Marines unravel disparate systems to reknit them for interoperability

'Afghanistan confirmed we're on the right track,' Col. Mike Albano said of the C2 integration efforts.

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif.'In a row of room-sized, camouflaged field enclosures on a windy, seaside plain, Marines diligently chip away at a massive systems integration project.

Camp Pendleton'about as far from Washington and its chatter about e-government, defense transformation and homeland security as you can get'is where staff of the Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity is working to get disparate battlefield systems to interoperate.

'Our old focus was post-deployment software support. That's evolved,' said Col. Mike Albano, the commander of MCTSSA. Now his group is also working on integration of disparate systems, for which it has built what Albano calls a notional systems integration environment.

'We bring all commanders' systems as used by the Marine expeditionary forces, and we operate them. We can test all of a system's I/Os or a thread as it passes through systems,' he said.

From a systems standpoint, the integration environment looks like a Marine expeditionary force.

MCTSSA's overarching mission is systems engineering. Among its many jobs, the activity reviews the quality of software acquired by the Corps, evaluates commercial products and provides user support.

Off the rack code

For the systems integration effort, the activity has a team of 204 Marines and 166 civilian employees.

No one writes code, though; they just evaluate it and see how it works with code from other systems.

The technical goal is for the Marines' command and control PCs, known as C2PCs, to display information from multiple sources, such as command and control, fire support, air cover, sensor and intelligence systems'on a single screen.

The rugged notebook PCs'managed by MCTSSA's parent organization, the Marine Corps Major Systems Command'can now integrate some details about local troops, battle orders and fixed information, such as maps or the composition of military units.

MCTSSA's goal is to develop a better information delivery system for warfighters. Albano said that aim has become more real now that the Corps and other services are engaged in a distant war in Afghanistan.

At this point, data from disparate tactical systems can only be kludged into a C2PC front end, Albano said, but that doesn't give soldiers in the field much more functionality than acetate overlays and grease pencils.

'We can put data in, but we're fat-fingering it,' he said. 'Ideally, it would be automated.'
C2PCs also can display troop position information.

But there is much more data that Albano wants to add that is now resident on stovepipe systems, which Corps commanders must lug into battle theaters.

'At some point all that data will be fused into the C2PC. We have not reached the level of integration we want,' he said.

Out in the shacks at Pendleton, technicians and programmers are testing various systems, each in a different-looking box.

But they differ in more than their form factors. The boxes run different operating systems and have data structures and software components. They also use many different display drivers and cabling systems.

'Each does specific functions well. Where we fall short is [having] a single terminal view,' said Spence Wade, a civilian software engineer.

'Where we want to go is a single enterprise system with many applications,' Wade said.
On one large table, he is running an Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System, data from which has been partially integrated into a C2PC.

The integration environment is capable of simulating the communications cycle that might be used by a Marine unit in the field, Albano said. Technicians can generate the data packets and perform what-if analyses of possible changes.

Having Marines deployed overseas in a real battle situation gives Albano's group valuable feedback.

Does the integration work map to what the armed forces have been encountering in Afghanistan?

'Amazingly so,' Albano said. 'The degree of automation has enhanced our deployed forces' command and control capability. Afghanistan confirmed we're on the right track.'


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