Marine Corps' Decker relies on IT to complete missions

Mike Decker, deputy assistant chief of staff for intelligence at Marine Corps headquarters, is not your typical cyberwarrior. He gleaned an appreciation for today's information technology from hard lessons learned in places such as Beirut and Saudi Arabia— not nestled away in academia or at a job in the private sector.

From his office in Henderson Hall, part of a modest and unobtrusive row of buildings overlooking the Pentagon, Decker acts as one of two senior executive service advisers to Maj. Gen. Joe Anderson, who simultaneously serves as the Marine Corps' assistant chief of staff for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I), the Corps' director of intelligence and its chief information officer.

Decker's office is plastered with awards and memories from his days as a Marine captain. The national and Marine Corps colors stand near the entrance, acting as constant reminders that the mission of the Marine Corps does not change even though technology may.

The former Marine officer, who retired with the rank of major after succumbing to a severe case of asthma during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, now uses the Internet and satellite communications links to chat in real time with Marines aboard ships in the Persian Gulf.

After leaving the Marine Corps in 1991, Decker served briefly as a senior systems engineer with Delfin Systems Inc., where he supported a worldwide national intelligence agency program conducting tactical exploitation of national capabilities training and exercises. He left Delfin to become the program manager for the Long-Range Information Networked Communications Services program at Science Applications International Corp.

Looking Ahead

His industry experience gave him a chance to build on the master's degree in strategic intelligence that he received in 1988 from the Defense Intelligence College. But when he arrived at SAIC, Decker already was applying for the job at Marine Corps headquarters. "I told them right up front that this was the only job I would leave for," he said.

These days Decker tries to arrive at Henderson Hall by 6 a.m., particularly on Mondays when he must attend early-morning operations briefings. On other days, he strolls in by 7 a.m., shortly after getting his two sons, ages 7 and 9, up and moving for school. But the days are quite long, rarely ending before 6 p.m.

"I often tell people who are about to enter the senior executive service that it's like being on a 12-hour shift during a [command post exercise] for the rest of your life," Decker said.

He said his focus is on preparing Marines for what the commandant calls the three-block war, which focuses on urban warfare. But he admitted that IT training is only one part of the puzzle.

"For one thing, you need to give Marines a very high level of combat and technical training, but you must also instill in them core values so they have something to fall back on" when IT is not enough to get the job done, he said.

Still, the old salt in Decker's blood does not blind him to the advantages provided by IT. "Now you're literally using a stopwatch to measure the time it takes to get what you need and then get it to the decision-maker," he said. "The trick is to make sure you don't have everybody in a fire team or a squad pulling out their digital assistants when they're supposed to be putting rounds downrange."

Although he uses a modem-equipped laptop these days, Decker still owns the broken-down typewriter he used to produce the daily situation reports for commanders when he was stationed in Beirut a couple of months before the embassy was bombed in 1983. He still can recall the carbon paper he once needed to make copies of his correspondence. "Even in Desert Storm we were still using pieces of plywood with maps stuck to them," Decker said. "At night, when things were quiet, the guy from the subordinate headquarters would come in and try to copy the map. In the course of that map being copied two or three times, the minefield [in reality] moved a whole grid square."

But the Marine Corps has come a long way since the days of Beirut and Desert Storm in terms of its C4I capabilities. "The commandant of the Marine Corps has a really strong commitment to C4I," Decker said. He noted that the Marine Corps has earmarked 33.7 percent of its fiscal 1999 budget to C4I and other IT and telecommunications initiatives. "For a Marine Corps that needs to buy trucks and artillery pieces, 33.7 percent is a lot," Decker said. "It's a good sign to see the top leader doing this."

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