Marine Corps Commander: Current Comm Systems Inadequate for Expeditionary Forces

By Stew Magnuson

SAN DIEGO — As the Marine Corps moves away from operations at fixed bases in Afghanistan and back to its roots as an expeditionary force, the service will have to break its addiction to current communications systems, a senior combatant commander said Nov. 18.

Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan Jr., commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, said the service is "addicted to big-pipe, space-based systems" to deliver the bandwidth necessary to communicate with higher headquarters. Operations in fixed bases has spoiled the Marine Corps, with contractors readily available to fix problems, and robust, commercial satellite communication systems to provide whatever is needed, he said at the Milcom conference here.

"That was all well and good but the cost was the atrophy of our expeditionary, and amphibious muscles. And we developed an over dependence on high-bandwidth communication systems, and the contractors required to run them," he said.

That all takes place on land, but the sea is a totally different environment, and communications there remains inadequate. "Ship-to-shore communications must improve," he added.

As far as making communications as maneuverable as the the force, there are sometimes only two or so Marines who can operate the systems and contractors won't be able to accompany them into battle zones. The systems must be simple and intuitive for them to operate, he said.

The current hurricane relief operations in the Philippines provides a good example of the challenges the service will face with forces spread out over six dispersed areas and local communications systems wiped out by the storm.

There is now a mandate that Marines must carry out part of their large-scale training with degraded communications and GPS capabilities to simulate a peer or near-peer adversary attacking space-based systems. That means they must operate with line-of-sight, high frequency, terrestrial radios, with retransmission sites to keep far flung units connected. A force on the move cannot depend on tethered aerostats operated by contractors as is currently the case at fixed bases, he said. Marines will have to man these sites.

The joint aerial layered network program that will provide retransmission from non-satellite communications systems is showing promise, he said. As are communications systems currently under development that allow combatant commanders to have high bandwidth capabilities while traveling at speeds of 40 mph. He had the opportunity to use these systems last year in Afghanistan, and they worked well, he added.

Toolan saved his harshest criticism for the Army software defined radio program formerly known as the joint tactical radio system, or JTRS, which has failed to deliver the terminals that can connect to the recently launched Mobile User Objective System satellites.

He also railed against the deep budget cuts under sequestration. The Corps will be okay in fiscal year 2014, he said, but there will be a fiscal tsunami in 2015 if the cuts continue. "Sequestration is stupid. It is not going to solve any problems," he said. His budget next year will drop from $175 million to $85 million.

"It is going to be very difficult to do what we do, to be the force ready to respond to a crisis in a moment's notice," he said.


Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, Expeditionary Warfare, Infotech

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