As commercial technologies with disruptive potential are becoming more widely available, the U.S. military is working to test and exercise how these devices will integrate with current units and doctrine.
Over the summer the Marine Corps conducted its Marine Air-Ground Task Force Integrated Experiment 2016, or MIX 2016. During the exercise, units tested their ability to enter enemy-controlled areas equipped with 40 technologies provided by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. They were testing surrogate technologies and developing tactics, techniques and procedures to make the force smarter, faster and more lethal, according to a news release from the Marines Corps.
Col. James Jenkins, director of science and technology for the Warfighting Lab, explained that unmanned systems played a big role in this exercise; the service is looking to more heavily develop and leverage these technologies.
The importance of the exercise, Jenkins explained at the Unmanned Systems Defense Conference in Arlington, Virginia, on Oct. 27, was that it tested how new technology performs with Marines in an environment with an enemy as well equipped as the U.S. Traditionally experiments present more rigid scenarios.
The opposing force (OPFOR) during the exercise had a budget and a battalion command with access to the same capabilities the Marines did, Jenkins said. He noted that he and others were impressed with the sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities the OPFOR was able to build just shopping off Amazon — to the point that they were able to intercept video feeds and mapping the radio frequency spectrum. This highlights the dangers U.S. forces face.
Jenkins provided a few examples of what the force learned through the MIX. First, they need a medium altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial capability with multiple payloads to include kinetic, he said. In the past, Marines have borrowed Predator platforms from the Air Force.
Days earlier, at the same conference, Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, expressed a desirefor larger aerial unmanned platforms in the Groups 4 and 5 space, which resemble the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. He described a Marine Air-Ground Task Force unmanned expeditionary capability for these types for larger platforms.
Walsh also noted that following MIX, Commandant of the Marines Corps Gen. Robert Neller directed him to procure four battalions' worth of small, Group 1 UAS. While he said it would be nice to procure these systems across the entire force, he said the technology is changing so rapidly that they want to see how it operates and what comes along next to avoid buying old technology.
On the unmanned ground vehicle front, Jenkins said this is probably where the force could make the most growth and where there was the most concern initially. Unmanned ground vehicles, he explained, were something the Marines hadn’t done a lot with. They had weaponized variants as well as logistics variants. Marines were hesitant initially and had to determine out how to integrate these systems during MIX, but as Marines got used to them, they found they were valuable, Jenkins said.
Jenkins also elaborated on another initiative the Marines are after: a ship to shore maneuver exploration experimentation — aimed at changing the way the force conducts amphibious assaults. Others at the conference also spoke about this desire — essentially allowing machines to be casualties of war rather than Marines.
"How do we have an autonomous first wave?" Michael Brunch, from the Office of Naval Research, askedat the same conference. Getting Marines to the shore faster, a component of this exploration, could be done by leveraging small, expendable systems in larger numbers to be the first wave instead of Marines, he said.
Essentially, the exploration seeks to take advantage of unmanned capabilities that are dangerous and difficult for manned platforms. The Marines released a call for proposals that closes on Oct. 31, he said, with a first demonstration of the technologies that exist now in April with a follow-on demonstration — possibly experimentation with real Marines — in October.
One environment where these technologies will be especially useful is an urban environment. Echoing what many leaders across the joint force have expressed, Jenkins said by 2030 more than 60 percent of the world’s population will live in urban environments. Jenkins noted that there is no expectation the Marine Corps will get much bigger, so they are looking at unmanned systems to take advantage or leverage current abilities in urban environments.
He offered three challenges and capabilities needed from unmanned systems to help Marines in this environment. The first challenge is getting to a three-dimensional capability. Within urban environments, "now that I’ve got to climb stairs, climb elevator shafts, go down into parking garages, anything like that," he said, "I’ve added a … layer of complexity to what I’m asking that unmanned system to do."
Second, he said there must be a way to get these systems to work within multiple walls inside small compartments and still maintain awareness of what’s going on around it.
Third is the challenge of command and control. From an integration and command and control perspective, inside a skyscraper or five stories underground, there has to still be a way for the operator to control these devices, he said.
The Marine Corps is also interested in swarming technology, Jenkins said, as another means to amplify the power of a small force. To gain the full power of UAS, there must be multiple systems under the direction of a single Marine, Jenkins said. This can shift the balance from a Marine with a rifle to a Marine with a system of machines and a rifle, he said, adding that Marines are also working toward leveraging swarms as a manpower advantage.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.