Marines, Sailors pioneer new communications asset

27 Nov 2007 | GySgt. Donald E. Preston

Combining new equipment, ingenuity and Navy and Marine Corps teamwork, Marines and Sailors from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and USS Belleau Wood Amphibious Ready Group successfully conducted a direct video teleconferencing between a land-based unit and a ship at sea for the first time in Naval history April 7.

While ashore during a pre-deployment exercise, Marines from the 11th MEU's Joint Task Force Enabler Detachment, responsible for tactical data communications, conducted video teleconferencing (VTC) with the USS Belleau Wood without the use of the standard satellite dish.  Instead they integrated the MRC 142B, an Ultra High Frequency-based microwave antenna, sending both video and sound to the USS Belleau Wood via the Digital Wide Band Transmission System.

"We are the first MEU to have the MRC 142B," said SSgt Heath Miller, technical controller, JTFE Det, 11th MEU. "We just received this new gear in March.  Combining the functions of the antenna, the VTC suite and the cooperation of the Sailors from the Belleau Wood, we made this possible."

This capability adds another chapter to the ever-growing digital arena.

"This greatly enhances my command and control ability," said Col Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.  "Everyone involved put a lot of effort into the successful validation of the system which can project the digital battle field to wherever I need it."

Typically, the JTFE Det uses a satellite dish to conduct VTC.  But due to the requirement for high bandwidth, which is the amount of data that can be passed along a communications channel in a given period of time, conducting VTC via satellite requires pre-authorization from higher headquarters.

"By using the MRC 142B, we don't need a satellite to use VTC," Miller said.  "In order to use a satellite, we have to send a request for its use 30 days prior to the requirement. By using the MRC 142B, we can set it up on short notice and transmit data whenever the commanding officer needs it."

In addition to transmitting video and sound, the MRC 142B can also be used to transmit e-mail, chat sessions and data. It also can support the Command, Control and Personal Computer (C2PC), a computer system that tracks ships, aircraft and troop locations.  Despite the functionality of the new antenna system, it does have some limitations.

"The MRC 142B requires a line-of-sight type of transmission," Miller said.  Unlike using a satellite that can transmit almost anywhere in the world by bouncing the signal from satellite to satellite, the antenna needs to be within 33 miles of the target and have no obstructions between it and the ship in order to send and receive data.

In fact, in the early stages, the JTFE Det faced some challenges.  "We faced many challenges which required professionals from the 11th MEU, USS Belleau Wood and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command to meet and work through some of the technology," said Capt Steven A. Weatherhead, officer in charge, JTFE Det, 11th MEU. "Soon after, the different circuits were worked in quickly and easily, and we realized that the tedious planning had played off." 

While the JTFE Det Marines ashore were troubleshooting, so were the Belleau Wood Sailors.  "This was a very involved procedure for both the Sailors and Marines," Weatherhead said. 
The Sailors worked many hours adjusting the configuration of the secure circuitry to match the required settings aboard the ship to those being used ashore.  Using an encrypted signal made it even more difficult.

With the major obstacles overcome, the JTFE Det and Navy team are looking for ways to improve their innovation.  "We're looking into building our own Integrated Services Digital Network," Miller said.  "This way we can dedicate more bandwidth, resulting in a better connection and quality of video and sound."

Combining new equipment with teamwork and ingenuity, the Marines and Sailors of the 11th MEU and Belleau Wood ARG have managed to chart new territory in the ever-expanding world of communications.

"This successful MRC-142B link ashore opens an entire new tactical communications discipline," said Navy CAPT A.M. Haefner, commodore, Belleau Wood ARG.  "The Marines and Sailors are writing the book as we go with this capability, and are true digital pioneers of our future."


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11th Marine Expeditionary Unit