WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps is expanding its vision of connectivity among aircraft and with ground units below, creating local networks to share situational awareness and targeting data even in communications-denied environments.
A 2022 Marine Corps Aviation Plan, the first of its kind since 2019, lays out a beefed-up vision of digital interoperability that will allow for the kinds of distributed operations in high-threat environments the Marines expect to conduct in the near future.
Previous versions of the aviation plan, dating back to 2019 and earlier, included a digital interoperability effort that would help MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130Js share real-time information with ground units being transported in the aircraft, allowing them to hit the ground with the latest understanding of the operating area — but Marine Corps aviation leaders say this 2022 aviation plan has something bigger in store.
Lt. Gen. Mark Wise, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, told reporters just ahead of the plan’s May 3 release that the digital interoperability effort is “continuing to expand in its meaning and how we’re incorporating it into the Marine Corps.”
Rather than focus on sharing maps and video with Marines in the back of an aircraft through their tablets, as was the original plan, the Marine Corps now wants to create the capability for all aircraft types — manned and unmanned — to contribute to a network that can gather and disseminate everything from voice to target-quality data in real time to forces in the air, on the ground or at sea.
As the Marines eye a notional 2030 operating environment rife with jamming, hacking and complex cyberwarfare and electromagnetic warfare elements, Wise said “this is also about building networks that are resilient in comm-denied environments, because a lot of times if you’re going to try to take down a large area of communications, it’s taking it down for both the good guys and the bad guys. … The ability to expand outside of that helps us out a great deal.”
The Marine Corps had previously released an aviation plan every year, and Wise said the service would likely go back to annual updates starting next year. The three-year gap in releasing an update came amid the pandemic and the aviation community determining what Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger’s Force Design 2030 plans would mean specifically for aviation modernization.
Wise told Defense News that digital interoperability is particularly tied to Berger’s Force Design 2030 priorities and as such was receiving all the funding and support it needs for execution.
“I would say because of the amount of the [Marine air-ground task force] that it applies to, it is the thing that gets more priority,” he said. “If you look at the commandant’s priorities, it’s very focused on things like MQ-9 and the payloads that it carries because of the information it passes around the MAGTF. So it tends to get a lot of emphasis, and therefore when Programs and Resources starts balancing the budget for the commandant, that’s one of the things that gets the priority.”
Whereas previous digital interoperability efforts might have had in mind ground troops moving throughout the Middle East or other locations, Force Design 2030 shapes the force for the toughest conditions they might face: small units dispersed throughout a wide operating area, moving among islands and along coastlines, trying to blend in while also having an outsized impact on limiting the enemy’s ability to conduct its own operations.
Through investments in this MAGTF Digital Interoperability effort, plus investments in the MQ-9A Reaper as a first iteration of Marine Corps long-endurance unmanned aircraft that can provide communications-relay and intelligence-collecting services, Wise said Force Design 2030 and this new aviation plan are setting up the aviation community to support ashore and at-sea forces into the future.
In addition to being highly valued in the budgeting process, Wise also said the effort was relatively low-risk from a technological perspective due to all the work the Marine Corps has previously done on the enablers to digital interoperability.
The heart of this effort is the MAGTF Agile Network Gateway Link, or MANGL, which relies on three technologies: the Software Reprogrammable Payload AN/ARC-254C radio, the Mesh Network Manager AN/ASC-43V gateway, and the Marine Air Ground Tablet or MAGTAB. The document notes that all three had been matured through previous experimentation and deployments.
The document adds that an initial MANGL capability has been fielded and that the fuller capability will begin fielding in fiscal 2023, first on the V-22 and then on the CH-53K heavy lift helicopter, the KC-130J transport and tanker plane, and unmanned systems.
A future effort listed in the document is to develop a modular antenna that could be installed on additional Marine Corps aircraft types to send and receive data through MANGL. That setup which would not only increase the number of platforms that can relay data and therefore strengthen the network, but it would also bolster the “any-sensor/any-shooter” mindset that’s central to distributed maritime operations. The idea is to enable platforms to take best advantage of their long-range weapons, even when they don’t have eyes on the potential target but are well positioned to take a shot if given the right targeting data.
“The goal of [MAGTF Digital Interoperability] is to provide the required information to the right participants at the right time, to overcome an adversary, while improving efficiency and effectiveness. MAGTF DI aims to provide greater situational awareness, accelerate the kill chain, and enhance survivability to out-maneuver and defeat the threat,” reads the document.
It adds that MANGL will be aided by the Minotaur family of systems as the data fusion capability, giving the entire network the capacity to bring in massive amounts of data from any aircraft with the right antenna and distill that into actionable information.
“By combining a powerful fusion program like Minotaur with common aircraft survivability sensors, processors like the [Mesh Network Manager] and radios like [Software Reprogrammable Payload], Marine aviation platforms will contribute to a multispectral view of the future operating environment and provide significant value to the Naval Tactical Grid,” it reads.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.