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Marine Corps Unmanned Systems

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The U.S. Marine Corps has at least a century-long history of adopting, adapting, and even being the  sole initial advocate for push-the-limit technologies and capabilities. Marines were among the first to fly aircraft from ships at sea; use helicopters for resupply of isolated far forward units, medevac, and quick insertion of warfighters behind enemy lines; turn a crash-prone short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) fixed-wing jet into a critical Corps asset (the AV-8 Harrier jump jet); push for a STOVL version of the still-in-development F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; and employ small unmanned systems; unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to sniff out car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and provide over-the-hill/around-the-corner situational awareness.

“The rapid expansion of these technologies demands significant adaptation in organization, policy and doctrine within the Marine Corps and naval service. These include the addition of personnel and units, new primary MOS fields and revision and creation of doctrinal publications and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).”

Battlefield robots have become an integral force multiplier for Marine Corps squads, platoons, and other components of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). On the aerial side, the Corps currently is pursuing four types of platforms in terms of development and procurement:

  1. Small UAS (SUAS) – Primarily hand- or bungee-launched, SUAS requirements currently are being met by joint Group-1 programs, such as the RQ-11 Raven and Wasp III.
  2. Small Tactical UAS (STUAS) – Scheduled for initial operational capability (IOC) in 2013, the Integrator (a Group-3 system) will replace the smaller Group-2 ScanEagle in providing ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] services to small units in the field.
  3. Marine Corps Tactical UAS (MCTUAS) – The RQ-7B Shadow (a Group-3 system) will be replaced in FY 16 by a larger, more capable Group-4 system to meet the growing targeting, strike, intelligence collection, electronic warfare, data networking, and communications relay requirements of Corps expeditionary units.
  4. Contract Cargo UAS – The Corps is looking to achieve IOC in FY 16 on an unmanned helicopter to provide logistical support to company-sized forces in the most forward positions in a combat zone.

The Unmanned Aerial Marine

Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas, the assistant deputy commandant-aviation, predicts a continued growth in the type and capabilities of UAVs employed by the Corps in the next few years, along with a change in how the Marines acquire and use such systems.

“In the past 10 years, we have used a lot of contract UAS, especially the ScanEagle, but we will divest ourselves of that down the line. The Small Tactical UAS, made by Insitu, as is the ScanEagle, will be owned and operated by the Corps. That is important because it will, for the first time, give us an organic UAS capability for our MEUs [Marine Expeditionary Units], which we have not had on a recurring basis, other than via contract UAS,” he said.

U.S. Marine Corps Insitu

Scheduled for IOC in 2013, the Group-3 Insitu Integrator will replace the ScanEagle as the Marine Corps’ Small Tactical UAS. Lockheed Martin photo

“We see UAS as giving us persistent ISR and a fires capability. The Shadow – flown by our VMU [Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron] squadrons and the mainstay of our UAS force – performs ISR and has a laser designator used to guide weapons, but we intend to weaponize our larger UAVs. If you have persistence, it makes sense to have a weapons capability as well. However, before you can weaponize a UAS, you have to be in compliance with treaty restrictions, which we are working through various agencies.”

The STUAS is the Corps’ near-term priority, followed by weaponization and selection of a Group-4 system for MCTUAS.

“We have not yet settled on specific requirements [for Group-4]. The Army flies the Gray Eagle, which is essentially a Predator class, and we’re looking at what the Navy is doing, but we haven’t yet settled on what a Marine Group-4 would be,” Thomas said. “The nominal time frame for the Group-4 would be around 2018 to bring that larger, longer endurance capability to the Corps, with IOC a few years after that, around 2020.”

The Marine Unmanned Aircraft System Plan outlines the basic unmanned aviation requirements of different Corps components:

“Unmanned aircraft systems increase the lethality and effectiveness of our air/ground team by extending our influence over time and space on the battlefield. The persistence and reach of our current UAS are key characteristics that provide improved aerial reconnaissance and command and control capability exceeding that of manned aviation assets. The near future will see these characteristics expand to also include strike, electronic warfare and combat logistics. The MAGTF will directly benefit from improving aviation support as we find new ways to put our nation’s technologies into the hands of Marines.

“The rapid expansion of these technologies demands significant adaptation in organization, policy and doctrine within the Marine Corps and naval service. These include the addition of personnel and units, new primary MOS fields and revision and creation of doctrinal publications and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...

  • David A. Nichols

    I would like to get in touch with Lt. Col Beach. I was his Plt. Sgt. at OCS. My name is David A. Nihcols