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Joint Approach Defines Marine Corps Intelligence

April 2004
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

The commercial sector may hold the key to an application breakthrough.

New collection platforms, satellite communications links, a common operating data set and commercial-style database exploitation tools are at the top of the intelligence wish list for the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines fight in a manner similar to that of a joint task force, and their intelligence approach parallels this as it seeks to collect, process and disseminate information to users. Many of the hurdles that plague joint warfighters have been overcome by the Corps, but in doing so it has developed its own needs that cannot be met by joint service operations.

The Corps itself draws from its sister services to field a range of technologies and systems. This enhances interoperability while avoiding redundant development efforts. However, some of the Marines’ unique requirements demand both innovative and service-specific solutions.

Brig. Gen. Michael E. Ennis, USMC, has a unique perspective on the Marine Corps intelligence environment. Currently the deputy director for human intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C., Gen. Ennis previously served as the commandant’s director of intelligence, U.S. Marine Corps. So, Gen. Ennis can regard Marine Corps intelligence both from within and from the joint arena.

While the Corps can serve as a model for joint operations, Gen. Ennis emphasizes that the Marine Corps “absolutely must maintain an organic collection capability at the division level.” Whether the Marines are moving too fast to receive information from national and theater sensors, or whether a high-level decision established the Corps as a lower level priority for intelligence, the service does not receive the intelligence it needs, Gen. Ennis charges.

For example, reconnaissance aircraft largely are devoted to developing the next day’s targets instead of analyzing the previous day’s strikes. The Marines place a high priority on battle damage assessment (BDA), but the Corps does not have the assets to perform that duty because they were assigned to target development. “That tells us that if BDA is important to us, then we have to have our own tactical reconnaissance capability,” the general warrants. The same holds true for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), imagery, signals intelligence and other national assets. The Marines must have these capabilities across the board at the division level. “We can never rely on the higher joint headquarters to ensure that we have what we need at all times,” he emphasizes.

Among the intelligence challenges facing the Marine Corps is information sharing. Gen. Ennis views this challenge on two levels. The first level is to get information out to everyone in the battlespace. This is a communications challenge, particularly in getting the information down to the last tactical mile. He observes that the Marine Corps is pretty good at getting it down to the regimental or the group level and the air wing, but it is challenged to get information below that to battalions or squadrons.

The second level is to get the right information to the individual. Gen. Ennis explains that, on the battlefield, the force has dozens or even hundreds of different databases. Being able to find the information that is relevant to what the user is doing is extremely difficult. Currently, the Marine Corps uses a number of different Web sites to pull out data for the warfighter.

Generating situational awareness for the commander has focused on establishing a comprehensive common operating picture. However, this extensive picture may be too complex for some of its users. A pilot flying close air support, for example, may need to know many facts that are not important to the individual warfighter on the ground. This warfighter may find his mission complicated by having too much information on the common operating picture.

In fact, one common picture that could satisfy everyone from a platoon commander to a combatant commander to an air force pilot to a navy ship commander might be too complex for any of them to make effective use of it. Gen. Ennis believes that a better course is to focus instead on establishing a common data set. This way, a customer can build any picture desired from data that will be de facto common. “If we concentrate on the technical aspect of creating a common data set, as opposed to the more difficult task of creating a common picture, we would get a lot further down the line,” he says.

The second challenge is interoperability. “The bottom line is that we are going to have to fight in a joint environment,” the general emphasizes. “We are not going to fight as a single service. Neither is the Army, the Navy or the Air Force. Even though everybody recognizes that, we still have interoperable systems.”

While some systems are built to a joint standard, others are built to service standards; and some even are developed in the acquisition world without any relation to joint or service standards, he continues. The result is that the Marine Corps ends up swapping pieces of equipment and liaison officers with the other services to overcome the interoperability challenges, Gen. Ennis observes.

The third challenge facing Marine Corps intelligence involves training. Gen. Ennis offers that one of the key lessons that emerged from the recent Iraq War was that intelligence analysts have not had the opportunity to perform their work nor learn the tactics, techniques and procedures of the intelligence business. Gen. Ennis points out that many peacetime exercises that teach the warfighter how to deal with combat environments omit intelligence personnel from the learning process. Intelligence is part of the overall exercise with a goal of driving the staff process.

To keep an exercise unclassified, it is built around pre-planned scenarios that define the enemy, its battle plan and its capabilities. These scenarios build scripts for intelligence personnel largely to drive the exercise, not to teach an analyst to analyze or to teach the intelligence process. To fix this shortcoming, Gen. Ennis calls for developing independent intelligence exercises where intelligence personnel can be trained on analysis and on using their equipment.

“We have spent millions of dollars developing joint intelligence systems, but then when we go into an exercise we can’t use anywhere near their capability because the scripts that we use are not compatible with the very pieces of equipment that we have developed,” he charges. “So, we need to come up with some unique intelligence exercises that will help our intelligence folks learn their tactics, techniques and procedures as well as teach them how to do analysis.”

In the first Iraq War, the Marine Corps found itself unable to move imagery up the units. The Corps also had communications and technical issues. “We did not do well in 1991,” Gen. Ennis admits. The Marine Corps has come a long way in the years since 1991, but it still faces shortcomings in training. He continues that the service never has had the opportunity to train its personnel in techniques and procedures to collect, analyze and disseminate information on the run.

Lacking its own extensive research and development budget, the Marine Corps draws many of its intelligence systems from the other services. Gen. Ennis observes that the Corps seeks compatibility to latch onto large programs in the other services. He cites radio communications as one example of the Corps’ working off of another service. The Marines are closest to the U.S. Army in terms of function, he notes, so the Corps adapts many of the Army’s systems. Ground sensors are another area, and collaborative efforts include the Joint Mapping Tool Kit.

The Corps partners with the U.S. Navy on some signals intelligence systems because it must be compatible with Navy assets when aboard ship. The Marines also partner with the Navy on the global command and control system integrated imagery and intelligence, or GCCS I3. Gen. Ennis relates that the Corps is working with the Navy on the development of the I3 portion.

He adds that the Marines currently are looking for partners in UAV programs. The Corps has partnered with both the Navy and the Army, and a proposed joint UAV program with the two services would suit Marine Corps needs.

For existing and future intelligence needs, the Marine Corps is looking at space-based assets. Capabilities to be exploited by these assets include Blue Force Tracking and ensuring communications down to the last tactical mile, the general notes.

Space also may be the arena for new systems that support Marine reconnaissance teams on patrol. Gen. Ennis envisions a team filling out a spot report on a handheld personal digital assistant that then transmits the report via satellite directly into a GCCS intelligence analyst’s terminal. This report would pop up as a flashing icon that, when clicked, would display a report that could be inserted directly into the database.

Commercial technology holds hope for information sharing. Gen. Ennis remarks that the private sector has determined how to engage in relevant information sharing, and the Marine Corps should find a way to tap that expertise to support its requirements. “The commercial world already has figured it out. It’s just waiting for the Defense Department to catch up,” he declares.

The information sharing challenge faced by the Marine Corps is how to access multiple databases quickly—horizontal fusion. The data must conform to a common standard so that users can search these databases and then manipulate and visualize their data on-the-fly.

While this sounds daunting, Gen. Ennis asserts that the commercial world already is doing it. For example, a travel Web site accesses dozens of airlines with diverse databases to allow a customer to make a reservation. These airline schedules change on a daily, or even hourly, basis. The travel Web site checks all of them to find the parameters of the customer’s request. A customer may build an itinerary based on an airport, an airline, the date, the time of day, the number of stops and, of course, the price. A customer often can build this complicated itinerary faster than he or she can pick up a telephone and call a travel agent, the general observes. Other commercial applications that offer this multiple database flexibility are mapping systems and home design sites.

This would require a new way of categorizing data, Gen. Ennis allows. However, again the commercial sector has beaten a path there. An online book-selling site allows users to pull content out of books using Extensible Markup Language (XML) technology with metadata tagging. And, after a customer has established a user profile through a pattern of orders, the seller will send that user e-mail when perceived items of interest become available. This semantic Web technology could be applied to intelligence users, whether analysts or warfighters, to predict which specific data they will need and to alert them automatically to its presence.

“The technology is there,” Gen. Ennis declares. “We have to apply that same technology and concept to intelligence gathering—multiple databases, finding a way to search those databases, then manipulating and visualizing [the information] on-the-fly to get what we want.”

Gen. Ennis notes that the Marine Corps deploys as air-ground task forces, also known as MAGTAFs. Each MAGTAF has a command element, an air component, a ground component and a combat service support component. In this regard, a MAGTAF has a structure similar to a joint task force. “Marines grow up with the thought that ‘we are never alone in this battle,’” he says. “We have a command element, and we have three component commanders.” In bringing those commanders together, a MAGTAF decision is similar to a joint decision. In intelligence matters, a MAGTAF always is looking to bring in its subordinate and adjacent components on every decision. When intelligence is disseminated, these components receive that information. “They are not an afterthought,” the general emphasizes.

Marine Corps intelligence has been working on information sharing, dissemination, interoperability and common databases for years, Gen. Ennis adds. The Corps does experience some frustration when it enters a joint environment and these activities seem to be novel to other services. “Whether you’re talking operations, logistics or intelligence, the fact that we grow up in a MAGTAF environment is very much a benefit to us—we are already thinking joint in anything that we do.”

Each MAGTAF has perfect interoperability, the general states. A standard set of procedures throughout every component avoids the problem of one component dominating key assets to the detriment of others. Gen. Ennis cites as an example the concept of giving joint task force air component commander command over all intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. These assets would provide the U.S. Air Force with the flexibility and responsiveness to perform quick kills of targets effectively. However, a MAGTAF commander would not follow that approach for his air component commander because he would know that he needs the MAGTAF’s ISR assets to support maneuver, give warning and provide advance force operations.

“ISR is ubiquitous in the sense that it serves all of the component commanders in a number of functions—not just one function,” the general observes. The MAGTAF’s established procedures for interoperability ensure that assets will be apportioned correctly. “ISR is a MAGTAF commander’s responsibility, and he will never delegate that to just one single component,” Gen. Ennis declares.

The Marine Corps must continue to “push hard” to achieve interoperability with the other services, because it must work with them on future missions. The Corps also must be adaptable to the ever-changing threat environment, he states, adding that the Marines cannot base their future force exclusively on what happened in Iraq and what is happening in the global war on terrorism.

The Marine Corps also must recognize that not all of its intelligence requirements can be met by uniformed personnel, the general offers. For example, there is no way that the Marines can recruit and train the number or the kind of linguists that they need worldwide. The Corps must find a way either to hire contractors or find pools of expertise that can be tapped. This applies to other critical skills as well, he adds.

The war on terrorism has “absolutely breathed new life” into the Marine Corps counterintelligence human intelligence (HUMINT) community, Gen. Ennis declares. For years, interrogation capability atrophied. Now, however, the Corps is using interrogators so effectively that the general describes them as “critical to what we’re doing.”

Targets of opportunity in the war on terrorism must be addressed quickly. This requires a synergy among signals intelligence (SIGINT), HUMINT and imagery intelligence (IMINT) systems. HUMINT can tip off operators as to potential targets, he notes. The result has been a much closer association between intelligence and operations.

Course Change Needed For Information

One solution being pursued to solve the challenge of information sharing across multiple databases is horizontal fusion. However, Brig. Gen. Michael E. Ennis, USMC, believes that the current approach is all wrong. He charges that the horizontal fusion effort is attempting to reach a grand solution without paying attention to important preliminary steps.

The general notes that, when President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to put a man on the moon, NASA did not begin by planning for the moon landing. The space agency undertook a step-by-step approach starting with single-man Mercury missions that grew into two-man Gemini spacecraft that practiced many disciplines necessary to reach the moon and return safely. The three-man Apollo spacecraft was flown four times with crews in earth and lunar orbits before the first landing was attempted. Horizontal fusion, on the other hand, “is trying to put a man on the moon” without meeting preliminary challenges first, the general charges. The result is that “we’re just not getting there,” he says.

“What we need to do is start off with something that is small and encompasses the various aspects of horizontal fusion,” he continues. This might include database access, a distributed search capability and a manipulation and visualization capability. “Start small and build from there,” the general emphasizes.

This step-by-step approach can build on the advanced capabilities already in use by the private sector. These achievements prove that the goal of effective information sharing is not a faraway fantasy.

“Is it Star Wars? Absolutely not—[the commercial sector] is doing it right now,” the general contends. “Why can’t we do that in our community? We’re spending millions of dollars on horizontal fusion, and we’re not even close to what the commercial world figured out in the past five years.

“But we’re trying to solve it all in one fell swoop, and I’m not confident we’re going to get anywhere.”