WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 30, 2014) -- Volunteers from MARS are helping the Army improve its communications capabilities.
They aren't little green Martians from science fiction novels, though. They're Military Auxiliary Radio, or MARS, operators, supporting the Army with high-frequency radio operations.
Army MARS, headquartered out of Fort Huachuca, Arizona, relies on the talents of more than 1,200 volunteers -- in the U.S. and to a limited extent overseas -- to provide high-frequency, referred to as HF, communications support to the Army.
MARS volunteers are amateur radio operators, licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and trained by the Army to operate as government auxiliary radio stations on the HF spectrum provided by the Department of Defense. The Navy and Air Force also have MARS programs.
According to Paul English, Army MARS program manager, the MARS program supports the Department of Defense and the Army through four main missions: providing contingency high-frequency communications support; providing communications support for Defense Support to Civil Authorities; providing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief communications support to geographic combatant commanders; and providing morale and welfare communications to deployed DOD personnel.
SUPPORTING THE GUARD
In August 2013, Army MARS leadership briefed how the MARS program could support the Army National Guard at the National Guard Bureau Tactical C4 Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. This annual meeting allows the G6 communicators from around the Army National Guard to share ideas and receive the latest guidance from the National Guard Bureau J6 leadership.
English said that the original concept was to show how the MARS program can support deploying National Guard Joint Network Nodes with HF phone patch connectivity to the satellite technical control facilities when cell phones and land line telephone connectivity is disrupted, for instance following a natural disaster.
Phone patching is the process of connecting an HF radio operator from an area with no telephone coverage, via an HF radio telephone interface box provided by the MARS operator, into the telephone network.
What began as a concept to demonstrate how MARS can provide phone patch support, quickly evolved into the Soldiers' desire to have a better understanding of the art of HF communications, he said. In response, MARS leadership developed a training package called the "art of HF communications."
The training provided by the MARS volunteers covers basic concepts such as how to determine the appropriate frequency for more reliable long-distance communications; basic concepts of HF radio-wave propagation; and how to build field-expedient antennas.
English relayed that a typical training session for the Soldiers begins in the classroom learning the basic concepts of HF communications, radio-wave propagation, how HF antennas work, and how to make field-expedient antennas using readily available materials. This is followed by the Soldiers setting up their tactical PRC-150 radios in the training area and putting to use the theories and concepts they learned in the classroom.
Since that August 2013 presentation, National Guard units from Illinois, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Nevada, California and Michigan have invited Army MARS volunteers to provide Guard Soldiers HF radio training, English said.
MARS SUPPORTS U.S. PACOM
In August this year, MARS operators partnered with Canadian Forces Auxiliary Radio System, or CFARS volunteers, and amateur radio operators in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal to support the U.S. Pacific Command Exercise "Pacific Endeavor." It was part of PACOM's Multi-National Communications Interoperability Program.
The humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or HADR, exercise scenario portrayed a massive earthquake in Kathmandu and the surrounding Himalayan Mountains which caused widespread devastation and destruction to the area.
Amateur radio operators are typically the first means of communications available in a devastated area to provide information to potential responding forces outside of the affected area. The radio portion of this exercise demonstrated that amateur radio operators could be an invaluable resource for disaster situational awareness information.
Nepal amateur radio operators, led by Dr. Sanjeeb Panday, began transmitting simulated disaster information on Emergency Center of Activity Frequencies, which are emergency frequencies designated by the International Amateur Radio Union.
At the start of the exercise, MARS and CFARS operators scanned the amateur frequencies listening for the simulated disaster information being transmitted by Panday and the amateur radio operators. Since this exercise was being conducted on international amateur radio frequencies, the simulated disaster information was actually a conversation about the sport of cricket. English commented: "A benign conversation about a sporting event would not cause other amateurs or shortwave listeners to become alarmed that possibly an actual disaster had occurred."
Once the MARS and CFARS operators identified the simulated disaster conversation, they submitted information reports to the U.S. PACOM staff for processing and evaluation.
The primary means of communications during this exercise was relaying messages by voice. English commented that the operators did try to send digital pictures of a cricket stadium via HF radio, but the propagation was not good enough to relay any useable images.
This was actually the second year that MARS volunteers supported Exercise Pacific Endeavor, English said, adding this type of support to other combatant commands is possible.
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