The joint force is regularly called upon to conduct operations below the threshold of critical combat, often in response to escalating tensions or natural disasters. In such cases, regularly available communication networks are usually not available. The Internet, cell phones, and other networks that depend on terrestrial facilities are becoming overloaded or disabled. As a result, crisis action planners are hampered in their efforts to coordinate with key officials in the field and are limited in the amount of local information they can gather to support timely and appropriate action.
While such complex and brittle networks are subject to rupture, organic means of communication remain available and abundant – if only planners know where to look and how to access them. Ham radio, often referred to as amateur radio, is practiced by hobbyists and enthusiasts around the world. And they are often the experts as professional military communicators and signal men. The term “amateur” does not refer to their technical acumen, but to the private, non-commercial use of the assigned radio bands by those who hold amateur radio licenses. While voice communication mode is the most common use of amateur radio, such operators can also send and receive text, images, and data. Based on technical specifications and applied techniques, amateur radio operators can send and receive communications worldwide and across multiple bands.
The Department of Defense has a mechanism to hire amateur radio operators and connect joint planners to key nodes in the field of operations. The Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) is a Department of Defense-sponsored civil amateur radio aid program that actively supports military operations. In particular, military crews can continue to use MARS phone patches over radio frequency radios when satellite communications are not available.
However, the use of MARS remains a largely unknown or niche skill that planners typically encounter at the moment of crisis and which is then poorly implemented. Awareness of MARS was further hampered by the closure of MARS components of the Navy and Marine Corps in 2015. Only the Army and Air Force maintain formal ties with MARS. As a result, while the department has the resources to establish communications networks in denied and degraded command and control environments, this resource remains underutilized. Rather than harvesting an organic communication resource during such crises, joint planners struggle with limited communication and intelligence challenges as they struggle for access to high-demand, low-density resources like satellite phones.
The joint force can correct this inexpensively and easily by making joint planners aware of amateur radio networks and giving military radio operators better access to amateur radio training. In communications and signal planning courses across the services, instructions on MARS and how to use it can be incorporated into the training schedule in just 15 minutes. Field radio operator courses can similarly provide an initial introduction to amateur radio, coupled with the main lesson that local nationals are likely to be using amateur radio in any setting they may be deployed in. Commands can sponsor local chapters of amateur radio enthusiasts, use on-site spaces to practice amateur radio techniques, and provide a way for operators to acquire an amateur radio license. The multitude of annual amateur radio competitions can provide military operators with yet another incentive to hone their amateur radio skills while improving competency in their mission-critical tasks.
As future threats evolve, everyday communication architectures become less reliable in times of crisis. It is imperative that joint communication planners turn to amateurs in order to remain experts. By raising awareness of the use of MARS and training military radio operators in amateur radio technology, those responsible ensure that their planners are proactively using the organic amateur communication networks that are available around the world.
Maj. Brian Kerg, USMC, is a Marine Corps officer and writer currently serving as the fleet amphibious communications officer, US Fleet Forces Command. He is a non-resident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University. Follow him or contact him @BrianKerg.