A battlefield view that doesn't blink

Mobile Marine command center has zero-downtime goal.

The mobile network includes Audio/Video Matrix Switch technology to provide teleconferencing to the command center.

Courtesy of Coherent Systems International Corp.

Windber, Pa.'Tucked among the small country houses in a pastoral hamlet on the tablelands of the Allegheny Mountains, a high-tech, mobile headquarters for Marine warfighters is under construction.

Down a gravel path, behind the nondescript Coherent Systems International Corp. offices, sits a warehouse containing what looks to be a giant camo-colored caterpillar. Coherent specialists call it 'the bug,' and it houses a fully transportable command-and-control center with separate rooms for IT specialists, intelligence analysts, liaison officers and even weather forecasters.

Its real name is the COC, or Command Operations Center, Bravo II, and it is designed to support up to 90,000 Marines in combat. It also is being built to follow the golden rule of IT warfighting systems: zero tolerance for downtime. In battle, system delays can be fatal.

'When rounds are going downrange and lives are at stake, the last thing you want to hear from your [commanding officer] is that you cannot communicate,' said Col. J. Mark Clapp, a deputy director of the Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., who is familiar with the Bravo.

'The enemy will not stop and wait for us to reboot the system,' added Gary Lopez, CIO of Coherent of Lexington Park, Md., a former Marine colonel and current reservist.

Bravo has three server units, each containing six Dell 1855 blade servers, three Dell 2850 servers, one Dell 775N network-attached storage server and one Dell 220S 4.2TB storage array. The units are environmentally controlled to maintain proper temperature and humidity.
Together, they constitute a load-balanced server farm with built-in catastrophic recovery. Each server can handle full capacity if all other servers are disabled.

Marines in the field connect to the command center via an armored tow vehicle, which features 3-inch-thick bulletproof glass windows and is strong enough to survive an improvised explosive device, or IED. The tow vehicle downloads information via a secure satellite link, which provides primary external network access. A SecNet 11 WiFi connection from Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., provides secure wireless connectivity with an 8-mile range.

In the main operations room, rows of desks feature 68 Panasonic CF74 notebook PCs, all with titanium cases for rough operating conditions. There also is a videoconferencing system using an Audio/Video Matrix Switch from Network Technologies Inc. of Aurora, Ohio, and several large screens.

The wireless connection is maintained even when travelling'a crucial warfighting asset. Without that capability, a day-long mobilization to a new position would mean '24 hours of information you just lost,' Lopez said.

'Providing a commander with whatever information he needs in time for him to make a decision is what command and control is all about,' Clapp said. '[Bravo] takes this capability beyond what has been possible in the past.'

The Marines plan to make full use of the capability. An earlier version of Bravo, called Alpha, has been in use in Iraq and Kuwait since the beginning of the Iraq war. Bravo I now operates at Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Bravo II, nearing completion at the Windber plant, is to be shipped out to Okinawa later this year. There are plans to build Bravo III, IV and V, with destinations still to be assigned, Lopez said.

Bravo also is built to address the problem of military-network strain. Satellite imagery of battlefields, for instance, can take up 100GB of storage and huge amounts of bandwidth.

To counter this, Coherent makes extensive use of virtualization. Through innovative programming, an application running on a common-access platform can be used at remote locations'such as notebook PCs in the field'without actually running on the notebook itself. 'It's like a remote desktop on steroids,' Lopez said.

In this effort, Bravo leverages platforms such as Access Suite from Citrix Systems Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Marines use the Citrix system to deploy military applications such as the Joint Automated Deep Operations Control System, which collects data on enemy positions and maps it. Through virtualization, warfighters can use JADOCS to achieve full situational awareness without straining system resources.

'The look and feel is identical,' Lopez said. 'The user experience is tremendous.'

And Lopez, who served as information manager with Alpha in Kuwait and Iraq for three years, knows from firsthand experience how well the system works'sometimes too well. He tells of using JADOCS'which highlights enemy positions in red'while stationed in Fallujuh, the insurgency hotbed in Iraq.

'My whole screen went red,' he said with a laugh. 'It was depressing.'

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