MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Virginia --
It's an old lament among warfighters. No matter how well scouted, no matter how quickly you arrive, the battlefield has changed by the time you get there. An uncooperative enemy has moved on.
The commanding officer of a Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force spoke for many of his brethren when he said, “As an infantryman, it’s very frustrating when you’ve fully planned a mission. Then after a long air transit to the objective area you get off the plane and find out everything is different … rules of engagement, enemy locations, even the objective itself.”
The MAGTF Command Control and Communications team, known as MC3, at Marine Corps Systems Command intends to rectify that problem, thanks to the new Hatch-Mounted Satellite Communication Antenna System fielded on three continents for Marine Corps aircraft.
MCSC, the only systems command in the Marine Corps, deployed the five highly complex airborne command-and-control systems within four months of receiving funds. Known as HMSAS, the system answered an urgent need from the field in record time while still meeting all necessary acquisition processes and documentation.
“HMSAS provides secure voice, tactical classified network access, common tactical picture, secure chat and streaming intelligence and reconnaissance video along with unclassified network and public internet,” said Basil Moncrief, MC3 team leader. “It’s a powerful combat capability in a very small package.”
Crisis response units for U.S. Africa and U.S. Central Commands needed such a capability to conduct mission planning, and command and control when flying to distant objective areas while embarked in KC-130J Hercules aircraft. These aircraft, along with the Marine crisis-response teams aboard those and adjacent MV-22 Osprey aircraft, are typically disconnected from intelligence updates, tactical data sources and each other while flying to a crisis hot spot.
That is no longer the case. Moncrief said the HMSAS satellite communications system with integrated crypto, command-and-control-type ruggedized laptops and tactical C2 software “provides all command, control and mission planning capability a crisis response team could want.”
After receiving the Urgent Statement of Need from Marine Corps Headquarters, the MC3 team immediately started contracting actions, engineering processes, logistics planning and management coordination. The effort was structured into an accelerated acquisition program but with a higher level of emphasis on safety and testing.
A key enabler and risk reducer was fielding the first HMSAS to the Networking On-The-Move lab at Point Loma, California. The lab system allowed for rapid integration of crypto systems and tactical software, enabling firewall access at the Marine base stations and “tunneling” into secure Defense Department networks. Work conducted in the lab provided high confidence the system would work in the field.
“I’ve always believed putting the NOTM capability in an aircraft would be huge,” said Maj. Keith Kovats, project officer for both NOTM and HMSAS. “The commonalities between the two systems let us move very quickly forward with HMSAS. It’s a colossal force multiplier for the special-purpose units.”
The most exciting part of the program for the MC3 team was the actual fielding to deployed Marines. Moncrief, Kovats and lead engineer Chris Wagner started by taking a team of contractor and Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command personnel overseas. There they conducted testing, training and fielding to the SPMAGTF Crisis Response (Africa) in Spain.
These Marines initiated the original urgent need and were well-prepared for the MC3 team’s visit to the Spanish Air Force base where they were stationed. The seminal event in Spain was testing the HMSAS system in a KC-130J during flight with tactical radio links to accompanying Ospreys, which had not been done before.
“The testing went about as well as it possibly could. All the preparation paid off,” Wagner said.
Spain’s weather was perfect during the team’s 10-day effort, but the next stop was SPMAGTF-CR (Central Command) in Kuwait. The MC3 team went to work upon arrival, quickly growing accustomed to working outside in the 110-degree heat, 20-knot winds and airborne dust.
The SPMAGTF Marines in Kuwait were highly professional and embraced the HMSAS capability immediately, according to Moncrief. The team wrapped up their trip in three weeks with a final test flight over the Persian Gulf that resulted in perfect system performance.
Moncrief said the success of new equipment training was particularly gratifying. Marines on both continents learned how to install HMSAS in the aircraft and get all systems operating in about 30 minutes. Then they operated the HMSAS systems throughout airborne testing.
The MC3 chain of command was pleased with execution of the HMSAS AAP. The team finalized all documentation, decisions, deliveries, training and testing in less than four months after receipt of funding. In the end, the Special Purpose MAGTF commander was also happy.
“The HMSAS capability resolves our problem,” said the no longer frustrated commanding officer of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force. “I now get constant updates in the air. I can coordinate digitally and by voice with my Marines and higher authority while in route. It’s like having an airborne Combat Operations Center.”