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Marines Consolidate Systems Architecture

September 2000
By Henry S. Kenyon

Wireless infrastructure, reachback and global connectivity enhance battlefield data flow for front-line units.

The U.S. Marine Corps is moving toward a network-centric warfighting capability that will allow more troops to be placed in the field with a smaller logistics footprint. New communications technologies are aimed at enabling the service to conduct and participate in joint operations with other services and coalition partners with unprecedented levels of coordination and speed.

Incorporating integrated wireless battlefield technologies has been a major goal of the U.S. Defense Department throughout the 1990s. The services are laying the groundwork for the wireless, networked, node-based operations that will become the standard operating environment in the future.

In keeping with its nature, the Marine Corps has worked in cooperation with other branches of service. According to Brig. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC, director for command, control, communications and computers (C4) for the Marine Corps, the service is a microcosm of a joint organization because it has its own ground, air and combat service support components. As a small service with a tradition of frugality, its first choice is to buy capabilities—especially those with joint applications—rather than develop proprietary systems.

To keep up with the Defense Department’s move toward network-based combat operations, the Corps has actively increased its C4 infrastructure during the past few years. It has spent more than a third of its procurement funds on C4 assets. These purchases are evident in a strong communications backbone that reaches down to the regimental level, Gen. Shea says.

Although the upper echelons are linked, the general believes the challenge lies in providing battlefield connectivity to units below the regimental level. The Marine Corps currently is using the enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS) to pass data through the regiment, battalion, company and platoon levels. However, he notes that this is only an interim capability until more powerful systems become available.

One new system is the joint tactical radio system (JTRS), which is under development. Gen. Shea believes it is the key to meeting the Marines’ needs for handling C4 and tactical information below the regimental level. The JTRS is a multipurpose radio that will provide the bandwidth needed for command and control applications, communications, data, imagery, surveillance and reconnaissance information to the lower echelons.

Gen. Shea offers an example of the system’s capabilities. “You could have a commander in an Osprey en route to an objective. Over the target is an F-18 Hornet fighter with an advanced tactical air reconnaissance system, which is an imaging capability. The F-18 can take a picture and send the data to a groundstation, which then processes the image and sends it to the commander in the Osprey, allowing him to look at the objective area before he gets there. We are talking in near real time,” he says, noting that this is one way he sees the JTRS being used to integrate data on the battlefield.

The Marine Corps also has purchased an assortment of communications equipment with joint service capabilities such as military strategic tactical and relay (MILSTAR) satellite communication terminals, secure mobile anti-jam reliable tactical terminals (SMART-Ts), super high frequency triband advanced range extended terminals (STAR-Ts), and PSC5 ultrahigh frequency backpack satellite links. While this provides a robust communications capability, the JTRS is needed to move information at higher speeds than the EPLRS around the battlefield below the regimental level, Gen. Shea says.

An expanded communications capability also allows for reachback. This is another priority because it allows the Corps to take more combat troops into a theater of operations while leaving some of the administrative and support capabilities behind. For example, reachback would allow commanders in the field to model and simulate war plans with intelligence and analysis personnel in the United States before committing to them in a conflict.

One aspect of this capability is videoconferencing, which currently is available only to the Marine Corps at garrison and base sites and on carrier battle groups and larger naval vessels. “There is absolutely no technical reason a commander shouldn’t be able to do a [videoconference] back to Quantico or to his Marine expeditionary force headquarters—or wherever he wants—to help him wargame or do some analysis,” Gen. Shea says. He notes that the capability exists right now in the Corps, but it needs to be implemented widely.

Increased communications pose their own difficulties, however. The vast amounts of data that battlefield information systems provide also can be a detriment. To avoid becoming swamped, data and information management practices must be put into place, the general states.

He cites the Gulf War as an example of situations where intelligence reports would come in from various service headquarters. Up to 97 percent of the information in those reports was identical, with perhaps 3 percent of it actually being useful to the Marine Corps. Very often, those small differences were not noticed in all of the data, he observes. “We got mesmerized by reading the same thing over and over again, and we missed that 3 percent.”

Since the Gulf War, however, the amount of data coming into command centers has grown exponentially. New systems such as the global broadcast system, STAR-T, SMART-T and PSC5 will flood the battlefield with more data to preoccupy commanders and their staffs. Gen. Shea notes that this flood of information is causing the operational force to press for information management initiatives to meet the challenge.

To this end, the Corps is developing processes, tactics, techniques and procedures to handle information management. The general says that the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is conducting experiments in data management. Some of this research involves processes, staff arrangements and the organization of combat information centers.

Training is an important aspect of this as well, he notes. Before turning to a technical solution, training must be examined because the Corps does not want to deploy a technical solution with a flawed process or a flawed procedure. “All it does is aggravate the problem,” he relates.

Information assurance is another key area where the general believes the Marine Corps and the Defense Department can improve their capabilities. He notes that information operations can be a tremendous force multiplier not only for the United States but also for potential adversaries.

Gen. Shea sees information assurance, and computer network defense in particular, as an Achilles’ heel for the U.S. military. “I don’t think enough people understand what the issues are when it comes to computer network defense. There are a lot of pundits around who don’t think it’s that big a deal. That’s because they don’t understand it,” he contends.

Viruses are an example of an issue deserving constant attention, the general says. When a virus gets into a network, it slows operations. Likewise, U.S. combat superiority is based on being able to maneuver more quickly than the enemy. If an adversary were able to slow down and break the military’s operational rhythm, Gen. Shea believes the United States would prevail; however, victory would come at a higher cost than it would if network security had been maintained.

The general says the issue of network defense has not been adequately studied in depth. “I don’t think we’ve even begun to understand the issue of computer network defense. I think it’s a lot more technical than anyone understands. I think there are vulnerabilities out there that we haven’t even discovered yet that someone else may have,” he offers.

Gen. Shea notes that while allied forces in the Gulf War faced an electronic warfare (EW) threat in the air, they did not face it on the ground. He contends that if there had been a substantial ground-based EW threat, the Defense Department might have taken a different approach to the way it builds its networks and systems today. “EW and information operations are tremendous force multipliers. The country that has the most to gain from information technology and command and control systems also has the most to lose if it is denied [those capabilities]. We have to make sure that we aren’t denied,” he asserts.

Another of the general’s concerns is information moving into the secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) from less secure sources. Although the nonsecure (unclassified) Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET) is not as secure as the SIPRNET, it is used for planning and other important logistics functions. A virus introduced into the system while a large force is being organized would wreak havoc. The possibility of using a virus as a weapon has not been lost on potential adversaries, the general says.

If the SIPRNET remains secure but the NIPRNET is brought down, a sudden surge in traffic on the SIPRNET would overload the system. “There are a lot of questions out there that need answers. To me, the SIPRNET is the single point of failure that needs to be addressed. What’s the backup to the SIPRNET? What is plan B? I haven’t found the answer to that yet,” he admits.

Other nations are very interested in information warfare. Gen. Shea cites an example from his term as J-6 for the commander in chief, Pacific Command. At annual conferences of Pacific Rim nations, the attendees, even the poorest third-world countries, recognized the advantages of information operations. He notes that all of these nations were studying or were developing some type of core information operations capability.

Likewise, while wireless technologies such as local area networks will provide access to the NIPRNET and SIPRNET, bandwidth will have to be found for the transmissions and the information will have to be secured. The general notes that while cryptography is an obvious solution to prevent surreptitious information gathering, battlefield jamming is another threat to a node-based wireless military force. It is possible to use expendable jammers that can be fired from artillery pieces. Once scattered across a battlefield, the devices jam U.S. forces’ operational communications spectrum. “We have to make sure that we don’t become so reliant on technology that we can’t pull back and use manual systems, or keep secondary and tertiary systems handy,” Gen. Shea observes.

The Marines also are working with the U.S. Navy’s information technology for the 21st century, or IT21, program, and several Marine Corps requirements already have been identified to enhance future operations. One is a need for MILSTAR terminals on amphibious ships. Another is a wideband requirement on those same ships for reach-back capabilities. The general notes that reach-back is important for forces such as Marine expeditionary brigades while they are embarked, not just when they are ashore. Under some circumstances, there will be forces ashore broadcasting back to the ships via satellite, he adds. That information will then travel via teleport to the defense information systems site, which will provide the users with access to NIPRNET, SIPRNET and the joint worldwide intelligence communications system for highly classified data. IT21 is the overall umbrella program under which these capabilities are fielded, and the Marine Corps is closely engaged with the Navy in reviewing it, he relates.