Originally published April 2019 and republished to refresh the knowledge. -NCS
Since I started the Brushbeater blog project back in late 2015, a constant question I’ve got in emails has been about communications security and very often how to use encryption over the radio. Back when I got into the civilian side of operational communications and I no longer had uncle sugar providing my equipment, I had all those same questions and none of the answers. Encryption and communications security is generally verboten among the old-time Ham crowd. Asking about it immediately can gain a novice the cold shoulder- it’s just one of those things that’s best left unasked, figured out on one’s own, or asked once you’ve got in the good graces of the locals (community building, anyone?). For me it was and is a creative outlet, allowing all the fun stuff I did in the Army to be a useful skill and one I teach others.
Since communications in general, like patrolling, like TC3, and like basic survival are all topics woefully misunderstood by civilians, an area as complicated as securing analog transmissions can go way over people’s heads in a hurry. It’s a different skillset than what you’re either used to seeing or doing. It requires a little understanding about radio theory, a little understanding about the planning process, along with some other skills like how to use a compass and basic awareness of your operating environment. Above all, it takes experience; you can’t just talk about it, you gotta do it. That said, we also have to recognize that the equipment we have is the equipment you’re going to be working with when things go sideways. No magic gear fairy is going to drop you a bundle of PRC-152s, much less the working knowledge to use them. So learning to use what you have in hand to its maximum capability is a heck of a lot more important than hanging out in fantasy land with stuff pushed by hobbyists.
Communications Security Begins With You, or, Encryption Won’t Save You
In a recent conversation with a friend and fellow well-seasoned vet, we brought up some of the obstacles facing would-be partisans that many preppers don’t take into account. Logistics being a HUGE one (if I burn through 500 rounds doing “supporting fire” aka just making noise, who resupplies my ammo?) but also the enablers a lot of the contemporary veteran crowd are used to having but cannot expect in the near future. NSA Type 3 encryption comes to mind here. We took a lot of resources for granted, especially in the commo department. We had/have an enemy who generally lacked any real electronic warfare (EW) capability, with the result being incredibly sloppy communications practices. The reliance on electronic security left a lot of the old common practices in the dust, many of which are once more very relevant today. Since about 80-90% of the prepping crowd’s electronic signal devices are limited to VHF/UHF dual band analog handhelds, you have to stop thinking in terms of simply press n’ talk if you want to even begin to be secure. The presence of a pattern of signals, even if encrypted, digital, analog or whatever, will give you away if you lack basic discipline. The saying everything that’s old is new again comes to mind, because a lot of the old hand practices developed in Vietnam for rural patrolling are the first place to begin. What was high tech for them is dirt cheap today. And the training value in their blood soaked lessons shouldn’t be lost on you.
But first, why do you need a radio? A lot of folks buy gear just for the sake of buying something. The first thing you should be asking yourself is exactly what your goal is and then work towards that instead of buying a whole bunch of something, because someone told you to, only for it not to be used. If that goal is talking with others in your group on the back forty, that’s one thing. If it’s rural patrolling, that’s another. Electronic communications, of any type, are the least secure method of communication. Messengers are the most secure. When getting started you’ve gotta figure out what it is you need to do. You might find you don’t need as much as you think; keeping it simple goes a long way. And for those of you only concerned with a homestead right now, COMSEC (communications security) is a very real issue for you whether you know it or not. A common surveillance mission for us was called “patterns of life”, where we watched a place for several days. Surveillance means everything, including the signals coming from the target, which in turn can provide a high amount of intelligence value due to shoddy practices. If you’re lazy, someone who learns a few signals intelligence techniques can not only find you very easily but listen to all your voices, get your names, know your timelines, and finally, disrupt you to the point of shutting you down, usually once they’re ready to attack. I know, I’ve done it in real life. So all of you only relying on those walmart FRS radios are very easy prey.
It’s important to point out the difference between tactical communications and clandestine communications. Tactical communications require immediate action and either give short orders or brief reports and are local in nature. For preppers, these are for retreat security and short duration patrols; snoop n’ poop around the woodline to make sure nobody is waiting on us to go to sleep. The RTO Basic course focuses almost entirely on tactical communications. Clandestine communications are long term, far more in depth messages that usually use multiple layers of encoding- this is where the One Time Pads come in– and are sent to cells working over a region. These are referred to as cables in the intelligence field. Numbers stations come to mind, and that’s a whole other conversation entirely.
Not everyone in the column needs a radio. This is the one that tees people off. “But I bought this, so I get to use it!” Nah, not on my team, bud. Two types of people have radios. Those who are trained and the decoys. Competent Leaders have experience and lead through demonstrated success. That begins with training. Your electronic signature should be kept very small- the only time you should ever key up is when its on purpose and you actually have something to say. During training I emphasize writing the script down and then reading from it, that way nothing is missed or lost when the operator is under stress. It used to be said that tactical communications had two sub types, inter-team and intra-team. I think you only One team should have two radios- one for the assaulting group and one for the support by fire. This eliminates needless traffic and keeps you doing what you’re supposed to be doing on a patrol- paying attention to your surroundings and actually watching your people, instead of simply telling them over a radio. In an urban environment or a close protection detail the needs are a little different, but again, that’s a whole other topic. But one thing I’ve noticed in the patrolling classes I’ve taught is that everyone in the group seems to believe they need communications with one another- and they don’t. Hand and arms signals folks; cheap, silent, effective.
Tactical communications focuses on immediate needs- telling the support by fire to initiate contact, giving distance, direction and description (3Ds) when there might be too much distance or noise to shout it to your other team, or really any time you’re coordinating action on the ground. But this should be limited to very low power (1w or less, if possible) and use the shortest antenna possible to only give you a few hundred meters range which is perfect for that inter-team use. This will keep you from being intercepted by groups a long distance away, and by the nature of having inefficient antennas, mitigates the likelihood of interference through reducing what you receive. It won’t prevent it, but it will mitigate it.
But that said you don’t need a lot of thought put into intra-team commo. Keep the power low and transmissions short, keep it simple, silly, know the callsigns for that patrol and understand the PACE plan. Wait, what? Now we’re stepping into the more complicated communications area, getting into strategic or clandestine communications, which transmit information from a patrol back to a base or another unit or column. This takes a little more work and a lot more training.
You need a competent plan. Writing a Signals Operating Instructions (SOI) is the first step. These follow the PACE plan; four different frequencies as the Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency channels. In addition, you must have a way to authenticate the transmission. Simple challenges and passwords are easily broken by a competent OPFOR, so we need to add a bit of security. This is easily done with a Search And Rescue Numerical Encryption Grid (SARNEG) that is a set ten letter word with a number associated to each letter. The letters in the word cannot repeat for obvious reasons. It looks like this:
L O N G F I S H E R
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0
The way we use it to authenticate traffic sounds like the following:
“Bishop Zero Zero (the station you’re calling), this is Rook One Zero (Us), Over”
“Rook One Zero, Bishop Zero Zero”
“Authenticate 2, 3, Foxtrot, Echo, Over”
“I authenticate Oscar, November, Five, Niner, Over”
The authentication was correct, now it’s time to transmit my information. We do this by using dedicated report formats so that we don’t miss any necessary information. SALUTE and SALT for relaying basic intelligence, other more advanced reports for team status and information on the battlefield.
Keep your transmissions as short as possible. Every soldier learns in basic training the 3-5 rule. 3-5 second buddy rushes keeps you out of your enemy’s OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop, and 3-5 second transmissions would keep you from being Direction Found (DF) by the OPFOR’s signals collection equipment. But since you’re probably not going to spit out everything that needs to be said in 3-5 seconds, and equipment has advanced in the 50 plus years since then, your signal most definitely will run the DF risk the next time you key up. Something I suggest is installing FL Digi on a mobile device and using one of the many ways to send bursts of data. You’ll get a lot of information out much faster than if you were sending it via voice and it has the added benefit of needing to be decoded- which, if you’re facing even a somewhat sophisticated enemy, can be a challenge when done right. If you’re using a brevity matrix to condense the message along with a One Time Pad, you’re causing a giant headache for even the best opposing force.
Transmit on one frequency and receive on another. If an adversary on hears half of the conversation, it might be confusing to unsophisticated enemies. This is where having features like crossband repeating comes in handy- something we use in class is sending a message on one frequency in one band and receiving the confirmation on a another band. One reason the Quansheng UV-R50 shines is that it will receive on both frequencies displayed on the VFO; in other words, you can transmit on one frequency and receive on another without having to press any buttons. It makes sending traffic like this very simple.
Use directional antennas for everything. In addition to using data bursts and encoding report formats, the addition of directional antennas is a must-have for setting up a clandestine communications network. I always, without fail, will have my compass on my body on a patrol and know where the site is that I’m communicating with. If I aim my directional antenna along that azimuth, I’m communicating with them and my transmitted signal is going in that direction. Think of it as shining a flashlight in that direction…that’s the way your signal is traveling.
Pre-plan communications windows. When planning the SOI, something I teach to students as they master the basics is creating communications windows (commo windows), which is a pre-planned time when the team in the field will communicate with the TOC and vice-versa. If you’re communicating your team’s status, intelligence collected and any other relevant information at times when the OPFOR is not likely to be listening, the chances of getting caught is greatly reduced. But it also saves batteries when on patrol, which is always important.
Learn to build your own antennas and think outside the box. You’re going to go through a lot of equipment in the field, and eventually, stuff will either get broken or simply be lost. Learning antenna theory by building your own antennas (and seeing the instant results) is a gigantic force multiplier. If a team can rig their own purpose-built tools in the field from inexpensive components, you can rapidly create communications among guerrilla groups in a region. I teach folks to source gear locally and use just about anything to make solid gear; once you know how, you know how, and your skills will supplement the lack of equipment any day.
If there is any doubt, there is no doubt. Guerrillas have the distinct advantage of working on their own time, in their own environment, and can melt away whenever they choose. If you think your communications plan has been compromised somehow, give the codeword to recall your teams, go silent and make a new plan. Its that simple.
Finally, get training. You’re not going to do this on your own. You will make mistakes, you will get things wrong, and worse, you’ll spend a lot of time and money for little gain. Training with someone who knows what they’re doing prevents a waste of time- you will learn in a live environment what works and what doesn’t while seeing these concepts come together in a way you otherwise wouldn’t. This stuff ain’t what hams do and it definitely ain’t Field Day.
So with all of that said, if all you end up with is basic analog equipment, which is very likely, there’s lots of ways to build a bulletproof package on little money. It all begins with proper training in the necessary skills and having a mindset that places those skills above the need for gear. You absolutely can do this- anyone can. Think outside the box, use equipment in ways you didn’t know you could and keep it all simple. You’ll be surprised at just how far ahead you’ll end up. While we might not have all the tools at our disposal that I once had, going old school just might make us that much sharper.