Eyes and Ears Open: Working with Military Personnel to Find Solutions

January 2011
Topics: Customer Relationship Management
MITRE engineers listen to sponsors to better understand their needs, from communications infrastructures in Afghanistan to satellite connections on Navy ships.
soldier in aghanistan

One of MITRE's strengths is a willingness to listen to its sponsors to understand their needs. Whenever possible, this includes getting into the field with them to study the special challenges warfighters face. First-hand observations can require anything from deploying to the theater to test promising prototypes to hunkering down in a naval ship to witness at-sea operations.

Comprehending the scope of the challenge involves relationship building and regular dialogue. Through this process, MITRE gains a deep understanding of the end users' needs and environment that informs the solutions we deliver. Here are three examples of how MITRE staff works to gain valuable insight:

Familiar Faces in Remote Regions

Jeremy Brady, a systems engineer, has regularly traveled to Afghanistan for the last nine years. His work involves creating and improving a communications infrastructure where none originally existed for soldiers, Marines, and airmen. "I deployed to Afghanistan for the first time soon after 9/11," he says. "I wanted to go there, via MITRE, to do whatever I could to help." He originally provided networking support to the Army, but his technical expertise has been continuously in demand as the networks there evolved.

In Afghanistan, Brady works side by side with military personnel, gaining a firsthand appreciation for the challenges in theater. "I started by going out and building relationships, listening so I could really understand the problem," he says. "Taking time to acquire the knowledge helps us to provide solutions that are technically and operationally sound." One of his efforts resulted in the deployment of very small satellite systems (VSATs) to forces in the most remote locations, so they communicate securely regardless of their position. With those VSATs, they were also able to reach their families at home.

Most recently, Brady has been contributing his technical expertise to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system challenges faced by U.S. and coalition troops. He has a hand in both the intelligence and communications fields simultaneously. "I'm trying to help bring the two worlds together," he says. "Good intelligence relies on good communications."

Speaking of good communication, Brady emphasizes how critical it is to build relationships over time. "Relationships go a long way, because most of the information I gather is thanks to the rapport I've established with military personnel."

MITRE's Ship Riders

How do you know if a promising new prototype will work in the real world? A MITRE team sailed aboard a Navy ship for a week to find out. What Aaron Griggs, Don Means, Josh O'Sullivan, and Dan Ostermiller learned about the limitations of communications bandwidth led to a revised version of a command and control prototype.

"We were on board to learn about their command and control and communications issues, so we could take the knowledge back to MITRE for future research and design efforts," said Dan Ostermiller, a systems engineer. "We had access to relevant operations centers throughout the vessel, so we could understand transmission aspects like satellite communications links, the ship's networks, and day-to-day operations in almost all spaces and at all levels."

The four MITRE engineers went to sea on the USS PELELIU in San Diego, an 820-foot ship whose primary mission is embarking, transporting, landing, and supporting the Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "We were able to immerse ourselves and gain insight into the workflow and systems that comprise operations centers like the Joint Operations Center and Landing Force Operations Center," explained Griggs. "We investigated how the operators leveraged specific IT systems, so we could understand how data is used and shared between ops centers."

Some ships have challenging environments because, while there are some connections, lines are constrained on satellite-based systems due to bandwidth. Plus, the fact that ships constantly move doesn't lend itself to synchronous communications. For example the simple act of checking email wasn't so simple, as the team observed. "It would take a minute or two just to open an email, or send a message. It was a real eye-opener," Ostermiller says. "We saw how tough it is to transfer data from shore to ship."

The MITRE team directly interacted with the captain, officers, and crew—especially the technical and operations experts on board—to test aspects of tools being built as part of a Composable Capability on Demand (CCOD®) technology that MITRE is working on for all of the services. (CCOD is the practice of rapidly assembling systems based on the mission and threat of the day).

Since their return, the MITRE engineers have disseminated what they learned to others across the company. One of the key lessons: a system that requires continuous access won't work in settings where the communications pipeline is smaller than normal.

Cracking the Code

In the fluid, evolving theater of modern warfare, vast amounts of data flow in from dispersed units and sources, to directly inform and influence command and control decisions. The U.S. Air Force has a crucial need for information to be merged to provide a cohesive view of the battle space, such as air tasking orders, simultaneously displayed in a range of ways.

MITRE engineers rose to the challenge by developing the Mission Planning Warehouse (MPW), to provide warfighters with greater situational awareness. It was developed in close coordination with end users to ensure what they're getting is what they truly need, and it was ultimately successfully merged into an existing military capability.

MITRE first introduced the MPW prototype at annual military test exercises in the Mojave Desert. "Our participation allowed us to become more familiar with the customer community that we support," says Hassan Terry, a lead multidiscipline information engineer who is an ISR subject matter expert. "We showed how the intake and visualization of data can help battlespace managers make decisions for their domains," Terry says. "Basically, to manage assets, you need to know where everyone is, and what they're doing."

After the team sought out further user feedback from a senior intelligence duty officer, Terry and software engineers Dave Greeley and Steven Harrison traveled with personnel from the Air Force's Electronic Systems Center to a Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) that supports personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there, they worked side by side with in-theater "combat coders" to install, test, and improve the MPW under battlefield conditions at a front-line command center. ("Combat coders" are Air Force airmen assigned to write the thousands of lines of computer code used for specific tasks at the CAOC and other operational sites.)

"Our goal was to address how we would integrate the MPW into an existing CAOC," says Terry, who has been to Afghanistan and Iraq to train users firsthand. It was a highly demanding assignment, but team members quickly established a connection with the combat coders. They were soon working together to improve tasking and management applications.

The harmonious working relationship translated into tangible success. "We merged the MPW with an existing CAOC capability, called TEMPAL," Terry explains. "TEMPAL captures dynamic task requests for ISR, so the MPW focused on two pieces: visualization, situational awareness, and metadata to support ISR, and collection management to support ISR in theater.

The significance of merging the two capabilities is that battlespace managers are able to see what's going on in theater, and they have the critical information as they make decisions about assigning new collection requirements.

Operational users saw immediate improvements to the CAOC's ISR capabilities, and the MITRE/ESC team was praised by the combat coders, who appreciated the collaborative on-site support. The Air Force has made plans to carry out three fielded versions of the technology, including an enhanced MPW.

—by Cheryl Scaparrotta

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