Army MARS Demonstrates ALE, Courts Young Volunteers at ARRL National Centennial Convention
The “test range” was a plain-vanilla office table inside the big exhibition hall. At one end sat a PRC-150, one of some 10,000 or so back-pack HF radios carried by US soldiers, its whip antenna extended and ready for action. At the other end was an innovative commercial radio that had the look and feel of a late-model Amateur Radio. This odd pairing was Army MARS’s high-tech contribution to the ARRL’s National Centennial Convention in Hartford, Connecticut: An on-the-air, real-time demonstration of Automatic Link Establishment (ALE).
Program Officer Paul English, WD8DBY, and Operations Officer David McGinnis, K7UXO, took turns introducing ALE to a steady procession of visitors to the convention on July 19. The point was not just to show off ALE but to attract new — and younger, more technology-savvy — volunteers to MARS. At the three-service MARS Forum that afternoon, Region 1 Director Bob Mims, WA1OEZ, underscored the new technology with a slide show, “This is not your grandfather’s Army MARS.”
“We provide National Guard units with training on proper use of HF radio, we provide phone patches for Guard units to coordinate setting up their satellite links. We operate multi-mode digital, and in voice — and still some CW, too.,” Mims told the forum. “We operate on national and international scale to provide contingency communication for the military and others, both by voice and digitally, sometimes encrypted, and we are looking for more hams to join our ranks.”
MARS is hoping to attract members of the rising generation of technology-minded men and women interested in applying their IT skills to disaster recovery, as well as younger volunteers who hold Amateur Radio tickets but want to develop their operating skills. Army MARS Headquarters in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, had both groups in mind in dispatching the ALE equipment to Hartford.
Modern auto-linking is straightforward, whether by hardware or using the software modem developed for ordinary ham gear by Steve Hajducek, N2CKH, and his tri-MARS team. At the convention, one tap on the keypad of the state-of-the art “man pack” started the 20 W rig sending connecting pulses and then negotiating the optimum path to the second transceiver. The process, which involves no tuning, can take around 10 seconds, even if the intended receiver is oceans away instead of just a few feet. In a catastrophe, interoperability could require exchanging traffic with the PRC-150s carried by arriving rescue forces.
The Army MARS team took note of the ARRL’s 100th birthday, pointing out that both MARS and the League were partners in creating Amateur Radio’s role in emergency response. “The ARRL was barely 10 years old when the US Army, short of funds to invest in the new technology of radio, called on hams for help,” a commemorative leaflet recounted. “The League immediately stepped forward to help. That’s when MARS was born. The ARRL centennial is a happy occasion for us, too!” The MARS program will celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2015.