Experimentation Finds High-Tech Systems, Manageable Load for Marines
By GIDGET FUENTES, Special Correspondent
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — New, high-tech gear including networked tablets and drones gave an infantry battalion more information, as well as lethality, and expanded the battlefield picture without overloading Marines, according to the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s (MCWL) commander.
Training was key to managing the heavier load of information that its squads, platoons and companies would generate with new systems and equipment to expand the situational awareness for small-unit leaders.
Additional military occupational specialty training was “the most power tool” in enabling those Marines to make the most of those new systems and tools — and better manage the information data load, Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman said during a Feb. 13 briefing with reporters.
Company-grade officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) “received higher-level proficiency quicker at the rifle squad, rifle platoon, level, which enabled the company and the battalion to focus on the higher-order tasks more quickly,” Wortman said.
With that advanced training, NCOs “were in a stronger position to incorporate the technologies and the information streams associated with the technology better,” he said. “So they didn’t achieve cognitive overload. They were more adept at handling additional responsibilities of a team leader, a squad leader, a platoon commander, and they had the additional cognitive capacity. They were able to do things effectively” with imagery fed by unmanned drones and other information and intelligence the new systems provided them.
“That training investment was seen as critical to realizing the full potential to equipment and organizational changes that we experimented with,” Wortman added.
Those assessments stem from an 18-month experimentation with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, from Camp Pendleton, California.
For the first phase of MCWL’s “Sea Dragon” experimentation program, 3/5 provided a live-force experimentation, using new, high-tech gear through pre-deployment training exercises and a unit deployment to Japan that included exercise Talisman Sabre in Australia, shipboard operations and certification exercise as the battalion landing team with the Okinawa, Japan-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. The warfighting lab collected feedback and data over a 13-month formal assessment that began during the summer 2016 and spring 2017 deployments.
Wortman said has submitted to Commandant Gen. Robert Neller several recommendations to training, organization, leadership development, sustainment and facilities that would support the proposed restructuring across the Marine Corps’ infantry forces. Decisions were pending.
“With the perspectives of the operating forces, we identified the most promising capability that we can get into rapid prototyping and, if appropriate, rapid acquisition,” he said.
Along with the additional training for squad and fire team leaders, these recommendations include:
■ Revamped rifle squad. “The 13-Marine rifle squad has served us very, very well over time,” Wortman said. But new technologies, including drones and mobile networks, may require additional personnel to operate those systems and provide unmanned aerial system (UAS) and electronic warfare capabilities at the small-unit level. So 3/5 organized with 11-, 12- and 14-Marine squads, each structured differently but with an unmanned systems operator.
The platoon also will get an addition systems operator — already approved — that will largely to help employ small drones and “receive the data” that will help decision-making for the platoon commander. “We are close to a decision but we owe [Neller] just a little bit of refining,” Wortman added. Infantry units also will get additional personnel, including an intelligence cell within the rifle company and an additional eight scout-snipers at the battalion level, as well as an additional forward air controller, Wortman said.
■ More firepower. The M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle and the M320 grenade launcher would replace the M4 service rifle and M203 grenade launcher, respectively, for most infantry Marines, Wortman said. Some leaders might still carry the M4, a decision that’s still pending. Also, the M3 multirole, anti-armor, anti-personnel weapons systems would replace the Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon. “In each case, we found those systems to be more lethal, provide greater range, greater killing power and just a greater range of options,” he said.
■ Unmanned options. The rifle company, platoon and squads would get three different unmanned aerial systems. The goal, he said, “is to enhance the situational awareness of the small unit leaders and to facilitate them operating with more precision, more speed, more lethality, more target discrimination,” Wortman said. Units also would be equipped with ground robotics, like autonomous and unmanned ground vehicles, as well as enhanced communications and tools within the ground combat element that would replace traditional maps and compass, he said.
The Marine Corps is “in the early stages of fielding” the UASs, he added.
■ Better sustainment. Units would get water purification systems — experimented systems included power sourcing links such as solar — to ease the logistical burden of resupply and make them more self-sufficient in the field. The rifle company would get the Lethal Miniaturized Aerial Munition, known as “Switchblade.” The battalion would get additional tools to support military information operations “to be able to support our influence efforts in a contested area of operations,” he added.
■ Stabilized, cohesive small units. Marines, particularly small-unit leaders, performed better when they spent more time training and working together, according to one finding.
Officials say the Marine Corps’ experimentation dovetails with the “age of ‘strategic competition,’” as highlighted by Defense Secretary James Mattis in the National Defense Strategy released last month.
Neller has pressed to create a “more survivable, more resilient, more adaptive” force for the future, and the MCWL in Quantico, Virginia, has been leading the service’s experimentation efforts to redesign the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) that includes the service’s sea-going Marine expeditionary units and ground-based Special-Purpose MAGTFs.
Phase II of Sea Dragon begins this spring with a focus on “MAGTF hybrid logistics,” involving Combat Logistics Battalions 6 and 8 as the experimentation forces.