Tactical Radio Communication
Date product posted
Sun March 5, 2006
Radio Communications in a Tactical Environment
Jason 'Kornkob' Robinson
Armies have struggled with coordinating their actions, particularly with units not in direct sight, ever since military elements were organized from the club wielding mobs of our distant ancestors.
The invention of man portable radio sets introduced in the middle of the 20th century began to allow some of the larger elements (brigade or company and above) start to communicate. This allowed coordinated action across a very large area, even across continents. Quickly it became apparent that, in the crucible of combat, unless careful protocols were followed communication would rapidly deteriorate into a series of misunderstandings and garbled messages.
This problem became even more critical when radios became small, simple and inexpensive enough to provide communication capability to every soldier. The personal nature of combat at the squad and fireteam level, with little to nothing to insulate the individual troop from the frenetic pace and energy of action, the very act of sending and receiving communication can overload the senses.
Over time a protocol has evolved that allows even individual soldiers to effectively communicate over the radio, even during the worst firefight. While the specifics of radio protocol do vary from country to country and even unit to unit, there are some general principles that are fairly ubiquitous.
• THINK THEN SPEAK: Knowing what you want to say before you key the microphone is important.
• KISS – Keep it Simple and Short: Complex, gregarious communication via radio is to be avoided. Messages should be simple and concise.
• USE PERIODS: You need to remember to tell others when you are done speaking to avoid interruptions and prompt responses.
The following portion of this document will describe a basic protocol, based on US Army standards. Each portion of a typical radio communication will be explored as will several ‘special cases’ that one might commonly encounter. For the most part this document will focus on that which is useful for Paintball and Airsoft, so such cases as calling in artillery or close air support will not be covered. Small unit tactical communications is the main point of this article.
Starting the Conversation
When one wants to talk on the radio you need to announce who you are talking to and who you are. Also, once you are done talking you need to indicate that. To indicate you are done with a sentence and are listening for a response you say the word ‘Over’. (Obviously one wants to avoid using that term anywhere else in the transmission, as it could cause confusion.) So a basic, simple transmission would sound like this:
Alpha One, this is Bravo Six. Over.
This example contains all the required elements of a transmission. A, this is B. Over. Generally this particular example is used to initiate a series of transmissions. When Bravo Six needs to talk to Alpha One he needs to make sure that Alpha One is listening. You see, this short phrase also tells other people on the same frequency that they do not need to pay attention to this transmission, allowing them to continue doing what they were doing, only listening for the end of the conversation.
When Alpha One hears this transmission he replies in kind, indicating that he has heard Bravo Six and is prepared to converse.
This is Alpha One. Over.
Now, Bravo Six knows that Alpha One can hear him and he can begin his conversation.
As stated previously one wants to keep one’s transmissions short and to the point. One wants to keep the conversation flowing so that the channel can be cleared as rapidly as possible for other’s to use. Also, seeing as firefights generally are happening at a rapid pace, one needs to convey their information as rapidly as possible, in order to maximize response time.
An example of very poor radio discipline is:
Alpha One, this is Bravo Six. Yeah…um.. I’ve got a bunch of guys over here, they look like the bad guys. They are…………… I’d say, over about like 30 yards to my 11 o’clock, your 12 o’clock or thereabouts. And there are about, maybe, …………………….6 ……….or 10 of them. They seem to be moving your way. Maybe you should, like, kinda move back a little so that we can shoot at them a little to slow them down and stuff. Over.
As you can see this rambling, dead air filled transmission is slow and filled with potentially confusing statements. A better way to approach this would be to wait an extra couple seconds (seconds wasted in the first example) to collect one’s thoughts and frame a rapid fire, easily understood statement. Like this:
Alpha One, this is Bravo Six. Be advised. You’ve got 5 to 10 possible enemy 40 meters to your front moving to you. Fall back 10 meters to my flank so we can cover you. Over.
This said the same thing in an affirmative, no nonsense fashion. The ‘Be Advised’ is an example of an ‘attention getter’. This let’s Alpha One know that they have specific information of immediate importance to the recipient coming down. In the glossary you will find other examples of pointers like this.
Alpha One, having heard this and decided not to argue that maybe Bravo Six should move forward 10 meters, decides to comply with his suggestion and fall back. He might respond thusly:
Six, One. I copy 5 to 10 enemy. 40 meters forward. Fall back to your flank. Wilco. Over.
You’ll note a couple things here. Alpha One shortened both their names for one. Basically, once the conversation has started and all other units on this channel know they are not being spoken to, the units involved can start to shorten their names to just the unique component. In this case, Six and One are the unique components at their level. Neither wants anyone else on Bravo team or Alpha team to get confused so they leave off that piece.
Also, One made a point of reading back the critical information. Since Bravo Six presumably already understands the situation, all One is doing is letting Six know that One noted the correct details. The phrase ‘I copy…’ is the indicator of this. It says ‘the next things I say are what I understand you to have said to me previously’.
Additionally, One said ‘Wilco’. This term means ‘I received your message, I understand and I will comply’. Another affirmative term (often misused) is ‘Roger’, which means ‘I have received your message and I understand’.
A sidelight: it is notable that ‘Roger Wilco Over and Out’ so often heard in old WW2 movies, is a nonsense phrase. Literally translated Hollywood’s catchy phrase ‘Roger Wilco, Over and Out’ says: ‘I received your message and I understand I received your message and I understand and I will comply I am done sending and am waiting for your reply and I am done sending and no reply is needed or expected’. Obviously this statement is garbage.
Now that Six has heard that he needs to let One know he’s got the right information. He might respond with:
One. Good copy. Out.
Here Six has shortened it further, leaving off the self-identifier. He then uses the phrase ‘good copy’. This means ‘you have correctly heard me’.
He also closed with a different item. ‘Out’ is the term used to notify everyone on the channel that the air is clear and others can now initiate conversations because Six and One are done.
So far we’ve discussed how 2 units on a single radio channel can talk to one anther effectively. However, there are several other circumstances that radio protocol needs to account for. These special cases generally have their own set of rules, as they will often not follow the ‘normal’ formula.
Probably one of the most frequent special case is the radio check. This is done by any unit on a channel to make sure that their radio is working properly and they are on the correct frequency. The person who id doing the radio check initiates it without any introduction.
Any element this net, this is Bravo Six. Radio Check. Over.
His message and introduction are one, in essence. Unless Bravo Six knows someone in particular that he wants to make sure he can talk to, getting anyone on this channel is good enough, just so he gets confirmation. He specifies ‘Radio Check’ which not only tells the other elements that it will be a short conversation, but that Bravo Six is concerned with the quality of the transmission.
Who responds is often determined by individual unit protocol. Some units prefer that the command element respond. Others specify that it can be anyone who hears him. In any case, someone must respond.
This is Alpha One. Roger. Over.
In this case Alpha one indicated that he heard Bravo Six and that the transmission was strong (loud) and understandable (clear). He alternatively could have said ‘Loud and Clear’ instead of Roger. This would have been technically accurate but redundant. It is assumed that if no signal qualifiers are used in response to a radio check, the check was Loud and Clear.
It is important to note that, as always, The person that started the conversation needs to end it. For a radio check this also serves to do a check of Alpha One. Six might respond with:
This is Bravo Six. Roger. Out.
Bravo Six has then verified his radio and that of Alpha one in the shortest time possible.
If the transmission is less than Loud and Clear, specific qualifiers are used to designate it. These qualifiers are given in a particular order. The first is signal strength which is determined by comparative volume. The second is how understandable or clear the transmission is. The appropriate signal quality terms are:
Signal Strength -------------- Signal Clarity
Fading With Interference......Intermittent
Talking to multiple units
Sometimes a single unit needs to communicate with multiple units. This generally occurs when a command unit needs to give instructions or information to multiple units in his command. A command element attempting to talk to his units might sound like this:
All Bravo units this net. Halt and prepare to engage 5 to 10 enemy at 11 o’clock. Alpha element will link up at left flank. Over.
In this instance, Bravo Six has advised his units what he needs them to do and be prepared for in the near future. Obviously, in order to ensure that all elements heard the instruction, they need to respond.
Bravo One. Wilco. Over
Bravo One has indicated that he understands and will comply. While units may have their own process for determining the order in which units respond to a wide scale communication, most often it is done in numerical order for ease of use.
Bravo Two. Wilco. Over.
Bravo 2 follows suit.
(dead air for 2-4 seconds) Bravo Six. Negative contact Bravo Three. Over
In this instance, Bravo Three failed to respond to the message. After waiting a brief time, Bravo Six, who is waiting for the responses, steps so that Bravo Four can take his turn. The term ‘negative contact’ means that one has been unable to hear someone’s response on the radio.
Bravo Four. Wilco. Over.
Now we have all checking in except Bravo Three. While this is of concern to Bravo Six, it is not the subject of this message. So it is time to close this portion of the conversation.
Bravo Six. Roger. Out.
Six has acknowledged the responses from the Bravo elements and terminated that series of communications.
The Phonetic Alphabet
The problem with the alphabet and numbers when spoken over a radio is the flat sound of many radio frequencies, coupled with ambient sound and radio interference, one letter or number can sound a great deal like another. As such one needs to spell ‘phonetically’. In other words, use words to designate letters and use specific pronunciations of numbers. This reduces confusion and helps make sure that messages are correctly conveyed.
A - ALPHA
B - BRAVO
C - CHARLIE
D - DELTA
E - ECHO
F - FOXTROT
G - GOLF
H - HOTEL
I - INDIA
J - JULIETT
K - KILO
L - LIMA
M - MIKE
N - NOVEMBER
O - OSCAR
P - PAPA
Q - QUEBEC
R - ROMEO
S - SIERRA
T - TANGO
U - UNIFORM
V - VICTOR
W - WHISKEY
X - X-RAY
Y - YANKEE
Z – ZULU
0 – Ze-Ro
1 – Wun
2 – Too
3 – Tree
4 – Fow-Er
5 – Fife
6 – Six
7 – Sev-En
8 – Ait
9 – Nin-Er
Special use terms
There are a host of specific words used to aid in communication or corrections. Below is a list of these terms, their definitions and, sometimes, examples of their use.
BREAK: This term is used to separate different parts of a message. Instead of saying ‘Out’, when a conversation is done, he might say ‘over. Break. Break.’ This lets the listeners know that, while one conversation is done, the same sender is about to initiate a 2nd conversation and as such is not releasing the channel for use by anyone else. It is also often used when someone is attempting to interrupt a conversation. Sometimes emergency information comes in and someone might take advantage of a pause to ‘break’ in with critical information.
CORRECTION: Literally means: ‘There is an error in this transmission and I will start again with the last work or term that I said correctly’. Usually used when spelling out locations or directions.
I SAY AGAIN: Means that you are about to repeat something. The reason ‘repeat’ isn’t used is that has a very specific meaning in artillery fire. It means ‘fire again same location’. Obviously, this could have tragic consequences if someone was, for instance, saying ‘Cease Fire, Repeat, Cease Fire’ which would literally mean: ‘Stop firing, fire again same location, stop firing’.
MESSAGE (Follows/Ends): Used to designate the beginning and end of a specific message. For instance: Message Follows. Strategic Command authorizes use of force to secure area of operations. Message Ends.
OUT: This is the end of this exchange. No answer is required or expected.
OVER: This is the end of my transmission and I am waiting for your response.
RADIO CHECK: What is my signal strength and clarity?
ROGER: I received your message and I understand.
SAY AGAIN: Please repeat your last transmission, I did not understand.
TIME: The following is an expression of time and/or date.
WAIT ONE: I am pausing for a few seconds.
WAIT OUT: I must pause for longer than a few seconds. I will call you back when I return.
WILCO: I received your transmission, I understand and I will comply
Other Tactical Terms
CEASE FIRE: Stop firing all weapons.
FIRE: Fire on designated targets
FIRE AT WILL: Select and fire on targets of choice
WEAPONS FREE: You are authorized to use your weapons.
WEAPONS HOLD: Only fire if fired upon.
WEAPONS SAFE: You are not authorized to fire.
FLANK: The rear/side of a unit. Also used as a verb ‘to flank’, meaning to move where you can fire on the side/rear of the target
BOGEY: An unidentified unit.
TANGO: Terrorist. Generally a target.
FRIENDLY: A unit positively identified as being on your side.
ENEMY: An opposing unit. A target.
OPFOR: OPposition FORce. The enemy.
GO LOUD: Operational silence no longer needed. Units may open up with loud weapons and make other noise/light.
INBOUND: Coming towards us
OUTBOUND: Going away from us.
(number) O’CLOCK: A direction expressed based on the direction a person is facing being 12 O’CLOCK
ECHO ECHO: Escape and evade. Generally used when an organized retreat is no longer possible. Tells units that they are no longer expected to fight as a cohesive unit and they should break contact and evade the enemy.
RALLY (at): Meet at a specific location, usually pre-designated as a ‘rally point’.
CONTACT: skirmishing or fighting with the enemy.
BREAK CONTACT: Maneuver units to stop actively fighting the enemy. Pull back from the enemy and stop fighting. Not always a ‘retreat’. Often used to allow Close Air Support or Arty to hit an enemy or delay while reinforcements arrive.Often used to have fighting elements fall back to secondary positions, reorganize and reengage the enemy quickly.
RETREAT: Break contact and attempt to maintain that break. Generally used when the enemy has the upper hand and one wishes to preserve as much of your fighting force as possible.
AMBUSH: To attack from a prepared location that allows friendly elements to concentrate their fire to decimate the enemy when they are unawares. Often misused to describe simply surprising the enemy.
VISUAL: Able to directly see.
DOWN: Dead, out of action. Example: I’ve got 3 down and we’ve still got significant contact. Or: Opfor has 2 down and one maneuvering to our flank.
DRY: Out of ammunition
RADIO DARK: Do not use the radio unless instructed otherwise.
While this article outlines some ‘rules’ about radio traffic, the fact is that as a unit starts to work together the rules will be abbreviated. Enforcing a protocol for protocol’s sake is foolish. As a team works together for a time they will become comfortable with one another and learn to communicate in even more efficient manners.
However, it is still important to learn and practice good radio discipline, without any shortcuts, periodically. Teams often change members or get members who are new added to their elements. ‘Localized’ radio protocol will slow down the process of folding that new player into the group.
Feel free to develop and create you own methodology if you wish. Just remember that if you over engineer your process it will fail under the stress of conflict.
You can refer to US Army Training Manual 24-18 for help in developing your own process or learning more about the Army’s radio protocols.
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