INTERVIEW: Col. Michael C. Albano, Marine Corps career techie

Making C41 work is a balancing act

Col. Michael C. Albano has run the Marine Corps' help desk service at Camp Pendleton, Calif., since July.

His official title is director of the Tactical Software Support Activity. MCTSSA is open for business 24 hours a day, six days a week to support Marine warfighters.

During his 25-year Corps career, Albano has held many communications and systems jobs, from acquisition specialist to wing commander of Communication Squadron 38 for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing in El Toro, Calif.

Before heading MCTSSA, he spent two years as assistant chief of staff for communications with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, Japan.

Albano received a bachelor's degree in 1974 from the Naval Academy. In 1988 he received a master's degree in systems technology from the Naval Postgraduate School. And in 1996, he graduated with distinction from the National War College.

Albano has received the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal with one gold star and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal.

GCN staff writer Bill Murray interviewed Albano at the colonel's Camp Pendleton office.

GCN:'How is the Command and Control PC application performing in the 32-bit Microsoft Windows NT environment?

ALBANO: It's going well. I just left the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force last summer, where it's in use. There are some problems with interoperability in a joint environment.

We want to use the Defense Information Systems Agency's Defense Information Infrastructure Common Operating Environment to overcome the problems.

GCN:'Is it primarily a problem in exchanging data with the Navy Unix command and control systems?

ALBANO: It's not primarily a Navy problem, and I wouldn't say they are problems, but challenges. At the Marine Corps, because of the nature of what we do, we have to be interoperable and joint.

We are very strong supporters of DISA and the Global Command and Control System because we need more cooperation and interoperability.

I'm a firm believer in jointness wherever we can do it. We usually rely on the Army to cover our left and right flanks and for sustained ground coverage.

The reality is that Unix-based systems are very powerful; Windows-based systems are more user-friendly but not as powerful. There are interoperability problems for applications within Unix systems, as well as from Unix to Windows.

Although we're no longer developing Unix command and control applications in the Marines, we have a good mix of computers running Unix and Windows. And things aren't always what they seem. What's behind a Windows-based system in many cases is a Unix server.

My Corps systems must work with DISA's Global Command and Control System, which is based on SunSoft Solaris, and with the Navy's GCCS-Maritime, which is based on Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX.

GCN:'Because 8.5 Kbps per second isn't very much bandwidth for a battlefield radio system, what is the Marines Corps doing to improve its communications capabilities?

ALBANO: This is just an opinion, but I would say the ideal situation would be to use an Iridium-like system that would have the capability to go anywhere you want at any speed and would allow you to pass data, including video.

Right now, we're working with single-channel radios. An enhanced position location reporting system (EPLARS) is a reasonable solution to a problem we haven't solved. We need a wide-band solution for units on the move. EPLARS is an interim step until we get what we need.

GCN:'Lt. Gen. John 'Jack' Woodward, director for command, control, communications and computers for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that in Operation Allied Force, the use of data communications was higher than voice, which is the first time that's happened in a major operation. Has that been the Corps' experience, too?

ALBANO: I think there's no question that we in the Defense Department are getting more comfortable with using video and data in addition to voice. Commanding officers are more comfortable with using e-mail now than with picking up the phone. It's easy, and it's fire and forget.

GCN:'Your boss, Brig. Gen. Robert Shea, the assistant chief of staff for C4 and intelligence, is one of the first Marine communications officers to become a general officer. As someone with a communications background, what do you think of that?

ALBANO: I think it's great. Before, infantry officers usually were the heads, and it didn't work as well. Brig. Gen. Shea is as qualified with operational communications as anyone in the Marine Corps.

GCN:'But he's a one-star general'does he have enough clout to get the job done?

ALBANO: The reality of life is that Marines who sit in on joint meetings are usually junior in rank to the other service people
in the meetings. But they usually hold their own. Brig. Gen. Shea's been able to hold his own, and he's been very effective. He's one of the few one-stars who gets invited to the Corps' three-star off-site meeting, when they discuss their plans.

GCN:'The Army and Navy are trying to give all recruits notebook PCs and e-mail access, in part to improve retention and morale. Meanwhile, the ratio of PCs to Corps users'service and civilian staff members'is roughly one PC for every two users. The Corps maintains about 80,000 PCs. People make fun of the Marines for being technically backward. How does that affect the service?

ALBANO: People say that the phrase 'dumb Marine' is redundant, and we laugh at that. But go visit the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force or the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, and then tell me if you think the Marines are technically backward.

We have a pretty austere budget. A high percentage of it, though, goes to C4I. The way the Marine Corps operates, our necessity is to be mobile and get data out to the individual Marines.

Having said that, the vast number of infantry soldiers carry rifles rather than computers. A Marine can't be looking down at a computer while also looking out through a rifle scope. It's also difficult to carry a computer when you're already carrying a heavy load.

There would also be a geometric increase in bandwidth requirements, as well as potential security problems, if we had universal e-mail on deployment and gave computers to everyone. I think we need to look at the ergonomics of computers. We need systems that allow a Marine to use it while still having his finger on the trigger.

GCN:'How do you stay close to the warfighter, close to the tip of the spear?

ALBANO: It's easy for us. The operating forces are just across the railroad tracks at Camp Pendleton. I've got 25 years' worth of friends in the Corps. We've got a lot of Marines here.

Fifty percent of our on-board strength, half of the activity's 400 personnel, are Marines'and many of them came here after being with operating forces.

GCN:'How does your budget look for this year and next?

ALBANO: We have a very good, very healthy budget to support our program managers. I don't think my boss would like it if I released the details.

What's More

  • Age: 48
  • Family: Wife, Linda: two teenage boys, Joseph and Paul
  • Hometown: Ravena, N.Y. just south of Albany
  • Latest books read: Internetworking with TCP/IP by Douglas Comer, Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden and Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy
  • Hobbies: Saltwater fishing, hunting and sports
  • Dream Job: Marine Expeditionary Unit commanding officer

Tooth to tail, when we talk about our budget, we talk about doing things. We get our funding from the Marine Corps Systems Command. The money is spent more on doing things than building infrastructure.

GCN:'How is your organization doing with retention?

ALBANO: We had some problems when the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command headquarters moved to San Diego [in 1997]. We saw a migration of people to SPAWAR for a time to fill the command's billets.

I would define that as an event out of the norm because they had just moved here, and they do some similar things to what we do.

Now the doors are going both ways, with people coming from the civilian sector to the military [and vice versa]. I think that's very healthy.

GCN:'What are some big initiatives?

ALBANO: I feel proud that the Marine Corps Tactical Software Support Activity was selected by the Systems Command to test and evaluate the integration and interoperability of Corps systems. We're testing the C4I architecture to see how well it works. We're doing diagnostics work with the infrastructure, using commercial products and government off-the-shelf network diagnostic tools.

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