Disruptive by Design: Ham Radio in C2 Denied and Degraded Environments

April 1, 2021
By Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC

The joint force is regularly called upon to conduct operations below the threshold of decisive combat, often in response to escalating tensions or natural disasters. In such contingencies, regularly available communications networks are commonly unavailable. The Internet, cellphones and other networks dependent upon terrestrial facilities become overloaded or knocked out of service. Consequently, crisis action planners are handicapped in their efforts to coordinate with key officials on the ground, as well as limited in the amount of local intelligence they can collect to support timely and appropriate action.

While such complex and brittle networks succumb to fracture, organic means of communication remain available and abundant—if only planners know where to look and how to tap into it. Amateur radio, often referred to as ham radio, is practiced across the globe by hobbyists and enthusiasts. And they are often every bit the expert as professional military communicators and signalmen. The term “amateur” refers not to their technical acumen but to the private, nonbusiness use of allocated radio bands by those possessing amateur radio licenses. Further, while voice communication mode is the most common use of ham radio, such operators can also send and receive text, images and data. Based on technical specifications and applied technique, ham radio operators can send and receive communications across the world, across multiple bands.

The Defense Department does have a mechanism by which to employ amateur radio operators and connect joint planners with key nodes in the area of operation. The Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) is a Defense Department-sponsored civilian auxiliary of amateur radio operators that actively supports military operations. Notably, military aircrews remain capable of using MARS phone patches through high frequency radios when satellite communications are unavailable.

However, use of MARS remains a largely unknown or niche capability, one that is usually stumbled upon by planners in the moment of crisis and then poorly implemented. Awareness of MARS was further hampered with the closing of Navy and Marine Corps MARS components in 2015. Only the Army and Air Force retain formal ties to MARS. Consequently, while the department has the means by which to establish communications networks in denied and degraded command and control environments, this resource remains underutilized. Instead of harvesting an organic communications resource in such crises, joint planners struggle through limited communications and intelligence challenges as they fight for access to high-demand, low-density resources such as satellite phones.

The joint force can rectify this cheaply and simply by providing awareness of ham radio networks to joint planners and facilitating greater access to amateur radio training for military radio operators. Communications and signal planner courses across the services can integrate instruction regarding MARS, and how to employ it, in as little as a 15-minute block from the training schedule. Field radio operator courses can similarly provide an initial exposure to amateur radio, paired with the key lesson that local nationals in any environment to which they might deploy will likely be employing ham radio. Commands can sponsor local chapters of amateur radio enthusiasts, use white space in the field to practice amateur radio techniques and provide a path for operators to pursue an amateur radio license. The wide variety of annual amateur radio competitions can further incentivize military operators to improve their amateur radio skills while inevitably improving proficiency in their mission-essential tasks.    

As future threats continue to evolve, day-to-day communications architectures will become more unreliable in times of crisis. It is imperative that joint communications planners turn to ‘amateurs’ to remain experts. By building awareness of how to employ MARS and training military radio operators in ham radio technique, leaders will ensure their planners are proactively leveraging the organic amateur communications networks that abound across the globe.

Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC, is a Marine Corps officer and writer currently serving as the fleet amphibious communications officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He is a nonresident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity. Follow or contact him @BrianKerg.

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Agreed as I work with the USAF for Cyber Engineering. Problem is the navy and USMC lost interest as they only considered us as Phone Call agents. Funny how the USN used a ham communications mode for a weapon system. I suspect what made the decision were civil servants without any military service, a lack of applied engineering in industry (only acquisition types) and the USN CIO office (really need to put these System Security types back under the System Engineering discipline).

The USAF MARS network is easy to feel a part of, as the US Army version is riddled with former NCOs making their networks hard to master unless one was a former Army radio MOS type. None the less, with too much reliance on the dated ALE mode, it still displays some real leadership in using Hams as a backup and integrating them into their exercises (wake up Navy!)

My radios often outstrip capabilities of the military versions, and yes, we can use encryption with these transceivers. I would like to see (and I would sponsor being an old Mustang Aviation Engineering Officer and present DoD Contractor) the USN and USMC open up their eyes and bring back the MARS network. Really irks me to see the Army one-up on us Squids and Jarheads !!!

One of the reasons for the Amateur Radio Service is emergency communications and public service. MARS dovetails neatly between these two facets of "ham" radio. Maj. Kerg does a fine job of describing how military planners can leverage hundreds and thousands of licensed amateur radio operators throughout the country and the world at large. I have personal experience with MARS as user of the service long before I became a licensed amateur myself. That is a story for another time. Great article, Maj. Kerg. I've requested permission to use the article on our local radio club website. 73s N5VRE.

Glad MARS is still active.
I ran a lot of Patches way back in the late 60's.
Also on the Hospital Ship HOPE doing same in 1970. Had NAVY MARS callsign NNN0TWT I seem to remember. Last time used while REO on USNS ship.s (Iraqi Freedom )

Very nice amateur radio and MARS article that appears well researched and eloquently written. The USN and USMC will likely be back if the proverbial mush hits the fan. Over time I have observed that selfless service runs through the blood of most ARES and RACES participants and a good bit of them cross over to support MARS. It is hard to describe other than my reflection that their dedication is there more than I have observed in any other country. Although MARS ranks are now thin, in times of crisis especially lasting a longer period MARS ranks would likely swell and hopefully the services utilizing them. To our veterans current or retired, Thank You for your service. 73, de W3JMT

I am a retired Broadcast Engineer, and one of my responsibilities was the Emergency Alert System.
Like ham and MARS, I found that the politicians had no clue about our capabilities and a real disdain for our "antiquated and un-cool" technologies.
They didn't know, and really didn't care. And it often showed, as their "modern digital apps" failed them, time and again.

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