Command and Control on the Go

July 2004
By Maryann Lawlor
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Maj. Sherman Bierly, USMC (standing), points out key features of the Unit Operation Center’s (UOC’s) smartboard to U.S. Marine Corps operations staff. The UOC, developed for the Marine Corps by General Dynamics C4 Systems, allows personnel to share information quickly, increasing situational awareness and cutting decision-making time in half.
New operations centers set the stage for consistent technology acquisition.

Network-centric warfare is on the fast track with the U.S. Marine Corps in operation Iraqi Freedom. After mobile operation centers received rave reviews from troops that previewed them in-theater, the service decided to field the equipment months earlier than originally planned, prior to final testing and evaluation. Commanders relate that the capability dramatically improves situational awareness and cuts decision-making time in half.

Military acquisition leaders agree that the need for a scalable, flexible operational center has been long-standing. Infantry, artillery, combat-service support and aviation units require standardization in information-sharing capabilities. Based on the findings of a year-long evaluation, the Marine Corps determined that it was time to move ahead with purchasing a technology solution.

In April 2002, General Dynamics C4 Systems, Scottsdale, Arizona, was awarded the five-year $13.4 million contract to develop ground combat operations centers for the Marine Corps. Less than two years later, in February 2004, four Unit Operations Centers (UOCs) were shipped to aviation units in Iraq where commanders evaluated the capability and immediately began requesting more.

The UOCs provide mobile modular command and control (C2) capabilities to deployed Marines from the battalion through the Marine Expeditionary Force levels. Integrated intelligence, information and communications systems enable forces to collect, process, share and view tactical data digitally, replacing the current system of voice communications, grease pencils and acetate boards. The UOCs can be set up in less than one hour and will facilitate interoperability between Marine Corps, joint and coalition systems.

Among the capabilities the UOCs feature are generators, nonsecure and secure Internet protocol router network connectivity, voice over Internet protocol intercom, network servers, rugged laptop workstations, large screen displays and other computer peripherals. The Marine units outfitted with the UOCstransport the centers and bring their own radios for voice communications.

A variety of scalable components are the building blocks of the centers. At present, all of the commanders receive all of the components; however, in the future, commanders will be able to choose the capabilities they will require based on the nature of a mission. Many units already have developed a standard set-up for an operations center; however, as technology evolves, they will be able to add equipment to meet specific mission needs.

Capability Sets (CapSets) allow a commander to create a C2 center that fulfills specific mission needs. Four predefined CapSets have been developed that address the requirements of various levels of command. CapSet I is a digital combat operations center that includes equipment to support a Marine Expeditionary Force. CapSet II and CapSet III components meet the requirements of a division and regiment, respectively; and CapSet IV elements support commanders at the battalion level.

The UOCs T3 design—tents, trailers and transit cases—facilitates deployment. The centers can be transported in CH-53 helicopters;  C-130, C-17 and MV-22 aircraft; high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) and a variety of ships. In addition, CapSet IV features a manportable version.

According to Col. Paul Ortiz, USMC, program manager, UOC, Marine Corps Systems Command, Quantico, Virginia, the UOCs have not been officially fielded because they must continue through standard acquisition processes such as operational testing and the decision for full-rate production. “But based on the current political environment and military need, the forces—infantrymen, the aviation element, combat-service support—asked for this device because they had nothing,” Col. Ortiz says.

In February, a team of military and General Dynamics personnel went to Iraq for the initial implementation and evaluation of the equipment. The colonel relates that the capability was so well received that the day after he returned to the United States, he had e-mail requests for an additional 15 UOCs. In early May, the team returned to Iraq with four additional UOCs, and Col. Ortiz says that he could not ship more because the Marine Corps currently has only a total of 14 units and some of them must be available for the experimentation and training process.

The UOC’s trailer is the heart of the system’s centralized voice and data communications and can be set up quickly to facilitate communications that operate independently of the entire center. 
“The system is working extremely well. In fact, when you field a system or a product that has everything in it—like a network structure, like power, like air conditioning, like computers, cabling, other accessory components, generators—there are an awful lot of things that can go wrong that could portray a poor image of the device. In this case, everything worked well,” the colonel says. Although the generators posed some challenges, the colonel points out that generator problems are always likely to occur in extremely high temperatures.

The colonel says these problems concern him enough that he believes the generators must be improved. At this point, the UOC system features four layers for power supply. When the generator fails, an uninterruptible power supply automatically and immediately begins and lasts for 45 minutes. During that time, personnel must put into place the cabling to hook up the system to a HMMWV. This will power the system for as long as the vehicle is idling. In the meantime, personnel must secure a spare generator.

“Keep in mind that we are still making some subtle changes to the program—for the better. As we learn more, the program will evolve continuously. This program will never be 100 percent because the technology is changing so rapidly,” Col. Ortiz relates. Although the UOCs are a foundation, needs are likely to grow, he adds.

This is a good example of acquisition and spiral development, the colonel says, in that it moved from contract award to low-rate initial production to combat in less than two years. The Marine Corps will continue to build upon the current system so that the product will grow as the needs of the service increase. The lessons learned from operating in Iraq already have resulted in an in-depth assessment, he adds.

The colonel shares one example of how effective the UOCs can be in operations. A helicopter unit in Iraq had to launch a number of aircraft, including a medical evacuation helicopter, simultaneously. The commander and his unit, which had worked out of a UOC from the first day they arrived in Iraq, used voice over Internet protocol to communicate via one device and provide a solution. Coordination of the job was accomplished in half the time previously required.

“For the commander, it allows the dissemination of information faster because more people can hear it. More information is working simultaneously inside the operational system, so more people can disseminate information faster and decisions can be made faster. The commander also has more flexibility. In the package comes a holistic answer. It’s compact. It comes in two trailers and a truck-bed load, and it is well designed with the appropriate boxes so that the components don’t get damaged. As a result, it’s easier to set up and pull down.

“What’s even more important is that it not only provides a standard way of doing business for individual units but also provides that approach throughout the Marine Corps. That means Lance Corporal Joe from Unit X will know exactly what’s going on when he gets transferred overseas to Unit Y doing the same mission, and that’s what we don’t have today. We have different processes, different pieces, different components because each unit uses field devices, but they procure their own to complete the operational center. The way they do business is, in some cases, drastically different. In some cases, there are units that don’t have very much, and there are units that have a lot. So there is a drastic delta between the units themselves. This [UOC program] essentially gets everybody on the same wavelength, so the Marine Corps can move forward with technology in a more consistent, more efficient manner,” Col. Ortiz says.

Funding for many warfighting programs has been a challenge for all of the services, and current operations are causing competing priorities. The colonel allows that programs must be prioritized because only a fraction of them can be funded.

Col. Ortiz has to make some of those tough decisions and, in fact, went to Iraq to determine whether this system was needed or should be sacrificed so that funding could support other programs. Once he saw the UOCs in operations, he was convinced. “It is clear in my mind that it is absolutely needed throughout the Marine Corps, without any reservations, because the Marine Corps needs a standard way of doing business and because some units don’t have the assets that they truly need to get their missions accomplished,” he says.

The feedback from the units also has been overwhelmingly positive. Unit commanders told UOC team members that now that they have seen the equipment of the future, they do not want to go back to the old way of setting up communications. Many of the commanders have called the equipment “awesome,” the colonel relates. “So it is a useful product across the spectrum of the Marine Corps not only for the infantry unit or the artillery unit but also for the aviation unit and the combat-service support unit,” the colonel says.

Although the UOC is effective in many situations, Col. Ortiz points out, the entire command center may not be set up for all operations because at times the units must travel so quickly. However, the system’s design is flexible, so the trailer can be connected for communications without the entire operations center being erected.

The colonel maintains that command and control operational centers are the focus of the future across all services. The UOC provides both standardization and a path for growth, he adds.


Additional information on the Unit Operations Center is available on the World Wide Web at

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