Marine Corps, Navy Explore New Tech to Shape, Secure the Beach
By Gidget Fuentes, Special Correspondent
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — As the rapid speed of technological advances threatens to erode U.S. military supremacy, sea service officials came here last week and pressed the case for industry and government to come together and turn high-tech ideas into reality for warfighters.
A technology demonstration at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base showed off some futuristic applications including drones, robots, mobile networks, autonomous systems, unmanned underwater craft and unmanned boats that can swarm, collect information and provide indirect fire support to the landing force. The “Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technological Exercise 2017,” or S2ME2 ANTX, was held April 19-28.
Senior leaders said there’s no time to waste in the fast-growing, high-tech nature of warfare, largely tied to cyber capabilities. Potential adversaries such as Russia, North Korea or China as well as Islamic State are becoming just as technologically advanced and sophisticated as the U.S. military, and other opponents already can get hands on armed drones and electronic jammers that can threaten troops and mission, officials say.
“We are behind the curve when it comes to staying ahead of today’s threats,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant for combat development and integration and head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Va., told journalists at the April 26 media day.
In ship-to-shore missions including amphibious assaults or raids, the landing force is vulnerable to threats like mines, missiles or armed submersibles along the coast and shoreline. So a key goal of ANTX is to “to create space, to get out front and use our tactical and technological advantages” to counter the enemy and its obstacles, said Col. Daniel Sullivan, chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va. “We are going after this in a broad front.”
The S2ME2 ANTX was the result of an eight-month work by the S2ME2 Task Force, led by MCWL and the Naval Research and Development Establishment, which reached out to engineers, scientists, industry firms and military laboratories. About 100 commercially-available products or prototypes were displayed or demonstrated as concepts that could close existing gaps in how future Marine air-ground task forces shape and collect in the littoral amphibious environment.
As the services continue to mature operating concepts, officials expect to incorporate some technologies into larger-scale amphibious exercises this year.
“Our sights are on Bold Alligator in October for Round 2,” said Navy Capt. Christopher Mercer, the Navy’s director of Rapid Prototyping, Experimentation and Demonstration and co-leader of the S2ME2 task force. The annual Bold Alligator exercise, run by U.S. Fleet Forces Command and Marine Corps Forces Command along the East Coast, is expected to have more live play this year. The task force also is looking at amphibious exercise Dawn Blitz, held at Camp Pendleton by I Marine Expeditionary Force, 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade and Third Fleet.
New tech couldn’t come fast enough for officials familiar with the traditional snail pace of military procurement and acquisition. “Industry is moving much faster than what we are doing,” Walsh said, cautioning that enemies and potential opponents also want that same technological edge. “We’ve got to go faster, and there are ways to go faster. That’s what we want to see here.”
Marines “embrace this,” Walsh added. “They are pulling us along with them.”
ANTX represents something of what potentially could be a new model of thinking and collaboration that could help fuel improvements in acquisition and procurement. “It’s all about speed,” said John Burroughs, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research development, defense and acquisition.
“I believe it will fundamentally change how we do business,” said Burroughs, a proponent of rapid prototyping. It “will provide the speed that we need and the commitment to get something out to our operational forces as fast as possible. I think this is a model for how we need to be doing this” throughout the defense community.
By having engineers, scientists and developers with industry, academia and military labs interact with warfighters and turning innovative concepts into reality, “you can put a prototype in the hands of the people developing the concept,” he said, as well as requirements.
With rapid prototyping, the services can “break that overarching problem down into some very key, capability concepts that we can turn... and start to help solve these problems,” Mercer said.
The live demonstration, held at Camp Pendleton’s Red Beach training area, showcased some unmanned or robotic systems in an abbreviated beach assault. Two unmanned Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs), outfitted with autonomous control to enable unmanned operation, came ashore and provided covering fire, if needed, in the scenario. Marines in other AAVs that arrived ashore got to work with a broadband network-on-the-move, which standard amtrac crews don’t have, and had the capability to control indirect fires when they come ashore, officials said.
Unmanned vehicles equipped with swarming capabilities patrolled offshore and could provide fire support for the ground forces ashore “without exposing additional sailors to risk,” said Lt. Col. James Foley, a plans officer with the warfighting lab.
The Marine Corps used manned-unmanned teaming, pairing Marines with autonomous equipment and gear that plugs them into the technology. One example was a communications pack one of the Marines’ squad leaders carried, which Foley described as a man-portable 4G LTE backpack. “Essentially, he’s carrying around the power of a cell tower — on his back — in order to provide connectivity for his Marines, both locally, up to the UAV cloud, as well as back to leadership on the ships beyond line of sight,” he said.
A Marine squad leader shared information with the chain of command using a hand-held tablet with Kilswitch technology. The tablet provided a shared, real-time data and situational awareness of potential targets that then could be targeted by unmanned aerial vehicles he could control and track for indirect fire support. Nearby, a small UAV launched from an unmanned, wheeled MUTT, or Multi-Utility Tactical Transport. Among the concepts eyed: A UAV in development called Pegasus that converts to an unmanned ground vehicle, which could be used by ground troops in urban areas “and still provide ISR back to key leaders,” Foley said.
Several Marines wore a system called JUNO — or Jungle and Urban Non-GPS Orientation — that includes lower body, energy-harvesting leg braces with embedded sensors, an antenna and watch, which together “allows you to navigate a GPS-denied environment,” Foley said. The San Diego-based SPAWAR Systems Center-Pacific is developing JUNO, to capture and track position and orientation by means other than GPS, along with the Defense Department’s Office of Rapid Reaction Technology. That capability, officials and developers say, is critical in places like remote areas or highly-urbanized places where GPS could be jammed or just difficult to link.