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Marines Pursue Communications Systems Harmony

April 2002
By Maryann Lawlor
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Until there are standards, the interoperability battle will continue to rage.

While operating forces are engaged on the front lines of defense and peacekeeping missions worldwide, some military commands and activities are at the forefront of a different type of battle—the one over information systems integration and interoperability. Like their combatant counterparts, these technology warriors have found that collaboration, cooperation and coordination are at the heart of a successful mission.

As the military services transform into network-centric forces, information technology has become an increasingly important tool. But as each new “weapon” is added to the arsenal, ensuring proper operation, user support and reliable operation between new and legacy equipment has become more critical. For the U.S. Marine Corps, this mission is accomplished with the help of the Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity (MCTSSA), Camp Pendleton, California.

MCTSSA is the technical arm of the Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM), Quantico, Virginia. It primarily supports the command’s program managers and commander in acquiring, developing, testing, fielding and maintaining Marine Corps systems. According to Col. Michael C. Albano, USMC, commanding officer, MCTSSA, when he arrived at the organization two and a half years ago MCTSSA was in a transitional stage, moving from providing software support to offering technical support.

“This was an acknowledgment of the changing environment around us. In the military, we used to build closed systems and unique applications. But now we are in an environment of open systems. As a result, a new niche has popped up for our command. We integrate the many disparate systems,” Col. Albano explains.

To accomplish this task, MCTSSA is divided into three departments; however, the interdependent nature of the work results in a symbiotic relationship among them, Linda Collier, director, Programs Support Division, notes. “We’re uniquely located with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, so if we’re going to conduct a test and evaluation, we can get some of the operating folks in here. We’re not just three islands that work independently,” Collier relates.

Although it works closely with the other two MCTSSA departments, the Program Support Division primarily assists the program managers at MARCORSYSCOM with technical support in systems engineering and limited software engineering for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems. Work includes validation and verification of products and processes from the acquisition phase through testing.

“We try to focus on technical tasks. So in information security, for example, instead of preparing the security processes document, we would concentrate on the technical aspects of security. Instead of contracting out to have the technical work done, we do the technical verification,” Collier explains.

The division currently oversees nearly 30 technical programs, including the command and control personal computer, the defense message system, the joint enhanced core communications system and the joint warning and reporting network. In addition, it has been involved with the tactical data network, which is in the fielding phase and will be the digital local area network for the operating forces, Collier offers.

One asset that assists the Programs Support Division in its mission is the Systems Integration Environment (SIE). This facility provides the acquisition community and operating forces with a controlled environment that facilitates the objective integration and interoperability of Marine Corps and joint command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

Col. Albano explains that the SIE is a valuable tool. “We can take the systems and put them in a notional environment. We put the products that will be in the field and infuse them into this existing architecture to make sure they work. Also, if there’s a problem, we can fix it to make the system more interoperable,” the colonel relates.

The SIE features an instrumented, realistic, flexible Marine Corps air-ground task force C4I architecture. It allows MCTSSA personnel to replicate an operating force’s problems, evaluate systems interoperability and integration, and ensure compliance with standards and protocols. Currently, the SIE is connected to a handful of other commands. Future plans call for connections to approximately a dozen facilities.

Albert J. Taschner is the director of the Systems Engineering and Integration Support Division, MCTSSA. Although his division manages the facility, the SIE encompasses all of MCTSSA in terms of equipment, shelters, personnel and infrastructure. Aviation testing has been conducted in the facility for a number of years; however, the ground and command elements were added in 2000.

The division also works closely with the Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC), Fort Huachuca, Arizona. “We provide Marine decision makers with an objective interoperability and integration report card on how Marine Corps systems work in joint environments,” Taschner explains. To this end, MCTSSA works with JITC personnel to evaluate system capabilities, implement standards and test scripts. Data is collected about how systems perform. Then, anomalies are evaluated.

This capability is especially important for the Marine Corps because it interfaces with all of the other branches of service. “So if we aren’t interoperable with other systems, we take the chance that the information we pass to decision makers during a mission could be wrong. This could result in fratricide,” Taschner offers.

While much of the work MCTSSA conducts involves evaluating new systems, it is equally involved in supporting the users of systems that are already out in the field. One of the organization’s newest roles is to assist the operating forces, Col. Albano explains.

Lt. Col. Kevin M. Leahy, USMC, is the director of the Operating Forces Support Division, which provides three major services. First, it manages a help desk that is available 24 hours a day, six days a week. Marines in the field can call or use the secret Internet protocol router network or nonsecure Internet protocol router network to ask questions or request assistance with a system. Marines, civilian government employees and contractors staff the help desk. In some instances, and with the permission of the command, the help desk staff can seize control of a terminal and try to fix a problem remotely.

The second service the division provides is through its Deployed Support Branch. When an issue cannot be resolved through the help desk, a team is sent out to the requesting unit to provide on-site assistance. Personnel provide technical C4I integration expertise to Marine Corps units during contingencies and operations.

This group also supports the Marines when they are involved in exercises. As part of the deliberate planning process, the Deployed Support Branch assesses the C4I requirements of each exercise and then builds a team based on those needs.

The division’s third responsibility is to MCTSSA itself. It provides infrastructure support for the 400-person activity, including preparations for adopting the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet, network security, software patches and best practices development.

Col. Leahy explains that his division also is expanding its reach to improve support of deployed troops. The concept is to begin working with units prior to deployment so they can better utilize the information technology that is available on the ship. “We are getting much more involved in the way we support marines afloat with a new approach called the D minus 30 process. It’s been difficult for marines to take advantage of the C4I systems on a ship so the emphasis has always been on the shore requirements. We don’t have that luxury today,” he relates. Using the new approach, MCTSSA personnel will begin working with troops approximately a month before they deploy to determine how their information systems will integrate with the U.S. Navy’s onboard systems.

MCTSSA has seen some changes in activity since the September 11 terrorist attacks and in the subsequent operation Enduring Freedom. Col. Albano says the primary effect has been the acceleration of inserting new technologies into the field. “There were a couple of surprises in the wake of the terrorist attacks. We don’t have as many people out there as we thought we would. There were also immediate requests for early release of software. Marines knew we were testing programs, and they wanted them sooner. We also had immediate requests for marines forward from our command. We have gotten a lot more calls to the help desk. Overall, the level of activity increases when marines go into the field. The usage of systems is more intense, and the sense of urgency is much more intense,” Col. Albano maintains.

Collier agrees, noting that the operating forces wanted the software and systems that they knew were in the evaluation pipeline and applicable to their mission. “This also happened in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm so, of course, we have to do a certain amount of testing before the product is fielded,” she says.

The Operating Forces Support Division has gathered some metrics about the effect the terrorist attacks and operation Enduring Freedom have had on its department. Col. Leahy reveals that 52 percent of all the hits on the Web site in 2001 took place between September and December. “This is indicative of a heightened use of the systems that we gave to the Marines. However, we also had reviewed the Web site and made it more intuitive so that may have been part of the reason the numbers increased,” the colonel offers. The amount of calls to the help desk also increased significantly. Of the 2,069 calls received last year, 1,025 came in after September 11.

Industry can play a key role in helping MCTSSA meet the increased demand on Marine Corps systems, Col. Albano emphasizes. “There is an important relationship here. Ten years ago, the Systems Command was dictating where systems were going to go—for example in security and command and control products. This is no longer the case. We don’t start from scratch any more. Now, we go out and see what the vendors have,” the colonel says.

Maintaining open lines of communication between the U.S. Defense Department and companies can result in benefits for all parties, Col. Albano contends. By staying abreast of the department’s goals, firms can know which way to turn when they are at a crossroads in making decisions about product development. Attending command-sponsored industry days is one way to accomplish this task.

Col. Albano and Taschner agree that standards, interoperability and integration are primary issues that must be addressed by industry. “We need vendors who are thinking about interoperability and integration from the beginning,” the colonel says.

Taschner adds that the commercial sector can help in another way. “Industry needs to help the Defense Department and government develop joint standards because even the commercial world has problems with standards. Quite often we go out there and look for a technology that is already available, but when industry has competing standards, it makes it harder for us,” Taschner says. Companies that have long-standing relationships with the military recognize the need for standards; however, many information technology firms, which have not been traditional military suppliers, need to realize the importance of standards in a military environment, he adds.

This call for industry support in creating and adhering to standards will get louder as the armed forces continue their quest for interoperability. Col. Albano predicts that there will be an increased push to work toward open systems in the future. “Recognizing the need for interoperability creates intense discussions as we decide how to weigh cost against which product works better or whether it just has a common interface. The level of complexity will get worse for a while. Until we have one distributed, integrated system—and that will be about a decade from now—things are going to be hard. Until then, we have to solve the interoperability problems, and that will be MCTSSA’s niche,” he concludes.

 

Additional information on the Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity is available on the World Wide Web at www.mctssa.usmc.mil.