radio use in IBCT logo

Non-traditional training for a wireless environment

by LTC Bart Hill

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Signal soldiers must use all available means � traditional and nontraditional � to train and maintain wireless-communications skills. So I�m proposing that amateur radio should be incorporated as a partner for the Signal Regiment to use as a means of gaining, training and maintaining hands-on wireless skills.

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A recent issue of Army Communicator presented an article on using high-frequency radio in the Interim Brigade Combat Team. This article, combined with other information regarding the numbers and types of wireless devices present in the IBCT, sends a clear signal that Signal soldiers must prepare and train for a greatly expanded wireless environment.

To get a glimpse of this expanded wireless environment, look over the equipment list Fort Lewis, Wash., has published on the Web for the IBCT. You�ll find a host of equipment that will require the battalion/brigade S-6 to be involved in their use and employment. Examples are Spitfire, the forward entry device/lightweight FED/handheld terminal unit, the near-term digital radio and its follow-on, super-high frequency triband advanced range-extension terminal, Movement Tracking System, Enhanced Position-Location Reporting System and enhanced Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System.

These are but a few of the systems potentially requiring implicit knowledge of their operational use, frequencies, ranges, modes, etc. When you look at all these devices and at those on the drawing board, the Army expects the S-6 and staff to be virtual wireless wizards on the corps/division/brigade/battalion staff.

Preparing for the expanded wireless environment

Given the Army transformation�s increased use of a wireless environment, the Signal Regiment as a whole needs to find a way to train and maintain knowledge of wireless-specific skills as well as to familiarize Signal personnel with the entire range of wireless operations. If you combine the IBCT requirement for HF radio with the requirements for very-high-frequency frequency-modulation voice and data, plus the expanded use of EPLRS and wireless data networks, you quickly conclude that knowledge and experience in using wireless communications, antennas, propagation, interference and so forth will become extremely important for overall mission accomplishment.

As you can see from the Web, the IBCT equipment list is filled with specialized wireless voice or data communications devices; the S-6 and staff will have to be familiar with all of them when preparing supporting communications plans for the IBCT.

The price of not being prepared

Communications and computer skills are very perishable and must be maintained by continual training � both classroom and hands-on � starting almost immediately after graduation from the Signal school at Fort Gordon, Ga. The price of not having current skills in the field was driven home to me during my assignment with the Multinational Division-North in Bosnia, when one specific operational issue came up that emphasized to me our collective need to maintain individual communications skills for wireless voice and data.

A non-U.S. element of MND-North needed to use HF radio as its primary means to communicate with the U.S. engineer brigade it was temporarily attached to. No one in the engineer brigade knew how to establish such a link, nor did anyone in the division G-6. There were also equipment and antenna issues no one could quickly resolve. Needless to say, the HF net was never implemented and other, less desirable, means were found to do the communications mission in question.

In the case of the MND-North mission, knowledge of near-vertical-incidence skywave propagation, general HF propagation, HF radio operations and HF antennas would have helped immensely, given the terrain and distances involved.

Gaining and maintaining wireless skills

Most Signaleers would agree that the Signal Center�s training courses are the best in the world for communications training; the courses provide entry-level and advanced training in a variety of wireless areas. But Signal officers, noncommissioned officers and soldiers need to continue their education/training once they leave the schoolhouse, especially if they�re not immediately assigned to a unit using the equipment they trained on. Further, education/training may not be obtainable during the duty day or as part of official training. So how do Signal soldiers maintain, even advance, their individual operating skills, knowledge and abilities?

After-hours formal coursework in a classroom is part of the answer, but not all of it. So how do we Signaleers gain hands-on-training and experience in wireless communications on our own? I believe the answer is today�s amateur radio. The Signal Regiment and Signal Center should partner with amateur radio as a way to learn and maintain wireless operating skills.

After my tours as deputy G-6 for 1st Armored Division and as G-6 operations officer for V Corps, I came across a study guide for amateur radio. I subsequently took and passed my novice- and technician-level amateur-radio-license exams. While studying for these tests, I relearned a great deal I�d wished I�d known before those assignments. Some knowledge of FM-operations theory would have prevented at least one �discussion� with the division commander regarding his issues with the division�s FM nets. Had knowledge and experience with FM operations been fresh in my mind, I would have known where to look for answers to problems we experienced.

To help avoid such issues for current and future Army communicators, we need to give our Signal officers, NCOs and soldiers as many options as we can to stay prepared and keep their skills honed. Army transformation will require extraordinarily agile and flexible communications. Our Regiment must be ready and must use any means, traditional and non-traditional, to achieve that goal.

Lifelong learning

There�s no single answer to the question of how we train and maintain skills for Signal Regiment members with regard to the IBCT�s equipment or wireless communications in general. The Signal Center�s concept for the University of Information Technology bears this out. As noted on the Fort Gordon webpage discussing UIT, learning about communications can be done in many forums and should be a lifelong experience. Amateur radio is designed to be a lifelong learning experience and as such fits in closely with UIT proposals. Amateur radio could even be incorporated into UIT as one of the components, just as academia and industry are.

Amateur radio is a learning enabler that meshes with Fort Gordon�s UIT initiative to provide a lifelong-learning environment so Signal soldiers can �refresh and enhance their skills, knowledge and abilities as they progress through their career.� UIT only starts with the schoolhouse at Fort Gordon, however. Through virtual learning the school proposes to allow access to learning resources anytime, anywhere, to refresh and enhance soldiers� skills.

Amateur radio caters to these same goals. Using amateur radio as a learning platform, soldiers who desire to learn more about wireless-communications technologies and how they operate; experiment with wireless technology; and develop new uses, techniques or devices can do this on their own time and with their own resources. Amateur-radio operators do the research, develop the skills, build or buy the equipment, conduct their experiments and operate their own stations. As amateur-radio operators, Signal soldiers can do this, too, all the while learning and honing valuable wireless skills.

Amateur radio today

Many people will be skeptical about my proposal to advance amateur radio as a part of UIT, or even as a legitimate way to help maintain critical communications skills. The reputation of amateur radio is such that many are turned off by its mere mention. However, today�s amateur radio is far removed from years past. In keeping with advancing technology, amateur radio has expanded and changed with the times.

Amateur radio today isn�t just the old amplitude-modulation tube-driven radio connected to a huge tower antenna with the operator � usually pictured as ancient � sitting at his operating position tapping out Morse code. There are indeed amateur-radio operators who match this description. However, this is now the exception rather than the rule. Each time a new technology or communications mode shows up in the marketplace, amateur-radio operators find a way to use it, experiment with it, pass traffic over it and adapt it to whatever communications uses it may lend itself to. Transmitting and receiving data, voice and video via low frequency, HF, VHF, ultra-high frequency and SHF are all being explored by amateur-radio operators today � limited only by operators� imagination, ingenuity and individual or collective skills.

A great example of this experimentation is packet radio, which allows transmission and retransmission of packet data to stations connected via a standard wireless protocol. Amateur-radio operators have packet-radio stations up and operational on virtually every available frequency band from HF through SHF. Some established packet-radio nets reach from south Florida into Canada and beyond.

To build their nets, operators use a computer, a terminal node controller, a radio and an antenna. Combine this with some amateur-radio-developed freeware, and even an entry-level amateur-radio operator can be on the air with a packet-data station.

This is expanding into the realm of Internet protocol and something akin to wireless Internet. As with most of amateur radio, development of wireless-data-type applications is only limited by the ingenuity of the amateur-radio operators, clubs and organizations experimenting with that technology.

How amateur radio parallels the IBCT

Amateur-radio technological experimentation doesn�t stop there. Amateur radio is experimenting with something similar to EPLRS as well as Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below. EPLRS provides tactical commanders and staffs with automated, secure, near-real-time radio communications as well as data-distribution capability between computers. In addition, it provides position, location and navigation reporting of combat elements on the battlefield. FBCB2 uses the tactical Internet � of which EPLRS is a part � to provide situation-awareness data and command-and-control messages.

Amateur radio and IBCT parallels

Communications equipment that amateur radio operates (or experiments with) parallels equipment the IBCT has.

Amateur radio is working with something called the Automatic Position-Reporting System. This system allows near-real-time position reporting of mobile amateur-radio operators to base-station operators or to other mobile operators. APRS is used for real-time packet communications between users and for directly linking messages and email into the worldwide APRS Internet-linked system via the APRS Satellite Tracking and Reporting System, a derivative of APRS.

APRS information is automatically or manually placed onto digital maps of local areas or regions on a computer screen. Information and symbols can be placed on the map or graphic on the screen for all other APRS users to immediately see via APRS data transmissions. This sounds very similar to some aspects of EPLRS and FBCB2, doesn�t it? While not as sophisticated, APRS is constantly being improved, experimented with and used by amateur-radio operators around the world every day. More importantly, though, Signaleers may work with APRS in their off time for fun to expand skills that directly translate to skills needed for real operations.

Other IBCT wireless-communications technologies have parallels in the amateur-radio world. Both IBCT and amateur radio use HF radio and VHF/UHF FM operating skills. HF-radio operation, as an example, is not easy nor �plug and play� by any means. Successful operators must know HF propagation, antennas and antenna construction as well as HF-radio theory.

Some of the necessary operating skills are mentioned in Edward Farmer�s recent article (Spring 2002 Army Communicator). As Farmer points out, even with automatic link establishment, HF operators must know what frequencies are useable at which times of the day to conduct HF net planning. Amateur-radio operators who use HF frequencies for their operations � voice or data � have learned by studying or by experience what works and what doesn�t. The same approach is used when amateur-radio operators construct or install antennas. The methods and means used to design and construct HF antennas directly translates to Signal soldiers� use of them in the field.

HF-radio operation is only one of many Army-related skills amateur radio offers � there are many more.

Becoming an amateur-radio operator

You may ask what the catch is to working in amateur radio. To be a U.S. amateur-radio operator, prospective amateurs must qualify � in other words, pass the necessary Federal Communications Commission-mandated tests.

To receive the first-level license and an FCC-issued callsign, candidates must pass a 35-question multiple-choice test at an accredited test session. These test sessions � given by local amateur-radio clubs � can easily be found via the Internet by doing a search for amateur radio in a given geographic area, such as Augusta, Ga. A quick search of amateur radio in and around Augusta found several amateur-radio clubs that conduct monthly test sessions for anyone wishing to take an exam.

To pass the exams, you need to study. While it may seem amateur radio isn�t as sophisticated or difficult as Army communications � and so any amateur-radio test would be easy for Signaleers to pass � this isn�t necessarily true. Even the best-qualified Signaleer doesn�t know the applicable amateur-radio FCC rules and regulations. Most don�t know how to mitigate radio-frequency exposure risk. Few know the frequencies amateur radio is authorized to operate on. In short, to pass any license tests, you have to know a range of information, including how to operate, where to operate, how to safely operate and how to legally operate.

On the other hand, before anyone turns away thinking amateur radio is too hard, an article in QST Magazine talks about a newly licensed six-year-old. To study and pass, she had a lot of help from her parents, who are both licensed operators. If a six-year-old can pass the technician exam, Signal soldiers will breeze through if they study the material.

After passing the entry-level exam, you�re issued an FCC callsign valid for 10 years, renewable indefinitely. Receiving your initial callsign opens the door to amateur radio. As you progress in your exploration of wireless communications, you�ll eventually want to upgrade to a higher-class license to receive the expanded privileges higher-class licensees possess.

Two higher-class amateur-radio licenses are available: amateur general class and amateur extra class. To operate on HF frequencies, you must obtain a minimum of an amateur-general-class license. This class of license allows the license holder to operate using all available modes on frequencies below 30 megahertz as well as above.

To get this license, you must have already passed the technician-class exam and a 35-question multiple-choice general-class exam. Much more HF theory and operational practice � as well as applicable FCC rules and regulations � are covered by the general-class-license exam. As I write this, to operate on HF amateur-radio frequencies in the United States, operators must also pass a Morse-code exam as part of the general-class-exam process. This sounds a lot more daunting than it really is. The Morse-code test is a simple 10-question fill-in-the-blank test based on what�s heard in a taped five-words-per-minute Morse-code transmission played during a test session.

Even though the Morse-code test is included for the general license, it represents one very small aspect of amateur radio. It doesn�t have the emphasis it has had in years past. Amateur radio has many operating modes; most can be explored with or without a general or higher license.

Amateur radio�s services

Because of the self-developmental nature of amateur radio, it may seem unstructured or free form. This is definitely not true. Amateur radio is a serious undertaking. The FCC considers amateur radio a federally licensed communications service, just as broadcast radio and television are. Strict rules apply, and learning these rules is part of the license process.

There are many reasons these strict rules apply. One is that amateur-radio operators may use their FCC-granted privileges to become part of amateur-radio emergency services and participate as first-responders to disaster. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, amateur-radio operators set up emergency-communications nets for the Red Cross, Salvation Army and others to facilitate help to victims and their families at each affected location. Those operators keep the support nets operating 24 hours a day until they were officially stood down. Operations in New York City went on for more than a month.

Every time a storm causes significant damage to a populated area, ARES personnel are on the scene quickly to help out. Amateur radio provides real-world communications when needed.

Meshing the schoolhouse with amateur radio

ARES is one more way amateur radio lends itself to our profession and potential for enhancing our individual Signal skills, particularly for the future. To successfully operate in the IBCT, Signaleers will need every bit of skill they can acquire. We should encourage the use of all available means to maintain hard-won communications skills.

To promote amateur radio as a path to lifelong learning requires some emphasis during formal training at Fort Gordon. This emphasis can be accomplished in several ways:

Encourage after-hours study of amateur radio by giving extra credit or some other incentive to those who pursue and pass the first-level FCC exam and obtain a callsign during their course work;
Mention amateur radio during class as a means to continue learning communications skills, both at Fort Gordon and at follow-on duty assignments; and
Encourage commanders to sponsor amateur radio in their units.

The goal is to expose soldiers to amateur radio as a viable continuation of formal training.

Conclusion

Communications training, through any means, is important to continued operational capability. The Chief of Signal wrote in Army Communicator�s Summer 2000 edition that one of the �Army�s top priorities is to transform formations that were designed for the Cold War into responsive, rapidly deployable, lethal combat units � capable of full-spectrum operations ranging from peacekeeping and humanitarian missions to decisive operations in a major theater of war.� Given the broad range of skills required of Army communicators this statement implies, it only makes sense that we as the Signal Regiment seek ways to develop our skills both on and off duty. Today�s amateur radio provides a means to train and learn using current technology in a �hands-on� environment, allowing us to develop our skills not only for our careers but also for our lifetimes.

Since we know continued communications training and skills development is critical, you may ask why I, as 1st Armored Division�s deputy G-6, didn�t personally know as much as I could have or should have about HF and FM radio during my Balkans (MND-North) tour. The answer is that I attended the battalion/brigade Signal officers course 13 years before my Balkans tour without consistently using the skills learned in the interim. The key to keeping skills and knowledge fresh and ready for use is to work with them on a recurring basis.

Much of what I learned while studying for my first and subsequent amateur-radio exams was refresher training. That�s precisely the point of this article. Amateur radio, by its very nature, allows participants to learn about, use and even build communications equipment as well as keep critical skills honed that were learned in traditional coursework and unit-level training. Given the rapid growth of the Army�s wireless-communications environment, the opportunity to train and maintain our communications skills must expand beyond traditional means. To that end, the Signal Regiment should embrace amateur radio as a training tool for Signal Regiment members.

LTC Hill is serving in the Secure Voice Services Division, Network Services Directorate, Defense Information Systems Agency. He�s active in amateur radio, holds an extra-class amateur-radio license and is a member of the Alexandria Radio Club, Alexandria, Va., and the Northern Virginia FM Association. LTC Hill�s past assignments include S-3 for 440th Signal Battalion, G-6 operations officer for V Corps, deputy G-6 for 1st Armored Division and two assignments supporting MND-North communications in Bosnia. His awards include the Meritorious Service Medal and Bronze Order of Mercury. He has a bachelor�s degree in business automated data-processing systems from Idaho State University and a master�s degree in education from St. Mary�s College, Leavenworth, Kan.

More reading

Cavanaugh, MG John P.; �Army transformation�; on-line at http://www.gordon.army.mil/AC/sumr00/chsigcmt.htm, Army Communicator, Summer 2000.

Farmer, Edward; �Long-range communications at high frequencies�; on-line at http://www.gordon.army.mil/AC/spring02/lngHF.htm, Army Communicator, Spring 2002.

Fiedler, David; �High-frequency radio returns to transformation Army in brigade combat teams�; on-line at http://www.gordon.army.mil/AC/wintr01/HFIBCT.htm, Army Communicator, Winter 2001.

IBCT equipment gallery; on-line at http://www.lewis.army.mil/transformation/EquipmentGallery/equipment_gallery.htm; May 2002.

�Media hits,� QST Magazine, June 2002.

U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon University of Information Technology; on-line at https://uit.Gordon.army.mil/, May 2002.

Acronym QuickScan
APRS � Amateur Packet Reporting System
ARES � amateur-radio emergency services
EPLRS � Enhanced Position-Location Reporting System
FBCB2 � Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below
FCC � Federal Communications Commission
FED � forward-entry device
FM � frequency modulation
HF � high frequency
IBCT � Initial Brigade Combat Team or Interim Brigade Combat Team
MND � Multinational Division
NCO � noncommissioned officer
SHF � super-high frequency
UHF � ultra-high frequency
UIT � University of Information Technology
VHF � very high frequency

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04/04/12

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