AmRRon T-Rex 2019 After Action Report

The annual AmRRon T-Rex exercise was conducted April 26-28, 2019.  This scenario-based, grid down emergency communications training exercise is an opportunity to test members readiness in the event of a disaster or other emergency.

cyber attackThe scenario this year was primarily centered around a cyber attack on PLC’s (programmable logic controllers). These small devices provide computer control of many of our industrial and infrastructure mechanical devices. You may remember the “STUXNET” virus that struck Iran’s nuclear program. The virus attacked PLC’s that controlled the speed of uranium centrifuges and caused them to spin out of control resulting in failure and damage to the centrifuges.

The Department of Homeland Security recently released an Overview of Cyber Vulnerabilities as well as previous cyber attack warnings.  According to the FBI, the threat is incredibly serious—and growing. Cyber intrusions are becoming more commonplace, more dangerous, and more sophisticated. Our nation’s critical infrastructure, including both private and public sector networks, are targeted by adversaries.

MQ9 ReaperAfter Iran shot down a $131 million U.S. surveillance drone in June 2019, President Trump (according to The Washington Post) authorized U.S. Cyber Command to retaliate against Iran. The Pentagon launched a cyber attack against Iranian computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches.

Cyber warfare is real and seems more likely to occur now than ever before.  It is certainly something that prepper minded people should prepare for.  Imagine what might result if Iranian launches cyber attacks against America in response—the kind that could do serious damage to your organization. And, there are numerous other bad actors in our wacky world that could possibly release cyber malware into our on-line presence.

In addition to the cyber attack on the PLC’s, this years T-REX exercise incorporated other types of cyber attacks into commercial infrastructure and ATM’s, medical devices and communications services.

Since this was my first year participating in this exercise and really didn’t know what the expect, I chose not to simulate “grid down” conditions.  I’ve had a few real world experiences recently where I was able to deploy and test my emergency power readiness.  I also practiced deploying in the field during the recent Field Day.  Perhaps next year I will combine all those elements in T-Rex 2020.

My goal for this event was to practice making contact AmRRon net control stations on both voice and digital using FlDigi to both receive and pass traffic related to the exercise.
In addition, I wanted to begin involving other local hams in preparedness so I called several 2 Meter nets to both raise awareness and practice emergency communications on a local level.

In general, I had pretty poor reception the first day of the exercise on 20 meters for both voice and digital and only slightly better conditions on 40 meters. 80 meters was a complete wash.  In most cases I was unable to hear NCS (net control station).  I did work KC9WJW in Illinois on both 20 and 40 meters.  I also managed to get the net word of the day despite the light copy on 7.242 Mhz and heard both NCS and ANCS on digital at 7.110 Mhz.

Conditions did not really improve the next morning.  In fact, I was not able to hear any NCS in voice or digital on 20 and 40 meters.  I don’t know if it was propagation or that my antenna just didn’t quite perform.

The afternoon brought better conditions and I had a QSO with K4RIT in North Carolina on 14.342 Mhz.  I was also able to successfully upload my STATREP 14.110 Mhz digital to NY7T in Washington. A little later on digital 7.110 Mhz, I successfully received some traffic. I was disappointed that one of the larger files dropped several blocks and I was unable to get NCS to fill them.  That event did highlight for me one of the drawbacks or weaknesses to digital communications using Fldigi.  If you don’t get all the blocks to a file, the file is essentially worthless – it’s all or nothing.

Saturday night brought a little better reception on 7.242 enabling me to get checked in the first time on a voice net with K8ROY in Illinois. The later digital and voice nets on 40 and 80 meters were a wash out.

On the last day of the exercise, Sunday morning did not bring better band conditions.  I heard nothing on the early 20 meter voice and digital nets. I did manage to get relayed in on the late morning 40 meter digital net.

Following the AmRRon T-REX S.O.I., I conducted five local 2 meter nets on 146.420 Mhz.  I had a total of 10 successful voice check-ins and 2 more relays.  All of those check-ins were from non-AmRRon members and only came about because of my announcements on more frequently used frequencies.  Those nets all went well and pretty well confirmed my ability to communicate in my local area.

Take-a-Ways for this T-REX 19 exercise:
Overall, the exercise was a success for me. I accomplished my set out goals and learned from the experience.

  • It was quite frustrating trying to pull in signals and make contacts on the designated AmRRon frequencies.  Hearing a NCS (if they were present) was pretty difficult. I had better luck working other AMRRon operators. Had this been a real world emergency, I wouldn’t have lingered so long on the AmRRon designated frequencies and would have contacted those I could on other frequencies.  Don’t know how I could have helped those I reached but it would have increased my situational awareness on a nationwide scale.
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  • Using Fldigi on digital modes did provide more and better information the few times I could work a NCS.  Reading others’ STATREPS and SITREPS helped me better understand the effects of the emergency being experienced in other parts of the country. My failure to successfully download the AmRRon EXSUM (executive summary) was disappointing because it should have provided a more detailed perspective of the impact of the entire emergency.
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    It would have been nice if the digital nets lasted longer.  The short nets didn’t seem to give time for everyone to get checked in and limited the amount of time the NCS had to fill missing blocks in files.  But, given the scenario of a grid down situation, I suppose it would be unlikely that other stations could stay on the air for extended periods of time.
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    Concerning the software used for digital comms, Fldigi, you had better be practiced up using it if you expect any sort of results.  This is not simple software to install or use.  Despite my experience using computers and software, Fldigi seems awkward, slow, and not intuitive and would be all but impossible for the novice.  I would like to see a more user friendly software being adopted for emergency digital communications.
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  • U.S. Power GridThroughout the exercise,  I was reminded of the ease and convenience we’ve all come to expect from our modern digital footprint. I thought about how much easier it was to contact someone on my cell phone or download a file on the Internet.  Then I’d remember the scenario of this exercise: grid down, no cell service, no Internet, no electricity.  Had this been a real world disaster, it would have been totally crazy.
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    It does seem unlikely that a cyber attack on our power grid, like the T-Rex 2019 exercise simulated, would bring down the entire country.  It would more likely be confined to a region of the country.  On the other hand, a CME (solar mass ejection) or EMP (electromagnetic pulse) would probably be more widespread.
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  • It’s good to have these exercises because it gives us a chance to practice our emergency communication skills and equipment.  I imagine it would only be exponentially worse in a real world emergency.  Although I didn’t operate “grid down”, I suspect others did and may be a large part of the problem I had in hearing their weak signals.
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  • I must say, what I didn’t expect was the level of physical tension and exhaustion I experienced during the exercise.  And this was only an exercise.  I can’t imaging how difficult it might be in a “real-world” emergency.  I’m sure my physical response was brought on in part by the difficulties I had in communicating with stations across the country.

 

IC-7300To sum it up… Even though it was a challenge to hear and transmit to other stations, I did make those connections on a limited basis.  I suppose in a real world grid down scenario, it would be much more difficult.  But, I did have some contacts and I did receive intel that would be important should such a disaster really occur.  Certainly more information than those folks without ham radio gear and living in darkness.  I just hope it never happens, but I’ll be glad I’m somewhat prepared if it does happen.