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Marines Build Transformational Bridge

April 2004
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Capability set helps determine next-generation tactics, techniques and procedures.

The U.S. Marine Corps is linking the present to the future with a communications architecture that will allow it to train for new systems even before they are in hand. Using today’s technologies, the approach could provide Marines in the field and on the move with the ability to communicate over the horizon by connecting communities of networks through points of presence. The capability effectively emulates many of the network functions that will be available once warfighters are equipped with next-generation systems.

All of the services have already introduced many initiatives that are propelling the transformation process. Network-centric warfare is an important element of fighting in the future, but many of the technologies that will enable it are still in the development stages. In the meantime, warfighters have created their own innovative ways to share information and acquire a common operational picture. However, by the time the battlespace becomes an intricate web of communications nodes, warfighters must be trained in the new tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), and commanders also must know how to take full advantage of the benefits ubiquitous communications offer for command and control (C2).

Rather than waiting for every Marine to be equipped with the latest technologies, the communication systems branch at the Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM), Quantico, Virginia, is developing an interim communications capability that integrates currently fielded radio systems. The C2 on the Move Network, Digital Over the Horizon Relay, known as CONDOR, capability set would bridge battlefield C2 over distances and enable Marines located throughout the battlespace to access data through current systems. Because it creates a far-reaching network that emulates the battlefield environment of the future, it will allow Marines to familiarize themselves with how they are likely to incorporate these capabilities into operations. In addition, military leaders will be able to develop TTPs as well as doctrine for the next decade.

Lt. Col. J.D. Wilson, USMC, program manager, communication systems, MARCORSYSCOM, is one of CONDOR’s designers. He explains that, although the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) is being developed, it will be rolled out to the Marines incrementally. In the interim, the communications architecture must work with currently available technologies. The idea is to accomplish this in the near term—the 2004-2005 time frame—to allow Marines time to learn TTPs and, if delivery of future capabilities is delayed, they can still benefit from networking in current operations.

“We don’t really have a way to train our Marines to accept this new technology, which is going to be very highly advanced, network-aware mobile ad hoc networking,” the colonel states. “So we need to build the architecture so we can build the tactics, techniques and procedures now and give them something to work with. Then the Marines can evolve the TTPs while we’re evolving the capabilities sets. CONDOR allows us to emulate these functions, not all at one time, but partly across the board so that when JTRS arrives, it still remains relevant. We can take out the radio piece we’ve built for CONDOR and put in the JTRS piece. The best part of this is that we don’t change how we do business because we’ve already had five or six years to understand how; we just increase the performance of our capability set, the radio and vehicle, with JTRS,” Col. Wilson says.

From a communications standpoint, the Marine Corps comprises two major architectures. The major subordinate commands (MSCs) include the Marine expeditionary forces, divisions, wings and support groups. They currently have satellite systems that feature large bandwidth and carry the tactical telephone systems and Internet protocol (IP) router networks. This configuration appears to be working well in current operations, the colonel says. The problem, however, is when these commands must move to another location. At this point, they become part of the second architecture, which Col. Wilson calls the maneuver element command network.

“The only agency in the Marine Corps that has connectivity directly into the major subordinate command network is at the regimental level. All the rest of the folks send their information around the battlefield using our tactical data radios, EPLRS [enhanced position location reporting system] right now. This builds EPLRS communities, and those are limited to line-of-sight. If you start expanding and driving like we did in operation Iraqi Freedom, where we did 60 or 70 kilometers a day, you break that line of sight. Also, if we went into a mountainous region, like Korea, you would break that line of sight with terrain masses. So we needed a way to bridge these EPLRS communities over a distance and fix a problem we had in the Marine Corps,” the colonel explains.

To address this issue, Col. Wilson’s team built a CONDOR prototype. The gateway, which fits into a single transport box, allows Marines to take the information on an EPLRS radio off of the network in one location, move it through a router as an IP datagram and pour it over a satellite link into another geographically separated EPLRS network. The prototype comprises an EPLRS radio, a router, and a command and control personal computer (C2PC) gateway tied into an Inmarsat radio that has an on-the-move antenna on top of the vehicle. The colonel emphasizes that CONDOR is technology agnostic. “I don’t care whether it’s Inmarsat, Ku-band, Ka-band, Iridium—any technology for connectivity is good,” he says.

Although this technique would work for units that carry EPLRS radios, the CONDOR team also had to find a solution for units that do not have this equipment. In general, these units are outfitted with legacy equipment such as the single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS), HaveQuicks, high frequency automatic link establishment or tactical satellite demand access multiple access (DAMA) systems.

The team created a CONDOR point of presence to solve this problem. “In one hop, I’m taking information from the sensor or the shooter to the CONDOR point of presence, from there to the regiment, which breaks it up and puts it into the major subordinate command, so we’re going to have lots of bandwidth to move. We’re offloading the bandwidth-limited maneuver element command and putting all the information into the major subordinate command until it needs to come down and move to its recipient. It’s a bandwidth multiplier on the battlefield,” the colonel explains.

Because the four legacy radios use the same waveforms that will be placed in the JTRS, the CONDOR point of presence is nothing more than the JTRS when it is available. “I’m not building any new radios, I’m just putting the tinker toys together a bit differently so I can emulate what a JTRS will do, and when it comes here, I’ll understand how to use it,” Col. Wilson offers.

The team also is working on different integration kits to help the Marine Corps determine how the JTRS will work with current antennas, high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and rigid radar craft.

The final portion of the CONDOR effort could solve the communication problem commanders face when they change locations. Today, a commander must rely on single-channel radios or small satellite systems to maintain the common operational picture and command and control while in transit. To solve this problem, the CONDOR team developed the Jump C2 Vehicle concept. Secret Internet protocol router network and nonsecure Internet protocol router network servers would be incorporated into the vehicle. When a commander must change locations, communications personnel would turn on these servers and synchronize them with the servers in the current command post. As a result, commanders would be able to continue to see databases and receive current information.

CONDOR makes sense from a business standpoint, the colonel contends. The cost of replacing all of the Marine Corps radios is high. Consequently, JTRS radios will be bought over a period of time. In the meantime, CONDOR will allow all Marines with both new and legacy systems to operate in the networked environment, he says.

But the CONDOR initiative is more than a new communications approach, he asserts. “What this whole architectural approach is about is getting us to transformational command and control and making us take a real hard look at our architecture. For years, we’ve been building communications architecture in the Marine Corps from the top down. We have our Marine expeditionary forces and the big nodes getting all of the information from the DISN [Defense Information System Network]. From there, we pass it down the network. An infantry officer who worked on my team once said, ‘Sir, if we handed out ammunition like we hand out communications, where every hierarchical level takes a piece off the top, our squads would be throwing stones.’ I thought that was very apropos.

“What I’m interested in now is trying to change that. How do we get the Marines into the network from the ground up? How do we build a design so it looks like a peer-to-peer network without having everybody talk amongst themselves and waste the bandwidth to pass all this information around?” Col. Wilson shares.

The colonel would like to see the Marine Corps network operate more like a commercial network. Using America Online (AOL) as an example, he points out that the service provider connects its customers to the network regardless of the type of computer they use or whether they connect via modem or broadband. “And it doesn’t matter to the customer how AOL does that. That’s where we need to go with our architecture. We need to make our points of presence on the battlefield and our gateways smart enough so that when a Marine, a soldier, a sailor or an airman pushes the send button, he doesn’t care how that information gets there. He knows that it’s going to get to its destination.

“I believe through CONDOR we can provide a vessel that, in the 2005 time frame prototype-wise, will allow us to learn so that when JTRS and transformational communications architecture arrives, we will already understand the tactics, techniques and procedures, the IP management structure and other issues. We can work through them, so we’re ready to accept new, advanced network-centric architectures,” he says.

Col. Wilson identifies some of the issues that must be examined as the military services move to new communications capabilities. From a technology standpoint, for example, modem standardization must be addressed as each of the service uses different types of links. The Marine Corps also is trying to determine better ways to send IP-routed data over low-bandwidth radio frequency radios that use Military Standard 188-220. In addition, the services will have to devise procedures for registering JTRS radios as the point of presence. “These are issues that I think we can evaluate in the near term, in the 2004-2005 time frame, and we can start building answers. It’s not always a technical problem; it’s a ‘how-to’ problem,” the colonel says.