Radio amateurs in the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) concluded an unprecedented 48-hour marathon exercise November 5 that linked the continental US, Hawaii, Japan, Europe, and Canada during a simulated breakdown of normal communication systems, including the Internet. For the first time in a nationwide test, W1AW staffers activated the Maxim Memorial Station Army MARS station AAN1ARL at ARRL Headquarters to facilitate input from the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES) community.
“Well done by all,” messaged Army MARS Chief Stephen Klinefelter, when the test was concluded. The exercise involved the transmission of hundreds of encrypted messages via HF radio. The traffic carried “situational awareness” information needed by a joint Department of Defense entity responsible for responding to a national crisis situation. Many operators, net control and relay station members in particular, put in long hours maintaining the seamless connection.
Joining Army MARS in providing backup communication for the US Department of Defense entity were members of the Navy-Marine Corps and Air Force MARS branches. Elements of the National Guard, FEMA, the Transportation Security Administration, and selected state authorities also participated.
During the final day of the exercise, MARS members also acted on a real-world request from DoD to be prepared to monitor International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) emergency frequencies as Typhoon Haiyan appeared poised to develop into a category 5 storm and strike the Philippines.
MARS members were given strict time limits for providing the requested information in order to receive credit for completing their message handling. These statistics will be used to evaluate how quickly and efficiently the multi-branched network might be able to handle information requests and responses under conditions mirroring an actual catastrophe. Poor propagation, particularly in the overnight hours, added a realistic touch.
A formal after-action report from Army MARS Program Officer Paul English, WD8DBY, and Operations Chief David McGinnis, K7UXO, in still in the works, but Klinefelter saluted the overall performance.
“You have just completed the most complex and longest MARS communications exercise in recent history,” he said. “I want to thank each of you for participating and devoting long hours to make this exercise a success. The dedicated efforts to maintain effective nationwide contingency communications support demonstrated by all participants were exemplary.”
Discussions between ARRL Headquarters staff, US Army MARS Region 1 leadership, and English preceded the exercise. Eastern Massachusetts was chosen for the first test of full-scale collaboration between ARES and MARS, and Tim Wortley, KQ1Y, the MARS state director for Southern New England, worked out the details with Eastern Massachusetts Section Emergency Coordinator Rob Macedo, KD1CY. Wortley said he received more than a half-dozen responses to inquiries he’d put into the system. Other tactical voice messages on amateur VHF repeaters were forwarded to MARS circuits. The ARES test was separate from the activation of the MARS station at W1AW.