MARINE CORPS TRAINING AREA-BELLOWS, HAWAII — A marine rifle company recently experienced something that few of its peers have — operating in a combat scenario with a radio in the hands of every member of the unit.
Infantry units today consider themselves lucky if they have more than one radio per squad. They have grown accustomed to relaying messages verbally and they have learned to stay within communications range while on patrol — sometimes to the detriment of the mission.
Marine leaders aspire to connect these ground units to a vast communication network into which each marine will be plugged in.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory recently put that concept to the test during the Rim of the Pacific naval exercise in Hawaii. It distributed a tactical communication suite to Golf Company of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. The equipment included satellite radios, handheld computers and software.
“What they have today is 1960s technology,” said Vince Goulding, director of the lab’s experiments division. “We’re giving them 21st century technology.”
All marines were given a radio called TrellisWare TW-220, a tactical handheld system that forms ad hoc, self-healing mesh networks. It is packaged into the body of the familiar AN/PRC-148 radio. “We’re giving them a satellite-like capability without the vulnerabilities of satellite,” said Goulding. The line-of-sight terrestrial network extends its range as long as one marine can electronically “see” the next marine.
Squad leaders were given an additional radio called the distributed tactical communications system. The push-to-talk radio transmits voice and pre-formatted messages over the commercial Iridium satellite network, which yields a range of more than 150 miles.
Both radios were tied into a software program called TIGR, a tactical ground reporting system developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“It’s like a blue force tracker for every individual,” said Sgt. Luke Maxon, a squad leader from 1st Platoon who used the software on a small handheld computer. The TIGR tool places blue icons on a map depicting the locations of the radios. The DTCS radios transmitted position location information every time a marine pushed the button to talk. TrellisWare radios automatically sent updated position location information every minute.
The Army has fielded TIGR as a staff communication tool above the battalion level. It records data of what is happening on the battlefield, such as firefights, roadside bombs and ambushes, and depicts the events on a map. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is extending TIGR down to the company level and below with the hope that it will give platoons and squad leaders a real-time collaborative picture of the battlefield, Goulding said.
“We’re looking at it as a better mousetrap than what marines have today,” he said. They currently use a program called MarineLink, which takes too long to train on, several marines said.
In the exercise, the company landing team covered two areas of operations on the island of Oahu. An infantry platoon and an artillery platoon attachment landed on the beach here in air-cushion landing craft. They established a forward operating base and patrolled a nearby village where Afghan role players provided intelligence to the teams. The two other rifle platoons and the company headquarters element came ashore in helicopters and landed about 30 miles north in the mountainous Kahukus Training Area. Their objective was to eliminate a terrorist training camp there.
Squad leaders gave mixed reviews of the technology. On the one hand, they valued the unprecedented level of connectivity and visibility of the battlefield. But on the other hand, they complained about the system’s weight, the awkwardness of contending with two handsets, power issues and utility.
Overall, they liked the concept of having radios for every marine. They appreciated the ability not only to talk with everyone but also to see where they were located.
“It’s nice to have anyone on patrol in sight at any time,” said Maxon. “You could see what was going on. And then you could walk into another web and instantly know what was going on without having to get the information verbally over a radio.”
Sgt. Benjamin Johns, a squad leader in 3rd platoon, recalled conducting a raid on a house and the ease of directing his team to surround the building in relative silence because of the radios. “We were able to conduct the raid without anyone around knowing it was going on,” he said. “We could talk to higher [headquarters] to let them know what was going on. And we didn’t have people yelling because everyone had a radio.”
Marines said the technology was simple to use and required little training.
The radios were connected to cell phone-sized headsets. A number of the marines tucked them underneath their helmets so they could listen in on communications while keeping both hands on their weapons. Squad leaders had to contend with two handsets, one for each radio, and those turned out to be cumbersome to juggle. A few suggested incorporating Bluetooth wireless earpieces into future versions.
The push-to-talk buttons for the radios rested on their chests for easier access, but they became problematic whenever units had to hunker down for cover. Many marines accidentally keyed the radios and disrupted communications.
“Marines lay down on the ground. They don’t have time to think, ‘Am I laying down properly on this handset or not?’ They’re getting ready to shoot at someone and they don’t need to be worried about lying down. They need to be worried about their job at hand,” said Maxon.
Another problem was marines talking over one another. The network allocated each platoon its own frequency. But that meant whenever there was a platoon-sized operation, the three squads would inevitably step on each other when they tried to speak to their own units.
Those are small problems that can be solved over time, said Goulding.
But squad leaders could use some sort of override capability so they could break into the chatter when necessary to convey important information instead of waiting for a pause in the conversation, Johns suggested.
Being able to see the battlefield using the TIGR software was “really awesome,” said Maxon. “It’s great for planning operations or patrols.” But squad leaders cautioned that the handheld computer, called the U-1, would be useful during certain operations. On patrol, and especially under fire, it is not going to be practical. “I’m not going to take the time to fire up my little computer and do all this stuff, especially at night time, because the screen is real bright,” Maxon said.
Johns said that he didn’t like the small size of the computer because it was tough typing on the system using only his thumbs. He would have preferred a Toughbook laptop with a regular keyboard.
“As far as being able to see other radios and being able to update the information, that was all really, really useful,” Johns said. But he added that distributing the system to every squad leader might not be necessary.
In Afghanistan, the computer would be utilized frequently because small units often operate in outposts for days at a time, the marines said. “It would be great to have the ability to get on that computer, pull information, pull pictures, send pictures, send data back and forth, plan patrol routes and see where squads were hit by an [improvised explosive device],” said Maxon.
Power — a perennial problem for troops — was also an issue. “There were boxes and boxes of batteries,” said Maxon, whose squad operated in the mountainous terrain where it was especially taxing to lug around so many batteries.
The new communication concept is spot-on, squad leaders said. “Make it smaller, make it lighter and make it more ergonomic,” suggested Maxon.
The DTCS radio is about the size of a credit card, said John Schultz, project officer at Marine Corps lab. The next iteration of the system will drop half the weight and shrink the device down to the size of an AN/PRC-153 intra-squad radio. The TrellisWare technology can be packaged into something the size of a BlackBerry, Goulding added.
The Marine Corps has yet to set requirements for new communication gear, but lab officials hope to influence service leaders’ planning process with a report from the experiment.
The communication suite holds much promise for troops, Goulding said. “We think it’s going to be a game changer.”