Posted: February 6, 2018 4:10 PM

Marine Leadership Embracing the Value of ‘Unmanned-Manned Teaming Capability’

By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Marine Corps’ commitment to accelerating the spread of unmanned systems and other technologies throughout its warfighting forces could bring structural changes to those units, all the way down to the rifle squad, the Corps’ top combat development officer said Feb. 6.

The findings of a series of experiments that put advanced technologies into the hands of ordinary Marines has led to questioning whether something as deeply rooted in tradition as the 13-man rifle squad should be changed, Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh said.

A decision on adding an assistant squad leader to help deal with the infusion of small unmanned aerial systems and other high-tech tools should be finalized soon, said Walsh, the commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command and deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration.

And there are high-level discussions on whether there is a requirement for yet another member of the squad, who could be called the infantry systems manager, to facilitate maximum effectiveness of the advanced technologies in the Corps’ smallest warfighting element, he said.

As a result of the expanding experience of putting advanced, and in some cases unproven, technologies in the hands of ordinary Marines, the leadership has seen the value of “this unmanned-manned teaming capability. … It is truly moving fast. We have embraced it and will see how far we can go,” Walsh said in the keynote address at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Defense, Protection and Security symposium.

The infusion of robotic and autonomous systems into combat units is important, he said, because “this is how we see ourselves fighting in future.” The recently released National Defense Strategy “clearly is moving us in a new direction,” he said.

Marine leaders are working to shape their 2020 budget plan to move in that direction, “based on what the National Defense Strategy is telling the Marine Corps, which is to partner with the Navy” in the battle for sea control against the emerging peer competitors that the strategy identifies as Russia and China.

To prepared for that new competitive security environment, he said, the Marines have “moved a lot of assets into information warfare,” which includes cyber and electronic warfare.

Talking to a small group of reporters after his speech, Walsh cited the formation of an Information Operations Group in each of the three Marine Expeditionary Forces, the Corps’ largest warfighting commands, which will push the components of information warfare down to their composite units.

Walsh said Marine leaders are going through a lengthy list of potential decisions that arose from the first phase of the Sea Dragon experiments that gave a wide array of unmanned systems and other technologies and different unit organizations to the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines (3/5), which tested them on deployment to the Western Pacific.

Those included the recommendation of an assistant squad leader and possibly a systems manager to deal with the new technologies and free the squad leader to focus on fighting in what is likely to be a distributed condition.

The small unmanned quad-copters used by 3/5 were so useful that they are being given to every infantry squad, Walsh said.

Experiments in Sea Dragon phase two and other exercises to allow lower-ranked Marines to test unproven new technologies are paired with a Rapid Capabilities office intended to bypass the cumbersome traditional acquisition process, he said.

Speaking later, Frank Kelley, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for unmanned system, said new Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts is committed to accelerating the movement of new technologies, including unmanned systems, into the fleet and ensuring they are affordable.

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