July 19, 2019 ... Central U.S. Time

Military Affiliate Radio System - MARS

Posted or updated 09.28.08 by Glenn Miller

I guess the Vietnam war saw the most use of MARS for phone patches and message traffic from GIs in the war zone to their friends and family back home.  Senator Barry Goldwater was an amateur radio operator (call sign K7UGA) and, on his ranch in Arizona, he built a well equipped station that was used as a gateway for phone patches from the Pacific to points stateside.  He had a cadre of volunteers operating the station nearly 24/7 (or at least when the bands were open).  I’ve read his station ran 700,000+ phone patches and Barry footed the telephone charges for all calls going to phones in Arizona.  I had the pleasure of talking to Barry on AFMARS.  His MARS call was AGA6BG and he was visiting the Pentagon MARS station and checked into one of the radio nets.

Those were the days.  Today, MARS is becoming closely aligned with FEMA.  Soon the three MARS programs (AF, Army and Navy/USMC) will be redistricting to conform to FEMA regions.  I’m currently in AFMARS Region 4, but will be in Region 6 under the master plan.

And technology has not been forgotten in MARS.  Perhaps 10 years ago nearly all voice traffic (messages) was transitioned to digital transmission modes (first radio teletype, then newer, more reliable modes such as AMTOR and PacTOR.  Army MARS is leading the way in developing new digital techniques.  And the Internet hasn’t been left out of the equation.  Programs such as WinLink2000 provide in interface between radio and Internet traffic movement.

I’ve been an individual (affiliate) member of MARS since 1974 when we relocated Augsburg’s AFMARS station equipment to Rimbach after the 6910th Security Group started packing up and out.  And I’ve been an active member all these years except for the 2 1/2 years I was in Moscow and was deprived of operating.  I still check into the region MARS nets nearly every evening and on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but it’s not like it used to be.  Years ago, you’d check in and the net control station (NCS) would frequently have message traffic waiting to be forwarded to you for local delivery.  These days, checking into the net serves to log required “participation” time to keep your MARS membership active.  Twelve hours per quarter are all that’s required to remain a member.

My guess is, if MARS survives, the three MARS programs will be melded into a single program and the mission will continue to be contingency communications capability, but the entity supported will more likely be FEMA and DHS rather than DoD.  We’ll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out.

Once bright spot in all of this.  About 6 years ago all MARS programs dropped Morse code (CW) nets in favor of the faster digital mode nets.  The Army MARS program recently reinstituted CW nets and Navy/USMC is planning to bring them back, too.  AFMARS only recently got a new director and I think he’s trying to get oriented, but there will be pressure from many of the old timers who lived and breathed CW to bring the mode back to AFMARS as well.  Maybe someone watched Independence Day and thought, “Yeah, we need someone who can send and receive CW in case we’re invaded.” 

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Glenn Miller

About Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller served in Rimbach from June 1972 until June 1975. He retired from the Air Force in 1994 following a series of enviable tours, both overseas and stateside. He now works as a civilian at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, and blogs here about amateur radio and other topics.

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