Blog: MARS' Mission: Find a New Home, Continue Long-Standing Tradition of Service

September 17, 2010
By David Trachtenberg

For decades, the military and specially trained civilian amateur radio operators of the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) have provided reliable zero-cost back-up communications to the U.S. Defense Department and armed forces. This civilian-military partnership has served the nation well.

The U.S. military's reliance on sophisticated communications architectures and networks is a double-edged sword. It conveys distinct advantages to the armed forces. Yet the more sophisticated the technology, the more susceptible it becomes to unexpected failures, disruption or destruction from asymmetric threats, such as satellites' vulnerability to antisatellite warfare. Systems do fail and can be compromised. Therefore, reliable back-up communications are critical.

In both war and peace, the military has benefited from a formal partnership with nearly 5,000 volunteer licensed civilian amateur radio operators who form the backbone of MARS. Though little-known outside amateur radio circles, this relatively "low-tech" means of back-up communication has a storied record of service to the military.

In the days before cell phones, e-mail and the Internet, MARS was known for relaying messages of morale from service personnel stationed abroad. The MARS mission has evolved to support the U.S. government's post-9/11 emergency preparedness efforts. As a Defense Department-sponsored program separately managed and operated by the Army, Navy-Marine Corps and Air Force, the system has been recognized by senior Defense Department leadership and was recently reaffirmed in departmental guidance by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).

In December 2010, DoD Instruction (DoDI) 4650.02 upgraded MARS (formerly the Military "Affiliate" Radio System) to an organized military "auxiliary," tasking it with providing contingency radio communications support not only to the Defense Department but also to civil authorities at all levels, in accordance with the department's homeland defense responsibilities. In addition, the secretaries of the military departments were tasked with reporting annually to the OSD on their respective MARS programs.

In a February 2009 SIGNAL Connections article, "Amateur Radio Community Experts Crucial to Emergency Communications," I discussed how MARS could benefit from OSD's active guidance and oversight. Under the DoDI, primary policy oversight for emergency communications initiatives involving MARS was assigned to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration (ASD[NII]). In April 2010, Acting ASD(NII) Cheryl Roby declared her strong support for the MARS program and commitment to broadening its role within the department and the combatant commands.

The NII, however, is being eliminated as a result of the "efficiency initiatives" announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in August. Many of its functions will be transferred to the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics or elsewhere.

Where MARS program oversight will reside after the organizational disestablishment of NII remains to be seen. But wherever it migrates, MARS operators remain ready to fulfill their contingency communications mission and to expand their relationship with the Defense Department and civil agencies.

In addition to providing high frequency (HF) radio contingency communications support to the Defense Department, MARS operators support other elements of the U.S. government. For example, they actively participate in the National Communications System Shared Resources HF Radio Program, which promotes interoperability between more than 100 federal, state and private sector entities in support of national security/emergency preparedness.

MARS members are experienced radio operators who communicate on military frequencies using both voice and digital modes. They voluntarily devote their time and resources to ensure the Defense Department has reliable contingency communications capability if needed, under all types of circumstances.

The system also works with domestic civilian and emergency response organizations at the national, state and local levels to ensure reliable communications links during emergencies. This includes use of a global network of nodes to relay e-mail traffic via HF radio when Internet connectivity is unavailable. Several state and county emergency management offices also use MARS as the link between their civilian emergency management radio nets and military radio nets activated in an emergency.

MARS operators provide support to individual military installations, as well as the National Command Authority. While MARS represents only a fraction of the communications assets and capabilities available to the Defense Department, interest has resurfaced within the military with regard to the HF radio spectrum MARS uses for the bulk of its operations. This resurgence is being channeled into a productive, expanding partnership between civilian radio operators and their uniformed counterparts, an outcome that should be encouraged and nurtured.

With new Defense Department guidance, an expanded mission, a proven record of accomplishments, and a pool of talented and capable radio operators providing their services voluntarily, MARS is a communications asset that has attracted the attention and support of senior Defense Department leaders.

Notwithstanding the uncertainties resulting from internal Defense Department decisions intended to reduce overhead, eliminate redundancies, streamline management and improve operational efficiencies, the value MARS provides to the Defense Department, civil agencies and the nation should remain strong for the foreseeable future.

David J. Trachtenberg, president and chief executive officer of Shortwaver Consulting, is a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy and a member of Air Force MARS and SHARES.

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Re : Title should be MARS needs the RIGHT home!

Considering all the variety of services we can and do provide, as well as collaborations with an alphabet
soup of agencies and emergency services providers: MARS is a strategic asset! Who looks after our collective Strategic safety and security: Homeland Security, specifically FEMA.

Note that back in the Cold War days FEMA ran a system of emergency HF radio stations throughout the CONUS to support contingency communications.

More Comments? Come on guys...

I agree with Maj. Sutphin that MARS is a "strategic asset." Yet of all federal entities involved with homeland security, DoD is arguably still the most capable and effective, which is why it tends to be called upon for functions that are outside its traditional core mission.

The "M" in MARS reflects its status as a "military" auxiliary, and MARS is still best positioned to support the armed forces and Department of Defense as it currently does on a day-to-day basis. For example, MARS operators facilitate contacts and run phone patches between ground stations and military aircraft engaged in air-sea search and rescue, in-flight emergencies, hurricane hunting, and mid-air refueling missions. MARS is being integrated into the communications structure and activities of military installations. And the Pentagon MARS station provides contingency communications to the Joint Staff and the National Military Command Center, actively participating in communications exercises with DoD airborne assets.

Of course this active military relationship doesn't preclude MARS from supporting civil agencies. In fact, the DoDI encourages this. Within OSD, support to civil authorities is under the responsibility of the ASD for Homeland Defense and America's Security Affairs. And the DoDI gives the ASD(HD&ASA) "primary responsibility" for the MARS role in this effort. Migrating MARS policy guidance and oversight to the ASD(HD&ASA) might be one way - but it is not the only way - to provide support to civil agencies while preserving MARS' military and DoD focus and maintaining OSD-level support and attention.

MARS is an operations-oriented service. On a daily basis, the Air Force MARS Phone Patch Net runs official (80%) and morale (20%) phone patches for DoD airborne and ground based units. The joint MARS digital networks provide point-to-point as well as E-mail-over-HF capabilities to its military sponsors and, through the Defense Support to Civilian Authorities plan, to federal and state government agencies. Air Force, Navy/Marine Corps, and Army voice and digital nets are in daily operation and are used in military training exercises as well as for actual events.

MARS subject matter experts routinely volunteer their knowledge in engineering and related fields to respond to requests for technical support from military units with whom working relationships have been established.

Both the MARS program and the DoD would greatly benefit from thoughtful consideration being given to placing MARS under the oversight of the appropriate office that could continue to develop and expand the service that MARS can provide to the Department of Defense.

I can think of only one element missing from David Trachtenberg's thoughtful survey of MARS capabilities. He offers no explanation, or even speculation, as to why the invaluable yet costless resources of the Military Auxiliary Radio System have been left unlinked from the chain of command at a time of preoccupation with homeland defense.

Maybe it's the misperception that "hams" (not the most awe-inspiring of appellationa) are hobbyists, which is to be " preoccupied with a pet idea or cranky obsession," as Merriam-Webster puts it..

Well, admirals are hams: Edmund Peter Giambastiani, Jr., previous vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and John Scott Redd, until recently Director of the National Counterterrorism Center come to mind. Generals are hams: Curtis LeMay, to name an immortal. A Medal of Honor winner, too: Vice Adm. Lawson "Red" Ramage, WWII submarine hero. Lawmakers? There's the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, famously active on the air.

Nobel Prizewinners, too, are hams: Joseph Taylor Sr., astrophysicist and co-discoverer of pulsars (one of three from the U.S.). Also university presidents: Lawrence S. Bacow of Tufts and James Garland, Miami University. Computer pioneers: Steve Wozniak of Apple. And the late Walter Cronkite, of course.

This smattering of stars embellishes a constellation illuminated by tens of thousands of men and women dedicated to public service as a "hobby," and not just in MARS. Their use to homeland security consists of being available in virtually every corner of the country with all sorts of skills valuable in an emergency. MARS adds the elements of military organization, training and networks-in-being.

Alas, we're victims of undetected cost-effectiveness as well as misinformed image. MARS costs the DoD very, very little. So it gets very, very little attention. Just imagine: Several thousand trained communicators who provide their own equipment and pay their own utility costs; who are spread across the 50 states within quick reach of natural disaster or hostile attack anywhere; often prepared to deploy the 48-72 hours it might take a FEMA MERS or National Guard JISCC to be fully emplaced; and raring' to be of service. But we're lost down in the chain of command's sub-basement, a great case study for military non-Transformation
How long it takes DoD to glue the broken pieces of ASD(NII) back together should make another interesting case study.
[William Sexton is a retired newspaper writer and editor, member of Army MARS since 1991, assistant director Region 1 (New England).]

Both Mr. Edmonds and Mr. Sexton raise excellent points. Those unfamiliar with the expanded mission of MARS, its activities, and the capabilities of its volunteer operators may indeed have a misperception, as Mr. Sexton notes, of the valuable contribution it makes to the armed forces, the Department of Defense, and civil agencies. This can lead to an underutilization of MARS assets. Erroneous perceptions are often difficult to overcome. But the additional examples cited by Mr. Edmonds regarding the day-to-day operational activities of MARS provide a good summary of the kinds of support MARS provides and should help clarify its contenporary relevance for those who lack first-hand knowledge of MARS or are unfamiliar with its growing support to a range of U.S. government operations.

I think that part of the problem is two fold:

1) Lack of awareness of what MARS is

2) What do I need to get the training required.

While I have been a radio amateur for almost 30 years, and have equipment and antennas capable of operating in the MARS bands, I have never been asked by people who know that I am a "ham" on base to participate in the program. Furthermore, when I ask about how to get started, I get a blank stare.

Some direct publicity at DoD facilities about MARS and its benefits would help. Where I work, I am not aware of any efforts on MARS, and some people are not even aware of this capability.

Bert Rodriguez, KA2UUP
Mendon MA

Well, here's the problem, at least as exemplified in Army MARS. Although our mission is 99 percent homeland security, we're part of a command whose primary mission is overseas. You know, like Afghanistan. The linkage made sense back in the days of MARSgrams to and from Korea and Vietnam, but who wants free telegrams in the era of e-mail and cell phones? NETCOM/9th Signal Command (Army) has more important matters on its plate than publicizing MARS to the bases.

A lot of members assumed DoDI 4650.02, some three years in the making, would deal with that organizational disconnect and also the anomaly of fielding three separate and uncoordinated MARS organizations (Army, Air Force and Navy-MC). NIMS (the National Incident Management System) firmly mandates unity of command for emergency response.

Darn it, before ASD/NII could transform the DoDI into action, OSD transformed NII out of business. Long-awaited action DOA. OMG.

Until somebody jumpstarts the replacement of NII-or better, puts the issue right to CIO/G6 (Chief Information Officer)-you can take action to join on your own initiative. Google MARS for information on applying. As a columnist on the subject, I know MARS is still looking for new members and actively training for action even while they wait to see who's going to run the show.

As Mr. Rodriguez notes, greater visibility for and recognition of MARS at military installations and within the overall DoD community would indeed be beneficial. The positive April 2010 comments of the Acting ASD(NII) that I referenced in my original post occurred at a Pentagon meeting with the service MARS Chiefs and included representatives from the Air Force A6, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Joint Staff J3 and J6, HQMC C4, DISA, and U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). NII's desire to broaden the MARS civilian-military partnership within DoD was clearly evident, with NII proposing to interface with the various military commands regarding their current use (if any) of MARS assets, to inform them of the full suite of MARS capabilities available to them, and to encourage them to more actively tap into the pool of MARS expertise.

This kind of senior OSD-level commitment to the program was encouraging and could help mitigate the problem Mr. Rodriguez highlights. How this will now advance, and who will advance it in the wake of NII's disestablishment, remain to be seen.

The existence of multiple MARS programs separately managed and operated by the Military Departments should be no more of an impediment to the efficient utilization of MARS resources than the existence of multiple service branches is an impediment to operating jointly. An Incident Commander will not wonder whether to call the Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marines, but will look to DoD for support after an incident. It is DoD's job to efficiently and effectively coordinate and manage the military response. The same principle applies with respect to MARS, which is a DoD asset, and is reflected in the DoDI. While NETCOM/9th Signal Command may not be the ideal home for Army MARS, as Mr. Sexton suggests, greater coordination between the three services' MARS programs can be achieved through higher level guidance and direction within DoD.

I first became a MARS affiliate in 1965 or so; the ancient past as far as data transmission is concerned. I remember AFCEA conventions on Connecticut Ave. N.W where manufacturers would display HF power RF amplifiers and exotic wide band analog receivers. Much or our current day Federal and military work force have no experience or memory of such devices and if they do, the memories are filed away with those of signal flags, flashing lights, Morse code, cork life preservers, and other archaic and outdated technology.
Over the years, MARS has evolved and, as eloquently stated her by others here, offers a reliable message system of thousands of message (data) insertion and distribution points throughout the world.

With the disestablishment of ASD NII, senior defense officials are busy finding new homes for assets, responsibilities, and personnel. MARS is one of the assets, and, as we readers of this series know, an extremely valuable "Auxiliary" system that will serve the nation well in any emergency. The question to be answered is: Which DoD office should hold 'oversight' responsibilities, and which office should have operational control.

If I were asked, I would recommend that MARS be assigned to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
Due to the international scope of MARS responsibilities, operational oversight becomes a bit tricky. Much of the CONUS oversight for the three Service programs might be provided by the Assistant Secretary of Defense - Homeland Defense and American Security Affairs. Things get a bit fuzzy outside the US homeland and I welcome any ideas.

NII has its hands full complying with the OSD memo disestablishing ASD NII. My sense is that the transfer of MARS is not on their radar at all.

I entered a time warp when checking out the organizational chart on the OSD Director of Administration and Management web site. Suddenly I was back in the days of ASD (C3I). The warp lasted until I noticed that the last update was March 2008. Seems like the more things change the more things stay the same.

In my first paragraph, I mentioned cork life preservers. Does a drowning person care if the life preserver thrown to them is "state of the art" or do they just want to be saved?

To answer this question in the context of MARS we must first decide what MARS is not and what it can not do. Only then can we intelligently and convincingly define what MARS is!

I'll start by stating MARS is not a replacement for normal DoD communication resources.

Your turn.

Peter F. Kean is the Director of the Neuro-Linguistic Programming Institute of Washington, D.C. He is a member of Navy MARS and served as a volunteer for MARS within OSD C3I

Mr. Kean's observation that MARS "is not a replacement for normal DoD communication resources" is a useful reminder. Per DoDI 4650.02, MARS is a military "auxiliary" intended to provide "contingency radio communications support" to the DoD Components and U.S. government operations. It can be challenging to focus necessary attention on back-up capabilities when a variety of more technologically sophisticated primary means of communication exist. Nevertheless, DoD is fortunate to have a qualified, well-trained, and dedicated "reserve" of knowledgeable and capable volunteer MARS operators willing to serve the nation in this capacity. Effectively utilizing this capability is the paramount issue. Placing MARS oversight within the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy organization, as Mr. Kean recommends, would certainly be one way of maintaining senior OSD-level supervision that could facilitate a fuller integration of MARS' contingency communications capabilities into the Department's C3 operations.

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