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Engineering with all deliberate speed

By Jim Katzaman, MCSC Corporate Communications | | October 30, 2013

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By Jim Katzaman, MCSC Corporate Communications 

Even – or especially – in uncertain times, sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. This is one aspect of how uncertainty in the world drives the Marine Corps.

That was the crux of the message delivered Oct. 29 in Alexandria, Va., to engineers throughout government and industry by Jim Smerchansky, deputy commander for Systems Engineering Interoperability, Architecture and Technology at Marine Corps Systems Command and chief engineer of the Marine Corps.

He spoke as a member of a National Defense Industrial Association panel that addressed engineering in the face of uncertainty. He joined engineers from the Department of Defense; Army; Air Force; Homeland Security; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Smerchansky made his presentation on behalf of MCSC, the Department of the Navy’s systems command for Marine Corps ground weapon and information technology systems. It is also the Marine Corps commandant's agent for acquisition and sustainment of warfighting systems and equipment.

“We’ve all been affected by uncertainties in the last year. Particularly for engineering, the uncertainties resulting from sequester and shutdown have affected our ability to have confidence in long-term planning,” said panel moderator Steve Welby, deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. He is also the principal systems engineering adviser to the secretary of defense.

“We’ve all focused in the last few years on efficiency, but this uncertainty is the exact opposite of efficiency,” Welby said. “Government-driven uncertainty lies on top of uncertainty of the world at large. We not only need to react to uncertainty, but we need to adapt to uncertainty.”

Smerchansky looked at how uncertainty in the world drives the Marine Corps and how it reflects overall federal government constraints and peculiarities.

One of the greatest uncertainties and challenges for engineers is the weight borne by Marines in combat, which Smerchansky added is not a new issue. He noted this subject has been written about for decades.

“A lot of effort goes into reducing weight, but we’re not making much progress,” he said.

The chief engineer showed how the average weight per person in a Marine infantry battalion in 2008 was 112 pounds. In 2010, in a logistically mature environment with well-established supply lines, the heaviest weight carried was less than the lightest load two years earlier. The welcomed weight reduction is deceptive, Smerchansky explained. Expeditionary Marines deploying to areas with fewer established supply lines can expect to once more heft heavy loads into combat.

Nevertheless, the engineering quest continues. This includes the Marine Corps Load Effects Assessment Program that looks at effects of stress on standard Marines – whether crawling through windows or over walls.

“We’re working on predicting heat exhaustion in various hostile environments,” Smerchansky said.

Another milestone was the fielding of the Mobile Trauma Bay, a triage center that has given wounded Marines an added level of survival. The bay showed how speedy acquisition is compatible with taking the time to do acquisition right, according to Smerchansky.

“We included two critical design reviews, which you’d think would slow down the acquisition process,” he said. “Yet, we still went from receiving an urgent universal needs statement to fielding the trauma bay in five months. That’s because of our very deliberate attitude of working within the DOD acquisition framework.”

Taking the time to engineer systems right the first time saves time in the long run, Smerchansky added, citing systems engineering technical reviews.

“We know what we want to do, and we need to do it smartly,” he said. “That’s not an excuse to go slow.”
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