Marine Corps Systems Command: Keeping and Eye on the Future

MCSC-Photo-1Lance Cpl Trent Martin, with 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, aims in on a target during an exercise at Twentynine Palms, California. Photo by Sgt. Emmanuel Ramos.

By John Stroud

There are endless paths a new technology can take from a developer to the hands of a Marine in the field. Charting and navigating those paths is what the scientists and engineers of the Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) Technology Transition Office (TTO) do every day. As the Department of the Navy’s systems command for Marine Corps ground combat and information technology systems, MCSC has an eye on the future to ensure it is fielding the most advanced, affordable, and relevant technology to give Marines an operational advantage.

Under the direction of MCSC Chief Technology Officer Jim Smerchansky, TTO transitions technology to acquisition programs where it can be delivered to Marines and supported for its life cycle. Many in the technology transition business will tell you it is a contact sport. This means there are many players with whom we must engage frequently—and in a variety of venues. Those players encompass the Naval Research Enterprise (NRE), including the Office of Naval Research (ONR), systems commands, warfare centers, laboratories, federally funded research and development centers, university-affiliated research centers, and other naval organizations, as well as industry partners, our financial and requirements communities, and various organizations with the entire Department of Defense.

Transition through Communication

The key to successful technology transition is early and frequent communication among developers, program managers, the requirements and financial communities, and the end users. TTO ensures that MCSC program managers are involved in the technology transition process. In general, acquisition program managers are risk averse because they are balancing requirements, schedules, and costs—and they understand that anything introducing risk can affect one or all of those parameters and send a program off track. New technology, by its nature, often introduces risk to an acquisition program. That’s why anything that can reduce risk for the program manager increases the chances for successful transition.

One way TTO enhances the collaboration between technology and materiel developers is by embedding advanced technology integrators (ATIs) in MCSC program offices. ATIs are senior scientists or engineers who report to TTO but are physically placed with the program management teams. Having ATIs sit within the program offices helps managers stay engaged with technology development efforts and provides a link from the technology development community to the program managers. Reporting to the TTO director provides an enterprise perspective and shapes MCSC technology priorities and engagement with the broader research enterprise.

The key partner on the technology side of the equation is ONR and its Expeditionary and Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism department. MCSC does not receive any science and technology funding to conduct basic research, applied research, or advanced technology development and therefore relies on ONR to conduct those activities and then transition the results to acquisition programs. ONR has a myriad of initiatives available to carry out research and technology development for the Marine Corps and—through TTO (in general) and ATIs (specifically)—MCSC is engaged in all of them. Other prominent technology partners include the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Naval Research Laboratory, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and other service laboratories.

The Capabilities Development directorate within Deputy Commandant, Capabilities Development and Integration, is the Marine Corps’ combat developer (requirements and financial partner), which lays the groundwork for technology transition to acquisition. The directorate’s portfolio managers ensure that technologies slated for transition to acquisition programs have the appropriate funding and that the new technologies are supported by warfighter requirements. If there is no requirement or funding to acquire and sustain a capability, there is no viable transition path. The “three circles” of technology developer, materiel developer, and combat developer (together with end-user involvement) comprise the recipe for successful transition to warfighters. Technology transition is definitely a contact sport.

Modernization Planning

Technology developers often ask us, “What do you need?” The answer to this question should be easy, but it is often difficult to express. With dozens of programs and hundreds of products, including everything Marines drive, shoot, wear, or use for communication, it is easy to answer “everything.” This may be true, but the reality is we must prioritize technology investments. MCSC does this through modernization planning. Program managers, through their ATIs, prepare and maintain modernization plans for their program portfolios that show how and when they plan to upgrade capabilities.

ATIs develop roadmaps that show the technology development efforts under way or planned, along with the corresponding acquisition program and timeline. These roadmaps provide a way to communicate to stakeholders how MCSC is modernizing our programs, as well as assist in identifying where we need more technology investment. MCSC has a modernization order that codifies this process and communicates the commander’s intent and commitment to finding the best technology to maintain our tactical advantage.

Since MCSC provides the eventual transition path for technology development efforts from ONR and other basic and applied research organizations, it is important that program managers are engaged in the planning and execution of science and technology efforts. If the target manager is not on board with the strategy then transition will be both difficult and time consuming. TTO represents MCSC interests to the NRE and communicates command priorities and plans. There are several avenues available for science and technology investment to modernize Marine Corps capabilities; each one has distinct advantages and a place in modernization planning.

The Future Naval Capabilities program managed by ONR is the most significant science and technology investment program for MCSC. This program’s products have one of the highest probabilities to transition to acquisition. That’s because there is significant funding to make a real impact, and high-level oversight to ensure efforts are focused on needs and drive formal coordination between materiel, technology, and combat developers through technology transition agreements. This program is ideal for high-impact, long-term modernization strategies where programs have several years to plan, execute, and transition.

Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF) are two ONR-managed programs where we engage with our small business industry partners. Both programs are designed to solicit ideas from industry to address specific topic areas and use the art of the possible to solve ongoing problems. SBIR has the advantage of tapping into a broad array of otherwise innovative companies that may be marginally or infrequently engaged with the Defense Department. It also is a relatively low-risk approach with distinct stages of technology development and incremental levels of investment. This provides off ramps if a technology is not panning out—or allows the opportunity to elevate quickly a promising technology to the next level of development. RIF efforts often build on SBIR projects to transition mature technologies to programs of record. In less than two years, a technology can go from mature to ready for transition into a program for fielding. The deliberate planning and use of these and many other science and technology tools enable program managers to develop long-term strategies to modernize their programs.

Technology Experimentation

 Our most important goals in technology transition are to ensure our technologies work when we give them to Marines. Along with the “three circles” of technology, materiel, and combat developers, end-user involvement is critical for successful transition. One way MCSC involves end users is through its technology experimentation initiative. Technology experimentation seeks to put prototypes into the hands of end users, in relevant environments, to collect feedback on how well those prototypes meet the users’ needs. Technology often works well in the laboratory but fails to accomplish its mission when exposed to an operational environment.

There are distinct advantages to end user involvement in technology experimentation: End users get the opportunity to influence system requirements and design early in the acquisition process, so technology is relevant when fielded; direct feedback from end users helps developers correct deficiencies early and avoid surprises after transition—and risk to the target acquisition program is reduced by informing program managers on how well technology works and what managers might need to do to ensure it works after transition.

To ensure that prototypes are introduced into the right venue for experimentation, MCSC works with ONR science advisors at Marine expeditionary forces and Marine forces to match prototypes with the appropriate fleet exercises or training venues. Since science advisors are part of command staffs and know the technology community, they are in a unique position to connect technology developers to members of the operational community. Planning for inserting prototypes into an operational venue often starts more than a year prior to a specific test event or exercise. MCSC enlists support from naval laboratories to conduct the planning, execution, and reporting for prototypes it evaluates with the operational community.

There is one initiative that MCSC is working on with the ONR small business office as a pilot project. This will use a small portion of SBIR administrative funding to provide small businesses with the opportunity to get feedback on their prototypes through fleet experimentation. This initiative is important for SBIR success because small businesses often lack the connection to the operational community and there is no other funding available to conduct technology experimentation with end users. Ultimately the same advantages are realized for program managers, technology developers, and end users.

There are many examples of how field experimentation has paid off for the acquisition, technology, and operational communities. The III Marine Expeditionary Force made technology experimentation a priority for the major amphibious exercise Ssang Yong 2014 in the Republic of Korea. The expeditionary force’s science advisor sent out a solicitation for mature technologies to address several operational needs for the exercise. In response, the MCSC program manager for Marine air-ground task force command, control, and communications provided secure communications controller technology prototypes for the exercise. This technology allows disparate radio networks to operate with each other.

The controller performed well and, on seeing the operational payoff, the expeditionary force’s commanding general directed that a deliberate universal needs statement be written for the capability and transmitted to the Marine Corps requirements community. The experimentation team documented operator feedback, areas where the capability could be improved, and reported the information to all stakeholders. The end result was the development of a detailed and achievable warfighter requirement, improved technology specifications (that will result in a superior end product), and a known technology transition path into future acquisition.

The Way Ahead

 It can be difficult to navigate the many paths to successful technology transition because there is not a single prescribed path to do so. At the end of the day, it is about providing an operational advantage to Marines so they can accomplish their missions. There is a wide variety of tools technologists can use to modernize capabilities—and deliberate planning to employ those tools communicates the strategy for transitioning a given technology. That communication with all of the stakeholders is the difference between technology development that simply advances technology and technology development that provides enduring capabilities to warfighters. MCSC has an eye on the future and will continue to collaborate with the Naval Research Enterprise and other stakeholders to get there.

About the author:

John Stroud is the deputy director of the MCSC Technology Transition Office.

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