Signallers pushing further in the Arctic

Posted on March 27, 2012


A single radio transmission has the power to move people, bring crucial supplies and save lives.

In the Arctic, communications is necessary for survival and one of the biggest challenges is trying to make a radio call in the middle of nowhere.

Sgt. Andrew Crawford stares up at an antenna.

For Exercise ARCTIC RAM, which took place in the Northwest Territories – six signallers from the Arctic Response Company Group (ARCG) went out to test long distance communications in the North.

Sergeant Andrew Crawford, 735 Communication Regiment, has been a signaller for more than 13 years. Doing Arctic communications is not new for him; in 2008, Crawford participated in the first Exercise NORTHERN BISON.

Back then, soldiers were only just feeling out what was possible in the Arctic.

“This time we’re actually stepping up and doing communications,” said Sgt. Crawford. “We get to test our ability to make signals happen in the North and we appreciate the challenge.”

Army signallers usually work with very high frequency waves, but those can only reach about 50 km. The challenge North of 60 is maintaining the frequency over vast distances in an environment where ground communication is crucial.

“We pass on information about where people are going, where we are, and what’s happening,” explained Crawford, who is also responsible for calling headquarters for resupply, and emergency medical aid.

During Ex ARCTIC RAM, the main contact for the ARCG was 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (1 CMBG) Headquarters stationed in Yellowknife, more than 300 km away. ARCG signallers began working with Ultra High Frequency, which travels further, and set-up a communications command post in the middle of a snowy forest.

“There are other ways, but since we’re on our feet this is what we do,” said Sgt. Crawford of the complicated set-up surrounding company headquarter tents.

The most powerful piece of equipment the group had was the Barker Williams antenna; its two ends transmit a powerful frequency, and the entire set-up looks like an ordinary clothes line.

“On a clear day like this, that antenna goes two thousand kilometres,” said Sgt. Crawford, who had successful contact with Yellowknife throughout the exercise.

Other antennas used include the NVIS – Near Vertical Incidence Sky Wave, and a shorter one crudely mounted to the headquarters’ komatik.

“To adapt to Arctic light infantry, we drilled it onto our sled,” said Sgt. Crawford, calling it the “ruggedized version” of field communications. All the radio equipment, costing several thousands of dollars, was powered by generators brought with the signallers on their sleds – while the other equipment was set up the old-fashioned way.

“It was just the two of us, and it took us an hour and a half because the ground was frozen,” said Sgt. Crawford, adding the experience was worth it because “we wanted to do this without using a satellite phone.”

Normally the same equipment would be carried in large military vehicles – but the communications crew was determined to do something more suited to light, tactical training in the Arctic.

Sgt. Crawford has been a reservist in the 38 Canadian Brigade Group throughout his military career, and it’s for challenges like those on Exercise ARCTIC RAM he continues to be a signaller.

“Signals has an excellent blend of going out in the woods, doing army stuff, and also working very technically,” he said.

Photos and article by Daniella Ponticelli