Communications Basics for Small Units

As you might’ve guessed we’re going to start from the ground and work our way up discussing some reality based lessons along the way. As a Scout you’re going to be working in a 360 deg hostile environment and usually outside of the overt support of adjacent units. Your communications will reflect this. All follow a pattern to be effective known as the PACE plan. There’s two types of communication- verbal and non-verbal, with two categories, electronic and non-electronic. Rule number one is that in a hostile environment if you do not control both the transmission path and the reception, your communications are not secure. What does this mean exactly? Let’s say you send a signal, any signal. It’s seen and recognized by friendlies, but also potentially by the opposition. It can become a double edged sword if not carefully used.


When planning communications for a Patrol, we use the PACE acronym, standing for Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency. It’s fairly self explanatory. We’ve all heard “one is none, two is one”; four is best. It’s proven science. Let’s take this a step further. You’ll have a PACE plan at the individual level, meaning what’s known as your survival signal kit. This includes anything your team standardizes on, and is limited to your imaginations. It’s primary purpose is getting you rescued by friendlies. The next layer is inra-team. These include any hand and arms signals, near and far recognition signals(passwords, number combinations), and the team’s survival signals. These are developed by the team; there’s no common law standard here, as long as everyone is on the same page and has everything committed to memory. The last layer is intra-unit. A patrol should never be out alone- certain recognition signals should be put into place before the units ever move out. Each of these layers need their own PACE plan. If it seems that this is complicated, trust me, it’s not in practice. We can put it all together in what’s known as a Signals Operating Index(SOI) and studied by everyone during the planning phase of your operations.


Survival signals are just what the name implies; a set signal standard to get you rescued. Options include signal mirrors, arranging rocks, or starting fires in a pre selected pattern. It’s limited by your imagination but keep in mind everyone must be on the same page.

For example, one method that worked very well for me is each member of the patrol carrying a short strip of white cloth tape(known as engineer tape) with a sharpie marker. In the event that we needed to break contact or make a hasty movement to a rendezvous(RV) point, the tape would be left at the (RV) point with a circle drawn for each member of the team. Injured members would be marked with a slash in the circle; KIA team members marked with an X. It’s simple, and it worked for us. For myself, I carried a blood chit, bright orange cloth(known as a VS-17 panel), signal mirror and reflective American flag patch in predetermined, standardized locations on my body. This was team and detachment standard should an individual get lost or separated. As a primer this should illustrate what works. Remember, simpler the better, and you’re limited only by your imagination. As long as it becomes an accepted standard within your group, you’re good to go.


This simple, mundane stuff can be boring. Got it. But it’s vital to know, and is crucial to the patrol. Now we’ll look at everyone’s favorite topic…electronic toys. Just like with non-electronic means, these are layered between individual, intra team, and intra-unit.

On the individual level, the Patrol Leader first needs to examine a couple things. Does everyone need a radio? Most often I say no. The more radios, the larger the electronic signature, the greater the risk of accidental discharge of the radio(yeah, it’s as bad as AD’ing your weapon and I’ll explain why another day) and the increased risk of one of your radios becoming lost and/or captured.

I’ll pause here to drive home a key point- your equipment, each piece of kit, is a precious resource. While everything is expendable when concerning lives, it also should not be haphazardly lost or broken. Do not expect replacements…you are your own resupply.  This is why we tie everything down. Everything.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, who steps out on your patrol should know how to use all of the equipment inside and out(including field programming), when they’re cold wet and tired. There’s no excuse not to. That being said, the Patrol Leader needs a radio for Command and Control purposes to link up with other teams operating in the area. This is what is referenced to in other places as the Squad Radio, and is used on the local level, meaning it’s strictly Line of Sight(VHF or UHF). There’s certain linkup frequencies and callsigns created for each individual patrol, following…you guessed it, the PACE plan. Unless there’s an emergency, typically these communications also follow what’s known as commo windows. More on this later.

Next comes the Radio Telephone Operator(RTO, sometimes referred to as a RATELO) on the team. While everyone should be familiar with radio operation, this man is an expert. The critical task the RTO has is twofold; creating a link during the Commo Window with a higher echelon to send battlefield reports and/or updates, and to troubleshoot or repair equipment in the field. As I said, expect no resupply, expect no help. Most often the Recon Team will find itself outside the range of LOS capabilities, leading them to using HF communications. Near Vertical Incidence Skywave(NVIS) is the technique of choice, to be covered in a later post.


This is your primer on communications planning considerations. As I’ve attempted to drive home, remembering the basics and keeping everything as simple as possible is ultimately the most critical skill. Every member of your patrol should know each means of signal inside and out, when they’re cold wet and tired. The mission success and your lives very well do depend upon it.