28 October 2020

Everything Old Should Be New Again

Recently, John Rech, W0PV, opened a discussion on the QRZ.com Amateur Radio News forum site pointing to several articles discussing the need for the US Army to get serious about HF communications. You can access the forum thread here (a free QRZ.com account is required). John really didn't form an opinion on the topic, he just linked to several sources in professional and industry publications. But his posting stirred the pot, and within short order there were 11 pages of responses. Some of it was well thought out, and well reasoned. Much of it (too much, in my opinion) was just foolish BS of the 'all I need is my Collins and a wire' sort, which added nothing to the discussion. If you don't have or don't want to sign up for a QRZ.com account you can read the articles at this link.

There's a common theme running through the articles that John links, which isn't surprising since they all share a common co-author or collaborator, MAJ Matt Sherbourne, KF4WZB. Matt is a US Army Signal Corps officer who's become something of an HF cheerleader within the Army. All of the articles discuss the need to re-energize HF radio utilization at the tactical, operational and stragegic levels as a low bandwidth 'retrograde' or back-up capability. The articles make strong points that all of our peer or near-peer advesaries like Russia and China (geeze, it's deja-vu all over again - it's like the 1950's, when all we could talk about were the Russian commies and Red China) have been investing heavily in electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. Russia in particular has taken EW seriously since the 1950's, and today fields one EW company per motorized rifle brigade. That's an impressive (and somewhat frightening) level of capability to put into every brigade, and it reflects just how serious the Russians are about actively disrupting any enemy's communications, data, and command and control networks.

For decades the US military has been lulled into complacency by it's communications and data dominance, achieved mainly throught the use of high bandwidth VHF and UHF line-of-sight systems, and connections through a constellation of 'always available' satellites. 

But in the next near-peer conflict, those communications advantages will evaporate early in the opening stages. Russia, China and other world-stage actors have made it clear that space-based communications and data systems are fair game, and have developed extensive anti-satellite systems. We could see de-orbiting satellite debris lighting up the night skies from coast-to-coast. This will leave us with a critical communications vulnerability - easily jammed line-of-sight terrestrial VHF and UHF systems that are good for, at best, a few hundred miles.

The authors argue strongly for a return to HF as a back-up battlefield system at maneuver levels from battalion all the way up to corps, and beyond. The equipment is already there, it's just a matter of implementation and building expertise. I also believe there's perspective on this issue that the Army ignores because it doesn't mesh well with its core mission of destroying things and vanquishing the enemy. That is, disaster recovery support operations. Disaster recovery support is something that comes up with clockwork regularity - "It's September and hurricane season has just opened, so let's get ready to pull NOLA (or Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands, or...) out of the mud. Again." Most of this response is handled by the various state and territorial National Guards, other state-level organizations, plus a whole host of federal agencies and NGO's like FEMA and the Red Cross. But at some point the active duty US military gets pulled in. 

The US military's ability to move stuff in an austere environment - food, water, medical supplies, etc. - is unmatched. But in places like Puerto Rico (Hurricane Maria) and New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina) both active duty units and state-level National Guard units found themselves unable to effectively communicate with the wide swath of  federal, state and NGO organizations they were brought in to support. Puerto Rico, in particular, became the perfect unholy combination of terrain and complete devastation. All local communications systems were gone, swept away by the CAT IV hurricane winds, and the island's heavily dissected terrain severely limited the line-of-sight VHF comms that the US military had fallen in love with over the decades. Satellite communications circuits were quickly over-loaded. Organizations like the Red Cross, SHARES, the Puerto Rico State Defense Force and a smattering of local Amateur Radio operators quickly pivoted to HF. The Army was left holding the bag, and all that bag contained were extremely expensive and complex VHF line-of-sight radios and satellite systems that were of limited use in the early stages. You know, when comms were most critical.

The Puerto Rico National Guard dragged out a lot of 'unofficial' HF gear that they had picked up along the way via one government program or another, but because the Army hadn't trained on HF communications in years nobody in those units knew how to use it, or how to set up an HF antenna, or run an HF net. It fell to the Puerto Rico State Defense Force, SHARES and local Amateur Radio operators to train the National Guard on HF operations. 

Puerto Rico State Defense Force MARS HF station operating during Hurricane Maria recovery.
They could talk when National Guard and active Army units couldn't.
Credit KM4WUO

The Army will tell you that disaster relief is, at best, a tertiary civil support mission that most active duty units never get involved in, and that you don't build force structure and an equipment and training baseline to support non-military missions. True enough. But battlefield communications is a primary mission, and a resurgent HF capabilitiy needs to be part of that mission. And as a spill-over benefit, the active Army and National Guard gets the equipment, training and other resources needed to more effectively communicate with the rest of the world the next time a hurricane wipes out an island or a coastal city (which will be about a year from now).

W8BYH out