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Bent Pipes, Intelligent Agents Aid Corps

May 2001
By Henry S. Kenyon

Cunning devices, solutions help Marines fight smarter.

The U.S. Marine Corps is developing battlefield management software and advanced communications tools that will help future commanders make critical decisions by filtering incoming information and suggesting courses of action. This incoming data and the corresponding orders will be broadcast through lightweight satellite communications devices and will reach all echelons from brigade to squad level.

Modern tactics call for lightning fast maneuver warfare to keep enemy forces off balance. This philosophy is epitomized by the Marine Corps’ emphasis on rapid operations from the sea to points up to 200 miles inland. Such nimble maneuvers require seamless communications links among individual units, their command and the supporting bases. In this time-critical environment, the Marines aim to provide lightweight, manportable satellite communications to connect all units below brigade level.

The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Quantico, Virginia, is experimenting with software and hardware solutions to make future forces more agile in the field. Tools to help officers manage the massive flow of sensor and communications data coming into a command center are needed as the military moves toward more data-centric warfare.

According to Maj. Michael Berigan, USMC, head of the laboratory’s command, control, communications and computers branch, the Corps’ data management efforts are concentrated on the Integrated Marine Multi-Agent Command and Control System (IMMACCS). This object-oriented, agent-based command and control program represents the battlefield as a series of graphic objects with specific attributes. For example, a bridge would have its maximum weight capacity listed so a commander would know whether tanks could safely pass over it.

IMMACCS intelligent software agents provide decision support to help commanders manage data, the major says. The agents allow decision makers to act more rapidly by performing many of the time-consuming logistics and research tasks now done by the headquarters staff (SIGNAL, February, page 67). These activities include suggesting the best path to an objective—estimating mission travel time, indicating fuel usage and determining whether a route can be used. The system is designed to operate within the very limited tactical communications architecture available to the Marine Corps until the introduction of the joint tactical radio system (JTRS), the major explains.

Though still in development, the software already possesses some rudimentary capabilities. It has a blue-on-blue feature that alerts a Marine unit if it is about to fire on a friendly unit. A rules-of-engagement agent warns a commander against a certain course of action, such as firing on a mosque, for example.

IMMACCS also reaches down to the squad level. Sentinel agents built into the software warn squad leaders of approaching enemy units. An audible alert sounds from the squad leader’s personal data device when opposing forces reach a predetermined distance from Marine lines. Intelligent agent technology can also monitor data from selected geographic areas of interest within a theater of operations. Based on reconnaissance and intelligence information, agents alert commanders if enemy units enter a specifically designated area or if a certain type of enemy unit is detected.

While providing the decision support for IMMACCS is relatively easy, Maj. Berigan says, the challenge is to coordinate the information feeds and the interfaces into those systems. This type of data fusion is an incredibly hard problem to solve, he explains, noting that the U.S. Defense Department is proficient only with platform-based fusion such as radar-based command and control systems designed to identify and track friendly and hostile aircraft. “You paint the airplane with radar. A transponder picks up its identification-friend-or-foe response if it’s a good guy and tells you exactly where that thing is in space and time. It is easy to fuse that data. If four different sensors see something at exactly this place at this time, chances are it is the same thing,” the major says.

By comparison, IMMACCS must develop a coherent picture with non-platform-based data from multiple sources. For example, if a reconnaissance unit sees unidentified soldiers entering an area of operations, they may be hostile or neutral troops. The command center then receives a number of similar reports from observation units describing infantry and tanks. These reports are all separated in time. The difficulty lies in using automated decision support systems and intelligent agents to present this information in a way that is usable to a field officer.

IMMACCS was used in the URBAN WARRIOR exercise in 1999 and the LIMITED OBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE 6 exercise in March 2000. While the system’s performance results are promising, more work is still needed, Maj. Berigan observes. The upcoming capable warrior exercise, which will be held in June at Camp Pendleton, California, will test the performance of command centers with the software against those without the automated system.

The intelligent agent system is designed to operate down to the squad level. A component of the capable warrior exercise will include providing squad leaders with a Compaq iPAQ personal digital assistant (PDA). Maj. Berigan notes that the Corps chose a small device because a 15-pound wearable computer would add too much weight to the soldier’s equipment load.

Hands-free use is another goal for the squad leader’s PDA. “We want him to be able to operate hands-free so he can send a call for fire while he has his rifle in his hands,” the major says. The laboratory has developed a speech-recognition capability using commercial technology integrated with the IMMACCS graphical user interface. A squad leader can issue a specifically worded message using IBM Via Voice software.

Building decent decision-support software to provide a reasonably good tactical picture is easy if the communications are available, the major concedes. Until the JTRS is fielded, Corps communications from the regiment to the company will continue on the enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS), while the echelons below the company will continue to rely on the single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS). These older radio systems are limited in the amount of data they can carry. The major notes that SINCGARS can transmit only a maximum of 2.4 kilobits per second. EPLRS is more capable, and enhanced versions are in development, but it is still very limited, he says.

Yet even when the JTRS becomes available, over-the-horizon communications remain an issue. Because Marine Corps doctrine calls for maneuver from the sea up to 200 miles inland, forces cannot stop to set up relay stations and other cumbersome equipment. “We have to go seamlessly. We’re not stopping and building power ashore, nor are we stopping to build SATCOM [satellite communication] relays. We don’t want communications to have to drive maneuver. We want to be able to communicate while we maneuver,” Maj. Berigan maintains.

To meet this goal, the laboratory is developing low-earth-orbit and medium-earth-orbit satellite systems. It envisions a tactical bent pipe system that broadcasts directly to a satellite and back down to another unit. This arrangement is preferable to and less expensive than intricate networks such as Iridium, Global Star or Teledesic, which rely on cross links and groundstations, the major notes.

The Marines are experimenting with a prototype system developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia, called the multipath beyond-line-of-sight communications system (MUBLCOM). This project began as a collaborative effort of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, the major explains. It currently consists of a single satellite providing a 400-mile communications footprint. If the MUBLCOM system becomes operational, a constellation of up to 64 satellites would be required for global coverage. But Maj. Berigan notes that the spacecraft are quite small, placing the cost estimate for the system at $1 billion after factoring in life-cycle issues. However, this is less expensive than communications networks such as the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet, which will cost between $6 billion and $9 billion. “When you consider that cost—and that’s for a garrison capability, not for the field—how much is it worth for the Marine Corps to actually have a communications system for the battalion and below where you can talk everywhere?” he contends.

Another advantage of a bent pipe system is that it could be used worldwide without interfering with local communications networks. “This is because it’s just going up and down. It’s not routing or taking up any bandwidth over the wider network. It’s very reusable,” the major says.

To test the feasibility of a MUBLCOM-based communications system, the Corps will use a C-12 aircraft operated by CECOM to fly at 25,000 feet and simulate the satellite. The experiment will be conducted with a battalion-sized infantry unit that will compare MUBLCOM’s over-the-horizon communications capability against SINCGARS radios. The maneuver will determine whether the new system improves a unit’s fighting capability and how it affects issues such as manpower and maintenance.

The Marine Corps recently deployed individual radios to every soldier at the squad level. These intersquad radios proved extremely successful and popular during the urban warrior exercise (see page 17). They are based on civilian models but operate on military ultrahigh frequency (UHF). Maj. Berigan notes that the Marines are still assimilating the new equipment. “There is a bit of a learning curve. They are putting radios in the hands of guys who have never had radios before. These radios are also not secure, so soldiers have to learn discipline and code words,” he says.

While it is feasible to add encryption to the intersquad radios, it would take time and increase costs, which is not the Marines’ goal. The devices are intended to be an expendable, quick solution without being secure, the major explains.

However, a communications gap exists between the squad leader and the platoon commander. The squad’s small radios cannot communicate with the platoon leader’s SINGCARS radio. Since the intersquad radios have been fielded, some units have provided them to platoon commanders. But the major explains that the information passed between a squad leader and the platoon commander must be secure because sensitive information, such as grid coordinates for artillery fire, is being shared.

To fill this gap, the Marines are looking at options such as PRC-113 and PRC-148 radios because both can communicate with intersquad radios through military UHF. The service is fielding some 1,700 PRC-148s to certain units. According to Maj. Berigan, each Marine expeditionary force will receive several hundred radios that will be issued to infantry battalions’ reconnaissance units. Platoon commanders will have them to reach their squad leaders. The major notes that the PRC-148 is a lightweight handheld device that eliminates the need to carry a heavy SINCGARS unit.

The PRC-148 can access military UHF, very high frequency and SINCGARS channels, which allows platoon commanders to communicate with aircraft—an important capability they never had. “If you’ve got helicopters coming in to pick up your platoon, and you don’t have a forward air controller in the landing zone with you, it’s nice to be able to talk to the aircraft,” the major says.

Before the PRC-148 or another radio is chosen to link Marine squad leaders and their platoon commanders, a number of issues, such as power, must be addressed. “Do these radios operate on rechargeable batteries, and how is the platoon going to recharge them in the field?” the major asks. He notes that, even at the battalion level, a single generator  is available to recharge batteries. If a radio is given to each of a platoon’s three squad leaders, the platoon commander and a medical corpsman, there will be five per platoon or 60 per battalion. “Will the battalion’s communications platoon require extra personnel to handle the additional maintenance? It is the role of the laboratory to solve these questions. There is always some kind of cost,” Maj. Berigan says.