"MARS" in this case means "Military Auxiliary Radio System", a radio network of non-military stations (Hams) allowed to communicate on military frequencies.
I was encouraged to join the MARS network, but the requirements for actually operating on-the-air are pretty stringent as to the amount of time required, so I declined the invitation.
MARS station have very unique callsigns, as in the case of the Battleship Iowa, NNN0CIA. No idea how we managed the "CIA" suffix, but it always gets a chuckle when radio people visit the Comm Center on the Iowa.
Besides handling routine traffic such as "Health and Welfare" messages, the MARS network is also a complete stand-alone emergency radio network with direct connection to the US Military. And the MARS stations get activated for the Armed Forces Day Cross-Band Test, which allows Amateur radio operators to communicate directly with the military radio stations by transmitting in the Amateur Radio bands, while listening outside the Amateur bands to the military frequencies.
We also have a MARS digipeater for the MARS packet radio network (yes, packet is still alive!) that get excellent coverage due to the antenna being on the top of the ship which gives an unobstructed radio view of the coast line from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
Back in 2009 the Navy/Marine Corps segment of MARS was almost shut down, but a change from "Affiliated" to "Auxiliary" status saved the money, and the Navy/Marine Corps segment of the program.
Well, this time it's for real. From The ARRL Letter:
"The intent of the transition is to best align the program to support national mission requirements," the announcement said. Chris Jensen of Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic (NCTAMS LANT) told ARRL that the Navy no longer has any service-specific requirements for Navy-Marine Corps MARS and is working within DoD to transition the program into Army and Air Force MARS by September 30.
The announcement encouraged current Navy-Marine Corps MARS members and clubs to submit applications to the US Army MARS or US Air Force MARS programs as soon as possible.
"The US Navy greatly appreciates the thousands of MARS volunteers, past and present, who have been integral to the success of MARS," the announcement concluded.
An individual very familiar with the MARS program said the change was not unexpected and came to a head as the US Strategic Command embraced Army MARS as the lead branch for contingency communication and Air Force MARS began partnering with the US Army program on the operations side.
"The Army and Air Force MARS branches have an obvious role in providing contingency communications for the 50 states," said the individual, who preferred not to be identified by name. "Members are everywhere 'on the ground,' and experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has proven the tactical usefulness of HF on land. There was no similar role for the landlocked membership of Navy-Marine Corps MARS."
He said the MARS program can use all the volunteers it can attract. Read more http://www.arrl.org/news/us-navy-marine-corps-mars-program-to-end.
The Army and Air Force segments will continue to exist and operate, but "Navy MARS" and "Marine MARS" will be gone forever as of 30 September.
We'll probably be assigned a new callsign for the Iowa, and the digipeater will get reprogrammed, but it's good that at least a portion of MARS will continue to exist.