• A radio operator for Combat Logistics Battalion-31, 31st Expeditionary Unit (MEU) communicates with the command element during a mass casualty evacuation exercise in Japan.
     A radio operator for Combat Logistics Battalion-31, 31st Expeditionary Unit (MEU) communicates with the command element during a mass casualty evacuation exercise in Japan.

Marines Research 

April 1, 2013
By Rita Boland

Looking past the alligators close to the boat, scientists prepare for the wars of tomorrow.

Distributed operations are the future of the U.S. Marine Corps, and its premier science and technology organization is laser focused on the capabilities to make such missions a success. Enabling communications for mobile troops across long distances is a priority as battles continue in Afghanistan while the focus shifts toward more maritime environments. Success will give lower echelons better access to command and control, enhancing the fight in any theater.

Brig. Gen. Mark R. Wise, USMC, commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) and vice chief of naval research, explains that people usually think of modernizing a force as working on resources to be ready in five to 10 years, but efforts at the laboratory reach much further ahead. “We are influencing the very leading edge,” he states. The research helps define what times to come should look like for Marines and what they will need to operate effectively. This aim at the future influences the requirements that influence modernization.

“The MCWL is very focused on distributed operations right now,” Gen. Wise explains. Units in current conflicts already operate at great distances from other units or their own command and control (C2) elements. As operations shift to the Asia-Pacific, such distance problems are likely to increase. The MCWL is working on methods to sustain—through enhanced logistics—and command and control such a force. Researchers are exploring material and nonmaterial solutions to find the correct enabling capabilities.

In terms of C2, the two key issues are over-the-horizon communications and communications on the move. Leaders see Marines in the future maintaining constant mobility, not being tied down to forward operating bases, according to Gen. Wise. Today’s communications architectures are static and difficult to manage over the horizon. Laboratory personnel want to allow young commanders at the company level to communicate back to a sea base that might be more than 160 miles away by relaying voice, data and position location information without ever having to stop moving.

MCWL personnel are experimenting with the Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS) in partnership with Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren. Other public and private organizations also are involved with this technology. The system offers communications via Iridium satellites through handheld radios that can operate on the move and send signals over the horizon. Gen. Wise emphasizes that whether or not Iridium is the best solution is not the point. The point is to buy a representative capability, see if it answers a need and, if so, use it to inform eventual combat development. The systems MCWL buys represent an emerging capability.

The general explains that people in industry and in the government often misunderstand how the laboratory views and uses science and technology (S&T). They tend to think of MCWL products as off-the-shelf finished products, but actually MCWL personnel look at S&T as a series of evolving capabilities on the way to more defined research and development, then eventual fielding. When the laboratory makes purchases, it does not buy a program of record but instead seeks out surrogate technologies that represent developing capabilities in the S&T field. Researchers are looking into programs that could represent over-the-horizon/on-the-move C2 capability with the DTCS and with TrellisWare radios. Both offer handheld systems that provide the desired capabilities in surrogate platforms. “That is to say, they may perform the function differently than the eventual S&T products, but can be used in a similar fashion now to experiment with the capability,” Gen. Wise explains.

The DTCS uses the Iridium satellite system to provide long-range communications and TrellisWare provides a local self-forming/self-healing network on the move. “Imagine every Marine becomes his own repeater,” Gen. Wise says. Researchers have seen success with the TrellisWare equipment in urban environments and foresee it working in cities and in ship situations.

The general shares that the two systems can give Marines a lot of capability with only two radios. Not only does this lead to the key C2 enabling goals, but it also furthers efforts to lighten the loads on Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs). Along with facilitating distributed operations, finding ways to reduce the equipment Marines take into battle is a key consideration of laboratory efforts. Gen. Wise emphasizes that every examined tool has to offer more capability than the equipment it replaces. Ideally, one piece of technology will replace multiple pieces already in use. Lightening the MAGTF is not simply an initiative. “It underlies everything I do,” the general states.

Another experiment underway involves taking an internally transportable vehicle and putting a significant communications hub on it. This MAGTF Enabler Light improves communications between commanders using it on the battlefield and C2 elements located in other places, all while remaining on the move.

A factor influencing all capabilities making their way to the Marines is energy, and personnel at the laboratory are exploring alternative options. The Marine Corps spends large amounts of time and resources in the battlespace transporting bulk liquids such as fuel and bottled water. Finding nontraditional power sources, including replacements for batteries, will free up personnel and platforms for other tasks; help Marines become more self-sufficient in the field; and save lives by reducing convoys. To further this effort, the MCWL coordinates closely with the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office on the Experimental Forward Operating Base, or ExFOB, project that brings together various stakeholders to determine how to reduce reliance on traditional fuels across many facets of operations.

Sustainment is an important factor for enabling distributed operations. Gen. Wise elaborates by describing a situation in which a command element sits at sea 165 miles off the coast with one maneuver element 200 miles away and another 250 miles from the first. Leaders must use surface and air connectors to sustain those troops, with increased reliance on air assets as troops push further inland. “I could easily bring my aviation capacity to its knees mainly because of the tyranny of distance,” Gen. Wise explains. The more Marines can purify their own water or produce their own electric energy, the fewer assets are tied up in supply tasks. Gen. Wise sees different perspectives from which researchers can address sustainment. “That’s what I think the lab does well,” he says. “We attack problems from multiple angles.”

Marines will have to carry certain items, such as ammunition, with them, so the MCWL is looking at ways to enable physical mobility in the battlespace. Robotics and autonomy are two concepts with particular promise in this area. Researchers are working with counterparts at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), a big quadruped with sensors and a computer brain. It can see and understand its environment, enabling it to move with Marines or move out in advance of them to a specific location without constant remote guidance. Marines do not have to interact much with the LS3 to produce the effects they need from it. On the ground vehicle side, the MCWL is exploring with other organizations the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate, which can be autonomous to help with sustainment as well as with casualty evacuation and extraction. Making Marines more survivable on the battlefield is yet another element of distributed operations, especially in consideration of the Golden Hour—the hour time limit between an injury and arriving at an aid station that greatly increases survivability. Research is underway on an initiative that will send the vital signs of injured troops at battle locations to aid stations so doctors can help corpsmen with triage and immediate care. By the time the wounded arrive at a medical facility, personnel are ready and able to begin treatment. While the goal is always to take casualties to doctors as quickly as possible, the medical technology research aims to extend the Golden Hour time limit.

Laboratory personnel also work with developers at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to create platform-agnostic autonomy technology. In his dual-hatted role as a leader at both the MCWL and the ONR, Gen. Wise furthers an already close relationship between the two organizations. He says the Navy organization works hard to ensure its efforts align with the requirements of sailors and Marines. The synergy helps with budgets, too. All medical dollars, for example, are allocated through the Navy, but the research is critical to the Marine Corps. Gen. Wise says the ONR opens doors for Marines to leverage more capability and larger budgets.

The general explains that for the most part, budgetary decision makers understand the importance of S&T as an investment in the future and as a risk mitigator. When military commanders need capabilities in the future, the results can only materialize if work is done today to create those resources. In the past, S&T funds have received some preservation because decision makers understand that for a relatively low investment, they are protecting the future, Gen. Wise adds.

Having a strategic plan for the laboratory’s objectives keeps everyone focused on the same goals and marching on one path. Gen. Wise says that in these days of fiscal uncertainty people can easily focus on the alligators closest to the boat, but the military needs organizations such as the MCWL and the ONR to look beyond the quickest bite to find the answers for wider challenges.

To help address those issues, MCWL personnel build on their relationships with industry, academia and other government entities. “The communicating is the one thing I find is the most important,” Gen. Wise says. He works hard to engage with industry, to understand their requirements and to explain the needs of the laboratory.


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