Commanding by computer

Col. David Fulton, commander of the Okinawa, Japan-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), summed up the unit's recent five-month deployment to the Persian Gulf by borrowing a phrase from the TV show "Star Trek": "The 31st MEU has truly gone boldly where [it has] never gone before,'' Fulton said.

During the epic deployment, which ended this month, the 31st MEU landed its ground-combat element from the USS Belleau Wood amphibious assault ship in Kuwait, beefing up U.S. ground forces during the high-intensity air operations against Iraq. At the same time, the 31st MEU air element, including Marine Helicopter Squadron 256, flew 174 sorties from Dec. 16 through Christmas Day in support of the ground troops.

Those helicopters also supported a noncombatant evacuation of 88 nonessential personnel from the American Embassy in Kuwait through evacuation control centers set up in Kuwait by the 31st MEU's combat support element. The 31st MEU intelligence staff and reconnaissance teams also planned, but did not execute, another evacuation in a country that the Marines still do not want identified.

Fulton commanded the 31st MEU not from a dimly lit operations center but from a desk in his sea cabin, where a secure PC terminal "provides me with all the information I need," he said.

Fulton, interviewed aboard the Belleau Wood during a port call in Bahrain this February, said the 31st MEU has emerged as the real beneficiary of the pre-deployment shipboard installation of a high-speed local-area network, part of the Navy's Information Technology for the 21st Century project.

Like millions of people around the world, Fulton spends a lot of time surfing the World Wide Web, only the Web on which he spends much of his time lies behind the firewalls of the Belleau Wood LAN or the Defense Department's worldwide Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET).

"All the information I need is listed on [SIPRNET] home pages, and all I have to do is put it on my home page,'' Fulton said, describing how he accesses and then passes on information.

Fulton came to the command of the 31st MEU with a rich operational background well-suited to a unit that operates on the land, sea and air. He started out his Marine career as a basic grunt officer, serving as a platoon commander with the Okinawa-based 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines in 1973.

After another grunt tour at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he commanded a rifle company, Fulton went to flight school in 1975. He earned his aviator wings there and returned to Camp Pendleton as an attack helicopter pilot. Fulton's combat experience included a tour as a gunship pilot in Somalia in 1992.

Fulton, the first aviator to command the 31st MEU, said his experience on the recent Middle East deployment confirmed his belief that "it's much easier to command and control from ship [because] we are inextricably linked with the Navy.''

Fulton gave high marks to the Belleau Wood's network installation and said, "There's not much I wanted that I did not get.'' But he added that the Navy and the Marine Corps need to extend the power of the network on the Belleau Wood to all of the other ships in an amphibious ready group as well as increase the bandwidth to units ashore.

By switching a toggle next to his PC, Fulton demonstrated how he also can use technology to fulfill another key command role: using unclassified Web pages on the Internet to provide a vital family link. Fulton and his subordinate commanders in the 31st MEU used their Internet home pages to bridge the gap between the military personnel in the Persian Gulf and their families at home, providing them with "familygrams'' and photos of the unit in action.

Fulton used the 31st MEU Web pages to deliver more than just a travelogue. Fulton used his online newsletter to highlight the dedication and commitment of the men and women under his command. In his warm, post-Christmas message, Fulton told the families at home "that it is my distinguished pleasure to command'' the men and woman of the 31st MEU, adding that "I've found there is a common bond shared by each Marine and supporting sailor - brotherhood and an uncommon selflessness.''


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