Marines pack PCs as handheld testing continues

Marines pack PCs as handheld testing continues

Portable computers are becoming a standard piece of battlefield gear that is essential to mobile communications.

By Bill Murray

GCN Staff

As the Marine Corps continues work on its Rugged Handheld Computer Program, the service is buying commercial products to fulfill users' mobile-computing needs on the battlefield.

The Corps recently bought about 3,000 IBM ThinkPad 770 notebook PCs that are holding up well in the field, said Maj. James C. Cummiskey, mobile computing project officer for the Tactical System Support Activity's Communications Systems Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

'They're doing fine, but we're having difficulty communicating LAN to LAN over a battlefield WAN,' Cummiskey said.

The service turned in recent months to existing contracts to buy commercial notebook PCs because the handheld systems that it has been developing through the RHC Program are not yet ready for fielding. The systems are still in testing, and the service continues to work on integrating software for the rugged handhelds [GCN, June 28, Page 49].

Cummiskey said the off-the-shelf notebooks might prove sufficient, although perfecting communications is essential. The service also wants to be able to support wireless data communications using other mobile products, such as UHF radio systems and handheld computers, he said.

'The UHF systems we've used are very fast with throughput but slow to set up and not good on the move,' he said. 'We've found that something is not useful if it's not good on the move.'

The service bought some of the ThinkPad notebooks through the Navy Tactical Advanced Computer blanket purchasing agreement held by McBride and Associates Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M. Through the TAC agreements, the Corps also recently bought 428 Panasonic Personal Computer Co. notebook PCs from Government Technology Services Inc. of Chantilly, Va., and 317 Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. portables from GE Capital IT Solutions of Gaithersburg, Md.

Ease of purchase is an important factor and a chief reason for trying to find off-the-shelf gear, Cummiskey said. 'If you can't get it at the store down the street, we're not interested,' he said.

The ultimate goal is to shorten the lifecycle on the hardware buys and invest less in each unit, Cummiskey said. 'It's a disposable model of hardware,' he said, but so far there is no 'streamlined way to exploit technology change.'

For battlefield portables, the service also wants systems that run Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0. The security features in NT provide a safe route for Marines to tap into the Defense Department's Secret IP Router Network when on deployment, Cummiskey said.

Providing SIPRnet access is crucial. But the service estimates that it will get better value from investing heavily in communications pipelines for SIPRnet than from spending money on custom ruggedized computers that meet military specifications, he said.

A decent portable with access to a robust communications service for the exchange of command and control information will let the Corps fulfill the Navy's network-centric warfare goals, Cummiskey said.

To that end, the Corps has been developing applications for its mobile systems that will run under Windows CE and NT, and ultimately under Windows 2000, NT's successor. The 32-bit Microsoft operating systems are the C2 OSes of choice throughout DOD, he said.

The age of mil-spec equipment based on military standards is fast disappearing, Cummiskey said. 'Let's face it, we're not good at developing command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems ourselves,' he said.

The service's RHC Program might serve as an example. Through the program, the Corps' contractor has developed ruggedized units running Windows 95 at a price of $11,000 each. Engineering and Professional Services Inc. of Tinton Falls, N.J., built the systems for an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract it won in August 1997. The Corps has bought about 200 EPS units [GCN, June 28, Page 49].

Service officials have found the battery life on the 75-MHz EPS units 'insufficient, and the boxes are currently bound to Win95.

This creates a security problem as we cannot use the boxes for passing classified traffic,' Cummiskey said.

But unlike their off-the-shelf counterparts, the pen-based EPS computers have special attributes.

They can connect to two radios at once through DOD's Combat Network Radio Communications Protocol, and Marines in the field can run them with low-level displays at night to avoid enemy detection.

But the Combat Network Radio modem and an internal Global Positioning System receiver, another feature the service likes, are 'packaged in proprietary cards that are not reusable in other platforms,' Cummiskey said.

Marine Maj. James C. Cummiskey says the goal is to shorten the hardware lifecycle and spend less on each unit.

Factor this

'We believe that all military-specific functionality should be packaged in PC Card form factors for reuse in other platforms when the inevitable technology refresh occurs.'

Although custom systems allow for special capabilities, the development cycles are too slow, Cummiskey said. In the IT industry, vendors typically have 18-month product lifecycles, he said.

That is much quicker than the Corps, which develops C4I systems in five- to 10-year lifecycles. In-house projects must adhere to set acquisition milestones and use technical specifications that alone can take 18 months to define, Cummiskey said.

'We can't build IT systems like we build tanks,' he said.

The Corps needs to stick to its core competency, which is mainly outmaneuvering the enemy in battle, he said. 'We're entrepreneurs on the battlefield.'

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