Digital Mobile Radio, or DMR, gained some serious traction with the amateur radio community and in turn the preparedness community some years back. When the first UHF-only radios began showing up on the American market at a more affordable price point they offered a level of capability that’s attractive for a lot of reasons. Previously they were almost exclusive to public safety and defense contractor markets mainly due to the price point of the units themselves. But are they worth the cost? And what are the potential drawbacks? Most important in the minds of many is where exactly is the start point. You can spend a lot of money in a hurry only to end up with a mountain of frustration and not a lot of capability. It’d be nice to know where both the entry level and the best bang for the buck actually resides. We’re going to be talking the two DMR handhelds offered by Brushbeater Training and Consulting.
The first thing to understand is the nature of DMR itself. There’s two schools of thought behind why users are attracted to it; the hobby perspective inherent to Amateur Radio and the more tactical-oriented purpose that armed and prepared citizens consider. As I describe in The Guerrilla’s Guide to the Baofeng Radio, the former is squarely in the sustainment communications category while the latter resides squarely in the tactical, each with their own unique considerations with regard to communications security (COMSEC).
From the sustainment perspective, DMR accomplishes a number of things for us. It is an efficient way of transmitting data, be it voice or text. And the unique identifiers and talk groups you can create makes managing contacts easy. DMR also allows for a layer of security through the actual encoding protocol itself. While COMSEC concerns are minimal with regard to sustainment communications, they are not disregarded entirely, and DMR remains by design an efficient way to utilize the radio spectrum.
DMR also offers an obvious advantage at the tactical level through its encoding protocol and the ability to run digital encryption in even the entry-level models. Since COMSEC is a critical consideration at the tactical level for inter-team communications, the ability to run digital encryption, where encoding/decoding through physical means is not usually practical, is a plus. With that said, this brings us to our first big differentiation between the entry-level DM-F8 and the substantially upmarket DMR-6X2. The DM-F8 offers AES-128 capability in the software. This is a strong, but certainly not the strongest, encryption offered through DMR. The DMR-6X2 offers AES-256 which is considered the strongest available. For many that point alone justifies the increase in price point. However, it must be pointed out that if the users maintain strong COMSEC practices as described in The Guerrilla’s Guide to the Baofeng Radio, such as rotating frequencies and keys between mission profiles (also known as a COMSEC changeover), the realistic likelihood of AES-128 being broken in real time is slim to none. Its much easier to exploit a captured device than it is to break the data in motion. That principle, by the way, applies to any means of communication.
One of the other advantages to DMR is having an in-house ability to send text messages. That’s an obvious advantage in the same vein as the digital operation chapter of The Guerrilla’s Guide to the Baofeng Radio – short bursts of data (1-5 sec transmit time) are nearly impossible to intercept or exploit in real time if one doesn’t make a habit of it in predictable ways. But its important to note here that all SMS messages, regardless of talk groups or the presence of encryption keys, are sent as plain text. There is no digital encryption of the messages themselves, so that returns us to the physical encryption methods covered in my book.
A tactical radio is no good absent durability, and this is one of the areas the 6X2 really outshines the smaller DM-F8. While the latter is great as an entry level into the market and mine for T&E over the past several months have held up well, there’s no question the 6X2 is superior in build quality and water resistance. Between the two, for a role that demands hard use, the 6X2 proves its worth over the lesser expensive option. Again, that’s not to say that either is bad, but you’re definitely getting what you’re paying for with the upmarket Baofeng Tech. I have no problems with the DM-F8 for day to day use, riding in the truck or anything where its not getting beaten like a rented mule. But if the scenario calls for strapping up, the 6X2 is a better way to go.
Now with that said DMR as a system is not the best of all things; there’s some major drawbacks and potential pitfalls to recognize. The first owes to the technical expertise of the operator himself. Its far more complicated than an analog unit by its very nature. The learning curve is excessively steep to the degree that for some its insurmountable, while running digital data over analog units is far simpler and quite effective. I contend that both have an obvious, and different, role. The other potential pitfall that’s far less known is the degree that DMR itself can be exploited. Many cling to buzzwords when talking communications, knowing little while stating much. DMR spits out a ton of metadata with every transmission that anyone with an SDR running DSD+ has the potential to exploit regardless of any method of COMSEC the users are employing. We were exploiting these radios (especially Hytera, which is full of documented Chinese exploits) in use with ISIS since at least 2012 if not before.
There’s also backdoors into the encryption itself that’s coming into the public light, lest anyone think that running DMR is a magic talisman of commo invincibility. Its not. And for that matter, its very easy to pick up with a spectrum analyzer. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be used, it simply means the users need to be made aware. If you’re not familiar with rotating COMSEC procedures or how to create an SOI reflective of that, my book is a great start.
Summing things up, if you’re looking to get into DMR, and there’s some valid reasons to do so, both the Baofeng Tech 6X2 and Abbrree DM-F8 will serve your needs well.