The conventional wisdom—and common joke—is that the U.S. Marine Corps receives used-up, hand-me-down equipment passed along from the Navy and Army. But that proved not to be the case during the recently completed Navy-Marine Corps exercise Bold Alligator 2011. In fact, the Marine Corps brought to the exercise more modern information technology systems than the Navy, which created interoperability problems and delays in providing critical information to commanders.
The interoperability issues were not completely debilitating, and officials were able to work around them, but the problems did make it more difficult to get the right information to the right person at the right time for making critical decisions, according to Navy and Marine Corps officials involved with the exercise.
The issue, according to officials, is that the Navy’s shipboard information technology systems are upgraded during scheduled ship maintenance while the vessels are in port, and those upgrades do not occur often enough to keep up with available technology. On the other hand, the Marines are “dirtside,” meaning they don’t spend as much time at sea and are better able to purchase more modern equipment.
“One of the things I’m finding at a more strategic level is that our naval systems are not agile enough—are being outpaced by Marine Corps systems because they’re purchasing things that are newer and more advanced,” says Cmdr. Eugene Bailey, USN, the N-6 officer for Expeditionary Strike Group 2. “One of the reasons for that is that the combat information technologies that are installed on naval ships are done by program of record and done by a ship maintenance schedule, where they get upgrades to their infrastructure and to their operating units. We have to be more agile and come out of that old, antiquated process and be able to make upgrades to the systems aboard ships that match or exceed what the Marines need when they embark to go forward and do a mission.”
For example, the Marines brought aboard their own architecture with greater Web and satellite access. They also brought along the Microsoft Windows 2008 operating system and Microsoft Office 2007 software, while the Navy uses a more dated architecture and servers with Windows XP and Office 2003. While that difference may not seem significant in a home or office environment, it would be magnified greatly in combat.
“We had to run around and install compatibility packs that are not part of the initial shipboard load to be able to read documents that are being created on a Marine Corps network in Office 2007. That’s generally a pretty minor thing, but we’re trying to make products for the general and admiral to use to make decisions, and that time may be absolutely critical,” Cmdr. Bailey explains. “That slows my intelligence reporting and gathering. That slows my command and control for being able to pass information for forces afloat and ashore because now I have to make sure that we keep and maintain connectivity across the spectrum for the general and the admiral to be able to send decisions to their subordinate commanders for execution.”
Cmdr. Bailey adds that logistics is another critical function adversely affected. “It even slows simple logistics communications, and we all know if you don’t have a logistics train to your forces, you’re stranding them out there with nothing and no resupply effort, and all those are now technologies that rely on Web-based or Internet Protocol-based services, so it’s absolutely critical for us to upgrade and maintain these systems at a point where we can maximize the current satellite resources while still being able to garner the effects we want at sea and on the ground.”
Capt. Terry Evans, USMC, a communications officer attached to the Expeditionary Strike Group 2, points out that efforts are underway to gradually upgrade Navy vessels with an Ethernet backbone and increased bandwidth availability, and to “bring ships up-to-speed with the modern appetite for Web-based services.”
In the meantime, officials say, they will make do with what they have. “What we’re doing now is funding antiquated or older equipment that is not keeping pace with our Marine counterparts so that we’re not able to provide the same level of service and interoperability and communication that the Marine Corps need to go forward and do a mission.”
Despite the issues, officials emphasize that they were able to work together in solving problems for a successful exercise—the largest joint fleet simulated amphibious exercise in 10 years. Bold Alligator 2011 was aimed at improving amphibious operations so that the core mission capability is not lost amid the current emphasis on ground-based operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.