The Few, the Proud Choose Cornerstone For the Road Ahead

December 2008
By Rita Boland

The combat operations center (COC) capability set two shown here is the latest version of the centers. The new version is scheduled for delivery in 2010 and can accommodate 109 personnel. COCs are the cornerstone of future Marine Air Ground Task Force command and control. 
America's elite military branch focuses on standardization and easy integration for management and communications.

The U.S. Marine Corps is laying the foundation for its future command and control needs. The service branch is implementing common, modular and scalable hardware and software solutions at all levels of leadership so commanders have the resources they require to direct their troops. New combat operations centers that offer all the tools Marines need to coordinate in the battlespace have been ordered for the major subordinate command level, extending commonality of operations across all echelons. Both the new centers and their older counterparts will serve as a prototype for open-source software development within the Marine Corps.

The Marines’ combat operations centers (COCs) develop, integrate and provide a common solution that will evolve into the next generation of command and control (C2) that the military branch is required to address at the Office of the Secretary of Defense level. They offer facilities, infrastructure, local area networks and interfaces with other Corps communications to the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). “The COCs lay the foundation for command and control in the Marine Corps,” Kevin Holt, program manager (PM) for MAGTF C2, explains. PM MAGTF C2 is a program within MAGTF C2, Weapons and Sensors Development and Integration at Marine Corps Systems Command.

The COCs have been implemented across all echelons including the division, regiment, battalion and wing levels for aviation, logistics, ground and command elements. Most recently, the Marine Corps has contracted with General Dynamics C4 Systems to equip the major subordinate command level with the same C2 through capability set two COCs. These specific centers offer the same features as the capability set four and three centers, but can accommodate 109 personnel, versus eight and 16, respectively. The bigger versions are built for larger consumers of information and include an increased number of software packages.

All the levels of centers have a network of workstations and servers that support standard tactical data systems and other mission software. They also include voice, data and voice over Internet protocol communications. Radios, power generators and additional tactical hardware combine with the other components, and the pieces are housed in tents and trailers. Each center contains three local area networks—one each for the secret Internet protocol router network, the nonsecure Internet protocol router network and a Marine Corps-required coalition network that enables troops to reach out to coalition partners.

The capability set two COCs are scheduled for delivery in 2010. By the end of fiscal year 2009, the Marine Corps has an acquisition objective of 257 other COCs, but the number on order is closer to 300. Many already have been delivered and are in use, including several in theater. The systems are built to evolve, and Holt explains that he and his team take user input from fielded systems to incorporate new technology and new interests to advance the systems and make them more user friendly.

The goal of the COC is to integrate intelligence, aviation and ground information so leaders can make more confident decisions about the way ahead. “The key focus is…bringing the different attributes from the different warfighting elements into a common picture,” Holt says. Users will be able to define their common operational picture through the capabilities offered in the centers, and also support the Office of the Secretary of Defense in providing services. Marines can obtain applications through the Global Information Grid (GIG) instead of running everything on each client. In effect, Marines will have two Internets—the U.S. Defense Department Internet that will offer specific services and the wider Internet available to everyone.

The MAGTF COC is the first program to undergo the migration with a move to the service orientation similar to the Internet. In addition to upgrades specifically for the operations centers, software prototyping and development intended for other projects such as the move toward a services orientation can drop into the COCs. These Web services allow troops to reach out on the network and access the applications they need such as new maps from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency or an intelligence module sponsored by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Mike Fallon, director of Marine Corps programs at General Dynamics C4 Systems, describes the process as leveraging the power of the Internet inside military databases. “To do that, the military is having to build [its] own DOD Internet, which will be Web-enabled,” he states.

His colleague, Mark Showah, director of integrated systems at General Dynamics C4 Systems, explains that the new applications have distinct advantages. For example, as engineers develop the applications, they can be created to provide services such as position locations, and all that information can be shared and passed from application to application. Another advantage is the ability to place wrappers around legacy applications so they also can distribute data to the shared environment without requiring a total redesign.

Inside of the COCs is the equipment necessary to effectively execute command and control. Each center includes access to three local area networks to connect Marines to each other and various partners.
Putting everyone on the same sheet of music by standardizing applications and services improves operations and communications. Fallon describes the difference in force positioning in the years up to and including 2001 and 2002 onward by explaining that in the past, Marine ground forces used paper maps pinned to plywood boards in the field. The picture looked different in every command center. The COCs digitize the C2 of Marine ground forces so the same picture is sent digitally over communications links to various command centers.

“It’s risk mitigation by the Marine Corps, and the COC represents a hardware baseline,” Fallon says. The Marines are going to employ that hardware baseline and migrate to a shared data environment using open standards, shifting away from the Corps’ and the Navy’s use of proprietary systems and software. The Marine Corps policy will migrate program by program to open systems over time. “The lead sled dog is MAGTF combat operations centers,” Fallon shares.

The migration will take place gradually to ensure configuration management and backward compatibility because the Marine Corps cannot afford to throw out all of its old systems. New and old capabilities will be part of the move, with configuration management and kits used to make former services relevant to the new environment and the new services coming off the production line.

With all their capabilities, the COCs serve as the key tactical node from the battlefield to the GIG. John Williamson, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Charleston liaison to PM MAGTF C2, explains that the use of the GIG and services will be consistent with Defense Department policy and direction as the Marine Corps federates the services. Also available to the COC and enterprise is the ability for users to compose services. Individuals can identify services and then turn them into workflow, basically creating their own applications. “It’s totally composable, which is a new novel approach we’re going to be coming upon,” Williamson states. He adds that the GIG is the key to a wealth of services locally and in the battlespace.

Beyond serving as the connection into the military Internet, the COCs are the prototype in the Marine Corps for open-source software development. Marines are working with industry and government partners to develop service-oriented architecture capabilities and follow an open-source model.

Another way the COCs move the MAGTF forward is through the elimination of ad hoc procurement. By standardizing the systems, the Marine Corps can rapidly refresh and upgrade technology and remain forward leaning. Sustainability is upheld because all troops use the same system, and upgrade costs are reduced.

This homogeny also eases moving centers and troops from one location to another and rotating units in and out of the centers in theater because all Marines understand and are familiar with the systems and technologies in the COCs. Ordering the major subordinate command level centers ensures additional standardization through the leadership levels. Holt says that the move supports the ability to communicate and provide C2 and situational awareness across all echelons quickly.

Through the use of commercial technology in the centers, the Corps creates familiar interfaces especially for young Marines. Maj. Joshua Kiihne, USMC, lead engineer for the COC program, explains that employing common commercial products rather than purpose-built military tools increases trainability because individuals are comfortable with the technology. Younger troops are accustomed to using computers and other devices in their everyday lives and can adjust quickly to using the same systems for military purposes.

The COCs primarily run commercial systems but also implement some government off-the-shelf software. The centers include standard networks, servers and routers and allow the interface between Marines and services. Ancillary gear such as scanners, shredders and disks for extra storage to increase survivability also are part of the equipment.

Future upgrades will reduce the centers’ footprint and enable virtualization. The Marines are introducing streaming video capabilities that will allow everyone to log in and watch videos. That feature will be inherent in the capability set two version, and the other capability sets will be updated.

According to Holt, the Marine Corps always planned to evolve and upgrade the COCs as new technologies were discovered and user feedback was received. He and his team take the input they receive and use it to enhance systems and address needs as required.

The dedication to maintaining up-to-date capabilities is built into the contracts supporting the COCs for the MAGTF. General Dynamics C4 Systems comes out with new upgrades each year for hardware and software. During the updates, the Marine Corps leverages investments by the joint community to save money and to remain compatible with partner services and agencies. Fallon explains that each time a new system or system of systems is released, the latest hardware and software are in the configuration.

Technology insertions for the operations centers are based on input from troops returning from operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. One example of an upgrade for capability sets four and three—and standard for the capability set two version—is a tool that allows collaboration from command center to command center. Warfighters go online to talk to one another and see each other via videoconference, and they can collaborate in the same workspace. When various software upgrades occur, manufacturing work order kits are deployed to the field to accomplish the tasking.

Another capability being added to the COCs is advanced training systems that enable Marines to train through simulation. Red and blue forces are represented in the technology so troops can experience a scenario they may encounter in theater. Marines can train individually, or they can work together at the regimental level. The training has low overhead because much of the scenario is computer generated. That simulation capability should be fielded in the next year.

Familiarity and comfort with the systems are important because personnel and units rotate in and out of specific COCs. The Marines and their private partner fielded a complete set of the centers to Twentynine Palms, California, specifically for predeployment training. During the exercise Mojave Viper, Marines train on the organic COCs and are ready to use the technology in theater. This type of common training combined with standardized parts management results in a support package for the system that increases reliability.

The centers are reliable in other ways as well. One reason the Marine Corps has selected the COC to be its cornerstone for future migration is its run time between failures. The requirements document mandates 390 mission hours between shut downs, and the record in operation Iraqi Freedom, according to General Dynamics C4 Systems, is more than 4,000 mission hours running in a harsh environment twenty-four/seven.

Web Resources
MAGTF C2, Weapons and Sensors Development and Integration:
General Dynamics Combat Operations Centers:
Global Information Grid Operations Directorate:


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