By Gordon Van VleetJune 24, 2019
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. - The U.S. Army's battlespace has long benefited from the use of wireless communications for over 100 years. In fact, it was here in the Southwestern states of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas that during the U.S. Border Service and Pershing's Punitive Expedition of 1916; the U.S. Army Signal Corps first deployed base and mobile wireless telegraphy sets capable of transmitting 2000 words a day under battlefield conditions. These wireless sets would later spark the beginning of long distance transmission technology a precursor of High Frequency (HF) radio communications.
Hence, the importance and legacy of long-distance communications and (HF) continues on a global scale here through the efforts of the Army MARS [Military Auxiliary Radio System] station headquartered at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Army MARS is a Department of Defense sponsored program which utilizes Amateur Radio operators to contribute to the mission of the Department of the Army, and is assigned to the Network Enterprise Technology Command.
So, to assist more diverse communication efforts, NETCOM's MARS developed a series of advanced HF communication technical assistance labs supporting a number of Joint tactical units, said Paul English, Chief of Army MARS and the NETCOM Land Mobile Radio Project Officer.
"Each tech assistance session includes two to three personnel funded by their parent unit," said English. "During some of these sessions, we've also had Soldiers from the 40th [40th Signal Battalion, Fort Huachuca, Ariz.] participate to give the session a more joint flavor," said English. "These tech assistance sessions are hands on … no death by PowerPoint."
"What we are doing is best described as a Technical Support," said David McGinnis, a government contractor supporting the lab's efforts. "We are working with NCOs from various units to help them with the unique challenges they are facing employing and training HF radio in their units." To ensure the labs provide tangible results, each lab is tailored for those attending.
"What we are doing is entirely focused on them, and because of that each lab is very different," said McGinnis. "To a great extent we listen to what they have to say when we first meet them and customize the experience of the three days they spend with us. For instance, the ASOS units [Air Support Operations Squadron] and the Joint Communications Support Squadron need to focus on employing HF in austere and contested environments, utilizing field expedient antennas and terrain to maximize the potential of the equipment they carry. Other units come with much larger antenna systems, amplifiers and we focus more on engineering, power budgets, text-chat software, etc.
And the benefits of the hands-on lab isn't missed by those attending.
Air Force Master Sgt. Benjamin Gwaltney, 224th Joint Communications Support Squadron, Brunswick, Ga., who was attending the lab in early June said he would definitely recommend it to others. "I have attended many formal schools throughout my career provided by both TRADOC [Army Training and Doctrine Command] and AETC [Army Education and Training Command]. I feel the flexibility of the instructors and the lab was more beneficial than typical structured courses."
Gwaltney, who was attending the training with two other airmen; Air Force Tech. Sgt. Neil Howard and Tech. Sgt. Mike Barber, said the lab was very hands on and the instructor did an excellent job explaining the concepts and equipment that they were unfamiliar with, which resulted in a better understanding of HF communications.
"These labs are important because there is a lot of focus on preparing for a conflict with a near-peer adversary, or one of their proxies today," said McGinnis. "This is a big shift for a force that has been focused on fighting insurgents for the last 15 years. This is just one part of the larger effort to get back to basic, even low-tech skills.
"We try to be very interactive in our approach, maintain a continuous discussion through what is essentially an engineering decision making process," said McGinnis when asked about the importance of a hands on approach. "It is important to go through the planning and engineering process and conclude that with the actual radio shots they designed." And that was where the hands on experience helped.
"We do a point to point radio shot to an Army unit about 2,000 miles away, using typical tactical equipment and simple antenna upgrades we show them," said McGinnis. "Most of these folks have only read about that kind of radio shot, or seen it on a power point. Here, they actually make that happen and see it work, experiencing the entire decision making process from the power budget, propagation and antenna models to selecting the appropriate radio frequencies and antenna systems.
The labs also help with creative thinking in the world of HF communications. "Most often the antennas they have won't do what they need effectively, and we show them simple ways to add a lot of value to this equipment using common materials," McGinnis said. "At the end, we close the loop by taking them back to the initial power budget and have them validate their assumptions."
Those attending the labs are mostly NCO's who already have a fair amount of experience, said McGinnis. "They are here because they are ready for a "next level up" experience. It would not be possible to do this inside of one week with people who are brand new to the subject matter - so for the limitations of this venue, motivated people with prior experience is required.
"The feedback so far is usually pretty enthusiastic," McGinnis said. Those attending the lab seem to appreciate the customized approach, he added.
Complexity mixed with creativity could best describe the HF labs focus and mission. "HF radio is an out of the box medium, it's not magic, but it requires some dynamic and creative thinking to be successful," said McGinnis.