Headquartered at Fort Huachuca, the Military Auxiliary Radio System, or MARS, is the only global gateway of its kind in the continental United States. Assigned to Network Enterprise Technology Command, the program provides Department of Defense, or DoD sponsored emergency communications on a national and international basis as an adjunct to normal communications. Additionally, MARS provides auxiliary communications for military, civilian and disaster officials during periods of emergency and assists in effecting normal communications under emergency conditions.
While the MARS station has its own personnel, the program consists of volunteer licensed amateur radio operators trained in National Incident Management Systems, military communications procedures and the way the networks collaborate. According to David McGinnis, Army MARS operations officer, there are nearly 1,600 volunteers. Among other agencies such as the National Guard, Army Reserve and other civilian government stations there are approximately another 800 people involved.
“There’s an awareness that the MARS network reaches into every community in America that makes it unique. This is an organized and command-driven network,” McGinnis said.
Operators communicate over radio frequencies described as high frequencies, or HF radio frequencies, also referred to as short wave radio. Outside the installation facility, there are 12 active antennas and nine circuits which run in and out of the station. MARS station operators will send out three broadcasts a day, often with coded messages which need special software to decode.
One of the biggest functions the MARS station carries out is emergency exercises on both national and state levels.
“I think it’s important to train, to make sure the basic communications tools will work for you if the infrastructure fails,” said Juanita Portz, Army MARS communications systems operator.
Nov. 4-8, MARS will participate in its next exercise with DoD.
“In November we’re exercising our full capabilities, we’re collecting information for the DoD, environmental information in local areas across the United States, so we’re going and getting that, we’re bringing it back, formatting it, sending it back to the DoD,” McGinnis said.
He added that within the exercise, personal messages will be sent to garrison commanders around the world. MARS will also send information to the United States Pacific Command and National Guard units.
“What I’m seeing now is … we’re getting more active with the military, which is a good mission,” McGinnis said.
MARS began in 1925 as Army Amateur Radio System, or AARS under Capt. Thomas Rives, Army Signal Corps. His goal was to enlist volunteer amateur radio operators to train Soldiers in radio as well as radio research and development to improve radio equipment within the Army.
From the time the United States enlisted in World War II until 1946, the program was suspended due to so many AARS members fighting in the war. In the 1950s, the program was no longer Army exclusive. Renamed MARS, stations could be found world-wide.
Historically the Fort Huachuca MARS is best known for telephone patches, meaning a telephone call can be made over the radio. MARS made telephone patches for Soldiers during Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars.
Today with satellite and Internet capabilities, telephone patches are a mission of the past, however, the station can still perform them. McGinnis mentioned telephone patches were made last Father’s Day between the Coast Guard aboard the Cutter Mohawk and their Families.
“We had a lot sailors who were calling and talking to their kids and so we had the kids on the radio,” McGinnis said. “A caller from the Mowhawk called his father, and recalled how his father calling him on a MARS phone patch when he was a kid.”
McGinnis stated that the interest in high frequency radio is returning. He said there’s an increased awareness of threats to communication infrastructure and right now there’s a high cost associated with satellite. Although this installation’s facility is considered the country’s premiere MARS station, NETCOM is looking to reinstate another one on the east coast.
With this renewed interest, Fort Huachuca’s MARS station is starting a new initiative with Buena High School’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps to help the students learn about amateur radio.
“We’re working on a delivery of instructional product, so it can be facilitated out [at the school] but still be consistent, so this is kind of a pilot project,” McGinnis explained.
For those interested in learning more about the MARS station, visitors are welcome to stop by. The station can also accommodate any Soldier or Department of Army civilian who is Morale, Welfare and Recreation eligible and has an amateur radio license to operate a radio within the station.
Fort Huachuca’s Army MARS station is located in Building 90549 on JIM AVENUE. For more information, call 533.7072.