Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 10:31 p.m.
Imagine trying to do business on the go without your
BlackBerry or laptop. No information, no good.
Now imagine trying to direct a battle without that kind of
information, with lives on the line.
As recently as last fall, Marine commanders in Afghanistan were
venturing into a virtual data blackout when they went into the field.
They had telephone capability and rudimentary “force trackers” that
showed Marines as dots on a screen. But in a vast country that lacks
many modern roads — not to mention cellular antennas on every street
corner — the troops had no way to send or receive data via classified or
secret Internet networks on the run.
Enter a contraption rigged up by San
Diego scientists at the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare
Systems Command research labs.
It provides a kind of “Wi-Fi on the run” for Marine commanders. They
can roll out to the battlefield and keep in communication with all the
networks they had back at the command post.
“It’s a game changer for us,” said Thomas Staley, 48, who recently
won one of the Navy’s awards for top scientist of the year for leading
the design team.
He jokingly calls it “Starbucks
on the move,” referring to the free Internet access that the
coffee chain provides for laptop-carrying customers who use the shops as
Defense analysts said SPAWAR’s invention solves a major problem for
Marine commanders in the field, providing the communications that troops
complained were missing in Iraq.
“On the road to Baghdad in
2003, U.S. forces found that they were usually out of touch with higher
command authority unless they stopped and set up fixed towers and
dishes for communication,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington
Institute in Arlington, Va.
“It’s hard to believe, but it is a fact that much of the time in
places like Iraq and Afghanistan our warfighters can’t get the kind of
links that everybody expects in their car in the United States.”
Staley’s modular device rides around in an armored truck driven by
two lance corporals. It gives the Marine regimental commander instant
Internet access over hill and dale. And at 60 mph.
Before this, command post technology was designed to be stationary.
To set it up in a new location took somewhere between six hours and two
The first field version arrived in Afghanistan in November. Two more
will be tested at Camp Pendleton this month, then shipped out to the
Here’s how they might help in Afghanistan:
The United States uses unmanned planes to track the movement of
trucks driven by Taliban leaders. A bunch of sport-utility vehicles
parked in front of a house indicates a bad-guy summit is probably under
Information from drones is typically relayed on classified networks,
said John Pike, founder of GlobalSecurity.org.
“Letting the commander know that it looks like there’s a big meeting
going on at the other end of the valley because there are a dozen SUVs
parked out front — that’s the sort of thing you’d like to get in real
time,” Pike said.
“It makes it more difficult for the enemy to meet and scoot faster
than we can catch up with him.”
The Army is developing a similar technology, which it calls
Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T.
The Marines trying out Staley’s invention — called Mobile Modular
Command and Control, or M2C2 — are still on the battlefield. With them
is Staley, the officer with a quick eye who helped goose the Navy along
to get the rig into the field.
A former naval officer who lives in Tierrasanta, he led a team of up
to two dozen scientists in San Diego and Charleston, S.C., who worked on
the concept for five years.
They presented a prototype during a 2008 war game exercise in Hawaii.
The Marines landed on the beach, encountered the prototype for the
first time and realized what it meant for them.
The eyes of the Marine operations officer lit up, said Staley, who
was present at the exercise.
“It clicked. He was generating ideas faster than we could get things
to work,” he said.
The Marines issued a statement of urgent need soon after, in late
2008. SPAWAR worked at unheard-of speed to turn the prototype into a
battle-ready device in less than the usual three years.
But it’s not just for wartime. The Navy sees this technology as a
When U.S. ships arrived off Haiti
after the massive January earthquake, sailors realized all of
the island’s networks were shot. That feedback made it to Staley’s lab
“Even a day delay in setting up communications has a huge impact in
finding places to land, getting information back so they can get stuff
there that needs to be there,” Staley said. “They desire this right
The system in use in Afghanistan cost $4 million, but that includes
all of the related equipment, the armored truck and the staffing to make
it work. Later devices will only add $600,000 to the price of the truck
used to carry them.
But Wi-Fi isn’t everything. Given the complexities of the Afghanistan
war, information alone isn’t going to turn the tide, analysts said.
The Taliban has some of its own communication ability, including
satellite phones and Internet access from fixed locations. It is much
more rudimentary than the Marines’ new equipment.
However, some of the major hurdles in the Afghanistan war aren’t
about information availability. There’s the corruption in the local
government and the poppy-based opium drug trade financing the
“When you’ve got problems on that scale, the question of what does
your battalion commander’s connectivity look like is just not going to
register,” Pike of GlobalSecurity.org said.
“What are they going to do? They are just going to drive around and
say, ‘Sure are a lot of poppies out here.’ ”