Exercise Noble Skywave works to push the boundaries of high frequency communications through a series of competitions testing the mettle of its participants.
It may have escaped your notice, but Canada hosted what was probably the world’s largest High Frequency (HF: three megahertz/MHz to 30MHz) radio competition. Dubbed Exercise Noble Skywave, the competition is hosted by the Canadian Communications and Electronics Branch. The branch forms part of Canada’s armed forces with the Canadian Army’s Royal Canadian Corps of Signals forming its land component. 2023’s Exercise Noble Skywave was organising by the Canadian Army’s 21st Electronic Warfare Regiment, the Canadian Forces’ Joint Signals Regiment and the Canadian School of Communications and Electronics. These units organised the event on behalf of the branch.
In its own words, the exercise brings “hundreds of teams from dozens of nations together to test, strengthen expertise and compete in a friendly atmosphere in what is now known as the most prestigious military-led HF competition in the world.”
A spokesperson from Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) told Armada that Noble Skywave has been held annually since 2013 and the 2023 exercise ran between 24th and 26th October. The overriding rationale of the initiative is to “promote the development of HF communication skills, increase international interoperability and engage with civilian partners to foster HF technical expertise in a global setting.” The last two decades has seen HF emerge as an alternative to some Satellite Communications (SATCOM) capabilities. HF provides intercontinental ranges, but its waveforms can be comparatively difficult to jam. Moreover, HF frequencies are free to use and do not suffer the congestion of some SATCOM bandwidths.
“With the right settings and antennas, HF radios can communicate without repeaters or additional resources across the world,” said the spokesperson. “As we plan redundancy in communication in military organisations, HF is often a contingency method to command and control troops on the ground. This enables warfighters to receive their orders in emergency situations, especially when internet, cellular or SATCOM are not an option.”
Militaries, and civilian licenced amateur radio enthusiasts, can enter Noble Skywave. The DND said the 2023 event included teams from 20 countries from all the world’s continents, including Antarctica. To this end participants from countries as diverse as Australia, Peru and the United Kingdom were involved. The Canadian Army’s Rangers, who operate in Canada’s isolated northern regions, also participated. “An interesting participant this year was the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) mission in Iraq, which intended to prove interoperability between NATO countries and the Iraqi Military.”
Participants are given the competition’s Communications and Electronics Operating Instructions (CEOI) before the exercise commences. The CEOI details how scores will be calculated during the competition. “Each team reports a contact,” said the spokesperson. “In general, the more contacts you have, the better the score you will get.” The 2023 event saw the teams log a total of 13,763 unique contacts with one another.
The spokesperson added that teams win points by establishing initial contact with as many other teams as possible during the time they have allotted. Teams can also win points according to the HF protocols they use when making contact. For example, they may use single sideband, second generation or third generation protocols. Points are also awarded on the length of distance between them and the contact. Teams are divided into groupings based on their geographical location. The first team contacting all the teams in their grouping within an allotted time are also declared challenge winners in their category. Details of the victorious from 2023’s competition can be found here.
HF has established itself as a reliable long-range communications protocol with significant military utility. Initiatives like Noble Skywave continue to refine the art and science of high frequency radio, while demonstrating its clear benefits in providing links with a global reach. Available SATCOM bandwidth is under commercial pressure and at risk from jamming and cyberattack, as the Ukraine war has shown. Noble Skywave helps refine high frequency communications as a way of taking up some of the SATCOM slack.
by Dr. Thomas Withington