Unmanned aircraft will be a key pillar for and a major component of the Marine Corps' electronic warfare strategy, according to the service's 2017 Aviation Plan, released at the end of March.

"UAS are a planned critical component of the [Marine Air Ground Task Force] EW concept," the plan said. "Coupling new UAS employment concepts with emerging payloads provides the Marine Corps the ability to influence the EM Spectrum--providing additional critical advantages in the battle space. UAS provide the MAGTF commander with a persistent lethal and flexible capability."

The plan notes that the service updated the Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) mission statement in April 2014 to clarify that it will support the MAGTF commander by conducting electromagnetic spectrum warfare, multisensory reconnaissance and surveillance, among a myriad of tasks. As such, the 2017 aviation plan says the current mission more accurately reflects the VMU's role in the MAGTF laying the foundation for the "incorporation of a persistent, digitally interoperable architecture for the MAGTF and the execution of full spectrum offensive air support."

The Marines will now be pursing requirements for developing and maintaining aviation-specific EW expertise that will reside in the VMU. A payload for the MQ-21 BlackJack is funded beginning in FY18, the plan said, which will "lay the foundation for further expansion as the Marine Corps moves towards a Group 4/5 UAS capability." Group 4 and 5 systems include the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk, respectively.

Marine Corps leadership has expressed an interestin these larger platforms that can provide long dwell and long duration capabilities.

The services is also taking advantage of a growing trend across the military toward multi-functional sensors, payloads and platforms. Many of the other services employ multiple sensors on their larger, higher flying UAS platformsto include traditional radars and full motion capability to signals intelligence, communications intelligence, electronic intelligence and electronic warfare.

In fact, the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, its new high-altitude, long endurance maritime surveillance aircraft, was mandated to take over for the EP-3 a maritime signals reconnaissance aircraft, which the Navy will be retiring.

The Navy is "taking some of the comint, sigint, elint boxes on the EP-3, incorporating them on Triton [so the] multi-int will subsume the EP-3 mission so it allows the EP-3s that are aging to retire," Thomas Twomey, senior manager of business development at Northrop Grumman, told C4ISRNET during a recent interview. Because the Navy is adding this because multi-int capability and mission to the Triton, the platform’s initial operational capability date will be in 2021, he said, as opposed to a date in the more immediate future.

In terms of overall EW, the Marines' aviation plan articulates that the Marines are continuing to build an "organic and distributed electronic warfare system of systems known as MAGTF EW," that transitions the service from a focus on the low-density/high-demand EA-6B – which will soon be retired – to a distributed, platform-agnostic strategy in which every platform contributes and functions as a sensor, shooter and sharer, the aviation plan states. From an aviation perspective, this includes manned and unmanned platforms of all stripes.

From a ground and multi-domain perspective, this will involve leveraging ground-based EW nodes and cyber capabilities to "provide commanders with an organic and persistent EW capability." The Marines appear to be moving closer to initiatives the Army is pursuing to organize cyber, electromagnetic spectrum operations and information operations under one hat.

The Marines are going to be standing up the

. "We’ve created new formations; we’ve changed some formation in the MAGTF. How do you bring together cyberspace, electronic warfare, information operations, command and control, and intelligence functions all together to best support the senior operational commanders out there?" asked Maj. Gen. Lori Reynolds, commander of Marine Corps Forces Cyber Command, at the Navy League’s April Sea Air Space Expo. "We have a path; we have the new Marine Corps structure to get after this. We’re starting to implement that now after a year of designing it."