Commercial communications gear to take stress off Marine tactical systems in Iraq

26 Aug 2004 | Sgt. Matt Epright 1st Marine Logistics Group

Marines can rig a field communications network, including radio, phone and e-mail connectivity, in less than a day. They can then tear everything down, move to a different location and set it all back up quickly and efficiently.

During last year's invasion of Iraq, these skills contributed to the Marines' ability to keep their drive to Baghdad at a rocket's pace. But, with most of the Corps' units holding stable positions this year, gear designed for rapid set up, constant movement and short-term use has operated continuously, in one location, since the Marines' arrival.

Blazing desert heat, exposure to sand and dust, drastic temperature changes from day to night and constant use are taking their toll on the tactical communications gear that Marines use here. To take the strain off this equipment, the I Marine Expeditionary Force is making a switch to a "commercialized" system throughout its bases in Iraq.

The swap will allow I MEF Marines to take most of their gear back to the United States with them, while still leaving a communications network in place for units from the II MEF, which is scheduled to relieve them next spring.

Here, at the headquarters for the 1st Force Service Support Group, the Marines are replacing above-ground copper wiring with buried fiber-optic cable. They are also using the opportunity to hard-wire most of the units here into one base-wide network, which is expected to greatly improve the quality of contact between units.

The core of the new system is a multi-cable "spine," made up of lines for phones, e-mail and Internet, which winds through almost the entire camp.

To protect the expensive cables from damage, Marines from the Group's Communications Company have spent the last six months digging between 60 and 100 kilometers of ditches, to bury the cables, said Gunnery Sgt. Michael B. Sipple, the Group's data systems chief.

"It's a slow process. It just has to be done the right way," said Sgt. Brian P. O'Rourke, a 23-year-old native of Marinette, Wis., who is in charge of the rotating 4- to 6-person crew that digs the ditches and lays the cable. "If it's done right the first time, we won't have to redo it."

While a small tractor with a big dirt-digging chainsaw, known as a "ditch witch," plows most of the longer trenches, the Marines have to do a lot of the remaining work, including digging loose sand out of the tractor-dug troughs, using nothing more than shovels and pick-axes, said Sipple, a 35-year-old resident of Silverton, Ore.

As the ditch diggers lay the new lines through other units' areas, they split them off, so that other Marines from the company can then connect them to junction boxes. This is how they add various units into the network.

Though a lot of work is necessary to set up the new system, the Marines say it will require less work to operate.

The new system is faster, more reliable and more redundant, cutting down on time required for repairs, said Sgt. Alfonso J. Cortes, who leads the teams making the junction box connections.

"One of these lines could get cut and data would still find its way to where it needs to go," said Cortes, a 25-year-old Los Angeles native. "It's going to make life a lot easier out here for us."

Making this switch to commercially purchased communications gear isn't cheap. Just one of the 10-kilometer spools of fiber-optic cable costs about $26,000 and the Marines have used three so far, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jay Shivers, the company's operations officer and a 35-year-old native of Pitman, N.J.

The total cost of the project here will carry a price tag of approximately $5 million, said Lt. Col. James B. Fritz, the Group's communications officer.

Even though the new system is expensive, the Marines are getting their money's worth, as it takes the stress off of the military gear and the Marines running it, said Fritz, a 45-year-old native of Peru, Ind.

"It will free up military equipment, and it will free up military personnel from running the communications on this base," Fritz said.

The Marines can then redeploy to their original units and the gear can be sent back to the United States and refurbished before it burns out and replacements have to be bought.

The project officer at Marine Corps Systems Command is still in the process of procuring most of the larger equipment, including e-mail servers and switches. The Group is also having a prefabricated "telecommunications facility" built to house the new equipment.

"It will be easier for contractors to come in here and run it," said Fritz. "Eventually, that's our desire."

The Marine Corps will be taking the commercially purchased gear, except the buried cable, with it when it completes its mission in Iraq, said Fritz, adding that the cable can be used by whomever takes over the base when the Marines depart.
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1st Marine Logistics Group