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Marines want new technology for post-Benghazi crisis-response missions

MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — The Marine Corps is testing hand-held tablet computers designed to give ground troops real-time target intelligence while en route to a raid point, and officials say the technological leap will change how the service carries out crisis-response missions in hostile parts of the world.

The effort falls in line with the recent Marine Corps strategy to remake itself following budget cuts and the close of its long-term commitments in two land wars. The particular emphasis — combining mobile technology with older amphibious helicopter doctrine — is in part a reaction to larger scale demands of President Obama’s Pacific pivot, as well as the smaller scale demands of the post-Benghazi diplomatic security climate in Africa.

In late March, a company-size landing team composed of about 100 students attending the Infantry Officer Course in Quantico, Va., traveled via MV-22 Ospreys from this desert training base in Twentynine Palms to San Clemente Island off the California coast. The training scenario called for them to eliminate cruise missile threats and take back an airfield from enemy forces.

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One of the three Ospreys was no average aircraft though — it was an airborne communication gateway, equipped with an encrypted internal wifi network that linked to several Samsungtablets carried by Marines riding in the aircraft. Hovering above the target was a notional F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, its sensors pointed at the objective, which then beamed encrypted data to the Marines en route to the raid.

“As opposed to … getting back in the aircraft and falling asleep and waking up when the aircraft touches the deck, now I’m paying attention to what’s going on,” said Capt. Jonathan Cohen, one of the students’ instructors. “I’m understanding what the enemy is [doing] on my objective, how they’re oriented and potentially even looking at a photo of my objective.”

That information is transmitted to the tablets in the form of maps and images. They can also use a messaging application to share information with other ground forces. Those leading the operation can access the information in order to plan and, perhaps more importantly, quickly adapt plans for how the Marines should respond to potential threats once they land.

“Coming off the bird, we already knew we were going to take contact because we had already identified the exact number of enemy that were at the [landing zone],” said 2nd Lt. Travis Bird, an IOC student. “Without the technology, we wouldn’t be able to do that and we potentially could’ve been caught off guard.”

The absence of comprehensive on-the-ground intelligence was among the reasons the Obama administration has cited for not dispatching more troops during the deadly 2011 terror attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Along with the formation of the Marine Corps’ new crisis-response task force, which is based in Spain, officials hope that such technological advancements will help prevent a similar situation in the future.

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By connecting ground forces with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets typically reserved for commanders and mission planners, Marines can obtain photos and other information in real time, which will give them an advantage when they arrive in the midst of a hostile situation, said Col. Michael Orr, commanding officer of Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 22.

Now, instead of relying solely on pre-mission intelligence briefings and information that could be hours old by the time they arrive on scene, troops see with their own eyes how the situation looks just moments before putting boots on the ground, Orr said. That’s an advantage even most special operations troops went without only a few years ago.

“I believe it’s revolutionary,” he said. “Instead of all of that information residing at the higher headquarters, we now have the ability to use technology to push that picture ... to our mission commanders in the back of the aircraft who can then make smart tactical decisions based on the changing scenario.”

Schwetje reported from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Twentynine Palms and San Clemente Island in California. Harkins reported from Washington.

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