From A Reader: AmRRON T-REX 18 AAR

AmRRON (American Redoubt Radio Operator’s Network) holds an annual grid-down exercise, having its members relay traffic and reports for a disaster scenario. In my view its what the ARRL’s Field Day actually should be, but that’s another story. Mauser sends the following:

First, I'm not sure how familiar you are with AMRRON, so a quick run down of their SOI is as follows: Nationwide voice and digital traffic nets on 30min windows, every 6 hours upon activation. This is followed by a rolling regional net every 6 hours consisting of 30 min voice followed by 30 min digital comms windows, which is supposed to be followed by 2m local voice and digital nets and dissemination of relevant traffic to the unlicensed public by the Channel 3 project (FRS/GMRS, CB, MURS) and the Black Echo project (low power FM broadcast). I really don't think there is anything else like AMRRON in existence. They place a heavy emphasis on digital comms, and have developed the use of custom forms on FLMSG, FLAMP, and this year used FSQ to coordinate between stations holding traffic. They also introduced the use of regional Signals Centers (SIGCENS) who gathered traffic from their areas and distributed it within their respective region, as well as to the National SIGCEN at AMRRON HQ. The AMRRON SOI provides frequencies, comms windows, modes of digital operation, and even authentication (which I actually saw being used this year for the first time).

As for the AAR, voice nets were completely out of the question. I was on frequency for 80% of the voice nets over 3 days and either the NCS was garbled, completely unreadable, or the net failed to be established altogether. I did communicate with a handful of AMRRON operators who were trying to check in, but overall the voice nets were a total failure. Digital was a different story. Despite the poorest band conditions I've ever seen, we were able to pass traffic and communicate digitally. I personally passed 32 messages over the airwaves, primarily received from the NC SIGCEN, which was generally considered the best SIGCEN of the exercise. FSQ really shined this weekend as a robust digital mode for small groups of operators coordinating their traffic handling.

From a tactical communicator's point of view, the use of custom forms in FLMSG and FLAMP really put into practice your lessons on SALUTE, SALT, and other types of reports. I'm going to spend some time creating custom forms for my Scout Team for SALUTE/SPOT, SITREP, etc. With the right mode, those reports can be transmitted very quickly, and using FLAMP missing pieces of the report can be quickly requested from the receiving station and transmitted in an almost automated fashion. This really adds a robustness and almost a layer of encryption (FLAMP requires FLDIGI, the appropriate custom form in FLMSG, and FLAMP running) to traffic transmission. Yes, the Big Boys can decrypt and DF it, but following all other rules, and implementing OTPs where applicable can add additional layers of encryption.

Strategically, we need a greater number of devoted SIGCEN operators. Your AO was well covered, with SIGCENS in VA (I received a real world piece of traffic from them updating National SIGCENT on the flooding that was affecting their operations), SC, and NC (X4XXX- the best SIGCEN of the operation IMO). I personally took a lot of traffic from NC and the quality of their station, personnel, and info was top notch. I'm located in MO and between myself and an IL station, relayed 90% of the traffic heading West from the East and South. I think from a national perspective, AMRRON is going to need more operators in the Midwest to act as links between the various AMRRON regions across the country. I'm going to be joining AMRRON Corps (a leadership group within AMRRON) to further assist with the development of AMRRON's nationwide network and improve my own development as a communicator.

I also took away the fact that, much like is posted at WRSA with regard to armed and trained friends, I don't have enough trained communicator friends. To put it bluntly, this weekend was grueling. I was on the air almost non-stop from 2pm Friday afternoon through 3am Sunday morning passing traffic. A few short hours of sleep, and I was back on until nearly 2pm Sunday afternoon. That is simply unsustainable long-term. Anyone who fancies their Amateur Radio station as a preparedness-oriented comms center needs to face some facts. There will be far more to do post-SHTF than to stay in front of the radio. Community security patrols, food growth/acquisition and preparation, repair of fences/outbuildings/living centers, attending community meetings, first aid, water collection/purification, sanitation, and familial obligations will all be part of the mix. This means any comms center needs a trained staff to monitor the airwaves. Digital comms can't be over emphasized. Training can't be overvalued. I for one am looking forward to more training, because a weekend like this one was a great opportunity to learn, figure out what I don't know, and note down weak points and failures. Finally, my IC-7200 performed well beyond expectations. At one point, I was transmitting traffic for 4 hours almost continuously, at 40 watts. This would probably cause radios with lesser heat sinks to die, but mine kept on going strong, although the shack got pretty darn hot in the process. I ended that session sweat soaked and exhausted. Quality radios, quality laptops, and a solar/battery bank to make Tesla jealous are definitely required to run radio ops long term from a fixed position, especially in a grid-down environment. A much smaller package, battery and solar-wise is also required for foot mobile team operations. I'll be working toward achieving both goals. Hope your weekend went well, brother. If interested, I can send you a text of all the traffic I received over the weekend. Take care and keep up the good work on the blog and in class. We need more of your kind in the community.

All excellent points and ones needing to be made. You should never pass up any opportunity to train, whether its in a formal sense such as a dedicated class or training exercises such as T-REX. All of these skills have a steep learning curve- from small unit movements and tactics to all of the skills which support it- and if you’re only training for one area, then you’re not necessarily effective.

Another thing I’ll drive home from Mauser’s AAR is the value of modes other than voice/SSB. The approaching solar minimum has made HF a challenge on a good day, and even with convenient space weather predictors like the one I have in the sidebar, it’s not always a sure bet. If you’re new to regional communications, you’ve got a tough road ahead- made easier with the use of digital communications and the most robust of them all, CW/Morse Code. And its not limited to HF…you’d be surprised at what can be done locally and far off the beaten path.

In our last class I was asked in the AAR what would be a training roadmap to the Advanced Class I’m running in the fall- I had two answers. The first is that the class picks up right where the RTO course leaves off, going much deeper into several topics that we just don’t have time to cover in a weekend, but also taking the actions-on side of what we focus on (tactical report formats and traffic handling in a live environment) and simply working with your teams. There’s not some secret voodoo to it- just solid, competent training in a good, no-nonsense environment. Just like the fundamentals of marksmanship (breathe, relax, aim, squeeze), Land Navigation, and even the principles of effective camouflage and concealment (shape, shine and silhouette), these are perishable skills. You’ve got to work on them beyond what we can do in a weekend- in class we lay the foundation, but the rest is up to you.

If you’ve got holes in your training program or are looking to step up your game, feel free to contact me at [email protected]. We’ll get you jump started in an easy to follow and relevant way. In the meantime poke around and see if AmRRON has activity near you, and consider joining up. You’re likely to meet like-minded and in my experience, really good folks who probably train in quite a few other areas also.

15 thoughts on “From A Reader: AmRRON T-REX 18 AAR

  1. lewisp

    I did T-REX this year also. Always QRP portable.
    I still feel that FLAMP can be a liability in the field. Many messages are received with less than 100% copy, and this will yield a ZERO % actual copy. Sure, FLAMP sends traffic in those neat little forms we can tuck into neat little folders on our neat little PCs, but when you are working from a true field station, this makes it that much tougher. I’m talking a back-pack/tactical field station. A KX-2,wire dipoles, tablet and batts/solar. Flashback to 2017: on day 1 it was 10 HOURS of continuous FLAMP traffic. A huge part of that was fill requests . I wonder how well FLMSG might have done. Unbelievable….
    ZERO adherence to the SOI. Anybody who was trying to play the game via the SOI would never get anything. T-REX 2017 was kinda like ham radio bingo, get all the messages at all costs and win a prize, rules be damned. I and others captured this in the AARs.
    This year was better, but the Spectre of FLAMP was still present. Endless traffic and endless requests for fills. Some NCS somewhere said for everybody to stop requesting fills, as “important” traffic was trying to get passed to specific people. Like said above, they were working so much, for so long, it would be impossible to sustain. SOI anybody? Sending EXSUMs via FLAMP, with 22 blocks, is just plain stupid in my opinion. Like mentioned above, you better have a tough radio, as that requires many minutes of TX from your rig. Lots of heat, lots and lots of power out of my little backpack set-up.
    Even more power can be needed because despite RXing a perfect 599 signal you only got a 90% copy, so you really got nothing in the end. Oh, and good luck busting through the coming 40 minute pile-up with a QRP rig trying to get fills! Nothing but a typical HAM contest with an EMCOMM flavor in my opinion. Everybody with a big radio, big power and big antennas wins. If you were injecting traffic or part of a SIGCEN, you had plenty to do to support the exercise, and I’m glad that they did. As a field operator, you really didn’t have much to look forward to during a T-REX except hoping to catch what you could, despite all the band hopping and disregard of the SOI. Conditions drove the traffic, not much to be done about that. Being able to stay flexible is key for a field station, but this takes more time and more power.
    FLMSG might do it faster and easier than FLAMP, and a partial copy can still be decoded. Especially with the short content of most messages.Requesting a re-send is fast and easy also. All traffic sent via FLMSG can be saved to a file as well. Sure, it’s not as nimble and sexy as FLAMP, but very doable.
    As always, digital is king and everybody who is serious about comms needs to have their poop in one sock, and that requires digital capability and regular practice. We do local digital practice with VHF all the time.
    AMRRON is a great organization and I encourage everybody to look into what they have to offer. Lots of opportunity to learn and improve.

    1. Good point about FLAMP. I recieved a mid-exercise critique during one of the digital nets that said much of the same. For the reasons you stated, many of the larger summary reports should have been passed with FLAMP off the net schedule, and the NCS should have been transmitting those summaries to the nets on SOI schedule in FLMSG. As you said, 50% copy is better than 0%. It’s this kind of feedback that will make AMRRON better next year.

  2. Pingback: AmRRON T-REX Radio Traffic – Lower Valley Assembly

  3. Daniel

    All great points that this newbie has been slamming into on a regular basis. I tried listening to the voice nets but that was pointless. I very much need to get digital capability sorted out and running. Not enough hours to spend, need a better brain and the steep learning curve is causing my nose and ears to bleed. Time well spent!

    I’m in the Midwest and would like to become one of the middle links the reviewer mentioned as being needed, but being effective for real over any length of time looks realistically doubtful. If I’m camped down in the shack who does everything else? Need to set up serious comms windows I guess.

    Thanks for passing this along.

    1. Actually you can be incredibly effective- and you’re in a strategic location. It’s an always pressing question to satisfy the five principles of patrolling (planning, recon, security, control and common sense) and one that takes numbers. That said you can still get it done. No solid effort is wasted effort.

      1. Agreed. Get involved in AMRRON now, get on the practice nets now, and find a partner to train with locally. Once you get signed up, browse the member directory and contact some local members. I am always looking for NVIS training partners too. I suspect NC Scout could put us in contact if you were interested.

      2. Daniel

        Thanks Mitch. It’s good to have folks to help sort it out.

        “ALE is the standard!”
        “FLAMP rocks!”
        “FLAMP sucks!”
        “Use FLMSG!”
        “FLMSG is for fags!”

        What’s a new-to-digital-fella to think? I like the idea of focusing on NVIS and that’s what I’m doing.

  4. PRCD

    This post and the comments were a lot to absorb and sobering. I got my technician license about 4 months ago and still haven’t gotten on the air except for the RTO class. I’ve thought about joining the local ham club since we have particularly knowledgeable ham radio operators in my area. However, I want to practice the techniques I learned in the class and starting an AmRRON net might be right way to do this. It reminds me a bit of the Suidlanders who have the largest VHF down-grid radio network in the world (they claim).

    I’m not totally sure what’s going on with FLAMPS. I will have to read through the AmRRON website. “Down grid” people without the manpower of a regular military will need some asynchronous way of sending digital messages that have redundant error correction built in – like Internet Protocol or VOIP. Why not use IRLP? Obviously, this exposes you to the NSA’s packet sniffers but the messages could be encrypted. The Taliban seems to make everything work without IRLP using all analog radios though, right?

    1. Mitch

      FLAMP is something that I haven’t seen a lot of documentation on AMRRON for. It is a packet-type program, which breaks their messages up into blocks. When you receive an incomplete message, you report back what you’re missing and FLAMP semi-automatically queues those blocks up for retransmission. It is a way to get 100% copy for messages, but really works best peer-to-peer, not within the setting of an active net. I agree wholeheartedly with the critique of this year’s nets that FLAMP is not the way to go (a partial copy is better than the “100% or 0%” mindset). FOR NET TRAFFIC. For peer to peer, or transmitting mission-sensitive information, it is a great option. As for Daniel’s question, I will restate- FLAMP is appropriate for peer-to-peer but not for nets in poor band conditions with limited copy of signals. FLDIGI, FLMSG, FLAMP, etc. are TOOLS, not the be-all-end-all of digital comms. Each has its place, and each has places where it doesn’t belong. Bottom line, get your General, get digital and phone comms capability, and practice. Learn the ins and outs of each tool and you will begin to understand where they fit into the bigger picture. I didn’t have FLAMP set up until after the 3rd net this past week. Once I got it set up, I was up and rolling and learning in a short time. The key is to use these modes, and then think critically regarding their strengths and weaknesses. Practice, practice, practice. Comms isn’t a plug-and-play one size fits all solution. It takes a lot of effort to get these systems set up, and the learning curve is steep. You’re in the right place to get a leg up, at this blog.

      1. PRCD

        I had a couple of slow weeks and spent them researching HF. Having tried to establish a local VHF radio net with some friends and gotten non-responses back, I realized that it would be even harder to work 160, 80, and 40 m with anyone I know in a grid-down situation, discouraging me from buying an HF rig in the first place. Also, they’re expensive and I really don’t have room for an HF antenna farm nor do most people living in cities and suburbs, where most of the unpleasantness has already kicked-off depending on your location.

        What about using a transverter to get down to 10 meters on an HT? It seems like you can buy them from Ten-Tec. If not, we can modify plans on the internet. You can send data on 10 meters with only a technician license. THe propagation is not as good but the density of 10 meter users could be much higher due to the ability of suburbanites to put up a 10 meter antenna in the space they have. HTs cost a ton less and thus you could talk suburban commandos with a ton of excuses into buying one to be a 10 meter data repeater using Signalink. This could fill in a lot of the network gaps the AmRRON has, couldn’t it?

  5. I love the idea of drills and practice. The only “yeah, but…” I have to toss out there is that digital modes are great and they really do cut through crappy band conditions, but the tradeoff is additional technical complexity in your radio system. You have to have a computer, appropriate software, and an interface. All that stuff consumes power, adds space and weight, costs money, and is one more point of failure. Aside from having EVERYONE in the group learn to send/receive Morse code by hand, there is no real way around this. As inefficient as SSB/phone may be, it’s still the best way in terms of equipment and training prerequisites. Thanks for the great article.

    1. Mitch

      I agree with you to a certain point. If you had been relying on phone this weekend, you would have been lucky to get a contact, let alone traffic. I participate in a couple other traffic nets that refuse to go to digital modes, and in the current solar cycle their rate of successfully passing traffic is near zero. 40m has gone “long”, with S9 static crashes. 80m is only effective most days at NVIS ranges (and coincidentally 99% of hams really only have NVIS antennas). 20m has even gotten bad, with static crashes similar to 40m. This past week I cruised the bands looking for voice traffic and caught very little that was readable. There were nets and rag chewers on to be certain, but most of them were using more than 100w, which is optimistic in a grid-down scenario. The advantage of digital is how little bandwidth and power it requires to do what phone cannot. Yes, there are additional learning curves and equipment required. However, beyond the horizon comms are not a plug and play one size fits all solution. You really just have to try things out and see what works for your application. The IC-7200 is but one of several rigs available with an internal sound card, requiring no additional interface between rig and radio. However, such radios do often require drivers to be installed and of course the software for digital comms requires setup and familiarization now. These things need to be dealt with while the Internet is fully operational, support is a link or Youtube video away, and you can email or call fellow hams to talk you through it. Waiting until grid-down comms are a necessity is too late to be learning these modes. Phone works and is simple- sometimes. For all other times, digital offers advantages that phone can’t begin to compete with.

      1. You’re right about everything…I was simply pointing out that digital modes come with their own (substantial)baggage. In the end it’s all about tradeoffs. You can risk not being able to communicate on digital because part of your (or someone else’s) data system broke down, or you can risk not being able to communicate because band conditions are too poor for SSB. I personally run both phone and data, and have had successes and failures with each.

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