Today’s Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) program has changed markedly from what it was just a few years ago. So says US Army MARS Program Manager Paul English, WD8DBY, who contends that MARS must adapt in order to remain relevant and useful to its sponsor, the US Department of Defense (DOD).
“Probably the most significant changes were the Navy’s decision to ‘sunset’ the Navy Marine Corps MARS program and our move to refocus Army and Air Force MARS on providing contingency HF Radio communications support to the DOD and the services,” English said. “In order to focus our support on the Department of Defense, MARS leadership had to rethink, essentially from the ground up, what it means to be a MARS member.” MARS relies on volunteers from within the Amateur Radio ranks. Among other things, recruits receive specialized training in military messaging formats and digital messaging protocols.
While the priority MARS mission is to provide contingency HF communication to support the DOD and the military, MARS also supports communication for combat commands providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, provides contingency communication for Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA), and provides “morale and welfare communications” in support of the DOD.
MARS still provides support for civil authorities, but it must follow DOD procedures for how that support is provided, English explained. “MARS leadership used to actively encourage our members to support civil authorities,” he said, “and that put us in direct competition with the Amateur Radio community as well as with other federal agencies.”
English said that in today’s MARS program, the primary digital protocol is software that emulates Military Standard (MilStd) 188-110A (M110A) serial phase-shift keying, which is compatible with what is used by the military. MARS members may still use Amateur Radio digital modes on working channels, but M110A is the principal mode. There are no plans to transition to digital voice modes.
This year, MARS introduced an online encryption program that allows all digital radio traffic to be encrypted as it is being transmitted. MARS has also expanded its use of automatic link establishment (ALE), although members are not required to use it.
“Our bread and butter remains single-channel HF communication,” English said. “The majority of our members who do use ALE are using the MARS ALE software program. Some of our members who support our national nets are moving to hardware ALE radios.”
The MARS program supports quarterly contingency communication exercises supporting the DOD. These are based on “very bad day” scenarios, where traditional forms of communication are no longer available. “Through these exercises, the DOD — via the MARS community — reaches out to the Amateur Radio community to provide situational awareness information at the county/local level,” English said.
That makes sense to MARS member Bill Sexton, N1IN, who was Army MARS public affairs officer from 2001 until 2014. “At least in theory, the blanketing omnipresence of hams across all 50 states offers a backup for blacked-out regions in the event of a catastrophic attack or natural disaster,” Sexton allowed. “The challenge is mobilizing back-up operations in the total absence of internet, telephone, cell phone, or texting resources.”