Phil A. McBride: Here's how Canada can help Ukraine fight back, today
The Canadian Forces have hundreds of HF radios that it no longer needs that could be configured and deployed to Ukraine to assist them in their defence.
By: Phil A. McBride
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last week, many of us have been watching the various reports and video coming out of the region showing destruction of infrastructure and machines of war driving through the streets. The fighting has been fierce. To nearly everyone’s shock and surprise, the Ukrainians are holding their own.
In battle, the most important thing you can have, second only to your service rifle and an ample amount of ammunition, is effective communications equipment and planning. Without it, you have no situational awareness, no connection to your fellow fighters, no link to your command and control leadership, and no ability to summon resources to an area of interest. Without communications, you lose. Period.
There is something Canada can do to help Ukraine not lose. We can do it today.
At time of writing, Ukraine’s telecommunications networks appear to be mostly operational. Such targets should have been struck early and hard to cripple the country and isolate them from the rest of the world. It’s shocking that they weren’t. As Russia ramps up the pressure, these attacks, though late, grow more likely.
Should these attacks come, and Russia either destroys or effectively jams via electronic warfare all of Ukraine’s telephone and internet-based communications, the country can still co-ordinate its fighting forces using a tried-and-true technology that both civilians and military personnel are already familiar with: high-frequency (HF) radio — also known as shortwave radio.
HF radio allows one to communicate over various but substantial distances with little power and no infrastructure. The technical details are complicated, but can be summarized simply: signals leave the radio, hit the atmosphere, and reflect back down to the Earth’s surface. Where precisely they come down is based on the frequency you choose, the time of day, the state of solar weather and the type of antenna you use. Amateur (Ham), commercial and military radio operators have been using HF radio to communicate across short and vast distances for decades. As an amateur radio operator, I can reliably talk across an area as large as, or larger than, Ukraine while driving my pickup truck with some fairly simple equipment.
Most militaries have HF capability, and the Ukrainians are no exception — they currently have HF radios deployed with their military forces. They have two problems, however.
The first problem is that they don’t have enough equipment to deploy to the new civilian forces they’ve begun recruiting since the beginning of Russia’s assault. Rifles and ammunition, they have. They’re begging for anti-air and anti-tank missiles. But they’re also short on radios. What they have is deployed with their regular forces, or held in reserve as spares that they know they’re going to need to deploy as equipment falls into disrepair due to the rigours of war.
And this is where Canada can help, immediately. In 2014, the Department of National Defence awarded a contract to the Harris RF Corporation to replace all of the HF radios in the Canadian Forces with new, state-of-the-art Falcon III DR-7800H units. This means that all of the older HF radios from the 90s were to be, or already have been, replaced. Chief amongst them is the Harris RF PRC-138/RF-5200 — a “manpack” radio, designed to be worn as a backpack, or mounted in a vehicle for use while mobile. They can be equipped with the features to allow for encryption of voice or digital communications, they’re relatively light, they’re hardened against electromagnetic pulse (a concern if you’re worried about nuclear attacks, which I imagine the Ukrainians are) and they’re designed for battlefield use.
I checked with my sources in the military, and was told that many (if not all) of these radios are still available — they have not yet been destroyed or sold off. That would mean that the Canadian Forces have hundreds of these units that it no longer needs that could be configured and deployed to Ukraine to assist them in their fight. It is something that Canada could contribute that would have a meaningful, significant and near-immediate impact on their war, and it wouldn’t cost us a thing, save the time of a few soldiers to gather, configure and prepare the gear for transport. Because the Ukrainian military is already using similar Harris RF equipment, whatever Canada sends them will almost certainly be interoperable.
The second problem facing the Ukrainians is that these aren’t the type of radios you just pick-up and talk into and expect the guy at the other end to hear you. They need to be tested and programmed, and then those civilians who become radio operators need to be taught how to use them. There are features built into all commercial and military HF radio equipment that are meant to make it easier to establish communications, but there is also a bit of an art when it comes to operating HF radio.
But here, history can be our guide. When Canada declared war on Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, our government suspended the Amateur Radio Service. To ensure compliance, radio inspectors were sent to the home of every licensee to collect certain equipment. Those inspectors were paired with a recruiter to encourage military-aged males to enlist in the Canadian military as signalmen. Those who weren’t of age, or who weren’t willing to join up, were encouraged to become civilian trainers for the military — to pass on their knowledge of radio technique to military members for the good of their country. This is where Canada can export one of our finest traditions to our friends in Europe.
Ukraine has many active amateur radio licensees among their population. While the amateur radio service in their country was suspended at the beginning of the conflict, there still remain many seasoned operators who are more than capable of passing on their knowledge of the craft to those taking up arms against the invaders — or alternatively, are willing to carry the radio alongside their AK-47 and become civilian signals operators.
The Ukrainians are putting up a fight the likes of which no one expected they’d be able to. Canada has the means and ability to send equipment that will make a real difference in their conflict, and help them repel the criminal actions of a petty dictator.
What are we waiting for?
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