Historically proven hard work, dedication ushers in future of aviation command, control

24 Aug 2017 | Gunnery Sgt. Theresa Seng 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit

As history proves, when innovation is attempted the road to success is usually an uphill battle. Whether the obstacle is cost, lack of materiel, disbelief, or a combination of variables, it usually takes the dogged determination of a few, the buy-in from a few more, and countless busted knuckles. 

But success is achievable, at least it’s what the Marine Air Control Group detachment of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit proved.

The Tactical Air Control Element is an emerging concept of a scalable aviation command and control element for Marine Expeditionary Units, part of the Marine Air and Control Group detachment. The element is internally transportable via organic MEU air assets.

“It provides an operationally-viable option that extends and enhances the Marine Aviation Command and Control System inland from MEU naval vessels over the horizon and provides commanders with near-real time situational awareness of where aircraft are and what they can do to support the MEU,” said Col. Jeff A. Vandaveer, commanding officer of MACG 38. 

It’s essentially a mobile and digitally interoperable tactical air support, air defense and air traffic control service.

This capability is at a premium when the MEU conducts aviation command and control from multiple or austere locations. Being embarked aboard USS America, the traditional MACG detachment equipment was not particularly optimized to operate as with other amphibious ships.

With this in mind, Maj. Jason Bowers, the officer-in-charge of the detachment, recognized the opportunity to improve the flexibility of aviation command and control regardless of where operation is required. Bowers and his team began developing equipment from scratch in support of this endeavor.

“We had to build this from nothing,” Bowers said.  “We are currently developing the blue-print for future MEUs.  With TACE being the future of command and control in the aviation community, we’re laying increment zero; the equipment list we build will become the baseline.”

The work is looking like it is paying off as the 13th MEU, the next in the Western Pacific rotation, has already purchased the 15th MEU’s TACE commercial-off-the-shelf version.

When Bowers claims his TACE equipment for this deployment was built from nothing, he’s not exaggerating.  In order to get the ability to harness the Link 16 network using a small tactical terminal radio, he first had to build the equipment needed to support it.  He convinced a local company in California, near Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, to assist in the design, and he sat down with the engineers.   

“Some of the engineers are former Marines from the Marine Air Command and Control community,” said Bowers.  “So they were all in when it came to helping.”

Bowers collaborated with other commands, such as 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and Marine Special Operations Command, that were currently developing comparable operational builds using similar equipment.  Reaching out to fellow Marines, Bowers sought to share experiences gained and to generate new, feasible ideas to tackle the next obstacles in advanced communication with small, light-weight vehicles.
In order to retain the functionality the previous MACG detachments provided by the traditionally used AN/MRC-148 communications Humvee, the detachment needed to get creative.

“I told the Marines we needed a case,” Bowers said, and they used aluminum scrap metal to build, by hand, boxes to house AN/VRC-110, AN/PRC-150 and TRC-209 radios.  “This is where my OCD kicked in,” he joked.

“Few of the Marines had any experience with construction, so they did what I asked, but there weren’t as many right angles as I was looking for.  It was a good first effort, but it took [us] a few hours with a bit of polishing and re-working to get the cases ready to house the radios.”

Bowers and his Marines built two aluminum cases to house several radios in the back of the ITV, and were successful in replicating the communications package provided by the AN/MRC-148. Not only were they successful in building the radio equipment, but they installed it in the ITV.  It can now be loaded into an MV-22B Osprey or CH-53E Super Stallion, and rapidly moved to support operations ashore – a capability that is a first for the MACCs community.

Powering the system was an ever present challenge.

Using an inverter to simply draw power from the ITVs, at first, looked like a viable option.  Quickly the Marines found out it wasn’t.  They blew an inverter and found the wattage required could rapidly drain the vehicle battery.  During the development and design, a special ruggedized battery and inverter combination was eventually procured to solve the power problems, and they are now able to run the entire system without an external power source such as a generator.

Operating in austere environments exposed to the elements is something all Marines are hardened against and the radio needed the same.  For housing the Link 16 transceiver radio, or the KOR-24A Small Tactical Terminal as it is known, Bowers procured a simple pelican case, and he hand-built a ruggedized container for the radio and its accessories. Bowers and his Marines took the pelican case and fashioned it into a true all-weather enclosure, complete with cooling fans purchased from a local computer store. His Marines showed great ingenuity in its development, including creating a metal L-bracket to support the equipment inside the case using a three-dimensional printer available at the library aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

“Much of this case was literally built in my garage,” Bowers said.  “One of my staff sergeants assisted, and then took the radio to Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity aboard Camp Pendleton where he was able to run scenarios to test the radio’s functionality – and it worked.”
With the radio operational, the next hurdle to overcome was software to run the specialized system.

While looking for the best solution, Bowers was once again able to convince another company to provide a 200-day extended license for testing in a deployed environment.

The end result for Bowers and his Marines is a Link 16 capable small tactical terminal inside an all-weather enclosure with power supply and inverter – a communication hub that, if needed, could run off the transporting vehicle’s power, which allows the MEU commanding officer to control more battle space and be an even greater asset to the fleet and combatant commanders.

“We can put the TACE up in the mountains, for example,” said Bowers, “and help provide aviation command and control where we can best support our air assets.” He hopes to use his TACE vehicles to help prevent future aviation mishaps that can happen from lack of C2.

“The TACE's ability to gain and transmit near-real time aviation command and control to various Link-16 platforms, such as F-35B or an LHD ship's radar, provides a crucial element in advising and directing aircraft to address threats or friendly forces in the airspace,” said Vandaveer. “Specific to landing zone operations and Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Teams, the TACE's air picture can alert ground controllers on expeditionary airfields as to numbers and arrival times of incoming aircraft, lowering the potential safety-of-flight issues encountered when waves of aircraft arrive en masse. For environments in a contested airspace, the TACE has the ability to provide awareness to Light Armored Air Defense gunners of both hostile and friendly aircraft to best engage enemy while minimizing risk.”

The ingenuity exercised gives aviation C2 that is scalable to any expeditionary operation tasked, with the mobility, especially if housed in a vehicle like the ITV, to transport as cargo in a CH-53E or MV-22B, and placed wherever the MEU is operating. 

“The TACE is another example of Marines being able to quickly leverage available technology to enhance current capabilities for a future conflict,” said Vandaveer. “It allows ground units to gain extremely accurate situational awareness of what's flying and how it can help them kill the enemy.”

Wherever the ACE and MEU go, the MACG detachment is there to provide command and control.

Editor’s note: Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX-1), Aviation Command and Control, Aviation Ground Support, and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (APX), and the 4x Marine Air Control Groups are all credited as contributors in the TACE's concept, development, and deployment.