Most of us think of the Military Affiliate Radio System
(MARS) as a provider of phone patches and a handler of messages between servicemen
overseas and their families and friends back home.
That image is especially strong for those who served during
the Vietnam War. They will remember how—with commercial telephone service
limited and costly—MARS patched them through to friends and relatives at home.
In 1969 alone, thirty Air Force MARS stations in Vietnam and Thailand, working
with 200 stations in the United States, put together 210,000 phone patches.
Grand as it is, however, morale-building is a pleasant
fringe benefit. The primary MARS mission is operational.
At its inception in 1948, the MARS program sought to
stimulate the interest of amateur radio operators in military communications
and to provide the nation with a pool of trained people it could call on in an
MARS still does that, but its mission is now global. Under
Department of Defense sponsorship, it provides emergency communications—local,
national, or international—as an adjunct to normal channels. The work covers
crash sites, earthquake areas, and war zones.
The network is a high-frequency backup to defense
communications as well, so MARS has a specified role in various emergency and
contingency plans. The Air Force Emergency High Frequency Network is
currently in the planning stages. It will use mostly MARS assets and create a
reliable contingency communications system.
Throughout its existence, the Air Force MARS program has
provided communications assistance during military operations and emergencies.
MARS played a prominent part in the evacuation of American dependents during
the Middle East Crisis of 1967, and it demonstrated its value again in the
Iranian emergency of 1979.
During the first attack by Iranian militants on the United
States Embassy in Tehran, on the morning of February 14, 1979, normal communications
with the United States and the western world were severed. At 7:00 a.m., the
National Military Command Center in the Pentagon requested the Andrews AFB,
Md., MARS station to make contact with any radio station in Iran it could
By 8:30 a.m., MARS had contact with an Iranian amateur radio
station. For the next two and a half hours, this connection provided a link
between government officials in Washington and the situation in Iran. Most of
the communications that day concerned the welfare of American citizens.
The next day, the Andrews MARS station was finally able to
establish contact with a MARS station in Tehran. For almost a week this channel
augmented vital communications with Iran.
In Southeast Asia, MARS showed the other—and better
known—side of its worth. In Vietnam in 1965, commercial telephone facilities
were exceedingly limited. At most, they could handle thirty calls to the United
States a day from servicemen. With the holiday season approaching, the
military command in Vietnam appealed for help.
High costs and shortages of both equipment and manpower
prohibited installation of additional telephone facilities, but the Chief of Air
Force MARS offered a solution. Portable MARS radio stations could be—and
were—airlifted to Vietnam. By December 14, seven Vietnam MARS stations were
operating, and more than 15,000 messages were processed during the 1965-66
holiday season. By May 1966, Air Force Communications Service (AFCS) had begun
action to airlift five packaged MARS stations to Thailand.
During 1966, more than 14,000 telephone calls were placed
via MARS from Vietnam personnel to friends and relatives in the States. The
MARS network reached its peak that year, with 450 military stations and more
than 11,000 affiliate members.
MARS operations between Southeast Asia and the United States
continued to increase. Alaska became a major relay for written traffic.
Alaskan stations operated twelve to eighteen hours daily, using volunteer
assistance, and passed thousands of messages monthly.
Phone patches from the combat zone averaged more than 10,000
As the war went on, MARS handled a lot more phone
patches—more than 200,000 of them in 1970, for example. In addition to its
morale-boosting work in Southeast Asia, MARS had a significant role in
Operation New Life, the evacuation of refugees in the spring of 1975. The
Hickam AFB, Hawaii, MARS station relayed US-bound messages by radio teletype
through March AFB, Calif., the network control station for the refugee operation.
From April 25 through April 30, the Hickam MARS station handled 497
radio-teletype messages and 114 phone patches related to the evacuation of
Since MARS began operations in 1948, it has often assisted
during natural disasters. When an Atlantic storm devastated coastal areas of
Delaware and New Jersey in March 1962, a MARS van provided mobile
communications between search parties. MARS also proved useful following an
Alaskan earthquake in 1964. Civilian and off-duty military operators began
relaying news of the earthquake soon after it happened. The network further
enabled Alaskans to communicate with concerned friends and relatives in the
continental United States.
More recently, MARS operated under emergency conditions when
hurricane Elena struck the Gulf Coast in September 1985. The hurricane passed
directly over Keesler AFB, Miss., causing some $25 million in damage. Throughout
the storm, however, the base MARS station continued to function.
Later that same month, the first communications link between
Mexico City and the United States following a major Mexican earthquake was
established by the manager of the Robins AFB, Ga., MARS station, who picked up
an emergency call from a MARS radio operator in Mexico City. Once he realized
what the situation was, the MARS manager began transmitting and reached the
American Embassy in Mexico City. Because of the severity of the earthquake,
all telephones in the city were out. The first word of the disaster to reach
the US State Department came from the Robins MARS station.
MARS stations fall into two general categories. The first
is the base or unit station, located on a military reservation. Normally,
military personnel operate these stations during duty hours, using military
In the second category are those stations operated by MARS
members, known as affiliates, participating in the Individual Member program.
They are licensed radio amateurs who volunteer their time and services to
MARS. They augment the military stations by operating the communications
networks when the duty-hour stations are closed. Using their own equipment,
they provide service on voice, continuous-wave, and radio-teletype circuits on
radio frequencies assigned for MARS use.
Air Force Communications Command today manages 300 military
MARS stations; approximately 3,000 volunteer affiliates complete the Air Force
MARS network. There are ten MARS regions worldwide: six in the continental
United States, one in Alaska, one in Central America, one in the Pacific, and
one in Europe.
At present there are four round-the-clock stations,
responsible for the ten MARS regions. These stations are located at Scott AFB,
Ill., Andrews AFB, Md., Travis AFB, Calif., and Rhein-Main AB, Germany. AFCC
is now studying the feasibility of operating a twenty-four-hour station in each
MARS region to provide more effective coverage.
The Amateur Origins
Military amateur radio operations were first organized in
1925 as the Army Amateur Radio System. Networks of radio stations were
established, and civilian amateur members were given intensive instruction in
Army radio procedures and practices. By the beginning of World War II, about
8,000 amateur operators had been trained.
The network was disbanded on December 8, 1941, when the
Federal Communications Commission terminated all amateur radio operations in
the United States. The MARS system as we know it today dates back to 1948. The
advantages of having a cadre of trained radio operators on call for emergencies
were not lost on military planners. Both the Army and the newly created Air
Force wanted to maintain such a capability. Thus the two services jointly
formed the Military Amateur Radio System.
Originally, MARS membership was restricted to military
personnel and reservists, but in 1950 membership was opened to other radio
The MARS mission was expanded in 1952. MARS networks were
authorized to transmit quasi-official communications and messages originated by
the American Red Cross. MARS was now recognized as a supplementary system for
regular communications networks and was to handle official Air Force message
traffic when established systems were not operational. It was also agreed that
MARS stations could assist in civil defense emergency communications networks
so long as that did not interfere with their essential military functions.
Meanwhile, it had become apparent that the word 'amateur"
no longer described the operation adequately. Everyone agreed that
"affiliate" was a better term, so the name was changed in 1952
without loss of the MARS acronym.
In 1959, MARS was tasked to provide back-up for USAF
communications circuits and to respond to domestic emergency plans of numbered
air forces in the United States. Soon thereafter, MARS stations began acquiring
transportable units for mobile radio communications.
When the Air Force Communications Service (now Air Force
Communications Command) became a major command in 1961, it became the single
manager of the Air Force MARS program.
Dr. Larry R. Morrison
has been with the Air Force Communications Command's history office since 1983.
He was previously a professor of history at the University of Nebraska and at
Virginia Tech. He earned his B.A. degree in history at DePauw University and
his doctorate in American History at the University of Virginia. An Army
draftee in 1967, he had his first contact with MARS while serving in Vietnam,
when he "called home" via MARS.
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