FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz., -- More than a century after Guglielmo Marconi helped pioneer trans-Atlantic communications, High Frequency (HF) has continued to be a consistent, economical and reliable long-range communications platform; being of practical use in natural disasters, as well as, for military applications.
The critical importance of modern HF communications can perhaps be best exemplified by the wireless Marconi distress call CQD meaning, "All stations distress" and the newly adopted SOS signals transmitted by the R.M.S. Titanic on the night of 14 April, and morning of 15 April, 1912 after the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic.
While the communication events surrounding the Titanic disaster helped generate interest in HF radio governance and radio-relay station expansion, the use of HF after World War II slowly became a dying art with the invention of satellite, tropospheric scatter, Line-of-Sight (LOS) microwave and fiber optic technologies.
In retrospect, the Network Enterprise Technology Command’s (NETCOM’s) HF Capability Manager Mr. Paul English says, HF communications is no longer a vanishing art, as it is now making a resurgence in communications planning.
“Increased vulnerabilities to cyber and satellite communications coupled with increasing HF communications capability and capacity is making the Services rethink their Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency or (PACE) communications planning.”
According to Eric E. Johnson, Ph.D., PE, in his recent AFCEA Signal Magazine article titled Wideband Steps Up to Fill the Gap, the military’s need for contingency communications continues to grow exponentially.
“Concerns are growing about warfighters’ ability to communicate mission-critical information beyond line-of-sight in conflicts with peer and near-peer adversaries,” wrote Johnson. “Just in time, a new generation of highly capable high frequency radios is emerging as a viable solution when satellite communications are denied or unavailable.”
The advantage of HF communications is that it does not rely on any other infrastructure other than the radio equipment on either end of the link, said English.
According to English, both civilian and military communications networks benefit from HF technologies as the radio platform is used in a myriad of situations from natural disasters to military command and control. For instance, on the civilian side, HF communications is heavily used by amateur radio operators for voice, as well as, a plethora of digital communication protocols.
On the federal side, agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) use HF for over the ocean communications for air traffic control, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Data Buoy Center (NDBC) uses HF radar to measure ocean currents on both the east and west coasts.
HF has become a critical PACE platform during natural disasters, extensively used during a number of natural disasters, to include the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Nepal earthquake in 2015, and the recent 2018 earthquake in Puerto Rico. HF communication nets are activated throughout the June-November hurricane season to track and report hurricane conditions in and around affected areas, as was done most recently during hurricanes Henri and Ida.
Similarly, HF continues to be a viable PACE conduit within military communications infrastructure.
“In the military, HF communications is used as a basic long-range command and control medium for communications between Headquarters (HQ’s) in all services,” said English. “For example, the U.S. Army’s field artillery units use HF for the fire direction centers to send firing instructions to the rocket launchers. The Air Force and Navy use HF communications for long range command and control of aircraft and ships.”
“The Air Force also uses HF as a means for pilots to place telephone calls using the High Frequency Global Communications System (HF-GCS),” said English “The Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) and Civil Air Patrol (CAP) also extensively use HF communications in support of the Department of Defense.”
Likewise, in January of 2020 U.S. Marines set up and tested equipment during a high frequency (HF) training event between Camp Pendleton, California, and Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan.
With a global demand for HF applications, along with a military and civilian necessity to exercise communications connectivity during crisis and critical military operations, services are recognizing the need to get personnel trained and proficient in using HF communications. NETCOM is actively working with mission partners to meet training requests.
In the spring of 2019, NETCOM designed technical HF assistance labs at Fort Huachuca, Arizona as a proof-of-concept. By summer, the command was running more than a dozen labs with units from around the globe; participants hailed from Europe, Alaska, Hawaii and all-around the Continental United States.
NETCOM’s HF technical assistance labs provide training on a variety of HF subject areas, tailored to the attending unit’s mission needs and training shortfalls.
“No two labs are the same,” said English.
The labs last typically three days in duration, Tuesday through Thursday, with travel days on Monday and Friday.
“The labs are all hands on,” said English. “No death-by-PowerPoint slides.”
Lab participants are given a communications problem to solve based on their unit’s mission. When a unit is scheduled for a deployment, lab instructors work with them to develop a communications plan they can use while down range.
The training offered by HF NETCOM is not for the novice at heart, said English.
“The lab is not an HF 101 course,” said English. “We expect personnel to have a basic understanding of HF communications and we build on that.”
Long range, infrastructure free voice and digital communications are the primary applications used in the labs. Unit personnel must have a basic understanding of HF communications and how to operate the Harris HF radio.
“We want the attendees to take away an increased confidence in their ability to plan and execute a successful HF communications plan,” said English.
“Thus, one main takeaway ought to entail that they have a more thorough understanding of how to program their radios. They should also leave with a more in-depth understanding of how HF signal propagate.”
Ultimately, lab participants take with them a better understanding of how HF antennas work and how to reconfigure their antennas to improve communications. They also leave with an understanding of how to fashion a field expedient antenna using commonly available materials.”
According to participant reviews, the HF training far exceeds expectations and offers real-world applications and scenarios.
“The training we conducted over the past summer has been beneficial,” said Army Sgt. Jeremy Reynolds, Signal Support Systems Specialist with the 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade (4SFAB) based at Fort Carson Colorado. ”
“NETCOM trained us both on the best- and worst-case scenarios. It was realistic in the aspect of what resources we could use to make an antenna and how effective it can be in real world situations.”
Reynold’s team learned about the resource practicality needed to build a remote HF antenna in any location around the world.
“The ability to purchase components from a hardware store and construct a simple antenna to communicate from Fort Huachuca to Texas makes Soldiers that more effective on mission,” said Reynolds.
“I think any unit needing more knowledge on HF equipment should send personnel to get this training.”
Army Staff Sgt. Carlos Lopez, Signal Support Systems Specialist, 4SFAB, echoed Reynolds’ sentiments.
“The HF training provided by NETCOM has been the best HF training I have received in the nine years I’ve served in the Army,” said Lopez. “The focus was on what we as users needed help with. They didn’t teach unnecessary things and they focused on how we can implement this training back into our units.”
“I personally think that any unit can benefit from this training,” said Lopez. “NETCOM doesn’t just teach how to operate a radio, but more importantly, they teach how to understand what can cause interference, what frequencies are best depending on the time of day, and so much more.”
“SFAB teams tend to deploy or train in small groups of 12 people normally away from the higher headquarters,” said Lopez. “Having the ability to communicate in a secure matter at long distances will enhance our unit’s signal mission.”
Through these HF training labs, NETCOM strives to give students a holistic and thoughtful problem-solving skillset that allows them to find solutions to long-range communications challenges, said English.
“By the end of each lab, it is NETCOM’s goal to have assisted the unit with improving their understanding of HF communications and to have offered some tactics, techniques, and procedures that will help them accomplish any mission.”
For more information on NETCOM, please visit: https://www.army.mil/Netcom