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Marines Tap Other Services' Information Technologies

May 2007
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

 
A Marine sergeant communicates with his squad on patrol in Haditha, Iraq. U.S. Marine Corps communications and information systems must interoperate throughout mission areas that are more varied than those found at any of the other military services.
Interoperability and jointness benefit, but innovation still is required.

The U.S. Marine Corps is melding communications and networking systems from other military services with commercial technologies to meet transformational and warfighting information requirements. The Corps is plucking some technologies á la carte from large programs under way among the three other U.S. Defense Department services. And, it is collaborating with those services on the development of their future systems.

In terms of mission areas, the Marine Corps combines many of the activities of the other Defense Department services. Its Marine air-ground task force, or MAGTF, features ground combat forces that are supported by fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft and are transported and supplied by large amphibious assault ships. All of these elements must interoperate seamlessly, and the MAGTF also must be able to conduct joint operations with its counterparts among the other services.

With all U.S. forces transforming to a network-centric environment, the Corps can leverage many programs from the other services to support its command, control, communications and computer (C4) needs. Many of its ground sensors, radios and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems are common with the U.S. Army. On the amphibious side, many data and radio networking sets are common with the U.S. Navy. And the Marines’ Common Aviation Command and Control System (SIGNAL Magazine, November 2006) is common with U.S. Air Force technologies.

Marine Corps C4 comprises far more than hand-me-down information technologies, however. The Corps is incorporating commercial technologies to meet many of its short-term needs emerging from the Iraq War and is seeking others for some of its long-term requirements.

Neither is the Marine Corps merely a smaller version of the other services nor a smorgasbord of their capabilities. It has its own unique character that requires solutions not found amid the other services’ resources. The Marine Corps must achieve a balance among its information technology capabilities so that interoperability is not an issue internally as it can be between the other branches. For some of its solutions, the Corps cannot wait for development by the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Resources are an issue. The Corps does not have the luxury of leaving no stone unturned in its quest for suitable solutions. “As a small land-based service with a relatively small research, development, test and evaluation budget, we have to be involved in leveraging off the other service initiatives,” explains Brig. Gen. George J. Allen, USMC, director of C4 and chief information officer of the Marine Corps.

The general points out that the last major buy for the Marine Corps transport layer—radios and broadband satellite terminals—took place during the Reagan administration. Since then, the service has acquired systems incrementally concurrent with or immediately after development by another service.

But the Corps does have one distinct advantage over the other services when it comes to C4 acquisition. Its smaller size allows it to complete a servicewide acquisition in much less time than it takes for the Army, Navy or Air Force to procure and field the same equipment or system.

As are the other services, the Marine Corps is striving to push the networked environment down to the lowest tactical level. Issues confronting the Corps include bandwidth, throughput, mobility, the physical limitations of distance, over-the-horizon links, on-the-move communications, and information and overall network management.

“We need to be a better overall manager of the bandwidth available for our use,” Gen. Allen emphasizes.

The Corps’ tactical communications modernization aims to increase bandwidth at lower levels of the MAGTF. Because the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) is not yet ready to provide needed incremental improvements, much of this effort entails equipment modernization. The general relates that the Corps has purchased thousands of PRC-117 radios over the past few years, and it also is purchasing a significant amount of high frequency automatic link establishment gear in both manpack and vehicular configurations. The Corps also is buying very small aperture terminals as part of the Joint Network Node (JNN) program to provide more bandwidth for tactical forces.

Phoenix terminals are being acquired off of the Army’s contract, the general continues. The Corps is buying quad-band commercial lightweight multiband satellite terminals off of an Air Force contract.

The Marines are upgrading their TRC-170 microwave link establishment gear from 2 megabytes to 16 megabytes. The Corps also is improving its line-of-sight multichannel equipment from 1-megabyte channels to 8-megabyte channels with data throughput. And it is upgrading its transmission switch modules in data switching packages so that it can achieve voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and tactical videoconferencing.

Many of these requirements are emerging from the Iraq War, where interoperability with other U.S. forces and new capabilities are driving C4 changes. One significant area of change impelled by that war is classified computing. Gen. Allen offers that this war has increased the Marine Corps’ requirement for classified computing by as much as 250 percent.

Ongoing combat operations have placed a premium on distributed access and computing, particularly for Marines on the ground. New capabilities such as portable satellite access, secure wireless access, imagery exchange, in-theater chat services and near-real-time lessons-learned bulletin boards have helped Marines, Gen. Allen warrants. The advantages gained include a shortened decision cycle, the increased real-time value of information and greater weapons accuracy.

Information-sharing technologies and applications are at or near the top of the wish list, the general states. Portal technologies are proving their worth in Iraq, and commanders are using chat and video tools to a much greater extent for command and control operations than before.

But foremost among Marine Corps tactical needs is ad hoc mobile networking. This will require standardization in which the commercial sector will play a significant role, Gen. Allen posits.

The Corps can leverage existing commercial cellular capabilities, he continues. Broadband cards on laptops permit mobile operations in a cellular environment, but some theaters of operation may lack a plethora of cell towers. The solution may lie in other types of communications relay or router systems such as long-duration unmanned aerial vehicles or aerostats that can establish secure wireless links above a battlefield. The challenge will be standardization of protocols as well as enabling interservice links across a secure network.

 
Marines with the 7th Communications Battalion train with a new large aperture multiband deployable antenna. The Corps is tapping procurements by other services to upgrade its communications without sacrificing interoperability.
Another need is for autonomous operational relays such as drop-and-forget infrastructure relays. These would be self-sustaining and scalable, require minimal operator intervention and serve both tactical and humanitarian operations.

And, technologies that permit data acceleration and caching, along with bandwidth compression, will be important. The Marines will need to achieve a higher percentage of data throughput than currently available, and these will be among the key technologies that will allow the Corps to increase battlefield capabilities under existing bandwidth constraints, the general declares.

“The bottom line is [we need] networks on the move that would support communications on the move,” Gen. Allen emphasizes.

Because the Marine Corps draws so much of its communication and information system technology from the other services, stovepiping is not a problem. These other technologies are tried and true, and their interoperability is fairly well established, before the Corps integrates them into the force. The Corps works closely with the other services during the development phase of many technologies, such as with the Army on the JNN and the Air Force on C2 Constellation.

The Corps is conducting research and analysis with the Army on the Warfighter Information Network–Tactical program to determine if some of its components would serve the future Marine C4 architecture. The Marines worked closely with the Air Force on their upgrade of the TRC-170, which is the Corps’ microwave beyond-line-of-sight backbone for the Marine Air Command and Control System. The Corps used the Air Force contract to upgrade its capabilities to the standard set by the Air Force.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program (SIGNAL Magazine, October 2006) has a Marine Corps variant, and the Corps is working with the Air Force on the many networking aspects that advanced platform brings to the force. The F-35’s combat capabilities are complemented by an advanced sensor suite that makes the aircraft an ISR platform. Connectivity development relates to JTRS and wideband networking, and the Corps wants to be able to leverage these capabilities fully. Gen. Allen allows that this may require networking across the battlespace in a manner that currently cannot be conceived.

“We have to take it [the F-35] as a completely different concept than the way we do combat now,” he declares. “From a network perspective, the fact that you literally have almost a ‘router in the sky’ that can actually network itself—can change missions on the fly—requires that we look at it not just as an upgrade but as a significantly new capability for network-centric operations in the air.”

The Corps is working on an architecture for that router-in-the-sky combat aircraft, the general continues. Because the F-35 is such an innovative concept and a potentially robust capability, planners will be working on its architecture carefully for several years to come, he adds.

The Marine Corps Enterprise Information Technology Services, or MCEITS, initiative soon will be entering the Joint Staff environment. MCEITS is designed to equip the Corps with platforms and enterprise services regional distribution capabilities. Gen. Allen characterizes it as a critical enabler for aligning the Corps’ network strategy with those of the Network-Enabled Command and Control initiative and the Network-Centric Enterprise Services (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2007). Both of these efforts are developing standards for future Defense Department operations, and MCEITS is the vehicle that the Marines will use to build around those standards.

The Corps is training its forces to be networked Marines, which Gen. Allen offers is a key to achieving C4 goals. Its collaboration with the Army on the Future Combat Systems program includes Cisco training. The Marine Corps is following the Army’s lead on Cisco academies, and it has stood up its first such academy at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Others that are being established will tie into their Army counterparts. The result will be Marines who are trained better in a networked tactical environment, the general states.

The commercial sector will need to supply more technologies and capabilities. Gen. Allen cites a need for reducing protocol handshakes and overhead in applications as well as for developing applications that work over limited bandwidth. The convergence of voice, video and data also will require help from industry.

The commercial sector will need to provide security solutions, as Gen. Allen notes that many companies already are working with the National Security Agency on multilayer security. That solution will be vital for joint and coalition operations, and it will be one of the keys to their success, he states.

It is not clear just how much industry can provide in the way of security solutions. The general suggests that Marine experts may have to delve into security areas to determine how much can come from private industry and how much must be applied by the Corps itself. Many applications can be ported over, but that will take a strong partnership between the Defense Department and industry.

Securing data and protecting the Corps’ communications network is a high-priority mission, the general notes. Operations in the Global War on Terrorism require the creation, transport and storage of critical warfighting data, and this data is a lucrative target for any enemy. Adversaries continually try to attack the Marine network, and the Corps focuses on security via the Joint Task Force–Global Network Operations directives along with standards for protecting the Global Information Grid.

The Marine Corps aims to grow to 202,000 personnel by 2011, and Gen. Allen believes that it has sufficient resources budgeted to achieve its near- and long-term C4 goals. Congress’s supplemental funding has helped address immediate C4 requirements for the war on terrorism, and this has allowed the Corps to maintain its baseline budget funding for modernization and transformation.

 

Web Resources
U.S. Marine Corps: www.usmc.mil
U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq: www.marines.mil/marinelink/mcn2000.nsf/oif