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Marines Elevate Control of Command Information

March 2003
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Futuristic facility helps service direct operations.

By co-locating its intelligence and operations communities under one high-technology roof, the U.S. Marine Corps I Marine Expeditionary Force can now manage multiple missions from a single command center. Systems at the facility allow decision makers to review and analyze information pouring in from tactical network sensors and help the Marines plan and execute military operations, ensure base security and support localized efforts such as fighting forest fires.

Military leaders agree that information and communication technologies provide a distinct advantage in the battlespace. In some cases, however, the rapid infusion of technology into the military arsenal has resulted in an environment where commanders are overloaded with data but starving for information. The I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) is tackling this challenge at Camp Pendleton, California, in the MEF Command Center (MCC).

Scott Steedley, science adviser, I MEF, explains that the technology-laden center enables nearly 250 military personnel with specialties in intelligence and operations as well as 15 to 20 subject matter experts to manage as many as seven missions on any given day. Although it is a Marine Corps facility, the center supports joint and coalition activities, he adds.

The MCC is the garrison command piece of a network-centric warfare capability. The center provides proactive command, coordination and monitoring of friendly, enemy and neutral forces and environmental events on a 24-hour basis using critical command and control systems to provide situational awareness.

“Extended connectivity allows for reach-back capabilities, enabling decentralized decision making, thus exploiting the chaotic nature of combat, compressing decision cycles and taking advantages created by the adversary,” Steedley says.

MCC operators view data about military forces and environmental events that flow in from various sensors on the tactical network as well as from external and internal I MEF sensor feeds, he explains. The center’s capabilities include data fusion and mining, enhanced expeditionary maneuver warfare, global connectivity, information management and knowledge engineering.

The facility includes 170 workstations that feature either six or eight communication ports that are connected through the nonsecure Internet protocol router network, the secret Internet protocol router network, fiber optics and commercial or tactical telephone lines. The speed of secure communication networks is double the capabilities of the former command center setup.

Experts in various specialties can analyze information and push time-critical data to the appropriate personnel to plan and execute missions. In addition, Marines at sea, on the battlefield and at command posts can communicate with each other by videoconference.

Although it was not designed to fight a remote war, the command center could supplement warfighting organizations with services such as intelligence analysis. As a result, the MEF may be able to reduce the number of Marines and sailors required to travel to a given battlefield. This capability has far-reaching implications. It can reduce the number of personnel required for force protection as well as the logistical footprint of transporting and equipping larger troops, Steedley relates.

Information sharing at multiple levels is one of the key attributes of the technology and the center, he explains. For example, if readiness in a specific situation is at condition yellow, the system allows personnel to drill down through the data and determine the reason.

In addition, the center is a primary example of providing reach-back capabilities to commanders in the field. Military leaders can communicate with MCC personnel through the tactical network using desktop or laptop computers in the field.

“They are reaching back into the support center. We are trying to capitalize on the large bandwidth pipes available in CONUS [continental United States] where we can get large amounts of information, conduct the analysis, see maps and then give the commander the information he needs,” Steedley says.

Panoram Technologies, Sun Valley, California, developed the display systems that are key to sharing information within the center. The company installed systems in five rooms at the MCC, with screen sizes ranging from 10- to 32-feet wide.

The systems are custom-configured to meet the requirements of each room. For example, a 150-seat auditorium with large screens and videoconferencing capabilities facilitates distance education. It saves both travel time and expense for the Marines, Steedley explains.

As many as nine images can be displayed on one screen simultaneously. Images can include private video, videoconferencing, Web pages and telecasts such as feeds from CNN. Resolution is up to 3.9 million pixels.

Larry Paul, director of technology, Panoram Technologies, explains that the heart of the display system is the company’s Integrator 2000 system control, which provides a user-friendly graphic user interface.

“Each of the five rooms in the MCC has been configured with Integrator 2000, a rapid drag-and-drop interface that is used to operate each display system. Even though every room has been configured very differently, the intuitive interface requires little training,” he states. Personal preferences can be programmed into the system so individual operators can return to their own settings quickly, he adds.

The displays run multiple software applications and accommodate several data sources. A telestrator allows users to interact with the data on the screen.

Systems in some of the rooms feature advanced stereographic capabilities that Paul says add depth to data and put information in context. The capability is achieved by sending data to either the right or left eye at up to 105 frames per second. Special glasses block the view of the eye that is not receiving the incoming data, Paul explains.

Steedley allows that center personnel are still determining how helpful this technology will be in mission planning, and the MCC’s legacy systems do not yet allow personnel to take advantage of it. “Learning best takes place in two dimensions. But after a mission is planned, it may be helpful to be able to walk around in the scenario,” he offers.

Although the center is fully operational and can share information with commanders, it has not achieved its potential, he admits. For instance, although it cannot yet be done, in the future a commander may receive specific mission planning direction such as the best way to enter a city held by hostile forces. “We will be able to drill down through the mission planning information, consolidate it, then shoot it back to them. The biggest savings will be in the time involved in intelligence analysis,” Steedley offers.

Within the next three to five years, center personnel will be able to capitalize fully on the sensors in the battlespace and view missions as they unfold, he states. Prior to incorporating this capability into planning, however, several doctrinal and tactics, techniques and procedures issues need to be resolved, and this work is ongoing, he adds.

Designing the command center itself took considerable effort. Plans for building the MCC began three years ago, Steedley states. While the facility was being constructed, military information technology users and designers determined the types of technology that would be most useful in the center. Operational planning teams collaborated with technology specialists and examined the most beneficial systems in various exercises that were taking place.

“It was key to have the operators involved in the planning and execution of the center so we could ensure that we were meeting the needs of the operators. Ownership was shared. We had to determine what types of displays were needed and what types of information would be shared then how to present it. Determining what we needed was uncharted waters for a lot of people,” Steedley relates.

Paul shares that a system installation of this magnitude would generally take from one to two years; however, work at the MCC was completed in less than five months. The equipment has been configured to be interoperable with today’s technologies as well as with future systems, he contends. The company will provide ongoing maintenance support under an annually renewable support contract.

According to Steedley, visitors from other commands are impressed with the center and leave the MCC wanting a similar setup. MCC personnel are very satisfied with the center, he says, and they are in the process of designing a set of metrics that will be used during exercises to gauge how effective the center is in supporting the warfighter.

I MEF already has begun planning for the center’s annual technology refresh, and Steedley says future work will include examining how the human/machine interface can be improved. Although the display systems provide a more comprehensive look at data and the ability to share information facilitates mission-planning coordination, operations and intelligence analysts are still inundated with data. One solution may be to enlist intelligent agents, he offers.

In addition, MCC personnel will continue to explore videoconferencing and how the look and feel of the technology can be improved to be more realistic, he says.