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CHIPS Articles: USS MCTSSA – Haze Gray and Underway

USS MCTSSA – Haze Gray and Underway
Virtual CANES allows shipboard network testing without the high costs of procuring and maintaining a physical one
By Amy Forsythe, Public Affairs, Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity - October-December 2020
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity (MCTSSA) is home to the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Afloat Integration Environment (MAIE) that was designed by engineers to provide program offices and operational units a venue for exercising and testing C4I systems in a realistic afloat environment.

Created in the Fall of 2017 by engineers at MCTSSA, the MAIE consists of the Landing Force Operations Center (LFOC), Supporting Arms Coordination Center (SACC), Tactical Logistics (TACLOG), and JIC (Joint Intelligence Cell). It is a one-of-a-kind simulations center equipped with similar network infrastructures – the Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise System (CANES) and Automated Digital Network System (ADNS) – that are found on an amphibious ship, as well as workstations, radios, speakers and even wires and bulkheads that replicate the afloat center’s dark and cramped spaces. The LFOC, nicknamed the “USS MCTSSA,” was designed with the intent to look, feel and even smell like a ship.

The MAIE is constructed out of portable containers and located at the MCTSSA compound which is just yards away from where the ‘surf meets the turf’ of the Pacific Ocean on Camp Pendleton’s sprawling base in north San Diego County. The LFOC is modeled after what is aboard a U.S. Navy landing helicopter dock (LHD) with respect to form, fit and functions unique to shipboard configurations. These attributes emulate the complex technical network, communications constraints and challenges that exist when embarked on a ship.

The LFOC replicates sea-based systems normally seen on U. S. Navy ships, allowing Marines to improve their understanding of command and control (C2) mediums by testing them in a simulated environment.

“The LFOC is a reliable and relevant environment for Marines to test their abilities before stepping aboard ship,” said Maj. Ryan Ackland, MCTSSA Naval Systems Integration Officer.

“A virtual CANES representation allows MCTSSA to test this shipboard network without the high costs of procuring and maintaining a physical one,” said Ackland.

“Integration continues to evolve as new C2 systems are fielded and old systems are upgraded,” said U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Caleb Wu, MCTSSA Assistant Naval Systems Integration Officer. “As our proficiency and experience increase, we can troubleshoot more rapidly.”

Testing and Training on Ship

The MCTSSA naval integration team is continuously supporting Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) as they prepare for deployments every six to eight months. The System of Systems Operability Test (SOT), as it’s called, is a valuable opportunity to learn lessons that could be applied on future MEU testing, said Wu.

When Marines embark on a ship, there have been a number of connectivity and interoperability issues that needed to be resolved. “Having an LFOC and a representative CANES shipboard network means we can test and resolve these issues or provide guidance so that when the Marines embark they can get their systems up and running quickly,” Wu said.

Wu and his team are continuously supporting familiarization training by using the LFOC or traveling to the ships, wherever they may be. In January 2020, Ackland and his team traveled to Okinawa, Japan, to facilitate a SOT for the 31st MEU on USS America.

This was the first event to incorporate Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) shipboard integration, as well as Task Force Ellis aboard USS Comstock. MCTSSA Naval Integration has continued to conduct SOTs for deploying MEUs, despite the restrictive COVID environment.

“We were able to develop good working relationships with both the MEU and the ship's crew,” said Wu. “The more bonds that MCTSSA builds with the operating forces, the greater our impact and the more desirable our services become.”

The primary objective for the MCTSSA team was to assist the 31st MEU in integrating tactical command, control, communications and computers—or C4—systems into the afloat environment.

Although now a standard event for deploying MEUs, the MCTSSA SOT continues to evolve to incorporate new systems and capabilities to keep pace with an emerging threat environment and align within the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the Commandant’s Planning Guidance released earlier this year.

With added COVID restrictions, Ackland and Wu’s team also managed to conduct two additional SOTs during 2020. They supported the 15th MEU, as part of the USS Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), and the 24th MEU, as part of USS Iwo Jima ARG.

“Haze Gray and Underway”

The USS MCTSSA has hosted several hundred training events since it first opened more than three years ago. From MEU pre-deployment exercises to evaluating MUOS (Mobile User Objective System) radio operations to testing the long-range reach of the ship’s antennas.

For example, on Aug. 3, 2020, the “USS MCTSSA” simulated an at-sea period and ‘set sail’ with the LFOC providing position, navigation, and time (PNT) information showing the “ship” miles offshore from MCTSSA with operationally realistic track, heading, and speed. The simulated training connected to Marine Corps C2 applications in the LFOC, providing realistic track messages for supporting MEU pre-deployment training as well as engineering, test, and experimentation events for Naval Integration programs.

This was achieved using a GPS simulator to generate desired track scenarios that can generate tracks anywhere in the world, which connected to the DAGR external antenna port. Because the DAGR is “hardware-in-the-loop,” users will have the exact same hardware connections between the DAGR and their C2 systems. This is another example of MCTSSA engineering efforts to make the “USS MCTSSA” as operationally realistic as possible.

The LFOC can also provide connections to an external GPS antenna supporting Defense Advanced GPS Receiver (DAGR) operations and two Enhanced Manpack UHF Terminal (EMUT) antennas for line-of-sight VHF/UHF radio and UHF SATCOM communications.

MCTSSA was established in 1970 as one of the first computer-based command and control testing sites and has evolved to become an elite, full-scale laboratory facility. MCTSSA provides test and evaluation, engineering, and deployed technical support for Marine Corps and joint service command, control, computer, communications and intelligence systems throughout all acquisition life-cycle phases.

U.S. Marine Sgt. John Cyr, from Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity (MCTSSA), performs a functions check on the communications equipment inside the Landing Force Operations Center (LFOC) Oct. 29, 2020. MCTSSA, an elite, full-scale laboratory facility operated by the Marine Corps, is a subordinate command of Marine Corps Systems Command. MCTSSA provides test and evaluation, engineering, and deployed technical support for Marine Corps and joint service command, control, computer, communications and intelligence systems throughout all acquisition life cycle phases. (Photo by Amy Forsythe, MCTSSA Public Affairs Officer)
Inside the Landing Force Operations Center (LFOC), a Marine from Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity (MCTSSA) performs a functions check on the communications equipment Oct. 29, 2020. MCTSSA, an elite, full-scale laboratory facility operated by the Marine Corps, is a subordinate command of Marine Corps Systems Command. MCTSSA provides test and evaluation, engineering, and deployed technical support for Marine Corps and joint service command, control, computer, communications and intelligence systems throughout all acquisition life cycle phases. (Photo by Amy Forsythe, MCTSSA Public Affairs Officer)
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