Making a CACE For It

Marines Take a Byte Out Of Complex Mission Planning

"When carrying out a mission, Marine aviators don't take off without a plan," says ONR science officer Tom McKenna. "A definitive plan is critical. This is because flight schedules are more than just timetables-any scheduling must consider the regular aircraft maintenance timetable, the aircraft handling tasks that must be planned-to-the-minute during intense military operations, not to mention each crew member's individual qualifications and the rest they may or may not have gotten."

Scheduling is often a bottleneck in combat operations. Operations officers have typically spent many hours of close, complicated, error-prone work just to produce a single weekly plan, and sometimes have given the enemy those extra few hours to discover, work out, or decipher that plan. Since the beginning of military air strike operations-as far back as World War II-it's happened all too often.

But now there's something that will get every leatherneck at the scheduling desk back into his flight suit a whole lot sooner...an automated suite of tools that will help mitigate the stress and time-sink of making flight operations and maintenance schedules for Marine aircraft and allow commanders to focus on the impact of alternative plans.

ONR science officer Thomas McKenna has been quietly working on the development of the Decision Support Suite of the Coherent Analytical Computing Environment (CACE), and this product, with its long cumbersome name, has now joined the fleet. It's an intricate, but highly elegant suite of software applications that Marines, with only a few hours of training, can use to produce four week's worth of complex and detailed flight schedules in just fifteen minutes, and a month's worth of maintenance schedules in those same fifteen minutes.

The CACE Decision tools are based on system of distributed intelligence with multiple software agents called "autonomous negotiation teams." CACE is the product of an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration-a Defense Department program that puts innovative technology quickly into the hands of our military forces.*

Here's how it was proven: In midsummer 2001, based on results from scheduled demonstrations and in-squadron evaluation of the CACE tools, the Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group 13 requested operational deployment of developmental versions of the CACE Decision Support Suite in support of the AV-8B Radar/Night Attack Harriers located at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. He also requested that it go directly to the detachments assigned to deploying Marine Expeditionary Units for real operations. In response to his request, McKenna authorized the development of a self contained shipboard version of the CACE Decision Support Suite. This version would plug into existing amphibious warfare ship networks and provide support to the Harriers they carried.

On June 15, 2002, a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier "jump jet" detachment (VMA-513) joined Composite Squadron HMM-166 aboard the amphibious warfare ship USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3) for a six-month deployment that will take them into the northern Arabian Gulf. Meanwhile, on July 8, 2002, another Harrier detachment (VMA-214) crossed the Pacific and joined the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and USS Essex (LHD-2) in Okinawa. They brought with them a new version of CACE, improved on the basis of comments from USS Belleau Wood.

Says McKenna, "Conditions change rapidly in the battlefield. A plan made the old way can easily fall behind the situation, but a squadron commander can't start making his own plans without some coordination with the rest of his air wing. The tools our forces need should be able to handle contingencies like this. CACE gives our Marine aviators an unmatched capability to rapidly generate a coordinated operational plan. Better planning means greater success in operations. They asked us for this, and they got it."

*This is a joint program with ONR, JSF (Joint Strike Fighter), Marine Corps, and DARPA. Key performers: USC ISI and Vanderbilt University.

* Some pages on this website provide links which require a plug in to view.