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Marines Forced to Lean on Contractors for Fire Support

by Craig Hooper
Defense Tech Naval Warfare Analyst

New M777 ultra-lightweight titanium-enhanced howitzers make for a great technical buzz, but one wise Marine, SGT Timothy Caucutt, wonders if the Corps will be able to actually use it without the help of private-sector Tech Reps. His award-winning essay in this month’s Marine Corps Gazette, “Paying pirates: Fire supports’ dependence upon contractors” is a must-read. Here’s a sample:

“Computer systems frequently malfunction, but using civilians to troubleshoot these programs undermines fire support’s ability to be “semper flexiblis.” As a result, the skill of uniformed operators has atrophied. Fixing this problem requires the Marine Corps to reduce its dependency on contractors and train Marines instead.

Artillery, mortars, naval guns, and close air support (CAS) are well-known components of the Corps’ war machine, but behind the rockets and explosions lies an obscured necessity—automation. The fire support community depends upon various automated systems, including the advanced field artillery tactical data system and several command and control (C2) personal computer programs. These systems compute firing data, track statuses, maintain digital communications, and facilitate many more vital tasks. A battlespace commander must have this information to maximize his firing assets.

Marines are the system operators, but when they run into difficulty their primary course of action is calling a contractor. Troublesome in training, this lack of independence can be lethal in combat…”

SGT Caucutt’s cautionary tale points to a systemic weakness in the low-profile world of obscure Command and Control technology–mundane stuff that the tip-of-the-spear technology needs to do the job. Read the whole thing.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

chaos0xomega August 6, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't it "Semper Gumby?" or are the Marines trying to avoid AF parlance?
And I feel as though relying on contractors for this kind of thing is, in general, a bad move for operational security…

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Bob August 6, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Whatever happened to the Bry/Bn FDC? Back in the day a couple of sergents with data tables, a map and a few other low tech aids could compute a fire mission and put steel on target. The only batterys needed were for the flashlight, and maybe the field phone. EM were trained to be FDC personnel. Now all of a sudden we need civilian contractors? Is this just a USMC thing, or does it also apply to the Army?

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Jacob Phillips August 6, 2010 at 5:33 pm

This is all a result of having a bunch of money to spend after so many dry years; plus with the ROE and other requirements we simply cannot use a lot of what used to be conventional weapons. We have to (and want to) use a whole lot of fancy things that are replacing a few very simple things; this applies to vehicles, arty, rifles, radios, everything.

With the high op tempo over the past years, coupled with all of our $ going to the wars, we have not been able to keep Marines "schooled" and when they do get spun up on something it is usually about the time something newer comes out. It will all be over soon, the Clinton type budget years will be with us again and we will see an end to all of the high-tech weapons and go back to having to purchase our own toilet paper and paper clips.

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Blight August 6, 2010 at 5:47 pm

It might also point to a lack of practice/training time with equipment before deployment. You’d think you would field a piece of equipment after fairly detailed training with tech support reps before sending it into the field.

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StevenDDeacon August 6, 2010 at 6:35 pm

The M777 is a lighweight technological Howitzer wonder. But when the technology breaks down your not going to find a Geek Squad readily available to fix the problems. What a mobile flued Mariine Corp requires is an even smaller more easily managed howitzer artillery piece with really smart long range in-direct munitions targeted by ease of use input freindly firing solutions. Not a technological wonder artillery piece which will most definately breakdown in the field at the worst possible time.

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Crain August 6, 2010 at 7:11 pm

If they are having problems with their AFATDS, or whatever systems they are using, why can't the Marines just get support from the Army FA? FA uses pretty much the same stuff regardless of branch, and there are plenty of 13 series that would love to work with the marines.

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Lance Criminal August 6, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Yeah that's not going to happen, and it's not an issue of Army capability but rather Marine grunt preference, training standards, and unit cohesion. This is a simple training issue that can be resolved at Ft. Sill. More than likely if this is happening to Marine units than the Army is probably having this issue as well, and it is good to see a Marine realize this fault sooner rather than later.

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Craig Hooper August 6, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Good to see that the stodgy 'ole Marine Corps Gazette liked the SGT's essay enough to give the author an award, too. The SGT has guts-we need more like him.

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Stephen Russell August 6, 2010 at 8:40 pm

More X Training on 177 Gun for all forces even Army & NG types.
Beef up Basic Training for Artillary Prep etc.
Use CG Sims etc to speed up Training & Mock Use Sims

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Cole August 6, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Counterpoints:
* All services have caps on how many servicemen they can have. One more Marine computer geek is one less Marine warfighter
* The type of individual who is a computer geek won't necessarily want to be a Marine…or you may not want him as a Marine
* If you train a Marine Infantryman to be a proficient geek, he is likely to leave the Marines for college, greener pastures, and fewer deployments. Now you retrain a new one who is not nearly as proficient as the guy who got out OR the contractor who won't move in 3 years.

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Cole August 6, 2010 at 9:44 pm

* Suspect the contract winner was the low bidder and must be doing a good job or they would not have gotten the renewal. The example offered showed them doing a good job.
* Recently saw that the AVERAGE cost of any serviceman in 2009 had risen to over $90,000 and not sure if that included the health care and retirement costs that are eating the services alive. The Army did not have to pay as much to the contractor for those respective benefits. Have seen costs of a deployed serviceman ranging between half a million and a million dollars so even a deployed contractor may be a bargain.
* Once the war is over, the Marines would still have a computer geek in uniform while the overseas contract can simply expire. As for stateside, there is a trade-off when you train a serviceman to be a trainer or stateside tech…and he/she is unavailable to deploy.
* No disrespect meant to computer geeks. Similarly, not sure it is remotely fair to compare contractors to pirates. Many stateside contractors makes considerably less than the typical stateside serviceman with similar knowledge and experience. Many contractors are former or reserve servicemembers and gladly deploy to provide you necessary support.

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greg August 7, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I am a computer geek, and if there were good geek jobs I would take the military route. I am 8 years experience as a systems administrator of medium and large it networks, I'm sure I could help alot. The system is designed for people like me though if it were real it work, not just guarding it people.

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ohwilleke August 9, 2010 at 4:40 pm

"One more Marine computer geek is one less Marine warfighter."

In modern warfare the computer geeks are the warfighters. An ability to make your computers work can be as important as buff abs or heroism to winning. Similarly, a large share of the war on terrorism in Pakistan is being carried out by glorified video game players running armed drones.

The realities of modern warfare don't fit nicely with our stereotypical idea of a soldier or a Marine.

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Matt August 7, 2010 at 1:36 am

I personally think that a system like this should be set up where it can be manually manipulated, or plugged into this computer system. Marines should be able to operate the thing with or without electronic stuff.

I also feel the same about GPS units. A Marine should know how to use a map and compass, as well as a GPS.

All in all, the thing to remember is what happens if it breaks down, runs out of batteries, is attacked by an EMP, or whatever. You must always be prepared to do without these advances, because usually they will fail when you need them the most. Murphy's Law stuff there.

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Bob August 7, 2010 at 9:53 am

Amen to that.

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greg August 7, 2010 at 5:09 pm

It honestly sounds like it justs needs a reboot. More then likely they are making a mountain out of a mow hill.

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Riceball August 9, 2010 at 11:23 am

Mole hill, it's "making a mountain out of a mole hill".

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Just a CTR at BAF August 7, 2010 at 1:17 pm

The entire DOD has this problem.
Take a look at what FSR's are and what they do.
(Use google or ask anyone who works for a major DOD contractor)

The proliferation of hi-tech gizmos has forced a reliance on Contractors as they can't build out the military due to force caps. Plus if they converted most Ctr positions over to .mil ones they'd have 175,000 plus here in Afghanistan.

I'm at one of the larger bases over here and I'd bet my next paycheck that there the population here is OVER 45% contractors. Add in all the OCN's and LN's and you are over 50%.

Regards,

~Just a CTR.

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joe August 9, 2010 at 7:05 am

It is not just hi-tech equipment, the low-tech stuff has massive contractor support as well.

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Byron Skinner August 7, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Good Morning Folks,

There are a lot points made here. The one by Lance Criminal is about on the mark. The mental requirements for enlisting in the military have changed little since the AFEE was revised a standard deviation to the left. The average score of 100 for enlisted and 110 for officers is starting to appear to be to low for mastering and using current and emerging technologies.

Of course better and longer training will go a long way as the bugs are worked out and the technology becomes more Soldier/Sailor/Airman/Marine friendly but there is no escaping it the quality curve for recruits (enlisted and officer) has been flat since the 1970′s while the technology curve has trended upward it appears that those curves are approaching the equilibrium point.

This problem is not going to go away and all the solutions are going to cost a lot of money. The current band-aid of civilian contractors filling in is not the answer be it for the M-777, the Patriot Missile system, Air Force computer systems maintenance, Ordinance handling and trouble shooting on board Carriers, servicing electro-optical systems on armored vehicles for the Army, or reactor systems on nuclear submarines, the military must be able to master the technologies that the 21st. Century is developing.

To master this technology “in house” also is very expensive, the military must start recruiting those with higher IQ’s and with some pre service technological background and beyond high school education, officers have to be able to understand the capabilities and appropriate use of these systems and be technologically skilled enough to supervise the enlisted under their command. This will be expensive, higher pay scales that are truly competitive with the civilian market, will involve higher training costs and longer periods of training which in turn to recover the investment the military will have to require longer service commitments.

Some areas of the military years ago saw this coming and started cherry picking “volunteers” one such branch is the Navies nuclear program. But what this does is drain the talent pool for the rest of a service.

I know that a lot of the wingers will shout that I’m anti-military, although I have served and fought in a war where as most of them have not, I’m not anti-military. We can’t expect those who we recruit for both enlisted and officer ranks to handle and master hardware/software that the are not able to learn. Bad judgement, lack of knowledge and just being OK is no longer acceptable, lives both friendly combatants and collateral are at stake in this.

New technology comes with a price.

ALLONS,
Byron Skinner

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JAV August 7, 2010 at 6:06 pm

The problem is few arty Marines have spent enough time with the 777 to become fully proficient with the system. Arty battalions got tasked with civil affairs, MP ops, and convoy protection in Iraq over and over. Some spent almost 3 years working outside of their MOS in a 4 year period. Given time, familiarity, and training this problem will work itself out.

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pleuris August 7, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Correct me if I'm wrong, but these hightech arty is not that specially hight tech it has to break down so much is it? army and marines are using the hight tech M1A2 in combat too so what makes this M777 break down? Software bugs or bad maintenance, bad usage? If you know that people can fix it.

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Oblat August 8, 2010 at 4:33 am

The real problem is that the systems have heavy maintainance designed in - it's a very lucrative area for the industry - why would they do anything else.

Compare this with Al Quaeda who get to use reliable commercial equipment. At a fraction of the price they check their coordinates with garmin GPS receivers and call in mortar fire with motorola phones. Its the difference between wanting to win the war and wanting to make big profits.

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Cole August 8, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Except that BAE makes the howitzer and unrelated CSC is the contractor for computer software/hardware troubleshooting in this example. One computer tech earlier mentioned an interest in working for the services. A good current/future venue will be cyber security.

Marines might consider adapting a good idea that 173rd ABCT had to use blue training rounds fired first to ensure that correct coordinates have been input into the system. Google:

"Innovation aims to reduce collateral damage in Afghanistan"

Oblat, let me know how that works using a Garmin to call in mortar fire on your own position…;)

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Byron Skinner August 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Good Morning Folks,

To Oblat. You just stumbled on to something that the military would rather not be talked about. Yes, al Qaeda and the other terrorists have there own technological evolution going. A recent example is a vintage device for WW I, an M1 Gunners quadrant, the concept is as old as canon fire itself. This is a rather obscure device, of interest only to to a small sub set of military collectors and with out it Tables, manual and canvas case for either WW i or WW II, few of the paper documents (range tables and manual) and canvas bags survived WW II, the quadrant alone has little or no collectors value.

The last of these devices were purchased by the US Army in 1934 at that time it was upgraded to the M1A1 then the M1A2 for WW II and into Vietnam. Al Qaeda Iraq in fact discovered these and found they could could be bought quite cheaply and they make an excellent ranging device for indirect fire weapons (mortars) all you need is a cheap plastic compass that has mils on it (Silva), an inexpensive GPS receiver and knowledge of a little trigonometry or have a cheap calculator you are in business.

Fire control as you indicated is via mobile phone. Or with common walkie talkies that can be found cheaply on line. Outside of large bases like the Green Zone and major air bases the reaction time of a force to come after the mortar position is rather slow. The bad guys learned a long time ago to set up in a school yard or among some homes where the use of counter battery fore would be to destructive.

Accuracy, well in Iraq they managed to plant and 81mm round into the officers health club in the Green Zone and kill an 06 Colonel while he was on an exercise bike. Note it has long been know that Iraqi and Afghan worker on American bases have carries with them GPS devices and way pointed targets inside the base. Most of this work was is done by females who do the clean up and dirty work on the base. By custom gate guards or US MP’s don’t full searches of females upon entering the base to go to work.

Of course one of the important caveats here is that al Qaeda or the other insurgents have little concert for collateral damage or killing of non combatants. This system does require some fire adjustment and if they have enough rounds, I’m sure once ranged they wouldn’t hesitate to fire for effect till they were out. who wants to lug back unused mortar rounds.

The US of course now wants precision strike which insists in a circle of error of less the a half meter. We are on the way to this for sure but like all system it will have teething problems and will require in TO&E, FM’s and TM’s, training and some member of the military will fail to adapt as they say.

In the meantime the bad guys don’t mind making hole in someone garden, or talking out the wrong building, or killing a few innocence folks, who happen to be, as they say, in the wrong place at the wrong time, to take out their intended targets.

ALLONS,
Byron Skinner

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Mike August 9, 2010 at 12:05 am

How is the M777 different than the M1A2, or a helicopter, or vehicle. All require specialized personal to work on the machines, and an artillery piece shouldn't be any more complicated than the others. Can the Marines not have artillery mechanics?

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Locarno August 9, 2010 at 6:01 am

It's not the gun that's the problem, and a bit of trigonometry and a map and you can aim, point and shoot just like any gun. The problem is the assorted electronic gadgets bolted on the side for precise position fixing/gun pointing which you strictly speaking don't need.

Nor is it specifically claimed to be unreliable - the problem is simply that if the gadgets do break down, no-one at battery level - possibly no-one in uniform - knows how to fix them short of "return to manufacturer" and hope there's a spare.

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Mike August 9, 2010 at 12:08 pm

my point is that there are mechanics that fix helicopters and tanks in uniform. Tanks have gadgets and electronics that break down as well as helicopters. How is a gun more complicated than this?

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Mike August 9, 2010 at 12:05 am

The M777 can be operated manually…

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gfdsgdakdhh August 9, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Why not just use your Iphone that with a program supplied by the contractor to perform a diagnostic telling you what part is malfunctioning and how to quickly and efficiently swap compartments, everything should be technical user friendly from the design to the software.

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Blight August 9, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Let’s all bring our iPhones onto the battlefield. EMP proof? Battlefield rugged? Need a laptop in case you have issues and need to plug into iTunes.

At least off-the-shelf won’t cost a billion dollars in development for the “Joint Forces Handheld Computing Device”…

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Mike August 9, 2010 at 11:30 pm

There are mechanics that fix helicopters and tanks in uniform. Tanks have gadgets and electronics that break down as well as helicopters. How is a gun more complicated than this?

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