Comment on - “The Marines Look to Elevate SIGINT and EW,” SIGNAL, AFCEA, 12 April 2019
by Peter J Baldwin.
Very happy to hear the Marine Corps plans to elevate SIGINT/EW, as Ms. Underwood reports in her article, “The Marines Look to Elevate SIGINT and EW,” SIGNAL, AFCEA, 12 April 2019, provided by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) in their WIN #15-19 of 16 April 2019. It is regrettable the Marine Corps let them atrophy. Here are a few thoughts that might help this effort.
1. First, some context.
Around 1992-1993, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps was considering reorganizing Marine Corps intelligence activities, assets, and structure. This included changes to MOS 2602(SIGINT/EW Officer) and the Radio Bns.
Coincidently and unconnected to the HQMC effort, the Requirements Division, MCCDC commissioned a study on future SIGINT/EW materiel requirements. Some of the other Services and NSA participated.
The MCCDC study looked at the future threat. What it found was amazing and worrisome.*
The study reported SIGINT/EW’s targets had changed and modernized, surpassing our ability to handle some of them now and many more in the future. Furthermore, change and modernization were continuing to accelerate at an alarming rate. SIGINT/EW had gotten more difficult to do and was going to get even more difficult. Accordingly, in addition to the need for some new materiel capabilities, achieving and sustaining technical SIGINT/EW proficiency by all USCS personnel would be both essential and challenging.
History has shown this MCCDC report to have been an accurate forecast and one that remains valid.
At about the same time, the DoD IG published a review of Marine Corps Intelligence. It reported the Marine Corp’s SIGINT/EW occupational specialty was in pretty good shape.
Finally, I don’t remember the authors, but a study in 1980 done for HQMC (INTS & PO) and a current white paper recommended the main ground SIGINT/EW capabilities in the FMF continue to reside in the Radio Bns and be closely tied to the FMF’s Intelligence and Communications activities. They cited many reasons. It provides for:
• reduced costs purchasing, maintaining, and supplying equipment;
• best environment for personnel and teams to train together in billet tasks and doctrinal, tactical, and technical skills and operations, then operate together;
• effective and efficient task organization because all capabilities reside under one hat versus having to put pieces together from different organizations to form an ad hoc unit where the personnel might not be familiar enough with each other to begin operations smoothly;
*Note: Believe this report and subsequent discussions/meetings helped underpin the need for the Unified Cryptologic Architecture (UCA) effort. Kudos were passed to the Marines.
• concentration of the ability to manage technical and security control (e.g., collection management and sanitization);
• more effective management of reach-back and requests for external augmentation;
• better ability for the FMF commander to manage their internal and external SIGINT/EW capabilities.
In other words, the Radio Bns provide focus, mass, unity of command, economy of force, simplicity, individual and unit training, and the ability to task organize.
In consideration of these reports, the Requirements Division, MCCDC did an assessment of the status and plans for ground-based SIGINT/EW in the Marine Corps.
As a result, we believed Marines MOS 26XX and Radio Bns could handle these challenges.
We had a solid core of Warrant Officers and enlisted Marine experts; some promising new occupational field career development and training programs; excellent operational abilities and experience; solid doctrine and procedures; and superb connections throughout the SIGINT/EW community for augmentation and reach-back. Our materiel requirements statements and plans were largely on track and we knew the gaps we had to close. Our systems development programs and plans also were on target thanks to MARCORSYSCOM.
However, our assessment revealed a serious gap. We too would need to foster the growth of the technical SIGINT/EW proficiency of our unrestricted MOS 2602 officer community (2nd Lt-Lt Col), so they could better lead and manage SIGINT/EW units, support MAGTF needs, and contribute to answering national advisory tasking. This was not only important for operations, but also for beltway-related activities like preparing seniors to attend high-level meetings and appear before Congress; manage the OccField and its components; as well as “run with the SIGINT/EW community bulls” fighting for resources and advocating for the Marine Corps.
Additionally, MOS 2602 officers were routinely assigned to places or sent to senior-level briefings/ meetings like the Expanded Corporate Management Review Group, where they were often the sole Marine Corps SIGINT/EW person present. The places included Service, Joint, and Agency headquarters. The Marines had to be fully prepared to respond correctly when asked for guidance, especially when time is precious and/or the stakes were high.
More than once, senior DoD leaders (civilians and military) figuratively (and a few times actually) poked a finger in my chest and asked me for SIGINT/EW advice I found myself on very thin ice when the subject required technical knowledge.
My technical expertise did not measure up to Junior Officer Career Cryptologic Program (JOCCP)/Naval Post-Graduate School grads. These are programs where officers are presented a lot of technical knowledge to prepare them for subsequent assignments. I occasionally had to fill in for a Navy Captain (a JOCCP grad), at the SIGINT Committee and its sub-committees. I also twice replaced a Marine officer MOS 2602 JOCCP grad. My co-workers, customers, contempories, partners, and Reporting Senior could see the difference between us up close. There is a world of difference in expertise in technical SIGINT/EW matters between JOCCP/equivalent grads and OJT-trained non-grads. You don’t even speak the same language. It was always a thrill to be challenged on a technical matter in front of a group of armed cold-blooded community seniors.
In our assessment, we looked at other options: reliance on Warrant Officers, SNCO, civilians, contractors, augmentation, or MOS 0202 and 2502.
• WO/SNCO: We were fortunate to have the right number of Warrant Officers and SNCOs. They were great Marines and the foundation of Marine Corps SIGINT/EW success. It was most important for them to work in the Radio Bns, using their technical expertise to correctly guide, plan, and conduct direction, collection, analysis, and reporting activities. On the other hand, although they would be appropriate and great representatives at Washington-beltway/similar working group-level meetings, they usually were not a good fit at events calling for senior representation.
• Civilians: Too expensive and hard to get and keep them. Cost: when I was told to cost out a separate program initiative, I was provided programming billet cost factors for personnel estimates~mid-1990s: $97k-enlisted, $104k-officer, $111k-civilian; and $118k-contractor, if memory serves me well (specialist technical contractors often cost more). Furthermore, the actual numbers are not what is important, it is the comparison. Additionally, because there were few qualified civilians willing to take a job with the government then at what was viewed as a low GS-level and demand for these civilians was high, we had trouble hiring them.
o Too expensive, unprepared, missing, untrustworthy, or unreliable. They were even scarcer and demand was even higher for them than civilians. This made them the most expensive and hard to fill option.
o Some of these “subject matter exerts” the contractor provided were mislabeled as experts. Our SNCOs were usually superior in target technical expertise. Many of the contractors were unfamiliar and untrained on the equipment, target, and technology.
They also usually lacked knowledge or experience with amphibious operations and MAGTFs.
o Many showed up without clearances. They had to be watched to ensure the work is being correctly done, including linguist’s work and no CI or security problems surface.
o Contractors regularly failed to provide all the personnel agreed to in the contract/statement of work. Once a contract is signed and the company has provided its first deliverable, usually a generic brief on the company and its approach, the contract lead vanishes rarely to be seen again, except when trying to get more money put on the contract
o They also lacked authority to make official votes and provide official positions, which meant a civilian or military officer often had to accompany them, raising the question why contractors?
o Some did not like the working conditions. Occasionally, one is a problem child who refuses to listen to guidance because she/he knows better.
o Legend says all of a Radio Bn’s contractor support for electronic maintenance booked at daylight the first day of DESERT STORM.
• Augmentation: Affordable. Possible. Already existed and working--Marine Support Bn and some Reservists. However, this was mostly NCO specialists. Regardless the source, it was very difficult to get the grades we needed.
• MOS 0202/2502: Hard to get. At that time, both were under-strength. It would also be difficult for them to build and maintain even basic technical SIGINT/EW expertise without spending a lot of time away from their primary MOS, which would make it hard for them to stay current on their primary MOS skills and knowledge. Thus, it may be hard to get them for three years three-four times in their careers. (Based only on what I observed, bringing one of them into the 26 OccField for just one tour was disruptive and counter-productive. By the time they are ready, they are gone. Regrettably, the ones I’ve met have an attitude of “why me” or “oh, crap” or “MOS 2602 Marines aren’t really true Marines.”)
Fortunately, the Marine Corps had already made some changes to improve its unrestricted MOS 2602 officer community (e.g., began to participate in NSA’s JOCCP).
As a result of our assessment and experience, we cautioned against making some of the changes to MOS 2602 and Radio Bns being considered by HQMC. We felt those changes were premature until the future threat and plans of the larger SIGINT/EW enterprise were better understood. Waiting a bit until the larger SIGINT/EW enterprise sorted itself out seemed the prudent approach.
The changes were made.
The UCA confirmed our suspicions, but it was too late to go back.
Some of us watched the changes progress over the years. Regrettably, at times what we saw regarding technical proficiency of unrestricted MOS 2602 officers was not-so-good.
This is not to say these Marine officers are not held in high regard. It’s just when something requiring technical knowledge/expertise came up IC managers knew they could rely on officers from the other Services.
True, you could send a back-bencher along to help, but sometimes turning around to ask for help is not cool. IC managers avoid getting phone calls from senior staff telling them to send someone who is qualified next time (and sometimes, do not to send whoever attended back at all). Sometimes, you only get one shot.
Of course, you could strive to prepare the officer beforehand, but whether that was enough depended on the person’s background, interest, and time. I witnessed IC managers/staffs spend entire days and more to prepare a senior to attend a critical recurring meeting chaired by a mean and smart senior at CMS, Joint Staff, or downtown.
Bottomline: We need technically proficient experts at all grades who can lead, manage, advocate for, and defend our activities and requirements while standing shoulder-to-shoulder or toe-to-toe with other experts and seniors who are experts.
2. Past efforts to improve SIGINT/EW that might be of interest.
a. It was depressing to read to that, “’Our most pressing concern is that commanders don’t care.” I regret to say it also was a problem in the past. To overcome it:
First, we expanded the presence of SIGINT/EW in the FMF or supporting the FMF:
• We put more SIGINT/EW personnel in the FMF (e.g., staffs of I MAF, III MAF, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Air Wing, and 1st, 4th, and 7th MABs had SIGINT/EW officers assigned to their G2; we increased the size of the SSCTs).
• We increased the number of cleared billets for FMF commanders and staff personnel.
• We requested a permanent Radio Bn unit for III MAF located on Okinawa.
• We created a platoon-sized group at NSA to provide language training and support directly to FMF SIGINT/EW organizations and personnel.
• We arranged for the assignment of representatives from DoD agencies to support MAF needs.
• We provided more exercise support (similar to red-cells).
• Most notably, we assigned a MOS 2602 officer to MAGCC 29 Palms to provide SIGINT/EW expertise to their combined arms exercise program. We received many BZ for this.
Second, we improved formal school education & training by:
• assigning a MOS 2602 officer to the staff of the Command and Staff College (who also covered the Amphibious Warfare and Communications Schools).
• providing instruction at TBS. I remember being scolded by Manpower at HQMC because so many of the top graduating Lieutenants were requesting assignment to the SIGINT/EW specialty instead of other specialties.
• improving MOS 2602 entry-level and mid-grade training.
Third, we improved the quality and processing of enlisted Marines for assignment to OccFld 26. We did that by putting an MSgt 2691, at each MCRD to screen and pick candidates, as well as submit clearance paper-work. Our training failure rate and security delays disappeared. In most classes, the honor graduate was usually a Marine. It drove the other Services mad with envy, but the Commanders of the units they reported to after graduation were pleased.
Fourth, we came out from behind closed doors to support the FMF by providing to G2/S2s and all-source intelligence activities routine support at the lowest classification level possible. If one knows the rules and procedures, doors should not present an undue barrier. I remember SIGINT/EW SNCOs telling me how they passed urgent warnings to Marines on patrol, cleared or not, during Vietnam and Beirut without violating restrictions.
The “green door” has reached storied levels. Where I ran into “doors” was at national levels with very sensitive information. DNI valiantly opened many doors to users including tactical commanders. I witnessed NSA bend over backwards to support tactical needs in spite of rumored “green doors.” If info had to get out, ways were found to get it out in an effective, legal, secure, and timely fashion per duty to warn rules. On the other hand, “doors” meaning reasonable rules and restrictions do play an important security role (head off Mannng/Snowdens).
Fifth, MCCDC improved doctrine.
“The MAGTF commander is ultimately responsible for the conduct of MAGTF SIGINT/EW operations. “ (FMFM 3-1)
“The commander is responsible for the intelligence and counterintelligence activities of his command.” (FMFM 2-1)
“… no commander – no matter how brilliant can operate effectively without good intelligence… Intelligence, therefore, is at once inseparable from both command and operations.” (MCDP 2)
“Intelligence is not an obscure activity unrelated to other warfighting activities. In fact, intelligence is a critical component of command and control, a fundamental responsibility of command, and inseparable from operations.” (MCDP 2)
Yes, we ran across Marines who still weren’t satisfied. We listened and did what we could to improve our support. Often times, the issue was confusion concerning the difference between SIGINT direct support vs doctrinal direct support. That was usually because SIGINT/EW Marines used them inter-changeably thus incorrectly.
b. An important task was to get as much money as possible. Its money… money… money that makes the SIGINT/EW world hum (applicable to all intel disciplines). Anyone who says differently is probably trying to take your money away (“FIA is the best program SIGINT could buy” … FIA was an expensive IMINT program in the 1990s). I hope the new Deputy Commandant is super successful getting resources.
It cost a lot to pay for the 1st Radio Bn’s operational tempo and support needs. For example, the Battalion deployed several operational/training detachments (including red-cell teams) usually simultaneously, to both MAFs and other organizations. It also cost a lot to send the battalion’s Marines to various places to ensure effective reach-back, liaison, and skill development/maintenance, especially language proficiency.
Some of the benefits and selling points of the Radio Bn were its abilities to quickly task-organize and deploy, arrive self-contained, immediately get to work, pay for itself, and not require much support from the supported entity. Often times, the Radio Bn paid for outside augmentation and reach-back help. Showing up and onsite presence at near-zero cost is the key to the MAGTF commander’s heart. Before the kick off of DESERT SHIELD, 1st Radio Bn already had Marines in the PG. Later at the height of DS/DS, the Radio Bn was able to support regular and unexpected III MAF requirements.
3. Miscellaneous Thoughts
a. Legalities. Concern about personnel complying with legalities began right away when one reported to work with briefings on USSID 18 and various department/agency/Service regulations. Granted, legalities have grown more complicated.
I never understood the dust-up about Title 10 vs Title 50. I learned it was a programming-budgeting concern (who pays), not a legal or operational issue, but it seems to have been twisted into an authority-legal-operational-security concern for many.
My last assignment was to a SIGINT site. In my opinion, most operators/analysts/report writers were confused about the rules. Nonetheless they worked diligently to comply with them. The training was poor. Changes and changes to changes were frequent. Guidance often conflicted with other guidance. In one area, I found three agency-level policy directives on one subject that differed from each other yet all claimed to be the definitive policy statement.
I sensed a mood among middle management that the less you do, the less likely you’ll get into trouble. Thank heavens for the Navy Chiefs and senior petty officers. Those heroes kept the place going and the youngsters motivated. (Note: I’ve been told that the new regime has re-energized the place and things are great.) (Note: the young Marines there were super, albeit bored and misused).
(1) COI. How the creation of a community of interest helps is beyond me. I have only seen one last beyond a few general postings the first few days, then silence. I guess it doesn’t hurt to try as long as it doesn’t eat up any money.
(2) IT. The apparent emphasis on the usefulness of IT is worrisome. IT overpromises and then fails to deliver. Part of the reason for the problems with DoD Detention Operations in 2002-2004 were IT-related (personnel did not have access manuals and publications because they were only online). Apparently, someone believed the promises that all the manuals/etc they would need would be easily available online, and thus did not believe paper copies might be necessary. Consequently, the soldiers did not have access to doctrine and procedures on interrogation.
In 2012-2013, I watched students at the Air War College initially brag about how they were going to rely on their fancy gadgets to handle class participation and assignments. They quickly gave up on that idea because their toys could not access the net, handle the load, “multi-task”, nor get help. Before emphasizing IT too much, look at the wildly successful user-friendly DoD DPS and DTS systems. Finally, I have never seen Gates or any other IT supreme leader get one of their presentations to work at briefings, meetings, or conferences.
(3) Cloud-based training? Hope we have the money to pay for it and don’t toss out older training skills, tools, and facilities. When Washington proposed changing some podium-instructor-based training at Pensacola with computer-based instruction, it did not go well. The financial and manpower overhead costs to develop, update, maintain, and operate the training meant current year budgets and outyear programs had to grow a lot as an unfunded tax. Since students did not learn these skills at the same pace, it created student backlogs, bottlenecks, scheduling glitches, and billeting problems for the center. Most importantly, a flood of commanders’ complaints about poor skill quality became a problem.
4. In closing, three cheers for AOC, AFCEA, and AFIO. They are great advocates and leaders. Plus, thanks to Ms. Underwood and Congressman Cook. Semper Fi.
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