Intra-Team Tactical Communications
(This article was written with a great deal of input from the “local” 18E, MSG Dan Morgan. My gratitude, as always, for his input on this area that my own experiences leave a lot to be desired in. On my teams, it was generally a matter of looking at the commo guy and going, “Dude, can you plug the fills into this thing for me?” –J.M.)
Intra-team communications, at the tactical level, are fulfilled during small-unit patrols, largely through the use of visual hand-and-arm signals. The requirement for utter silence in all things, and the dispersion between individuals and teams necessary to maximize the chances of survival, together mandate their use. Since there is something in the vicinity of 500+ possible hand-and-arm signals, doctrinally speaking (actually, I don’t have any clue what the number is, I just know it’s a metric butt-load), I tend to stay away from teaching any but the most basic, since you can actually make them up, within your organization or group, and be just fine. The signals you make up might look gayer than a bag of dicks to me, but if they work for you, that’s ultimately all the matters, right?
Once the first shot breaks loose however, the urgent need to focus on the fundamentals of marksmanship, maneuver, and getting behind cover can tend, rather quickly, to lead to a break down in the individual and collective ability to utilize these visual signaling methods effectively. Especially in less well-trained individuals, the ability of the brain to task-stack and task-switch seem to become severely curtailed when focused on pure survival needs. Basically, guys simply forget to look around to see what the other men in their element, especially their team leader, is doing.
Add to this, the need to communicate in the dark, across the battle space between maneuver element and SBF element, and the applications of hand-and-arm signals start to become severely limited. Nevertheless, the need to communicate man-to-man within the team remains critical on the battlefield. Simple, functional, effective communications methods and signals can provide important contributions to combat effectiveness of small units (after all, it’s “shoot, move, and communicate” not just “shoot” and not just “shoot and move.”). These signals, and the successful transmission and receipt of the communicated information they represent are critical to the prevention of actions that may bring needless casualties to the friendly force. As such, I am going to re-introduce a very often overlooked, but ancient method of simple communications for intra-team use (in fact, when I mentioned it in a class recently, everyone looked at me like I had a dick growing out of my forehead. Typically, in classes, I get a pretty similar response, unless someone has been in an infantry unit in the past). That tool is the simple whistle.
The Patrol Whistle
Almost any survival skills manual will suggest a whistle for signaling in survival situations, but too often it is overlooked, even by professional warfighters. Demonstrating once again my bibliophilic character, I’m going to resort to quoting from a very old, long out-of-print book that I am fortunate to have sitting on my shelves. In 1955, MG James C. Fry (USA, retired) wrote, “the use of the whistle has been generally discontinued in our Army and tables of equipment have all but eliminated it from authorized equipment…The discontinuance has grown up largely through fear of attracting the enemy’s attention but nothing good has ever resulted from following the dictates of fear. It is an absurdity to emphasize the need for increased rifle fire during close combat and simultaneously accept procedures that will restrict the use of sound signals because of the noise involved.”
I don’t know the status of the whistle as an authorized or encouraged signaling device in the conventional force today. I don’t even know the status of the whistle as an authorized or encouraged signaling device in the SOF force today. I do know I never saw a team leader or squad leader or other small-unit key leader without one conveniently mounted on his LBE when I was a soldier, and ready to use it, constantly. The fact is, when distance, darkness, noise, or intervening cover/concealment prevents the effective use of hand-and-arm signals, the simple patrol whistle works like a charm. It is really no different than the use of bugles by military forces historically. having set up a SOP of basic whistle blast signals, the small-unit security patrol can communicate over relatively vast differences, using nothing but a few blasts on a whistle (before anyone asks “How will we hear a whistle over gunfire?” I’ll address that: The difference in tone and pitch is significant enough, if you’re using a real whistle, rather than some kiddie-toy out of a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, you WILL hear it.).
Often, when describing the types of whistles you should use, survival writers advocate only the use of pea-less whistles, the “pea” being the little plastic or cork ball inside the whistle that helps it make noise (I’m not an audiologist, or whatever the hell the appropriate name would be, so I really don’t know HOW they work…). The idea behind the pea-less whistle in this case is, to prevent the condensation in your breath from freezing to the pea and causing it to stick inside the whistle, thus rendering the whistle useless. All I can say is, I’ve NEVER seen it become a problem, regardless of operational environments, including in temperatures down below -20F….
I’ve historically carried just the basic USGI patrol leader’s whistle. It looks like an olive green plastic coach’s whistle, has a cork pea inside, and comes on a piece of woven green cord. It’s worked splendidly well for me, even with automatic weapons fire and explosions occurring nearby. In a recent class, I was given a Wind Storm whistle, which is advertised as the world’s loudest whistle (I don’t know, I’d have figured a train whistle would be louder, but I get their point…). It’s since replaced the patrol whistle as my go to, not because it seems particularly louder, but because it’s easier to keep in my mouth, ready to blow on, than the smaller USGI version. At a lousy $5/each, it’s a piece of kit that should be on your gear (No, I don’t sell them).
MG Fry described in the aforementioned writing, several recommended whistle signals for ready use. At the time, FM 7-10 Rifle Company Infantry Regiment, OCT 1949 described only three authorized whistle signals:
- Attention–a short blast of the whistle
- Cease Fire–a long blast of the whistle
- Air or Tank Warning–three long blasts, repeated several time.
MG Fry recommended the inclusion of the following:
- Squad Frontal Attack–a series of short blasts
- Platoon Frontal Attack–a long followed by a series of short blasts
- Squad Maneuver Right–two short blasts
- Platoon Maneuver Right–a long followed by two short blasts
- Squad Maneuver Left–three short blasts
- Platoon Maneuver Left–a long followed by three short blasts
As we’ve discussed ad nauseum, and as should be abundantly apparent to anyone with a modicum of common sense, most of us are not going to have platoon-sized elements for security patrolling, at least in the immediate aftermath of an event that might require us to institute security patrols of this nature. The use of direct frontal assaults is also generally proscribed by contemporary common sense. However, the use the signals for “Cease Fire!” “Squad (or team) Maneuver Left!” and “Squad (or team) Maneuver Right!” should certainly be considered legitimate applications of the patrol whistle for intra-team communications. As your maneuver team begins it’s assault through, during a “Squad Attack” battle drill, this will work much more efficiently than simply yelling, “LIFT FIRE!” at the SBF team, which may be hundreds of meters away, and rather preoccupied with doing their job, rather than listening for barely audible shouts from across the battlefield.
The other advantage of the use of the patrol whistle, versus say, intra-team radios, is a simple one: Have you EVER heard of the batteries dying on a whistle? Yeah, me neither….
(It is critical to remember that I am, at heart, in the core of my very soul, a Luddite, knuckle-dragger. Technology, despite my use of the computer, is not my preferred mode of doing anything. So, I am no sort of an expert of radios. The following information, edited by me, came from a previous article on the other site, and/or directly from MSG Dan Morgan, USASF, 18E. –J.M.)
Most people, when they consider intra-team communications, think of radios, and rightly so. When whistle blasts and yells are tactically unsound, but silent hand-and-arm signals are simply not feasible, for any of the previously mentioned reasons of distance, darkness, intervening cover/concealment, or other mental preoccupations, the radio can, in the best circumstances, provide a useful alternative.
While the relative merits and shortcomings of various radio communications devices, from amateur radio/HAM, FRS/GMRS, and citizens band/CB radio are regular topics of discussion amongst “survivalist” blogs and forums, the very real danger of signals intercept must not be overlooked. Additionally, while the challenges can be somewhat mitigated, and despite the LoS (Line-of-Sight) transmission advantages facilitated by ridge-top to ridge-top and rooftop to rooftop operations, radio communications in broken terrain and urban environments can be extremely haphazard, under the best conditions.
These difficulties often arise due to three basic factors:
- the terrain masking effects of ridges, timbered areas, and large buildings interfering with the LoS transmission of commonly available radios.
- the often unavoidable rough handling that electronic equipment receives under combat conditions.
- The adverse weather conditions common to ideal small-unit irregular force patrolling operations. This can interfere with the use of these devices due to malfunctions caused by precipitation, or due to the interference in transmissions due to the weather itself.
The ability to overcome these limitations, and manage effective communications with radios for the small-unit irregular patrol element, ultimately will depend on the resourcefulness and ingenuity of communications personnel and instructors. An understanding of the nature of the radio waves being utilized (i.e. UHF vs. VHF, etc), the use of high-point “relay stations,” and the use of directional antennae may all be factors that facilitate the use of intra-team radios.
In addition to the technological issue inherent to the use of radios by irregular-force small-unit patrols, the tactical considerations must be given equal attention. Considering the technological abilities of even amateur radio operators, even brief use of radio communications should be minimized as much as possible. The primary purpose of sending communications in the field is to transmit critical information to other elements. If information is to useful, it must be transmitted and delivered in time to be acted upon effectively. The inability to accomplish this in any other manner is really the sole justification to utilize radios for intra-team communications, in lieu of more “primitive” methods. Even in the heat of a small-unit, close-quarters fight, consideration must be given to other forces that may be present in the immediate area who may have the ability to listen in on your radio communications. Operational planning for radio communications then, must incorporate communications planning, including the use of frequently changed personal and/or unit call signs, pre-planned or SOP communications windows, and whenever tactically feasible and possible, preplanned rendezvous link-up points and times for courier/messenger based communications, to reduce the necessity for electronic transmissions. Realistically, the only times it is absolutely necessary for your security elements to even have their radios on and powered up is during planned “random” transmission windows, or when actually conducting combat patrols, with the intent of running into an enemy force. Immediately following contacts or communications windows, radios should be powered off and your patrols should be leaving the immediate area as rapidly as possible, commensurate with METT-TC and the tactical requirements for stealth and security. If radio transmissions are utilized, for all practical intents, only to use by in-contact patrol elements, it is probably fair to assume that any hostiles in the area already have a pretty good idea of your whereabouts…
After being asked for specific radio recommendations for intra-team use in a private class recently, I had to admit I didn’t have a damned clue, but promised I’d get the information. I subsequently emailed MSG Morgan and asked. My request was framed in the terminology of:
- “I’m so broke, I can’t afford a boot to piss on, or a window to toss it out.”
- “I’m a working class Joe, with a wife and six kids, but I know I need radios!”
- “I’ll make some sacrifices in order to have good gear.”
- “Money is not the issue, although I’m certainly not King Midas. I just don’t know how to sort through all the options.”
As always, the MSG went above and beyond with his reply.
The bottom line up front, we’re only talking about intra-team, short-range applications. We’re talking within the platoon, squad, or team-sized elements. Think about the types of radios you’d use around the farm, the house, or maybe the neighborhood. If you want successful, effective radio communications beyond that, you’re going to need to get a HAM license and join a local club to get some great training and advice. If you do get a HAM license though, don’t overlook the fact that, in a WROL or grid-down scenario, there’s a pretty solid chance that the radio repeaters will go the way of the cell phone towers….In that case, start thinking about high-frequency (HF) units. They still require a HAM license, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish to boil.
All of the radios I’m going to recommend fall within the category of radios that do not currently require a license to use, such as the HAM license, that require a written skills test. Some of these require no license, while others may require a small fee-based license to operate.
To start, let’s look at the techno-babble crap that only us commo geeks care about (this is where I bow out of the conversation! –JM):
We’re functionally limited to a few useful bands if we’re avoiding the HAM bands:
- GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service): This functions between 462-467 MHz UHF, and from 5 to 50 Watts of power. It requires an $85 license, which is good for 5 years. Contact the FCC.
- FRS (Family Service Radio): This functions from 462-467 MHz UHF also, but is limited to 0.5 Watts. It requires no license if you keep your transmission strength below the half-Watt threshold. This of course gets stupid (What!? Bureaucrats stupid? Who’d have thunk it? –JM). If you have a hybrid FRS/GMRS radio unit–and most of the inexpensive units are hybrids– you can set the GMRS frequencies to operate at or below the 0.5W threshold and you need no license…
- MURS (Multiple Use Radio Service): Functions in the 151-154 MHz VHF FM range, with a 2 Watt power threshold. No license is required.
- Marine Band Radio: Operates between 156-162 MHz VHF FM, with a power range from 1-25 Watts. No license is required for recreational boaters, but it is illegal to use Marine Band radios on land. (MSG Morgan notes that, “When SHTF who cares?” I’ll note that, while I don’t personally recommend it, since I never recommend doing anything illegal, I know of people who use Marine Band radios in land-locked areas with the attitude that, “There’s no lakes around, so who’s going to be monitoring?” Your mileage may vary. –JM)
- CB (Citizen’s Band): Operates from 26-27 MHz AM with a 4 Watt power threshold, except SSB (Single Side Band) can go up to 12 Watts. No license is required. The radio of choice for rednecks and truckers everywhere. Extremely limited range and transmission threshold, although it seems to work for keeping truckers out of trouble when they’re doing 20-30MPH over the speed limit….
Here’s how I would break out the use of these different radios:
- CQB/MOUT/Built-Up Areas: I’d stuck to UHF radios like the FRS/GMRS. The higher frequencies tend to work better in and around structures. If you’re using one of the hybrid FRS/GMRS radios in this environment, and you accidentally knock it over to the GMRS-only higher frequency settings, you may notice a great increase in performance. Just sayin’…..accidentally, of course….
- Field Patrolling/SUT Operations: VHF radios, such as MURS or Marine Band will give you a slightly longer range when operating outdoors. If you don’t mind the retarded long, ungodly un-tactical antenna, you could use CB, but CB will have major interference issues with any noisy power source, such as high-tension power lines, neon signs (In the woods? –JM), and even high sunspot activity, such as we are currently experiencing.
The list of recommended radios I am enclosing is NOT all-inclusive, These are the radios I would personally select for use, based on the varying levels of purchasing power you denoted. Some folks will say that there are cheaper radios that you can buy a lot of and toss them when they quit. My take on that is: “Have at it Mr. Rocket Surgeon, but carry plenty of spares where you can at them easily. When your shit is in the wind and you need a radio, it is not the time you want to discover that your radio got wet when it rained and shit the bed, or that when you did that last 3-5 second rush and dove behind a big rock, it got smashed (I concur obviously. “Buy once, cry once. You get what you pay for.” –JM). It needs to work when you need it, now. If you have to rely on a piece of equipment to save your life, get the absolute best you can afford, even if it hurts a little bit. Firearms, knives, rucksacks, etc. The same applies to radios. I’ve had $100,000 SATCOM (Satellite Communications) radios go down at critical times. Read Bravo Two Zero (And The One That Got Away by Chris Ryan, although apparently both stories differ from the respective authors’ official AARs….–JM) for an example of what happens to professionals when commo fails. If you think it’s going to go better for you, because you’re not a professional, well, good luck on that.
My criteria, in order of importance:
- Is is rugged?
- Is it waterproof/weatherproof? http://www.buytwowayradios.com/blog/2012/07/weatherproof_gmrs_radio
- How long will the batteries last and will it accept both rechargeable and AA or AAA batteries?
- Is it easy to use and are the buttons big enough to allow use when wearing gloves?
- Is it lightweight? Will it fit in a radio pouch and not be in my way?
- Does it make farting or beeping sounds, or have display lighting, that can be inadvertently activated, thereupon compromising my patrol?
And now, for the red meat in this meal:
- “I’m so broke, I can’t afford a boot to piss on, or a window to toss it out.” Motorola Talk-About MT350R FRS/GMRS Weatherproof Two-Way ($65/set), with a Motorola Ear Bud Push-to-Talk Microphone ($10/each). This is a good, solid radio and a so-so ear-bud/microphone combination. It is not however, “waterproof.” It’s water-resistance/weatherproof.
- “I’m a working class Joe, with a wife and six kids, but I know I need radios!” Cobra Marine MR-HH425LI-VP GMRS/Marine ($135/each) with the Cobra GA-EB M2 Ear Bud and Compact Microphone ($15/each). These are stout little radios, and the only one I’ve found that works on GMRS/FRS and Marine Band frequencies. This is great flexibility, especially if you foresee your group doing any boat/waterborne operations (lots of lakes and rivers where I live –JM). I’ve noticed lots of hunters are using the Marine Band frequencies where I live and the FCC hasn’t swooped down on them yet. Of course, they’re probably too busy monitoring Janet Jackson in case she has another wardrobe failure on national television. These are waterproof to one meter for up to 30 minutes, and have selectable power levels. It can be a little complicated to operate and the buttons are smaller than I’d like. Additionally, the ear-bud/microphone combo is flimsy, but it’s the only one I’ve found that will work with this radio.
- “I’ll make some sacrifices in order to have good gear.” (Just to reiterate: “It needs to work when you need it, now. If you have to rely on a piece of equipment to save your life, get the absolute best you can afford, even if it hurts a little bit.” –JM): ICOM IC-F3021-41-DTC FRS/GMRS/MURS/HAM bands ($250/each) with an Impact Platinum PBM-1 Bone Induction Microphone ($80/each). Great, nearly indestructible radio (MIL-STD and IP-54), programmable frequencies, adjustable power levels, encryption-capable, with lots of accessories, programming software, and cables available, or:
Motorola DTR 550 Digital Radio ($279/each) with Impact Platinum PBM-1 Bone Induction Microphone ($80/each). Rugged (to MIL-STD), 900 MHZ (no license required) radio. It’s programmable, frequency hopping, and capable of text messaging (If I get these, it does NOT mean I’m going to suddenly start text messaging people! –JM), although you might encounter some interference in built-up areas. This was discussed, ad nauseum, in my earlier article for John.
- “Money is not the issue, although I’m certainly not King Midas. I just don’t know how to sort through all the options.” Thales AN/PRC-6809 MBITR (Multi-Band Inter/Intra-Team Radio) Clear (Level III DES Encryption) Commercial Version of the AN/PRC-148 ($7500/each) with the Thales Tactical Urban Headset ($800/each). The Mac Daddy of Intra-Team Radios (If some generous reader wants to donate to the MG Cause, I’ll gladly accept 2-4 of these sets….–JM)
So, there you have the retired 18E recommendation on intra-team radios. My question remains (remember, I’m a knuckle-dragger….), although I’m pretty sure I know the answer (yes): Can I use these different radios, to communicate between one another, if I have say, the ICOM, and the dude I’m working with is stuck with the Motorola or the Cobra? MSG Morgan?