On the road to Baghdad, U.S. Marine Corps units quickly outran their line-of-sight radio links. That forced them to rely instead on Iridium satellite phones and Army-developed command-and-control systems, using commercial satellite bandwidth to communicate between dispersed units spread across hundreds of miles of territory.

It's a situation they'd like to avoid in the future. One planned solution is the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), which is scheduled to be phased in over the next 10 years. The software-enabled radio will replace a half-dozen different Marine legacy radios types that currently operate on different frequencies. The new model will provide high-speed data and voice communications between all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, as well as allies, according to Lt. Col. J.D. Wilson, program manager-communications systems for the Marine Corps System Command.

However, because of tight funding and long-term procurement issues, the Marines don't expect to see JTRS in large numbers until the latter half of the decade. They also expect a substantial overlap period because of budgetary limitations during which the Marines will have to operate both legacy radios and the JTRS system. Such a scenario isn't unusual. For example, the Marines began deploying enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS) line-of-sight radios in 2000, but outfitting all troops is a multiyear process that will continue through this year. The U.S. Army is developing the first group of JTRS radios and will begin early operational assessment testing this year, with low-rate initial production to begin in 2005 and first units reaching the field in 2007.

The Marine Corps Systems Command has developed a bridge strategy it has labeled C2 On-the-move Network Digital Over-the-horizon Relay, or CONDOR, to get around these problems. (In military parlance, C2 signifies “command and control.”) CONDOR uses commercial off-the-shelf equipment to link existing Marine Corps radio systems and data networks and provides the over-the-horizon communications capability necessary to link EPLRS users.

CONDOR also provides a framework for working with JTRS, so when technology finally arrives it can simply be plugged in and fully used on its first day.

In the near term, CONDOR provides warfighters with enhanced bandwidth capabilities and higher speeds that go beyond line-of-sight communications, while positioning the Marines to leverage JTRS when deployments begin, according to Lt. Col. Deb Butel, C2 Integration Division, Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

“CONDOR is the Marine Corps' architectural approach to providing a transition path,” Butel said.

CONDOR will be available in three variations, according to Captain Barry Dowdy, CONDOR project officer stationed in Quantico, Va. In one version, a standard PC gateway would route communications from existing EPLRS line-of-sight radio networks to available bandwidth from commercial INMARSAT or Iridium satellites, or from dedicated military satellites.

“Ideally, we'd like to field at least three gateway vehicles per battalion,” Dowdy said, noting that having more than one CONDOR-enabled vehicle was desirable for reliability and survivability.

In another variation, a point-of-presence vehicle would provide networked communications for units that don't have EPLRS connections. Such units would have a satellite connection and a rack stocked with current radio equipment, along with a routing PC and radio controller. Data transmitted from various legacy radios would be received through the controller and then processed and routed by the PC for transmission through the satellite connection. Ultimately, the radio rack would be replaced with a JTRS Cluster 1 radio unit when that system is deployed in the field.

The CONDOR Jump C2 variant is designed to enhance mobile command and control during troop movements by providing a continuous satellite data link for accessing and updating servers on both unclassified and classified Internet networks. The system also would offer video teleconferencing between field commanders and their superiors regardless of location. Command vehicles would connect with the Jump C2 vehicle using a wireless network based on 802.11 standards with NSA-approved encryption.

More importantly, CONDOR represents a significant change to existing command-and-control architecture by enabling digital access to data from “the bottom up,” said Butel. As currently outfitted, Marine Corps data communications networks exist as a hub-and-spoke design with high latency and no scalability, with a single point of failure if the hub goes down. In addition, the current architecture has resulted in a “digital divide” between major commands and moving forces, with those out in the field lacking the desired networking capability, according to Wilson.

CONDOR and JTRS would blend technologies in a hierarchical access fashion for both scalability and redundancy, similar to the design of a mesh network, with multiple communication hubs at multiple levels able to communicate with each other and to end nodes. If one or more hubs are lost, redundant paths are available to continue to carry traffic. CONDOR is designed to eliminate the single-point-of-failure problem by providing three different communications paths, including satellite bandwidth, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and ground relays.

Another strong advantage of CONDOR is that the system doesn't rely on a particular satellite technology for over-the-horizon communications. While INMARSAT currently is plugged in as an initial satellite broadband connection, it is somewhat pricey at $8 to $10 per minute. Other alternatives include commercial and military Ku- and Ka-band satellites.

Another potential option involves using UAVs, such as the Predator, flying as an overhead relay. From an integration standpoint, CONDOR can be plugged into any vehicle the Marines operate, ranging from the simple Jeep to its next-generation high-speed amphibious fighting vehicle. Demonstration prototypes have been built around the Jeep.

CONDOR was demonstrated using two standard sport utility vehicles in October 2003 at the Communications Systems office at Quantico, with testing conducted on-base to verify initial concepts and functionality. Integration of the system into four prototype vehicles currently is taking place, and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Charleston, S.C., is scheduled to conduct field tests over the summer. The Marines are working to transform CONDOR from a demonstration project into a line-item program for full deployment by 2007.

Independent analysts view CONDOR as the best solution to the Marines' near-term needs, especially given the Corps' historic lack of deep pockets — the Marines are funded out of the Navy's budget and do not receive the fiscal resources that the Army has for developing and purchasing equipment. As a consequence, they often end up having to make do with their existing equipment.

“The Marines have turned improvisation and ‘making do’ into an art. CONDOR is just another example,” said Jim Dunnigan, a military commentator for NBC and author of “How to Make War.”

CONDOR isn't the only new communications trick being contemplated by the Marines. When the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force returns to Iraq in June 2004, it will be taking along the Expeditionary Tactical Communications System (ETCS) to support their activities. Built around the Iridium satellite telephone system, ETCS will enable Marine Corps units to communicate over a shared network and automatically transmit position location information without having to worry about moving beyond signal reach, something that has plagued the Corps in the past.

“In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Marine Corps advanced so quickly it outran its [line-of-sight] infrastructure,” said Lt. Colonel Nick Cusack, ETCS project leader and Royal Marines exchange officer working at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Va. “ETCS provides an untethered capability that doesn't need ground infrastructure or relays that need to be manned and resupplied.”

Originally, the Corps had intended to test ETCS in small stateside experiments next month, capped by a large-scale exercise with 1st MEF in fall 2004. The goal was to demonstrate a range of at least 200 nautical miles with minimal ground infrastructure and the ability to operate the system on the move. A decision was made to accelerate stateside testing at the beginning of 2004 and offer the capability as 1st MEF deployed to Iraq, to provide them with an over-the-horizon communications capability not dependent on fixed position radio relay towers vulnerable to attack by insurgents. Plans call for 200 ETCS units to be placed in the field, with another 200 units to be used over the course of 1st MEF's deployment.

ETCS is based upon a Motorola 9505 Iridium satellite telephone handset. A software upgrade enables the telephone to communicate with other Iridium phones in a netted capacity that works just like a conference call. The netted capability allows ETCS to emulate a standard radio network. Advanced Encryption Standard 128-bit encryption is also included in the software upgrade. A GPS module, power module and a protective sleeve are incorporated into a five-pound package that can easily be hung off a soldier's gear. The power module comprises a pair of lithium polymer batteries capable of operating the system for up to 20 hours. Finally, a five-inch by five-inch square flexible antenna capable of receiving both GPS and Iridium signals slips on top of a soldier's helmet and beneath the camouflage helmet cover.

With ETCS, Marines can can use the Iridium handset either with the netted capability or as a standard satellite phone. According to Roger Thomas, ETCS program manager for primary contractor General Dynamics Decision Systems, initial requirements called for linking 60 handsets together within six nets, but have expanded to support 430 handsets in 30 nets. The system can be fitted on anything from an individual squad leader to ships and helicopters.

ETCS also provides position location information updates into the Blue Force Tracker system so commanders can know where units are at all times, a key requirement for supporting fast-moving forces and avoiding “friendly fire” incidents. ETCS also has a limited data transmission capability of about 2.4 kb/s, which is useful for delivering short text messages and limited images such as potential targets for aircraft. “As it stands now, we can do net voice, net data, and PLI/Blue Force tracking,” said Thomas. “We can track anything you put the equipment on, so this could be used for asset tracking as well.”

Beyond the Marine Corps, ETCS has piqued the interest of federal and state agencies including the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Forestry Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Alaska Department of Interior. “Any application where line-of-site communication would fail, [ETCS] would be the option,” Thomas said.