Communication is Key as MARS Auxiliarists Refine Skills

Discussion in 'Amateur Radio News' started by W0PV, Sep 15, 2020.

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  1. W0PV

    W0PV Ham Member QRZ Page

    This official news release from the US Army reports on the "JulyEx" HF communications exercise which involved hundreds of radio amateurs either as volunteer civilian MARS Auxiliarists or other non-affiliated FCC Part 97 licensed hams demonstrating their abilities to interoperate together and provide an alternative communications capability for the DoD and related agencies.

    I am no longer a MARS member yet made several QSO's with military stations during this event on 60m SSB which were insightful into their current procedures and the unique properties of NVIS propagation on 5 MHz. There will be another event in October.

    73, John, WØPV

    Communication is Key as MARS Auxiliarists Refine Skills By Gordon Van Vleet, NETCOM PAO August 13, 2020


    An MARS volunteer explains Phone patching equipment. 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.


    Ron Keech, KL7YK, secretary of the Elmendorf Amateur Radio Society uses a ham radio in the Elmendorf Amateur Radio Society Civil Air Patrol building, to speak with other operators. Keech is a Navy military auxiliary radio systems operator.

    FORT HUACHUCA, ARIZ., - The U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM) held a High Frequency (HF) communications exercise (COMEX) called ‘JulyEx’ 20 through 24 July as 700 Army and Air Force Military Auxiliary Radio System volunteers from across the United States worked to hone and refine their HF operator skills by conducting radio checks on specified frequencies with NETCOM stations including the 114th Signal Battalion, at Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Adams County, Penn., NETCOM HF Gateway station at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and the 30th Signal Battalion at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

    “We also had the Air Force HF Global Communication Station located at Andrews Air Force Base, Va., participating as a net control station along with the NETCOM entities,” said Paul English, WD8DBY, Chief of Army MARS. “This exercise took the place of the regularly scheduled ‘DOD COMEX’ due to COVID-19 limitations,” English added.

    The exercise was announced through the DOD HF Working Group members plus the more than 200 military and Department of Defense personnel who have worked with NETCOM personnel over the years conducting HF technical assistance labs as well as on-air exercises and communications support, English said.

    “We had approximately 39 different military units who participated in the exercise including Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard and Special Forces units from across CONUS [continental United States], Germany, Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, and Korea,” said English. “Along with the 700 MARS Auxiliarists, we also trained with members of the Civil Air Patrol and hundreds of amateur radio operators across CONUS Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

    “The MARS Auxiliarists were tasked with collecting three different kinds of reports,” said English. “They collected county status reports from across the U.S. by interfacing with the amateur radio community; airport weather reports, called METARS, from select airports across CONUS and finally road closure reports. In total, MARS Ops collected 1,400 city and county status reports; 424 METARSs [Meteorological Terminal Air Reports]; and 190 road closure reports.

    “All of these reports were compiled and then selectively sent to the STRATCOM HQ [U.S. Strategic Command], NORTHCOM HQ [U.S. Northern Command], DISA {Defense Information Systems Agency], and the Civil Air Patrol. The purposes of these reports is to give general overall situational awareness of the status at the county level.”

    For the Civil Air Patrol, the ability to receive METARs gave them awareness of the weather situation where they may have flight crews flying missions if traditional forms of communication were no longer available and they could not receive the current weather information, English said.

    The county status and road closure reports would give STRATCOM and NORTHCOM relevant information about the ground situation, to include major road closures, which would be extremely useful if critical life-saving resources were needed following any future major event that would affect the ability to move military assistance into an impacted area. Also, these reports and tools would become extremely useful in the event of the loss of traditional forms of communication, English added.

    “MARS members also passed on what’s called ICS 213 messages,” said English. “ICS 213s are just a standardized general message form used to convey information. For this exercise, 94 ICS 213 messages were handled by the MARS members and delivered to various recipients across the U.S. including American Radio Relay League officials, Federal Communications Commission, and personnel in the 10 FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] Regions.

    “NETCOM personnel also partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to have short radio messages about this exercise broadcast by the HF time stations with call signs WWV located in Fort Collins, Colo., and WWVH located in Hawaii,” English said. “These messages were received by more than 560 amateur radio operators in CONUS and Canada.”

    “My role for any COMEX is to ensure that Region HF Radio Message Centers are operational on a daily basis and able to handle digital MARS messages originating from the NETCOM Fort Huachuca HF Gateway,” said Billy Pearson Jr., NC4BP, MARS Auxiliarist located in Linwood, N.C.

    “A unique challenge for ‘JulyEx’ happened when four of the six Region HF Messages Centers run by other MARS Auxiliarists were unavailable due to members’ work and family requirements,” said Pearson. “This is a very realistic challenge as we never know when something will happen and we may be called upon to support a mission.” Pearson added that gave the Army MARS leadership a chance to think on their feet and react to the situation and develop work around solutions to solve the problem.

    “All went well according to plan,” said Pearson. “It was a little stressful, but the messages were received and delivered.”

    “This was my first time to function as Operations Officer so there was much to learn,” said Don R. Jarvis, W5SOG, MARS Auxiliarist located in Texas. “My role in ‘JulyEx’ was that of the Operations Officer for the MARS Auxiliarists located throughout FEMA Region 6 (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico). I was responsible for coordinating on-air operations among the other MARS Auxiliarists throughout the region with both Army and Air Force MARS members totaling around 150 members.

    “During this exercise, we implemented the team concept to the extent possible given everyone’s personal schedules. We found the members really benefited from having the same team member every week and are learning to coordinate and work together,” said Jarvis.

    “Army MARS by its nature was not affected by COVID-19 since MARS personnel only work from our homes, and our interactions with other MARS personnel and military units is done over the air and using computer collaboration for exercise planning,” said Jarvis. “This exercise was actually a relief from the boredom of having to work at home due to COVID-19.”

    “For this exercise I served as a critical HF message relay center to move requests for information received from the Fort Huachuca HF Gateway station to our Auxiliarists located throughout FEMA Region 10 (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska),” said Bliss Wheeler, W7RUG, MARS Auxiliarist located in Idaho.

    “I believe the exercise scenarios demonstrated the high volume of information that would be requested and generated during an actual event,” said Wheeler.

    “Prior to and during the exercise, NETCOM HQs for Army MARS planned and conducted a series of online webinars using the All Partner Access Network,” said Wheeler. “The Webinars were very helpful and relevant to the tasks we were training during the exercise. I found this to be a very useful tool to continue to train our members. I learned several things during these webinars and was able to capture valuable resources previously unavailable. Information sharing is what it is all about.”

    For Jeffry A Howington, ADØAK, MARS Auxiliarist located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who served as the J3 Operations Officer for MARS Auxiliarists located throughout FEMA Region 7 (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska), the exercise required a lot of communication with the team each night on what to expect for the next day and assigning members to fulfil tasks.

    “I liken this role to an orchestra conductor of an orchestra, except the players in this exercise were spread out across the four states of our region,” said Howington. “As the region J3, I wanted to keep our U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army MARS members aware of where they could serve best, whether that was running a net, serving as a duty officer, querying amateur radio operators for county status reports, or anything else.”

    “Since this was a training activity, the volunteer region leadership team learned that communicating frequently with members using email, video conferencing, and of course radio messages to resolve confusion or other issues during the exercise was a good thing,” said Howington. “Leaders learned how to better interpret each other and how we and the members react to ambiguity and the resulting stress so that if there ever comes a time where we are activated for real and we only have the radio, we'll know how to work together better.”

    Another MARS Auxiliarist, David Hill, KC2DMC, located in Stone Ridge, N.Y., who was responsible for receiving broadcast messages from the NETCOM HF Gateway station and passing them to region members for action and response, said “During this exercise, I trained on and learned how to better use the messaging software MARS uses to generate, transmit, and track the large volume of messages handled throughout this exercise. Covid-19 has put significantly more pressure on all of us to keep all our communications systems fully operational.”

    “We had very good participation from military stations,” said English. “NETCOM conducts the low power HF competition every March and we encourage units to also participate in the Canadian sponsored international military HF competition run every October. This ‘JulyEx’ was an exercise of opportunity for military stations since NETCOM assets were going to be on the air already, it only made sense to also invite military units to participate as their schedules permitted.

    “The MARS Auxiliarists comments thus far about the exercise are very positive,” said English. “They found the requests for information relevant and challenging.

    “This exercise gave them a chance to continue to hone and refine their operator skills while also expanding the interoperability with the larger amateur radio community,” said English.

    English @WD8DBY said NETCOM is planning to conduct the next exercise in October, with a month-long series of mini-exercises, culminating in supporting a large National Capital Region exercise being run by the Defense Information Systems Agency scheduled for the end of October.
    YL3IM, DE2RVK, W2KYM and 3 others like this.
  2. KQ1V

    KQ1V Ham Member QRZ Page

    Serious question... not to be a naysayer, but is MARS even needed anymore?

    The US Navy killed it off years ago, because it had outlived if purpose and usefulness; furthermore, there was no justification to keep the program going. I'd assert that with the advent of other technologies, MARS as a whole outlived it usefulness with the development of superior technologies over HF and VHF-repeater operations. I am certain to take some heat from the guys who volunteer; I know many are passionate about their volunteer service.

    With the development of today's communications technologies, internet, and etc. the need versus a bunch of guys saying "....this is important!" Come on... guys... let it go.

    DE KQ1V
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2020
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  3. KD2LFG

    KD2LFG XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    PACE is an acronym and methodology used to build a communication plan. PACE stands for Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency.

    Everything is fine as long as the satellites work. Our potential adversaries have developed specific technologies to target them. That is why HF is still important.
    AG7JQ, KQ1V, K0UO and 2 others like this.
  4. K3FHP

    K3FHP XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    I agree completely. Military Communications has become immensely bloated with data and bandwidth requirements unsought of in the Vietnam era. My lingering question is how they will survive without satcom? 'Where oh where does my data go?'. Does anyone have an answer for this? I realize we have come a long way since CW Nd Bardot RTTY, but.........
    AK2QJ and KQ1V like this.
  5. W0PV

    W0PV Ham Member QRZ Page

    First, to clarify, MARS is NOT a general public service group like ARES / RACES in the FCC regulated Amateur or other radio services. MARS was not created by civilians, it was started within and is still sponsored by the US military.

    Navy-MC was the last service branch to establish a MARS, decades after Army and Air Force. Their operational mission was not "killed off" it was simply transitioned to the other MARS service branches. But I can sympathize this being a "bitter pill" to swallow for a former NAVY Radioman OM ;)

    These things happen. It's not too surprising that in the regular cycles of DoD reorganizations a "LIFO" re-ordering protocol was followed for MARS. Navy MARS members were encouraged to simply make the transition too. Details in this link.

    Just as the AAF was transitioned from the Army into its own service branch after WWII. An organizational loss to the Army, but a strategic decision with easily seen longer term benefits. Far more reasonable then the recent unneccesary extravagance IMO of creating a totally separate service branch spin off titled Space Force.

    To answer the posted question more directly, if the DoD didn't think MARS is important and needed, they probably would let it go. However they are increasingly aware of the critical weaknesses of the "high-tech" comms solutions, and the widening gap of technical knowledge and skills within their ranks that could successfully establish and use alternatives. As seen in this previous thread,

    Army Cyber Institute - HF radio can take up slack, ARS contributes
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2020
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  6. K9CTB

    K9CTB Ham Member QRZ Page

    The usefulness of the MARS program was severely degraded when Direct Support for Civil Authority was stricken from their mission. Without allowing state directors the latitude of setting up AUXCOM nets in support of their respective states, MARS cannot be counted on to provide communications support for localized emergencies ... at least not without a huge "chop chain" of "approvals". Many have raised their voices in support of reevaluating this decision, but nothing has changed. It can only be assumed by this former member that MARS now trains for an entirely new mission scenario that is more nationally focused. For those aligned with this new doctrine, the program growth in scope and capability is still a good thing. To make up for the resource loss, state RACES groups will have to step up their qualifications (read: FEMA courses), and their training (on-air exercises). Not every emergency requiring radio communication is gonna be a national one.
    KQ1V and W0PV like this.
  7. WN1MB

    WN1MB Ham Member QRZ Page

    I believe it's fairly safe to assume that we have also developed specific technologies to target satellites of our "potential adversaries". Just sayin' ...
  8. KD6HWZ

    KD6HWZ XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    I don't want to give heat to the original question. It is a very good question that needs examination. I would just like to provide some food for thought.

    Let's go to Oakland, CA 1991 ... In the Oakland hills between the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, CA a series of towers were placed as the location provided excellent coverage for emergency and cellphone communications systems.
    Telephone, Cellular Phone, and Emergency Radio Communications ALL came to a scretching halt on October 20th when a firestorm went up the hillside. The towers were entact, the special equipement inside the comms buildings were entact except for scorching on the outside. What wasn't still functioning were the cables that connected the equipment rooms to the antennas. With this air gap in place fire crews, police, and people in general had no communications in a matter of hours. While an amateur radio station in that area would have suffered the same issue, hams came to the rescue by providing resources slightly outside the area to assist with communications between onsite crews and resource management.

    While the backdrop for the movie "Independence Day" is space aliens, the writers do bring up the impact of disrupting the communications systems used by defense forces around the globe. Morse Code and radio communications provided a last ditch communications path.

    As KD2LFG indicated there are numerous ways, our enemys for one, that even advanced communications systems can fail. It's not that MARS operations is here to save the day as a FIRST line of comms but just like amateur radio (and MARS members must be amateurs as well) we are all here to be Contingency and Emergency options. The Oakland fire highlighted this and put amateur radio back in the planning in California.

    Let's not forget to study history lest we repeat our past mistakes...
  9. N3FAA

    N3FAA XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    Oakland was 20 years ago. A lot of things have changed since then. What stopped the emergency services folks from just setting up their own simplex links? Interoperability. That was the major draw for ham radio in emergency services in the 90s, and even into the very early 2000s. Nobody could talk to anyone else. But interoperability is no longer an issue. All the folks who need to talk to each other can. If crews come from out of town without the appropriate radio, there are stockpiles of them just waiting to be handed out. Most emergency services have access to the exact same mountaintops we have (with far bigger budgets and far better equipment), and the same temporary repeater equipment that we have.

    I was a member of RACES back in the 90s and 2000s, and our necessity very quickly came to an end. OES cut out the middleman, and justifiably so. Why relay through amateur radio and have "shadows" out in the field when you can just use one of the many interop frequencies and talk directly to the person you need to reach? As early as 2001-2002, amateur radio (as in the equipment and frequencies) was pretty much eliminated entirely from the picture. We were using public service radios and frequencies for drills and actual deployments, because...why not? It's still not a bad thing to have extra trained people around who know how to use the radio, and who know how to communicate, to take the burden off of some of the public service folks, but the need for ham radio was simply not there. And that was 20 years ago! Things have gotten so much better during that time as far as public service communications are concerned. The only thing we can do that they can't is HF, and I have never personally seen HF used in a disaster, outside of hurricanes, and even that isn't terribly necessary from a emergency service standpoint.

    As far as MARS, it's always good to have a backup. In my line of work, we took down our HF towers years ago. They figure that if the sat phones don't work, the internet is down, and the phones are down, we probably have a lot more to worry about. Was it a good idea? I don't know. It cost nothing to maintain, the equipment was already paid for. Not really sure I saw the point, but it is what it is.
    KN4FTT and N0TZU like this.
  10. KN4FTT

    KN4FTT Ham Member QRZ Page

    And some adversaries don't have or need satellites...I remember trying to use a sat channel once and because it was a shared satellite the knuckle heads on the other channels would over drive and end up shutting down the rest of the channels...and that was probably more by I think only using those technologies that are controlled by a handful of corporation is at best incompetent and at worst just criminal. One of the brilliant tenants of Amateur radio is that you don't have an infrastructure between your setup and the person your talking to. Sure the FCC governs the bands during normal use...but in a true emergency...that doesn't really matter does it! So we practice like there could be an emergency checking out our equipment and making sure we have power and most importantly...not paying some satellite subscription provider or over paying for a rig that you can't work on yourself! So no...not going to give it up!
    WA7YQA likes this.

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