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Corps Command and Control on the Move

March 2012
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine
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MRAP All Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) staff vehicle and an M2C2 PoP vehicle undergo testing at Yuma.

 
The Marines use commercial components to extend mobile capabilities to  remote battlefields.

U.S. Marine Corps commanders soon will have a new mobile command and control capability that will be readily transferable from vehicle to vehicle without mounting or installation modifications. This new system is being created primarily from cost-effective, off-the-shelf digital communications equipment.

The project, known as Network On The Move (OTM), is in final prototype stage and is about to begin its first production cycle. Being developed by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM), the project’s the primary contractor is Pelatron Incorporated of Honolulu, Hawaii.

One of the project’s biggest backers is Brig. Gen. Kevin Nally, USMC, Marine Corps chief information officer. Gen. Nally has praised the system’s successful implementation in Afghanistan and enthusiastically supports acquiring the new networking tool.

Basil Moncrief is product manager, technology transition, Marine Air Ground Task Force-Command and Control (MAGTF C2) Systems, MARCORSYSCOM. He says the system’s official title as a Navy/Marine Corps program of record recently changed to Network OTM. However, in its prototype stages during the past eight years, the program has been better known in Navy information technology circles by two different acronyms, reflecting the modularity of the mobile command and control concept. Those other two programs evolved into the single Network OTM, with their lessons learned being applied to the new system.

“Combat Operations Center [on-the-move] Battlefield Remote Access and Awareness Applications [COBRA3] and M2C2 [Mobile Modular Command and Control] are systems that allow command and control on the move,” Moncrief explains. “Beyond line of sight, via wideband-KU satellite communications are distributed via secure wireless local area networks [LANs] out to commanders and staff through a point-of-presence vehicle [POP-V].”

At the heart of the system is the POP-V, which serves as a mobile network operations center in the field—such as network management, satellite communications and standard HF/VHF/UHF military radio systems—for the separate COBRA3 unit, which is installed in the commander’s vehicle.

Moncrief says nominal data throughput at the POP-V is 500 kilobytes per second up and 2 megabytes per second down. He adds that the POP-V and the command vehicle then are linked over a secure wireless LAN with an inline SecNet 54, with an optimal data throughput of 54 megabytes per second.

Inside the command vehicle, ruggedized laptops connected to the COBRA3 unit provide the field commander and staff with “a full suite of tactical applications and services that you would find in a combat operations center,” Moncrief explains. The command team has “full access to the common operating picture, access to Command Post of the Future, access to all the databases you would expect a commander and staff to need.” If needed, he adds, the commander and his staff can leave the command vehicle with their laptops and mobile devices and maintain connectivity with the command vehicle from as far away as 500 meters.

Moncrief says the Network OTM/M2C2 concept has been in development for a little more than eight years, and it emerged from the ONR after the Marines officially asked for a command and control system with mobile capabilities. The three original prototype M2C2 systems were mounted permanently in Humvees, but following a series of enemy attacks in Iraq, the military developed more heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) to replace the lightly armored and more vulnerable Humvees. In 2009, the prototype M2C2s were transferred to MRAPs for use in Afghanistan, where they have been ever since.

 

The M2C2 is installed on a Cougar MRAP during testing at Yuma Proving Grounds

Moncrief says one big change to the mobile command and control project came when officials decided to make all the components easier to move from one vehicle to another as needed, rather than the standard practice of custom designing the system to fit a specific vehicle. That decision yielded the transferable COBRA3 vehicle modules.

“Because of the approach we’ve taken using proven off-the-shelf components, it is an extremely affordable system. Because of the modularity of it, we don’t have to buy vehicles,” which Moncrief says saves money and provides operational flexibility.

President and chief operating officer of Pelatron, the prime contractor for the Network OTM/M2C2/COBRA3, is Harvey Kim. He has been involved in the development of the original M2C2 concept and prototype since the first ONR broad agency announcement in 2004.

“I was a project manager for that project with Pacific Technologies,” Kim explains. Raytheon was a subcontractor, “doing the heavy lifting,” on the early proof-of-concept prototype for a mobile command and control system. Over time, Kim joined Pelatron as its work on the development of subsequent M2C2 prototype components and systems expanded.

In discussing the Marines’ requirements for the third phase of the M2C2 prototype program, Kim recalls that the Corps wanted a system that was “very flexible, modular and scalable, and it needed to be able to field this system in any kind of harsh situation that Marines face.” He says that the challenge was to “come up with a system that is totally vehicle-agnostic.”

An important specification, he adds, was that the system was to require little or no hard-mounted vehicle modifications or mounting brackets. The Marines specified that the system was to be secured in a vehicle without drilling holes in the frame or chassis, using only existing mounting points installed as original equipment and existing portals for cabling.

Pelatron also is working with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) to develop additional mounting kits to facilitate installation of the Network OTM components in a variety of other Marine Corps vehicles.

Kim believes that his firm worked hard to listen to its customer in designing the COBRA3 part of the Network OTM system to meet the special needs of warfighters.

As an example, he says, in one prototype phase the main radio operator workstation for the system mounted in an MRAP was placed on the right side of the vehicle, which would be the passenger side in a civilian car. But in a later prototype, Kim says Pelatron worked with the Marines to implement a new configuration reflecting the philosophy of human-centered design.

“We used cardboard boxes mounted in a vehicle,” he relates, “and the Marines went in with flak jackets on and played around with our system design.” The Marines asked, “Why is the radio operator on the right side?” They explained that, in a firefight, with two weapons traditionally mounted on the right side of a vehicle, the radio operator was in a vulnerable location and totally exposed with no cover. “So, we moved the operator station from the right to the left,” he continues.

Kim says the Marines were particularly pleased with this change when this prototype underwent a subsequent design review, and he believes that this helped his company win that phase of contract acceptance. Other examples of system design on which the company worked closely with the Marines include placement of the radio operator’s keyboard and monitor and kits for no-drill mounting of the needed system antennas.

The M2C2/COBRA3 prototype phase of the project currently is winding down, and the Marines and Pelatron are finalizing a contract to begin production of the first Network OTM systems. Because of strict federal acquisition rules affecting the negotiation phase, neither Kim nor Moncrief were able to offer specifics on the per-unit cost of the Network OTM system. Kim confirms that Pelatron does have a tentative, indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract to provide 16 Network OTM systems to the Marines for $32 million.

WEB RESOURCES
U.S. Marine Corps CIO remarks at MILCOM 2011: www.afcea.org/signal/signalscape/index.php/2011/11/09/14557
U.S. Navy SPAWAR: www.public.navy.mil/spawar/Pages/default.aspx
MARCORSYSCOM: www.marines.mil/unit/marcorsyscom/Pages/MCSC-Level01.aspx
MARCORSYSCOM MAGTF C2, Weapons and Sensors Development and Integration: www.marines.mil/unit/marcorsyscom/Pages/Level-02/PGs/PG11-MC2I/MCSC-Level02-PG11-MC2I.aspx
Pelatron Incorporated: www.pelatron.com