Marines take new IT to Sierra Leone

Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) responding to real-world contingencies in Sierra Leone and the Congo during the past month tapped into newly deployed command control and information technology systems to support these missions.

Marines from the 22nd MEU who last week evacuated 2 500 Americans and others from Freetown Sierra Leone to the USS Kearsarge a helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship operating just miles offshore relied heavily on a unique workstation-driven mapping system to help guide pilots of evacuation helicopters to the right spot in the troubled city. Similarly the Navy leveraged the command and control video teleconferencing (VTC) systems on the Kearsarge to document the mission for broadcast networks back home.

Marines on the Kearsarge relied on a prototype scaled-down version of a National Imagery and Mapping Agency system for digitally producing tailor-made paper maps on demand. Rear Adm. Jack Dantone NIMA's director said his agency installed one of its two prototype Remote Replication Systems on the Kearsarge last summer. Dantone said the RRS offers the Marines the ability to update maps stored on CD-ROM while at sea. "They can send a recon team out [to gather the data needed] to update the maps " Dantone said. Maj. Gregory Seroka the intelligence officer for the command element of the 22nd MEU on-board the Kearsarge said the Marines used RRS to update NIMA maps with "the annotation of specific locations and man-made structure." Map customers included Navy and Marine staffs and Navy SEAL teams as well as individual Marines and sailors from the Battalion Landing Team.

Seroka said the Marines like the RRS because of its "ability to produce quickly tailored focused mapping products in sufficient quantity to support planning and execution." This includes "tailored evasion charts carried by individual Marines going ashore to conduct the evacuation." This saved the MEU staff a lot of labor Seroka said "because in the old days we [would] cut up a lot of paper maps to produce the maps we really wanted."

The RRS taps into NIMA digital maps and software as well as commercial software from ERDAS Inc. and Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. 3M integrated the RRS for NIMA which first used it to customize and produce maps in Dayton Ohio in support of the Bosnian peace talks.

Command and control VTC systems aboard the Kearsarge were used to feed 40 minutes of video of the operation to the four major broadcast networks stateside as well as CNN and MSNBC.

Sandy Panusak the VTC manager for the Atlantic Fleet said the six VTC-equipped ships in the fleet use their systems for communications with and between various chains of command at least once a week during routine deployments and daily during operations.

While the use of these VTC systems to feed video to TV networks definitely takes a back seat to operational requirements "we definitely plan to take advantage of their capabilities more and more in the future " said Ensign Herb Josey a public affairs officer with the Atlantic Fleet. "Sierra Leone was an important story...and it makes it easier to tell that story with pictures."

An operation that took place in mid-May also highlighted the use of new command and control technologies. Last month Marines of the 26th MEU operating from the USS Nassau made their first "real-world" amphibious landing with a newly developed satellite communications package that provided Joint Task Force commanders in the Congo with worldwide classified and unclassified e-mail as well as voice communications over the Defense Information Systems Network. The 26th MEU deployed the newly developed Joint Task Force Enabler communications package to an operational headquarters in Brazzaville Congo set up to monitor the civil war in Zaire.

Maj. Jim Dillon communications officer for the 26th MEU said the Marines "designed the JTF Enabler to fit with the expeditionary nature of our mission." The Enabler consists of a Humvee-mounted TSC-93 satellite earth station capable of accessing the Defense Satellite Communications System plus two other Humvees packing the servers network devices and PCs needed to quickly set up a battlefield local-area network.

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