Article Published in the Seapower Magazine
A running joke in the Marine Corps is that the two most common after-action comments following a field exercise are, “We learned a lot,” and, “Comm [communications] was fouled up again.”
With luck, the latter statement will soon be history – primarily because the Marine Corps has learned a lot in recent years.
Much of that learning has been about communications, where the main lesson is that the Corps’ command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – C4ISR – technology is outdated and the comm equipment itself is heavy to carry and often more of a hindrance than a help. In an era of “Palm Pilots” and cell phones the size of credit cards, many Marines are frustrated at having to cart around 20 or more pounds of communication equipment designed before laptop computers were ever heard of, especially when the older gear is sometimes only barely adequate for “shooting, moving and communicating” over long distances.
The frustration is not just about a heavy load on a sore back or the inability to pass along a target list. It has to do more with the fact that obsolete tactical communications equipment inhibits the Corps’ ability to fulfill its goal of transforming amphibious operations from an over-the-beach enterprise to an over-the-horizon one. If the Corps is to ever realize its goal outlined in its “Operational Maneuver From the Sea,” battle doctrine it must find a way to communicate continuously and wirelessly over the horizon, from the decks of amphibious ships to the belly of an MV-22 Osprey to the squad speeding inland aboard the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAAV).
A Fast Fix is Needed
The Osprey cruises at 275 knots in airplane mode – the CH-46 Sea Knight that the Osprey is replacing flies at only145 knots. The Corps’ current amphibious-assault vehicle travels at 25 mph over land, but its replacement, the AAAV, is expected to nearly double that speed – to 45 mph. Indeed, the speed of future amphibious operations probably will see Marines outrunning the range of their comm gear even before networks can be established.
One concept that offers hope for future improvements is a technique called “Extending the Littoral Battlespace,” or ELB. A sort of “unplugged” version of current communications, it offers Marines a wireless network far more streamlined than current C4ISR networks and a shared picture of the battlefield as visible and as readily available to the individual rifleman in a fighting hole as it is to the battle-force commander on board a command ship 100 miles away.
The ELB concept was at the center of a $150 million Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) conducted in April during Exercise Kernel Blitz on the West Coast. The demonstration was led by the Office of Naval Research, working in conjunction with the new Advanced Technology Systems Division of General Dynamics, which began work on the concept in 1998.
Today, explained Scott Sears of the Advanced Technology Systems Division, Marines aboard amphibious shipping “go deaf” when they head for shore, either aboard CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters or in amphibious-assault vehicles (AAVs). Their only means of communicating, usually, is by voice radios. Once on the beach, they must re-establish a communications “node,” a process that can take anywhere from six to 10 hours. Only after the node is set up can the Marines establish the comm links they will need with other command and control elements afloat, ashore and in the air.
The Unencumbered Scenario
In an overland scenario on the hypothetical littoral battlefield of the future Marines will not want to stop at the beach, thought. Instead, their goal will be to move directly to their combat objective, which sometimes might be as far as 200 miles inland. The tactics and techniques of doing so are being tested now in the Corps’ Capable Warrior experiments. But to do it seamlessly, not to mention successfully, Marines will need more than line-of-sight radios and cumbersome satellite gear and PCs.
One purpose of the Kernel Blitz demonstration, according to information released by the Office of Naval Research, was to ” … exploit the potential of emerging technological capabilities to provide theaterwide situation understanding, effective remote fires and a robust interconnected information infrastructure. This … is a concept-based demonstration to enhance Joint Expeditionary Warfare capabilities for the 21st century.
“In the changing global environment, the [demonstration] proposes a range of operational and tactical concepts which leverage command, control, communications, computational, and other technologies to exploit information and improve precision fires and targeting in future operations.”
In other words, the ELB concept will be realized by giving strike forces continuous command-and-control capabilities all the way from the well deck of a ship to the urban battlefield of the future.
Applying the lessons learned from the Hunter Warrior experiments of the mid-1990s – in which Marines booted up and wired in to nearly every information-technology system on the shelf in an effort to give every combatant a common picture of the battlefield – Kernel Blitz employed the use of a wireless “WARNET.” The idea was to use existing off-the-shelf technology, both government and commercial, to reduce not only costs but also the R&D (research and development) needed to field the gear.
Unlike current systems – VHF, UHF, PC-based applications and the like – WARNET offered a higher capability, go-anywhere wireless system that could go wherever a Marine could: aboard an MV-22, on patrol in the jungle, or in a “Humvee” (HMMWV- high-mobility multiwheeled vehicle) speeding down an interstate highway.
Using essentially the same technology used on college campuses to build wireless wide-area networks, or WANs, WARNET demonstrated its usefulness when a Marine communicated with his command element aboard the command ship Coronado, which was 135 nautical miles away, without using a satellite.
Arrow vs. WMDs
In a related and even more revelaing experiment, the flexibility and ease of integration of the new system was demonstrated when a team of Marines was put ashore near a simulated Third World town. Its mission: to locate and neutralize any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that might be hidden in the area.
In this experiment the team had no idea in which building the WMDs might be concealed; the team leader “flying shotgun” in a helicopter over the town, and the unit commander aboard ship many miles away also had no information about the weapons. However, using an image of the town from a simulated unmanned aerial vehicle – another helicopter – the commander was able to draw a rough map of the town on a “white board” in front of a camera aboard the ship, with the assault team leader watching on his laptop computer aboard the CH-46. As the real-time images were transformed into “check over there” directions from the unit commander, the team leader was able direct his Marines on the ground – who saw the same picture on their hand-held computers – to the target without exposing them to unnecessary risks. The Marines on the ground were actually moving toward the target at the same time as the arrows were being drawn on the . . .
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