Posted: July 19, 2018 6:55 PM

Marine Corps Tests Point to Potential Urban Ops, Supply Roles for Unmanned Systems

By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent

TRIANGLE, Va. — In its latest phases of experimentation, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) has been focusing on ways to allow Marines to support the naval campaign at sea and from land, to fight in the intensely challenging urban environment and to provide logistical support to widely distributed forces in a contested environment, its commander said July 19.

One major requirement that could come from those trials is a much greater use of unmanned and autonomous systems to help Marines survive and prevail in a dangerous urban fight and to bring vital supplies to the combat units ashore, Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman said at a briefing near his Quantico headquarters.

The current phase of the “Sea Dragon campaign of learning” builds on an early stage that focused on the infantry and led to a wide range of changes in unit organization and equipment. It will be replaced by a new phase that will dive into the complex issue of information operations, Wortman said.

All of the MCWL’s efforts are driven by the “drivers of change” and the “critical tasks” set by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller as part of his campaign to reshape the Corps for a possible future fight against a peer competitor.

Perhaps the primary critical task the commandant posed was to “reintegrate the naval forces,” after two decades of the Marines operating mainly ashore. The Marines’ return to their naval and expeditionary roots has taken on new demands due to the prospect that in a major conflict with a peer competitor the naval expeditionary force might have to fight to get to the fight.

To enhance that naval force’s “ability to operate in the increasingly contested maritime domain,” Wortman said MCWL has worked on ways for the Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) to have the ability to operate “consistently and on an enduring basis from the sea, and to take the capabilities that we projected ashore and to reverse the vector of those capabilities” to protect the naval campaign.

The lab also conducted “an advanced technologies experiment focused on urban operations,” he said, which provided “insight on improving small unit situational awareness, operating in the electromagnetic spectrum, exploiting new surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, using robots and manned-unmanned teaming, and strengthening the ability of our small units to command and control.”

That demonstrated the possible need to use unmanned systems to take on some of the more deadly tasks of fighting in cities, and the requirement for different forms of communications to get around the barriers to radio transmission in the midst of buildings.

Another major experiment dealt with the equally challenging task of supplying forces ashore in a tightly contested area, which led to proposals for cargo unmanned aerial vehicles.

Wortman said the lab was getting close to refining its findings to provide recommendations to leadership on what kind of unmanned air system should be acquired.

MCWL’s evaluations are focusing on unmanned aerial systems able to carrying what he called light to medium loads, ranging from 50 to about 1,000 pounds.

In all of the experiments, a recurring factor is the need to control the electromagnetic spectrum, which means limiting radio transmissions that can be intercepted and can enable an enemy to pinpoint and target ground units, while still allowing for command and control of the dispersed units. That will be a primary focus of the next Sea Dragon efforts.

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