for a common unit of measure for military operations and planning.
Kilometers And Klicks Evolve?
Use of “kilometer” would lead to the use of “klick” later on, but no one can agree on when that actually occurred. Some speculate that U.S. troops exposure to the military culture of Australian forces in Vietnam led to a more widespread use of the jargon klick; Aussie forces innovated a unique system to help them map and navigate unfamiliar jungle terrain there.
Some sources report Australian forces would track their movements by adjusting the gas regulator on Australian standard-issue military rifles–one adjustment for every 100 meters traveled.
After ten adjustments, the Australians noted they had traveled 1000 meters or one kilometer, then reset the gas regulator back to its original position–something that results in a distinctive clicking sound. That would go a long way toward understanding why a kilometer is defined as a klick.
It is also entirely possible that modifying the word “kilometer” for use on open radio frequencies was a way to help confuse an enemy trying to intercept military communications. Swapping out the technical word for a “nonsense word” would in theory confuse the enemy. At least until they caught on to the trick–which would not be difficult to do when the term is in widespread use.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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