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Tactical, Satellite Based Technologies Drive Marine Corps Networking Plans

April 15, 2010
by Henry S. Kenyon, SIGNAL Connections

To support its global operations, the U.S. Marine Corps is relying on a tactical communications system linked by satellites to theater and national headquarters. Several mobile tactical systems and an innovative space-based networking capability are providing warfighters with reliable, high-bandwidth communications wherever they deploy.

Among the tactical systems fielded by the Corps is the Data Distribution System–Replacement (DDS-R), which is a component of a Marine task force’s tactical data network. It consists of a mobile gateway and a DDS providing a local area network that extends Ethernet capability to the tactical edge. The DDS-R is a replacement for the Marine Corps’ first generation equipment.

According to Kevin Orr, director of defense operations for Cisco Systems’ U.S. government public sector business, the new systems are part of an ongoing effort by the service to upgrade and modify its networks. One theme is an emphasis on tactical communications. Marine Corps doctrine stresses that the service owns and operates its own data and communications networks for continuity of operations.

Cisco and the Marine Corps also are working on the final architectural assessments of the Data Distribution System–Modular (DDS-M) project, which will push additional data communications to warfighters. A contract for the DDS-M was awarded slightly over a year ago, and the program currently highlights the technological changes required for re-baselining information technology support to the service. The effort is undergoing a final review with a lockdown of the architecture scheduled to occur sometime this month. The program will then focus on finalizing the technology and building prototypes. The DDS-M will serve Marine forces at the brigade level and below.

The company also has been working on small-form factors to support mobile and remote operations, says Orr. It has developed 19-inch racks for use in vehicle and other small spaces. Software and hardware also have been installed in a variety of formats and embedded into other companies’ technology, which extends voice and video capabilities to front-line users, he explains. One example of these capabilities is the Mobile Access Router, which is designed to provide on-the-move connectivity. This capability is being used in the Marine Corps’ new Amphibious Assault Vehicles.

The Marine Corps also is focusing on how it builds, designs and maintains networks. To help educate its personnel, the service has established several Cisco training academies. Academies at CampPendleton, CampLejeune and Twentynine Palms train Marines in all levels on topics ranging from basic networking to operations and maintenance. Orr notes that the Marine Corps also has an agreement with the U.S. Army to train each other’s personnel at their respective academies.

Besides supporting communications for tactical users, the company also is testing a satellite-based technology that will provide warfighters with more bandwidth and less latency. The Internet Routing in Space (IRIS) program embeds a radiation-resistant router and a software-defined radio into a communications satellite. Orr says that the Marine Corps is interested in reducing the latency found in critical applications, such as real-time video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles. IRIS allows communications to bounce from satellite to satellite to reduce the number of space-to-ground hops. Also under consideration is installing call routers aboard satellites to manage voice traffic.

The current IRIS system was launched aboard the Intelsat IS-14 spacecraft in November 2009, explains Duane DeCapite, product manager, IRIS Global Government Solutions, Cisco. The space-based router runs on the same IOS software terrestrial Cisco routers use. The hardware and software allows the system to alternate routing data between various users. IRIS is connected to two Ku-band transponders and one C-band transponder, and it enables data to flow through other satellites, which saves transponder bandwidth that would normally be used for double hops to teleports. DeCapite adds that the shorter radio frequency paths satellite-to-satellite transmissions create are useful for high-bandwidth, occasional-use services.

The U.S. Defense Department conducted a 90-day test of IRIS and its related services that ended in early April, DeCapite says. If proved successful, the IS-14’s transponders will be leased for additional proof-of-concept testing with government and commercial customers. He adds that the company is in discussions with other government and commercial organizations and firms to put IRIS on other satellites.