Military Air  Scanners 

(with some hints for monitoring Red Flag and the operation near Groom Lake)

Gurus click here to get to the radio information table

The military UHF air band is roughly 225 MHz  to 400 MHz. [There are a few holes in the band.] The modulation mode is AM for aircraft. All the scanners on this list will meet that minimum requirement. The remaining frequencies for Red Flag are standard on all scanners, i.e civil air band AM, VHF NFM, etc. Some military communications in the military air band are on NFM, namely SATCOM. Most scanners will default to AM in the military air band, but will allow other demodulation (NFM, WFM). Typically the traditional wideband multimode scanners such as those made by Alinco, AOR, ICOM, Sony, Yaesu, and Yupiteru allow changing from AM to FM in the military air band, but it is best to check with the vendor for the model you are contemplating purchasing if satcom is of any interest. [SATCOM usually requires a special antenna and low noise preamp, but there are times when it can be heard with a simple scanner.] Military airplanes also have HF  (high frequency, typically from 8Mhz to 13MHz for the military) capability, but it is unlikely to be used during a flag event since these frequencies can be heard around the world.  The military HF is known as High Frequency Global Communication System (HFGCS), and can be found many places on the net with a search for GHFS (the old name for the system) or HFGCS. . 

Some are confused as to why you need to listen to military air frequencies since airports simulcast in both the civilian air (VHF, aka Victor) and military (UHF, aka Uniform). The airport frequencies are simulcast, but if you don't have military air in your scanner, you won't hear the military airplanes, but rather just the tower. At times, if you want to hear all the airport radio traffic, you will need to monitor both the UHF and VHF frequencies. This is especially true at the operation near Groom Lake, where the Janet flights use VHF, the military flights are on UHF, and both may be talking to the tower. Now to add some confusion,  if you are monitoring the Nellis Weapons School, much of it is in the civilian air band and even more confusing, a bit beyond the civilian air band. [The civilian air band ends at 138Mhz. There is a small federal band between 138MHz and 142MHz. This band usually uses NFM, but the weapons school frequencies in this band are AM.]  

Computer control makes programming the scanner much easier. However, if you buy a scanner without a PC port, it isn't the end of the world. It just takes more work to manage the data programmed in the scanner. If using multiple scanners, use the scanner that doesn't have the PC port to band scan. [Band scanning is an exhaustive search over the limits of the band. Typically the military air band frequency assignments are on 100Khz spacing, but the band is authorized for spacing as small as 25Khz. Thus scanning the whole band can take some time and your odds of getting a hit are reduced by the time it takes to cover the band. You can slightly speed up the search by setting the scanner to "pass" on known frequencies. This works very well in the narrower civilian air band, but is also useful in the military air band if certain frequencies are very busy.]   Remember, the only way new frequencies are discovered is to search for them.   

Some of these scanners have alphanumeric tags. This is a nice feature, but not absolutely a requirement. If the scanner can be programmed with a PC, keep a list of the frequencies and description handy, and when the frequency is active on the scanner, you can look at the list if you really want to know the identification of the channel.

Generally, mobile scanners will perform better than handheld scanners. If you plan on scanning from a car exclusively, a mobile is the way to go. The mobile unit is large enough to allow bigger filters, better shielding, more space between components for isolation, etc. The speaker will be easier to hear as well. However, if you plan on hiking to Tikaboo (the Area 51 view spot), carrying a big mobile scanner plus an external battery pack can ruin your day, or perhaps your back.

Some of the scanners on this list require the use of a PC to run them. If you are at a Red Flag, that would imply a notebook computer is required (unless you have a room at the Little Alien)  This is not to discourage buying units such as the ICOM IC-PCRxxxx, but you need to know what is involved when using such a radio.  There are some notebook PCs that can get 7 hours of run time, so the IC-PCRxxxx wouldn't be at a disadvantage if you had a notebook with long battery life. The notebook can use the "scanner recorder" [www.davee.com] to record the audio without gaps in the transmission. 

Most military airbases use trunked repeaters. Groom Lake is no exception, though it is a digital and perhaps encrypted. [When you hear terms like Astro or Pro-voice, these are digital audio formats that may or may not be encrypted. Don't assume digital means encryption.]  If you plan on monitoring military bases as well as Red Flag, you will need a scanner capable of trunking. This is getting beyond the scope of this military air web page. Check out www.radioreference.com for more information on trunked radio systems.  You don't need one radio that does both mil air and trunking. Invariably trunking  systems change over the years so you will need to get a new trunk radio scanner. If you use two different scanners, you can keep the military air scanner and sell the old trunking scanner on ebay. 

Many Radio Shack scanners that are no longer current are listed here. Most late model  Radio Shack scanners do not cover military air band, with the exceptions currently being the Pro-97 and a software modified Pro-96/Pro-2096. 

While this list just summarizes features, a great radio cannot be determined by a check list. For instance, all the Yupiteru radios listed here are really good receivers, but none have computer control. [The MVT7100, the least featured Yupitero, is considered by many to be the best portable for military airband monitoring.]  All radios have annoying problems such as birdies (frequencies that always appear to have a carrier, but really are bugs in the design of the radio). The better radios have less birdies. You can't receive a frequency if there is a birdie there. A mobile radio tends to be both sensitive and can handle strong signals, as would be the case if you hooked up a large antenna, while some portable scanners will overload with high gain antennas. Overload does not seem to be a problem around Area 51, since there are no kilowatt pager systems, etc. However, if you plan on using the scanner elsewhere, this is something to keep in mind.

Some ham equipment will cover the military air band. However, ham gear tends to scan slowly, so really all you can do with a ham radio is park it on a critical frequency. A Yaesu FT50RD is one example of a ham radio that covers military air band, but the specifications are subject to debate, which is why you are better buying a scanner if you want to scan. You don't hammer with a wrench, right?

Before buying any radio listed here, it is a good idea to do a google search on the model number and read user comments. You can't trust everything you read on the net (damn it, we did land on the moon), but it is good to research the user complaints to see if there are potential problems.

There are mail order companies in Europe that sell the "export" versions of many of these radios. Generally, the versions meant for the "rest of world" work better than the US versions, but you might have to buy a new wall wart if the voltage of the European version is not 117VAC.  For a handheld radio, just run it from batteries, either alkaline AA or externally charged nicads/NiMH). Three good suppliers of export radios are www.bander.comwww.javiation.co.uk, and http://www.cbshop.com .   You may be required to pay duty on a radio you import, depending on the phase of the moon and the tide.

A source of quick reviews on these radios is www.strongsignals.net. The reviews are not very detailed, but will help you narrow down the list.


Military Air Band for Weenies

Technically, the military air band spans 225.0-328.6 MHz and 335.4-399.9 MHz. The channel spacing is 25Khz.  If you have two scanners or some sophisticated scanner that can skip a whole range of frequencies while band scanning, you can omit this "hole" in the band. The "hole" from 328.6-335.4 MHz is used by the FAA for Instrument Landing System Glideslope. Unless you are on a mountain top or close to the airport, it is very unlikely you will get a hit in this band. That is, it won't hang up the scanner, but of course it will take longer to scan the entire military air band if you include the "hole". Feel free to google "FLTSATCOM" if you want to find the satellite frequencies to skip them in bandscanning. Personally, if I got a hit on FLTSATCOM, I'd want to listen. [You would have to change the mode of the radio to NFM for FLTSATCOM.] 


Chart legend:

Type: 

A handheld radio is one designed to be both portable and battery powered. A mobile radio is generally small enough to be portable, but needs to be operated from an external battery, generally a car battery or 12V gel cell. Mobile radios are about the side of a single DIN slot automobile radio. A base radio is a unit much larger than a mobile, and designed for a desk top. They can often be used from a battery as well. but are quite bulky. High end gear (Icom and AOR  base units) often have relays in them that switch depending on the frequency band in use. [The relays are changing front-end filters.] This can be quite annoying if you aren't accustomed to the sound of relays clicking. Generally this is not a case if you band scan over a small regions. However, if you memory bank scan and cross a threshold, the relay will click. 

AM:     Used by aircraft

NFM: Used by ground forces

WFM: Not commonly use in military exercises.

SSB: 

Used by military aircraft, but not in the 225-400MHz military air band. SSB is generally used on shortwave, though there is ham and CB VHF operation . Generally, DC to daylight radios (slang for very wide band radios) don't do a very good job on shortwave. Further, shortwave doesn't work well with squelch circuits since the background noise level isn't all that consistent on shortwave. You should really get a dedicated radio for shortwave if that is your interest. However, it's a nice feature in a scanner if you have no other shortwave radio available. Note that sideband has that "Donald Duck" sound if the frequency is off a bit. Generally a step size of 10Hz is required for clean sideband reception, and most of the DC to daylight radios use 50Hz steps.

HF: 

Some scanners have HF (short wave) capability, but can't receive in sideband. [They are targeted for shortwave broadcast reception.]  For shortwave military air communications, you would need both the SSB and HF column checked. 

PC Port: 

A "yes" here means there is a way to program the radio from a computer's serial port or USB. This is generally a PC, not a Mac. The emulation programs on the mac often don't work correctly for programs that use the serial port. Conclusion: dump the mac. You may need additional hardware to interface with the PC port on some radios such as the Icom's that use CIV. The software may be proprietary. Unlike Ronald Reagan's claim that you can cut taxes, increase military spending and balance the budget, there is a free lunch for some radios regarding freeware programming software, especially for the Icom PCR1000. Google is your friend for locating such software. 

Note that some radios are merely PC programmable, while others are PC controllable, and some are only useable with a PC. PC control isn't particularly useful unless you are doing automatic logging of frequency hits (and perhaps storing the audio). Generally, PC control is slower than letting the radio do the scanning. The exception would be the newer generation radios that use USB.

Many late model computers have dropped serial ports in favor of USB. Of course, this hasn't stopped the radio manufacturers from continuing to supply serial interfaces. This means you will need a USB to 232 (serial) converter. I have tested Keyspan USB to serial converters with both GPS and scanners with success.  

Web: click on the link for information or the manual. The manuals can often be a few Mbytes, which may be an issue for those on dial-up.

Sensitivity: 

Generally the lower the number, the better the ability for the radio to receive a weak signal. However, the more sensitive radios also are more prone to signal overload. For a handheld radio being using with a low gain antenna (such as a whip or discone), the lower sensitivity isn't an issue. Also, if you are monitoring in the boonies (i.e. Red Flag), there is very little radio pollution in the area. Mobile and base radios are designed for larger antennas, so they may not be as sensitive. However, the better mobile and base radios can handle the larger signal provided by the better antennas.

Selectivity: 

I've never found the military air band to be crowded, so from the standpoint of adjacent channel interference, selectivity isn't a big deal. However, the more narrow band radios are probably better suited for use in urban environments since they are probably less likely to be overloaded. Noise is a function of bandwidth on AM, so in theory the more selective radios will perform better on AM.  

Comments:

Most of the comments are pretty obvious. Occasionally there will be a comment if the first IF is rather high in frequency as compared to typical scanners. The higher than usual IF gives better rejection of FM broadcast frequencies, which is only of concern if you scan from urban areas. 

When the comments contains the word discontinued, that only means the radio is not available to the general public. It might be no longer manufactured, or only sold to the government. Many discontinued radios on this list are quite good.. For instance, the old Radio Shack scanners made by GRE are good finds if you don't mind programming them by hand.

"Signal Stalker" or "Close Call" is a feature that allows the use to program the scanner to "sniff out" frequencies. That is, the scanner is set up to search particular bands and lock onto a frequency faster than what is normally known as bandscanning. [Bandscanning is an exhaustive search between two limits. It is also called limit scanning.]  I have manged to find mil air frequencies using  the Signal Stalker II on a Pro-97.



Manufacturer model type AM NFM WFM SSB HF PC Port Web Sensitivity Select- ivity Comments
Alinco DJ-X10T handheld yes yes yes yes yes yes info 1uV @ 10db S/N -6db @ 15 kHz Improved version of the DJ-X1, which should be avoided.
Alinco DJ-X2000 handheld yes yes yes yes yes yes info 1uV @ 10db S/N    
Alinco DJ-X3 handheld yes yes yes yes yes yes info 1.8uV @ 10db S/N -6db @ 12 kHz  
AOR AR3000B mobile yes yes yes yes yes yes info
manual
mixers
1uV @ 10 db S/N -6db @ 12 kHz  This scanner has been around for a long time. The plain, "A", and "B" version are similar. The microprocessor gets upgraded over the years. This is a very small mobile unit with a GASFET front end. First IF at 736 MHz.
AOR AR5000A+3 base yes yes yes yes yes yes info
history
0.89uV @ 10dB S/N -6db@ 6kHz Multiple filters. This is probably as tight as you want to go for AM; First IF around 622 MHz
AOR AR8000 handheld yes yes yes yes yes yes       Discontinued; Early units needed many mods; to be avoided IMHO
AOR AR8200 MK III B handheld yes yes yes yes yes yes info 1.5uV @ 10dB S/N -6dB @ 9 kHz  
AOR AR-ONE mobile yes yes yes yes yes yes info 0.89uV @ 10dB S/N -6dB @ 9 kHz Yeah, but will they sell it to you?
Commtel COM225 base yes yes yes no no no info    
GRE America PSR-300 handheld yes yes no no no yes info 1uV@20dN S/N Analog trunking
GRE America PSR-500 handheld yes yes no no no yes info Digital trunking
GRE America PSR-400 mobile yes yes no no no yes info Analog trunking
GRE America PSR-600 mobile yes yes no no no yes info Digital trunking
Icom R9000 base yes yes yes yes yes yes info review 1.4uV @ 10 db S/N -6db @ 6 kHz Top of the line, features galore, but not a very fast scanning radio. There is a CRT version and a LCD version. The LCD is the preferred version. Discontinued.
Icom R8500 base yes yes yes yes yes yes info info
manual
2.5uV  -6db @ 12 kHz The government version is still manufactured, but the blocked version is discontinued.. PC interface is both RS232 serial and Icom C-IV.
Icom  R7100 base yes yes yes yes no yes info 1.6uV @ 10 db S/N -6dB @ 6 KHz Sideband, but no HF.  Discontinued. First  IF at 779 MHz.. PC interface is via Icom C-IV.
user_manual
service_manual
Icom IC-PCR100 mobile yes yes yes no yes yes info info 1uV @ 10 db S/N -6dB @ 6 kHz Requires a PC to operate; the lack of sideband limits the HF operation to AM short wave radio station; discontinued
Icom IC-PCR1000 mobile yes yes yes yes yes yes info no mil air specs no mil air specs Government sales only, so effectively discontinued. Requires a PC to operate but has sideband to receive military GHFS; 
Icom IC-PCR1500 mobile yes yes yes yes yes yes info 2uV at 10 db S/R ?TBD
Requires a PC to operate. Extremely wide band (10Khz to 3.3GHz).; Note the PC interface is USB.
Icom IC-R1500 mobile info The same as the IC-PCR1500, but it also has a detactable front panel so that it could be used without a PC. USB control.
Icom IC-PCR2500 mobile info This is like two IC-PCR1500s in one box. The two receivers can be combined into one receiver for "diversity", or used as two individual receivers. USB control.
Icom IC-R2500 mobile info The same as the IC-PCR1500 but includes a detachable front panel. 
Icom IC-R20 handheld yes yes yes yes yes yes info no mil air specs -6dB @ 12 kHz Built in recorder.
Icom IC-R10 handheld yes yes yes yes yes yes info 1.6uV @ 10 dB S/N -6dB @ 15 kHz  
Icom IC-R2 handheld yes yes yes no yes yes info 0.71uV @ 10 dB S/N -6dB @ 15 kHz Replaced by the R5; Sensitivity spec only up to 330MHz
Icom IC-R3 handheld yes yes yes no no yes info 1uV @ 10 dB S/N -6dB @ 12 kHz Receives video too. Sensitivity spec only up to 330MHz
Icom IC-R5 handheld yes yes yes no no yes info 0.71uV @ 10 dB S/N -9dB @ 15 kHz Sensitivity spec only up to 330Mhz
Optoelectronics Optocom mobile yes yes yes no no yes info 2uV @ 10 db S/N -6dB @ 12 kHz Discontinued. Requires PC control. Will do trunking with 3rd party software.
Radio Shack PRO-2035 mobile yes yes yes no no well.. info 2uV @ 20dB S/N -6dB @ 6kHz Discontinued. Computer control with obsolete Opto OS535 card; First IF  around 600Mhz.. Recorder output.
Radio Shack PRO-2042 mobile yes yes yes no no well.. info 2uV @ 20dB S/N   Discontinued. Computer control with Opto OS535 card First IF around 610 MHz. Recorder output.
Radio Shack PRO-2045 mobile yes yes yes no no no info 1.5uV @ 20db S+N/N   Discontinued
Radio Shack PRO-2052 mobile yes yes yes no no no info 1.5uV @ 20dB S+N/N -6dB @ 10 kHz Discontinued; does some trunking
Radio Shack PRO-26 handheld yes yes yes no no no info 2uV @ 20dB S+N/N   Discontinued
Radio Shack PRO-43 handheld yes yes no no no no info 2uV @ 20dB S+N/N -6dB @ 10 kHz Discontinued 
Radio Shack PRO-60 handheld yes yes yes no no no info 2uV @ 20dB S+N/N -6dB @ 10 kHz Discontinued
Radio Shack PRO-96
PRO-2096
handheld
mobile
yes yes no no no yes manual software no mil air specs -6dB @ 10 kHz This radio will cover military airband IF you use the software from www.starrsoft.com
The sensitivity of the radio after the software modification can be found here.
Radio Shack PRO-97
PRO-2055
handheld
mobile
yes yes no no no yes manual no mil air specs -6db @ 10KHz Signal Stalker II
Sony ICF-SC1
ICF-SC1PC
handheld yes yes yes no no no
yes
Check out
SonySC1Wavehawk
users group at
yahoogroups.
no specs  no specs  Discontinued, but can probably be found used. These were blown out on the net at $100. Very sensitive receiver, but hampered by a squelch time constant is too fast. The squelch time constant makes band scanning annoying, but it is not a problem with normal monitoring. This radio may be double conversion as it has cell band images.
Uniden BC3000 handheld yes yes yes no no no        
Uniden BC898T mobile yes yes yes no no yes manual no specs no specs  
Uniden BC780XLT mobile yes yes yes no no yes info manual no specs no specs  
Uniden BC785D mobile yes yes yes no no yes manual no specs no specs  
Uniden BC796D mobile yes yes yes no no yes manual no specs no specs  
Uniden BC250D handheld yes yes yes no no yes manual no specs no specs  
Uniden BC296D handheld yes yes yes no no yes manual no specs no specs  
Uniden BC996D mobile yes yes yes no no yes manual 0.4uV over
most of the mil air band
no specs Specification limit up to 380MHz.
Yaesu VR-120D handheld yes yes yes no yes yes manual 0.6uV no conditions -6db @ 16kHz  
Yaesu VR-500 handheld yes yes yes yes yes yes manual 1uV @ 10 dB S/N no specs Specification limit up to 370 MHz
Yaesu VR-5000 mobile yes yes yes yes yes yes manual 1.2uV @ 10dB S/N no specs  
Yupiteru MVT-7100 handheld yes yes yes yes yes no info manual 0.5uV @ 10 dB S/N no specs This is the handheld radio I use.
Yupiteru MVT-7300 handheld yes yes yes yes yes no info 1.0uV @ 10dB S/N no specs Like the 7100, but smaller. Some say the MVT7100 performance is better.
Yupiteru MVT-9000  handheld yes yes yes yes yes no info info no specs no spec