MARS Transpacific Emergency Communication Exercise Overcomes Obstacles
Everything about the MARS “Pacific Endeavor-13” exercise was simulated, except the power failure in “Pacifica,” the fictitious disaster-battered Asian nation that a small band of amateurs was seeking to assist. The Pentagon and US Pacific Command set up the drill as a test of Amateur Radio emergency support in Asia in the aftermath of Japan’s tsunami catastrophe. MARS, military stations and amateurs collaborated. The blackout occurred at the outset of the US Department of Defense globe-spanning exercise August 25-26. A star of the show was PSK31, which performed well, even in the otherwise grim propagation that prevailed during PE-13.
“We had stations monitoring in the Continental US, Hawaii, Japan, Germany, and Afghanistan,” said Paul English, Army MARS program officer. “There was only intermittent reception in Germany and the US on PSK, but we had a solid connection between Nepal and Afghanistan.” Power was restored in Nepal about two and a half hours into the exercise, enabling “marginal voice communications” from Nepal to Afghanistan and Germany. He said Hawaii could hear, but not talk to, Nepal. Propagation sufficient to support voice modes lasted just a few minutes.
At 9N1AA in Nepal, the real “Pacifica,” two operators forged ahead on battery power, running just 25 W. But a stroke of the other kind of luck provided a low-power digital link to an amateur in Afghanistan. Tim McFadden, KB2RLB/T6TM, a retired Army communicator now helping train Afghan troops as a contractor, had joined Army MARS less than a month before the exercise. McFadden, who spent 21 years in uniform, went for his ham license after watching a fellow soldier work a pileup with only 100 W while they were deployed in Turkey during the 1991 Iraq War. He used a homebrew delta loop and a G5RV installed as an inverted V for his Yaesu FT-897D.
Although the operation lasted less than three hours, a great deal more time went into preparations. Sanjeeb Panday, 9N1SP, had been getting ready for months, using emergency protocols recommended by the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU). His partner in Kathmandu, Satish Khrishna Kharel, 9N1AA, provided the station and did most of the operating.
To avoid unwanted alarm, participants avoided the type of language typical of an emergency. Instead, all communication used terms from the game of cricket. In preparatory exercises, traffic was disrupted by hams seeking to contact Nepal, a “rare one” for many hams. Resorting to abbreviated call signs and dependence upon digital modes during the exercise alleviated this problem, although DX hunters did show up during a brief period of voice transmission.
A preliminary count showed 60 stations took part. Participants, including MARS stations in the US and Japan, used their amateur call signs. “We were able to submit a number of spot info reports to the Pacific Command and responded to a number of information requests in a timely manner,” English said.
Participants learned a lot during the exercise, he added. “Propagation was challenging throughout,” he said. “We had real-world challenges just as one would expect in a natural disaster.” 9N1SP had the last word. Panday, a college professor, messaged McFadden at his relay station just over 1000 miles west along the Himalayas, “I am very thankful to you. You did a great job,” he said. “Right now I am feeling like I have climbed an Everest.” — US Army MARS via Bill Sexton, N1IN