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CHIPS Articles: Award-winning engineering team keeps Marines connected while afloat

Award-winning engineering team keeps Marines connected while afloat
By Ashley Calingo, Marine Corps Systems Command - August 30, 2017
Behind every amphibious deployment is a specialized team devoted to ensuring Marines are able to communicate mission-critical information to the Marine Air Ground Task Force — on land or at sea.

Marine Corps Systems Command’s MAGTF Command and Control Naval Integration Team works with the Navy to create network environments on ships that Marines can simply “plug into” upon embarking, offering accessibility and connectivity with minimal hassle.

“Marines can just bring their box [of equipment] that one of the program [offices] at MCSC has fielded, plug it into the network, and it’s already set up for them to establish [the Marine Corps Enterprise Network] on the ship,” said Herb Schweiter, head of the Joint and Naval C4 Integration Branch at MCSC.

In close collaboration with multiple Navy commands, the Naval Integration Team has refined, implemented, validated and documented standard configurations for MAGTF Enterprise networks and network services on different types of amphibious assault shipping — from Landing Helicopter Decks to Landing Ship Docks — that deploy across the globe. The team’s efforts enable the Marine Corps to effectively and efficiently use, secure and integrate Marine Corps networks on 33 ships and six shore sites. It also cuts down on the time Marines spend getting their networks up and running prior to deployment.

“If we don’t do this work, the [Marine Expeditionary Unit] spends almost all of its pre-deployment time just trying to get its networks to work afloat,” said Schweiter. “Our team takes that off of their plate so they can focus on training and preparing for deployment.”

The Naval Integration Team’s scope is not just limited to configuring networks. They also influence policy, write documentation, work on requirements, and support the MEU prior to and after deployment.

“The scope that the seven-man team covers is pretty impressive,” said Schweiter. “They work across policy, doctrine and requirements for both the Navy and the Marine Corps. They also get down to the bit level, working on the ships and making sure the systems operate properly, and provide feedback to our program officers if systems need to be changed.”

The team also finds ways to connect the various versions of hardware and software found on ships.

“The Navy has a much more rigid, stringent and involved process to update their systems,” said Capt. Jose Gonzalez, Afloat C4 Systems Integration Officer and team lead. “The Marine Corps generally gets two-to-three updates out in the time it takes for the Navy to make one update. For instance, they still have a lot of people on Windows 7, while we’ve got everyone on Windows 10. So, how does a Windows 7 network work with a Windows 10 network? Those are the types of issues we solve.”

Last year alone, the team defined and characterized the physical and virtual interfaces for 127 different systems, applications and services for each of 16 distinct shipboard network variants—encompassing over 2,000 physical and virtual interfaces in all.

In addition to streamlining the onboarding process, the team has also simplified the way Marines troubleshoot problems once they’re on board.

“If Marines have any technical problems with the afloat network, they can call us,” said Gonzalez. “Even if we don’t know the answer, we can get them to the right person, whether on the Marine Corps or Navy side.”

One such call to the team lasted for days.

“The 22nd MEU needed our help troubleshooting and implementing a comprehensive video broadcasting system on one of their ships while they were in the middle of strike operations,” said Gonzalez.

Working directly with the MEU’s communication section and in collaboration with Navy program offices, Gonzalez and his team engineered a solution for the ship’s networks.

“We literally had guys on the phone working for days and weeks until we got it right for them,” he said. “And then we replicated it and are working with the Navy’s Program Executive Officer Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (PEO C4I) to make sure that our solution was formally captured and part of the setup for every MEU that goes out.”

The Department of the Navy recently recognized the team’s technical and operational contributions to the Department of Defense with the Group Engineering Excellence Award at the 2016 Dr. Delores Etter Top Scientists and Engineers Awards ceremony at the Pentagon.

“To receive this award is an honor for our team,” said Gonzalez. “As the Afloat C4 Systems Engineering team, we have a responsibility to the Marines deploying afloat to ensure their C4 systems are fully integrated. Our team's focus is always the Marines embarking on amphibious ships. The deploying Marines are the tip of the spear and as a Marine-centric, multi-functional team, we are dedicated to delivering C4 systems integration and engineering solutions to the MAGTF that enable them to succeed.”

Corporal Josh B. Fenstermaker, a data technician serving as the data communications chief for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit on the USS Denver (LPD-9), and a native of Columbus, Ohio, creates accounts for other embarked Marines here, Mar. 4. Since boarding the ship one week ago, Fenstermaker has supervised the creation of a data network that supports hundreds of Marines and sailors from all four elements of the 31st MEU’s Marine Air Ground Task Force. Embarked on the USS Denver are elements of Battalion Landing Team 2/5, as well as small detachments from the Command Element, Combat Logistics Battalion 31, and Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced). The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness for the Asia-Pacific region and the only continuously forward-deployed MEU. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Paul Robbins Jr.
Corporal Josh B. Fenstermaker, a data technician serving as the data communications chief for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit on the USS Denver (LPD-9), and a native of Columbus, Ohio, creates accounts for other embarked Marines here, Mar. 4. Since boarding the ship one week ago, Fenstermaker has supervised the creation of a data network that supports hundreds of Marines and sailors from all four elements of the 31st MEU’s Marine Air Ground Task Force. Embarked on the USS Denver are elements of Battalion Landing Team 2/5, as well as small detachments from the Command Element, Combat Logistics Battalion 31, and Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced). The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness for the Asia-Pacific region and the only continuously forward-deployed MEU. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Paul Robbins Jr.
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