Marines Take High-Tech Concepts to the City
By GIDGET FUENTES, Special Correspondent
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The Marine Corps’ concerted push two years ago to examine new technologies and concepts to make its operating forces more lethal, agile and effective is already yielding innovations Marines are starting to see.
An 18-month experiment led by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory that began in mid-2016 has resulted in the decision to equip each of its infantry battalions with small quadcopter drones.
“And now we are halfway through fielding probably over 800 quadcopters down to every single squad,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commander for Combat Development and Integration, said Thursday at a media event for the Urban Fifth Generation Marine Exploration and Experimentation exercise. “That’s how this experimentation, along with working with the acquisition professionals, can quickly happen.”
Marine Corps officials remain optimistic this week as they joined Navy officials, industry representatives, scientists and engineers for the U5G exercise, held at Camp Pendleton from March 15-25.
The Warfighting Laboratory and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation are hosting U5G, the latest Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, or ANTX, that brings together military research and development organizations with companies to demonstrate rapidly-emerging technologies and concepts.
Last year’s Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, also held at Camp Pendleton, featured drones, unmanned boats and submersibles, networked tablets, and other concepts that support the landing force of Marines coming ashore in low-threat or contested environments.
This year, the Marine Corps wants to see potential technology enhancements for the rifle company and its subordinate platoons, squads, and fire teams operating in the complex, urban environment, where they operate sometimes separated from and also in support of a larger military operation. The service solicited ideas, including quadcopters, counter-unmanned air systems, unmanned ground vehicles, command and control, communications and electronic warfare. Forty-eight companies are participating along with naval warfare centers and military laboratories.
For UG5, Marines with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, were equipped with some technology and gear and then tested them during limited urban training. They spent two days on a limited technical assessment (LTA) to initially demonstrate the equipment, followed by two days for the limited objective experiment (LOE), which included training scenarios securing and reinforcing a U.S. embassy in a city with hostile elements.
“Anytime we can get Marines together with the people that have developed these, that’s the key marriage we are looking for,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration, told journalists during a media day Thursday.
Data collectors accompanied the Marines as they conducted patrols, searched buildings and engaged in firefights. “Some successes, some failures,” Kilo’s commander, Capt. Ben Brewster, said Thursday. Analysts were meeting with the Marines regularly to compile after-action reviews, officials said.
“We’re making sure we do a lot of data collection and analysis, so we can get that quantitative piece,” said William Bray, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation. “As we look at the technologies, we kind of look and evaluate it, bring the Marines in who are using it.”
Engineers and scientists are conducting the assessments, “and from that, we can see where do we take it, like we did at Bold Alligator” exercise last year, Bray said.
Marines in the future operating environment likely will fight and operate in cities, 75 percent which exist in low-lying, coastal areas, officials say. But built-up urban areas have always been tough places to fight conventionally. The physical boundaries of buildings and walls will continue to challenge forces’ communications and ability to maintain situational awareness, officials say.
During U5G, 79 technologies showcased or demonstrated included sensors that “see” through walls, facial recognition software, “smart” networked radio, micro drones, improved night sights and an enhanced thermal imager with heads-up, displayed information. Marines also used or demonstrated several weapon systems, munitions, and rugged unmanned and manned vehicles, including an all-electric off-road vehicle and autonomous electric vehicle charging station.
The Marine Corps isn’t yet ready to say yes to any technology, officials insisted, but the service is poised to move robustly where needed. “The ultimate test is how it performs on the battlefield,” Brig. Gen. Christian F. Wortman, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab commander, told journalists Thursday during the media event. Marines “provide us great feedback.
“The capabilities we are seeing here we will pull into our follow-on urban experimentation,” Wortman said, adding “we’ll identify some things that we think are particularly valuable and that need some additional work.” That assessment phase will start next week, he said, and then “our senior leaders will make decisions.”
In late summer, the Marine Corps will hold a manned/unmanned teaming LTA, followed by a urban limited objective experiment in 2019. “We’ll pull technology that we think has a lot of promise and make sure that we more completely understand it,” Wortman said.
“A key piece,” noted Bray, is being able to “go rapid” with any technology the service deems it ready for the force.
Bray said he feels “very positive” at the U5G turnout and participation by industry and military labs and warfare centers. “I think it’s the right things to be looking at for this event,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for industry as well as the [warfare] centers and labs ... and put them in the hands of the warfighters. We don’t often get those opportunities often.”
The Marine Corps’ Sea Dragon experimentation is shifting from a focus on the infantry battalion to logistics combat element this year, with a live-force experimentation planned for mid-April to mid-May that will incorporate technologies for unmanned distribution, additive manufacturing and sense-and-respond logistics, Wortman said. The focus will shift to information environment operations in 2019.