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Pilot Program to Bring Wi-Fi to Marine Aviation Hangars Aims for Improved Readiness

Cpl. Kendal Parish and Sgt. Arben Kupa, both Airframe Mechanics from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, reinstall a panel of an F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter after maintenance aboard the USS Wasp, May 24, 2015. The Maintainers from VMFAT-501 are aboard the Wasp to support maintenance of the F-35B during the operational testing period.

The Marine Corps will begin using secure wireless internet at its aviation hangars this year as part of its drive to increase aviation readiness.

The service is currently installing secure high-speed Wi-Fi at eight hangars at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina, after the Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 29 collected data showing the inefficiency of relying on Ethernet ports and asked for help.

Aircraft maintainers currently have to use their computers – to log maintenance actions, order more parts, pull up work manuals and more, as well as access email, shared files and secure websites – while plugged into Ethernet ports in the walls, of which there are relatively few of in the hangars.

As maintenance and logistics actions are increasingly done through software programs instead of pen and paper, “everything is becoming more automated, so how do we keep up with that? How do our maintainers keep up with that while still operating within the flight lines?” Joni Ong, Marine Corps Enterprise Network –NIPRNet (MCEN-N) Wireless project officer for Marine Corps Network and Infrastructure Services office at Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC), told USNI News last week. Maintainers were having to run back and forth from their work area to an internet connection and “not necessarily getting real time information or being able to process that information in a timely basis, which ultimately effects the overall readiness, submission of any equipment requests, maintenance requests.”

Through this pilot program, Marines at these eight hangars will receive rugged laptops, called Portable Electronic Maintenance Aids, that were fielded by Naval Air Systems Command and are preinstalled with electronic technical manuals and diagnostic applications that Marines need to go through maintenance actions and submit repair requests.

Though wireless internet is a staple of life in the civilian world today, it comes with security concerns for the military. While connected to Ethernet ports, users plug their CAC cards in to verify their identity and allow access to the network. With Wi-Fi, verifying credentials requires a different approach.

Capt. Mary Beth Bloom, the lead action officer for wireless projects at the Marines’ Command, Control, Communications, and Computers directorate, told USNI News that the Marine Corps C4 community hadn’t pursued this Wi-Fi upgrade previously due to security concerns and the lack of a requirement for it. Today, she said, lessons learned from other services and elsewhere in the Marine Corps – as well as a well documented requirement from MAG 29 with a clear tie to aviation readiness, which service leadership is focused on improving – helped push this project through this year.

“Setting up wireless internet has always brought on the idea of security vulnerabilities,” Bloom said in a Marine Corps press release.
“With our current security, we are able to use certificates authentication as a level of protection when verifying who the users are. We can also restrict laptops to a specific wireless network in order to prevent information from leaving the hangar.”

At this point, she told USNI News last week, “we know wireless works. We know the technology works. Our focus for these pilot [projects] is, how much did it improve the efficiency of our maintainers? We’re not testing the technology, we know that works.”
As for the details of this first Wi-Fi installation, “we went with MAG 29/MAG 26 first because they were the first group to show a vested interest in it, to really take the time to put together their metrics and the effect they thought this could have on readiness. They briefed that to the director of C4, Brig. Gen. (Dennis) Crall. He agreed with them that it made sense that wireless would improve efficiency, he brought that back here, and we were able to get that ball rolling with the help of (Marine Corps) Systems Command. They (at MAG 29) were the ones who had done the leg work, we wanted to reward them with being the first unit to get the capability.”

Though the effort is being called a pilot program, it is very likely that the wireless internet capability will be installed in the rest of the hangars throughout the Marine Corps. Asked if there was a certain statistic the Marines were looking for to deem the pilot a success, Ong said “I think there will be a drastic improvement in readiness, but we don’t have a specific number per se that’s the no-go/go criteria.” Instead, MCSC and C4 are looking for lessons learned to shape future Wi-Fi installation efforts.

Installation in these first eight hangars began in January, and MAG-29 will begin collecting its own readiness data to share with MCSC and C4 once their Wi-Fi installation is complete, likely this summer. MAG 29’s data will help make the case for funding to support Wi-Fi installation for squadrons, maintenance units and logistics units. The Marine Corps has already identified 20 units for the next wave of Wi-Fi installation, pending funding, “with the goal of making Wi-Fi an enterprise solution,” according to a Marine Corps press release.