Morse Code Returning to MARS Toolbox
After more than a dozen years, Morse code will soon be returning to Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) nets. In the mid-1990s, the Department of Defense (DoD) did away with CW operation across the board -- including MARS nets -- as automatic systems such as the Internet, SATCOM, cell phones and e-mail became available and the payroll cost of manual operators escalated.
MARS members who had embraced CW operation knew that Morse code, the most "digital" mode of all, was an important tool for Emergency Communications. After Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the need for more robust -- not to mention quickly deployable EmComm resources -- some MARS members led a campaign to resume CW operations on their nets. This resulted in the Chiefs of Army MARS and Navy-Marine Corps MARS calling for a census of interested MARS members as the first step to reactivating regular training nets.
Army MARS Chief Stu Carter told his members last October, "We are pushing for the Department of Defense to use CW again." He designated CW veteran Grant Hays, WB6OTS -- Operations Chief for Army MARS at its Fort Huachuca, Arizona headquarters -- to coordinate the effort. Like many hams who are skilled at Morse code, Hays, an ARRL Life Member and active ARES/RACES participant in Arizona, has taken a leading role in introducing new technology such as WinLink.
Army MARS launched a limited test of CW nets in four Midwestern states in late 2007. During a DoD interoperability test this past March, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) station used it to communicate with Ft Huachuca.
In announcing the return of CW to MARS nets, Navy-Marine Corps MARS Chief Bo Lindfors cited an emergency where CW was sorely missed: "I remember the  Northeast Ice Storm shortly after I became [Navy-Marine Corps MARS] Chief and the unnecessarily lengthy effort by all of southern New England to receive one voice EEI [Essential Elements of Information Report] from a northern New England member whose antenna was covered in ice and lying on the ground. It took more than an hour when CW could have handled it in a few minutes. As more and more of our members enter MARS with no Morse code experience, I am afraid that we will soon lose that skill set if we don't do something."
Army MARS Chief Carter said the imminent return of CW will not replace modes such as WinLink, Pactor 3 and MT63. "Our CW nets will focus on maintenance of skills and will necessarily be limited by the shortage of available frequencies and trained members," he said. "But if members want to add CW to their skills, the nets will be available for training."
MARS's primary mission is providing auxiliary communications to the US Military and emergency communications to such national agencies as FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. MARS is also available to assist state and local emergency response agencies, and public and select private agencies such as the Red Cross. On a day-to-day basis, MARS members are available to handle messages to and from servicemen and women on active duty, in the reserve or guard, or retired, as well as certain employees of the federal government who are stationed outside the US. The three MARS programs -- Army MARS, Air Force MARS and Navy-Marine Corps MARS -- consist of a volunteer force of more than 5000 skilled Amateur Radio operators.