HAM Radio 101

MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System): It’s All in the Name

MARS, or the Military Auxiliary Radio System, is a civilian unit of highly skilled Hams who work alongside the Army and Air Force to assist with Department of Defense communication efforts—although the acronym is a relatively new adaptation of earlier titles. Modern MARS programs evolved from the initial Auxiliary Amateur Radio System (AARS) that was founded in November of 1925 as a method of communication critical to the military during WWI.

Similar to today, the AARS expected great things from members of its civilian units, so great, in fact, that many interested amateurs were not qualified to join. Those able to meet the daunting requirements supplemented the Signal Corps radio network, using their skills during natural disasters as well as war. Today’s MARS members communicate internationally; AARS members supported communication efforts across the United States, the Philippines, Panama, and Hawaii.

However, recruiting qualified AARS members was difficult. On December 7, 1941, the eve of the United States’ entry into WWII, AARS civilian operators were denied access to the airwaves and the Army Amateur Radio System was disbanded due to a lack of manpower. There wasn’t much time to fret, though. The Army soon recognized the error of its ways and reactivated the AARS in 1946 as a cost-effective and viable communications team.

That communications team expanded in 1948 into two military units: Army MARS and Air Force MARS. With the change in structure came a name change from then Captain Robert L. Gabardy, K4TJ, SK, who applied the acronym MARS (Military Amateur Radio System) to the collective units in honor of the fearsome Roman god of war.

In 1952, the name changed again to Military Affiliate Radio System—an inclusionary measure that better recognized the growing civilian volunteer force. MARS would expand again on August 17, 1962 with the addition of Navy and Marine MARS units that resulted from a directive from President Kennedy to extend communication efforts after the Cuban Missile Crisis. MARS held its own, providing military communication and Marsgram messaging from overseas soldiers to those at home during the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf, and Cold Wars.

On September 30, 2009, the Navy and Marine MARS programs were ordered to disband but were saved by a quick name change on December 23, 2009, to the current title of Military Auxiliary Radio System. Changing the status of the units from affiliate to auxiliary provided the same emergency communication status given to the Coast Guard, Civil Air Patrol, and Army and Air Force MARS units, which temporarily saved the Navy and Marine programs from an untimely end. However, the Navy and Marine programs would be disbanded in 2015—but who’s to say, with all the name change possibilities, that they won’t be back before we know it?

To apply for a MARS membership, please review the Army MARS application or use the contact information on the Air Force MARS site to request an application for Air Force MARS membership.

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