Battlefield Robots: Marine Corps Unmanned Systems
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 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
“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).”
Although joint doctrine now identifies the aerial side as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, comprising both the vehicle and all ground control, launch, and recovery elements, Marine Corps VMU squadrons have retained the title of UAV squadrons.
“Marine commanders rely on UAS from every level of our family of systems to both preserve manned aviation assets as well as shape their battlespace,” the UAS Plan continues. “Battalion-level units will continue to use the smallest systems (Group-1) as an organic aerial reconnaissance and surveillance asset. The VMU squadrons will employ the larger and more complex systems (Group-3 and -4) via a common Ground Control Station architecture to provide task-organized support to the MAGTF.”
In 2010 and early 2011, the Corps challenged industry to meet a stringent set of basic requirements for an unmanned helicopter to resupply small forward units, freeing some trucks and manned helicopters for other jobs. Two platforms – the Boeing A160 Hummingbird and the larger Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-MAX – moved on to further assessment, leading to an August down-select to one helicopter for a six-month field test by deployed Marine units in Afghanistan.
“The MCWL [Marine Corps Warfighting Lab] demonstration in January through March proved it could be done. Now we have to see if they can do that on a routine basis – the maintenance required, cycle rate, austerity of a combat environment, etc.,” said Lt. Col. George B. Beach, UAS coordinator at Marine Corps Headquarters-Aviation. “At this stage, we don’t know whether our assumptions are correct, so we look at the military user assessment to answer some of those questions – can the aircraft carry a bigger load and get supplies somewhere faster, but also might it be more vulnerable to detection.”
The Marine Corps focuses on UAVs at the tactical level – primarily line-of-sight (LOS) systems providing reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA), as well as terminal weapons guidance.
“We embed our intel Marines within the UAV units to do some processing of the information that comes in [from the aircraft]. We also use the platforms for communications relay, SIGINT [signals intelligence], and similar payloads,” he added. “They have become a key enabler for the MAGTF. Even the Raven, in the hands of a warfighter, provides another degree of battlespace situational awareness.
“Trained individuals can put together what I like to refer to as a mini-MAGTF, in which a patrol now has organic air support, albeit as simple as a Raven flying above them and covering their flanks. It also tells an adversary they have air support, so the enemy is less likely to engage that patrol, knowing a UAV above them may detect and warn the patrol.
“As we get to larger systems, such as the communications relay capability of the Shadow, in addition to EO/IR [electro-optical/infrared] and laser-designated terminal guidance, the Marine on the ground can bridge geographic or urban canyons to do communications. At the same time, a comms relay capability enables the operator seeing the UAV video to speak directly to anyone with a radio on the battlefield.”
An important application in Southwest Asia has been the use of UAVs in a convoy overwatch role. In one such case, when a truck rolled off the road into a ditch, a UAV overhead enabled the operator to identify the vehicle and the radio frequency it was using through its battlefield tracker, call directly down to the disabled truck and ask if they needed assistance. As a result, Beach said, they were able to coordinate a quick recovery effort for that vehicle and the Marines in it.
As with almost any new technology sent into combat, the various applications warfighters find for unmanned systems often exceed those intended by the developers. That user adaptation is a key element in the combat field testing of the unmanned cargo helicopter.
“I don’t think we’ve fully explored what something like the K-MAX or Hummingbird can do. If you just think in terms of how we traditionally do things, you might miss possible solution sets,” Beach said. “You also have to look at the operational environment – hot/high or sea level – and applications other than cargo. For example, medevac is part of the discussion, but we’re not particularly focused on that; MCWL has released some RFIs [requests for information] to look at that for enhanced company operations they are exploring.
“There also are airships and other lift technologies out there, so you have to do a detailed analysis of sustainment requirements, the ideal weight provided to small units, small unit composition and operations concept, how long they will be out, the rate that drives the number of aircraft needed – three days resupply at a time or just-in-time resupply, maybe more than once a day. Those are all drivers in terms of capacity of the helicopter or other design.”
As is becoming increasingly the case for all the services, the Marines also are looking for platforms capable of meeting multiple requirements, sometimes on the same mission. The problem then becomes how to allocate limited resources to meet multiple combat needs.
“Looking at it in terms of phases of an operation, in the first phases you might need more ISR versus logistics, while in phase three you might have a strike requirement and combat logistics, then in phase four you would be looking at the requirements to resupply and stabilize,” Beach said. “Right now we recognize there is a large demand for ISR on the battlefield. But if we are focused, in this assessment, on logistics in order to get trucks off the road and the platforms instead are used for ISR, then we would be taking them away from the mission or capability we’re trying to provide.
“Adding capability also adds mission weight. But I do see these platforms delivering a fuel bladder to a combat outpost, then bringing back an empty one or parts or whatever else needs to be recovered from the outpost. So just like any aircraft that might go into that kind of location, they would utilize their capabilities to the extent possible to take things both in and out.”
Just how important UAVs have become to the Marine Corps is demonstrated by the Force Structure Review (FSR), currently undergoing final assessment in preparation for implementation of the future course recommended by a select panel of Marine Corps officers and senior civilians. While the FSR recommended a 15,000 man reduction in the total force, it also called for creation of a fifth VMU squadron and increased funding for hardware, operations, and support.
Although the review does not specifically deal with the newest category of UAV – the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), such as the Navy’s current UCAS-D demonstrator or proposed future Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) platform – Thomas and Beach agree such a capability may well have a place in the Corps within the next 20 years.
“If a UCAV is something with similar range, endurance, and speed as our manned platforms, I would say it is not a stretch [to expect] we will have something like that in 20 or 30 years. But we see that as complementary to the manned platform, designed as a system – manned/unmanned,” Beach said. “So while I do see the potential for that for the Corps, the caveat is not as a replacement for manned aircraft. We have to get to the point where it is complementary before it could become a replacement – and we’re at least a couple of steps away from that now.”
For Thomas, a Marine UCAV would need to be just that – a system specifically designed to meet the expeditionary needs of the Corps in whatever environment they may need to operate after Afghanistan.
“I think there is great potential for UCAVs and, presumably, there would be significant savings, but it’s still too early to determine what the limits of that capability might be,” he said. “We need persistence and ISR and fires and it all needs to be expeditionary. So I can see a requirement for the types of capabilities those systems would provide, but it may have to be something that can take off and land in a shorter area and be able to operate in an austere environment.
“For UAS capability writ large, I think there will be a requirement for that type of system, with greater persistence and fire, which are very important to us. But we have to balance that capability with the threats we might face across the range of military operations. In a higher threat environment, with a surface-to-air threat, for example, the requirements change. So I wouldn’t say what either the Navy or Air Force currently is working on would meet our needs.”
Unmanned on the Ground
The Corps has been an enthusiastic user of ground robotics, as well, from small devices designed to check under cars for explosives and provide a first look inside a room or cave to still-in-development robotic pack mules to take some of the load off individual Marines on the move.
For the moment, however, the focus on UGVs is almost entirely directed to counter-IED systems – essentially, robots used to locate and even help disable what has become the weapon of choice for insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan – according to Kevin McConnell, director of the Fires and Maneuver Integration Division at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC).
“UGVs are kind of like GPS was – it was built and then everything came to rely on it. We’ve worked on unmanned ground systems for quite awhile, starting years ago with Gladiator, a developmental program that was our first foray into UGVs,” he explained. “But ultimately it was felt it did not fit a mission and was too expensive to continue. Gladiator was canceled shortly after OIF-1 and after that, ground robots became a non-topic in the Marine Corps.
“But as IEDs became more prevalent, some of the small robots that supported our EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] detachments and engineers started to surface. Those, basically, were commercially available from vendors who had been watching the threat develop and had developed a lot of small robots to help us initially in the IED role.
“As we move into the future, we have two focuses. First, continue to evolve the IED small robots, to migrate those beyond the EOD and engineering units to other elements of the Marine Corps. And second, to make use of systems we already have, whether it is Humvees or medium tactical trucks or, potentially, even heavy trucks and how to make those systems semi- or even fully autonomous.”
Using existing systems will help deal with major cutbacks in defense spending – especially for R&D – potentially enabling the Corps to field proven platforms with existing support and maintenance chains to meet a new and evolving requirement. But while a robotic Humvee or truck would resolve a number of issues – such as reducing the IED threat to convoy drivers – they are far too large and noisy to accompany small units moving through rough terrain.
The alternative would be to continue pursuing entirely new types of platforms, including some walking on four or more legs. Early prototypes, such as the four-legged BigDog – likened to a mechanical mule – have shown promise in testing by the Army. And while the Marine Corps is interested, it will leave the high cost of such developments to its far larger and wealthier sister service.
But the size and type of future Marine Corps UGVs is dependent on more than just development costs.
“There are some constraints that guide us more than anything. The first of those is on continuing to reduce the size or footprint of the MAGTF. The problem we have with robots is they take up space at a time when we’re trying to slim down our deploying forces to make them fast, responsive, agile. When you start looking at systems that run counter to that, you have a problem with how robots fit into the MAGTF,” McConnell said, even in cases where a robot may be the answer to another goal – lightening the load on the individual warfighter. “Transferring the load from individual Marines to some other system to counter the growing weight they have to carry is a benefit. But the problem with systems like BigDog is it is another big system that runs counter to the MAGTF-lightening initiative.
“Another area with potential is just tactical vehicles in general. In my view, there is great utility in having a vehicle you can call up to your position without needing a driver in that vehicle. The same is true for remotely controlled weapons systems, although, in the Marine Corps vision, any such system in the future would have a human, somewhere, deciding when and where to shoot.”
With any autonomous system – especially a weaponized platform – a major concern is not only having a human in the loop controlling the weapon, but ensuring the operator has full, real-time situational awareness of the location and movement of both the platform, the Marines it is with, and anyone else in the area, whether civilian or allied or enemy combatant. McConnell said early experiments such as Gladiator demonstrated that, with a combination of very high fidelity sensors, detailed TTPs, and extensive training, it was possible to control a robot from a fair distance and have it operate safely among mounted or dismounted troops.
At the same time, however, software glitches that resulted in unplanned and uncontrolled movements by Gladiator brought a permanent halt to plans to field test it in Iraq in 2003-04.
“I canceled that because, in the later stages of training for deployment, the weapons system actually did a couple of uncommanded movements. No one was hurt or endangered, but the fact is, there was a software problem causing the weapons to move without intent,” he said. “So we canceled all intentions of fielding the system, even on an experimental basis, because the software was not mature enough.
“At any robotics conference, you’ll find a lot of industry is working on that. But in the Corps, we have not restarted any of that work at all, because our focus really is on robots providing specific utility in IED reconnaissance and neutralization. So we have not looked, in almost a decade, at weaponized UGVs and it is not really on the Marine Corps horizon. We are in the late stages of developing a UGV roadmap with a series of goals and objectives and weaponization is not part of that roadmap at all.”
The role of Marine Corps robots today is to be on point or to be called forward for a scouting and reconnaissance role, which also was part of Gladiator’s expected mission. Despite the lack of a plan to weaponize any autonomous ground system or pursue revolutionary technologies – aside from whatever the Army may develop – the Corps is leaving the door open to an increasing role for robotic vehicles in future combat scenarios.
“There is a new focus on using semi-autonomous vehicles, such as leaving it behind to counter a threat or being called in to pick up Marines,” McConnell said. “And as soon as you start doing that, there will be interest in figuring out how to remotely control a weapons station. That is the kind of technology we, as developers, may not plan out as a role for robots to play so much as one that evolves as our Marines in the field figure out ways to use them that makes sense to them.
“That is probably the case for any kind of UGV – they will be used in roles we don’t even envision or place a priority on today. And those roles will just continue to grow. I would say it is likely, in the logistics world, we will see some kind of vehicle being used, at least experimentally, within a resupply convoy – either a fully or partially unmanned convoy – potentially before we leave Afghanistan. There is nothing the Corps specifically has budgeted to buy in that time frame, but there are commercial vendors who have developed some technologies that likely could show up in Afghanistan before all our forces pull out.”
Terminator – NO; R2D2 or C3PO – Probably
Before 9/11, few Marines likely would have thought the Corps would become one of the major military users of small robots – in the air and on the ground – in less than a decade. Where the relationship between Marines and combat robots goes in the future is equally difficult to predict – other than to say the Corps, funding issues aside, is likely to be a leader in the innovative use of autonomous and semi-autonomous platforms.
As to weaponization, from UCAVs to some future version of Gladiator, not being in the current roadmap is not the same as not being a potential part of the future MAGTF. As McConnell noted, “as soon as you say no about something being developed, it will be.”
Give Marines in the field an autonomous Humvee to deliver supplies and odds are it soon will be equipped with a remotely controlled weapon. Demonstrate not every vehicle in a convoy needs a human driver on board and soon there will be completely unmanned convoys on the road, accompanied by other robots seeking out and destroying IEDs along their routes.
“Today, some type of tracked vehicle is most likely just because that is the easiest type system to build and operate and is the most reliable. But the science and technology world is looking at other things, such as BigDog, which is pretty impressive. They’ve done a heck of a job with that, but it is not a mature technology,” McConnell said, in references applying equally to the future of UAVs.
“Technology development will not stop. Sitting in an office today, you may wonder when or if we will ever buy something like that, but as long as we let the science and technology communities continue to move forward, there will [come] a point where that technology becomes useful.”
For all forms of combat robotics, two major obstacles currently outweigh all others, even funding: Communications bandwidth and power. Of those, power is the most elusive.
“Power is the key to everything. It seems like it has always been the case that the next power source is just around the corner – but we still aren’t there. Having a power-generating source that is small, lightweight, cheap to buy, cheap to use is an elusive technology a lot of people are focusing on, but we’re only making small steps to getting there,” McConnell acknowledged, noting bandwidth is a close second.
“Anytime you start working in the longer-range VHF spectrum, having to generate power to talk to a robot out even a kilometer or two, you will start interfering with somebody else’s communications. Also, in a recent conversation about such robots, the question is do those signals have to be encrypted. In general, the thinking now is for these very short-range, specifically tasked robots, we don’t have to do encryption. But if the mission and communications range start expanding, then securing those comms, in the same way we have to secure UAS comms, will become necessary.”
Solving both is not likely to come about anytime soon, Beach added, but bandwidth may benefit from developing an all-inclusive battlespace network.
“MCWL is studying enhanced company operations, in which you have large, geo-dispersed small units that rely upon some type of comms relay system in order to bridge those distances and facilitate command and control. So, in the future, I see the necessity for an aerial network, whether unmanned aircraft or tethered aerostats or something on a manned aircraft that allows the ability to create a network that would allow you to bridge many communications gaps, including digital information,” he said, adding that would be part of a move to multi-mission platforms, especially unmanned systems.
“The days of specialized mission platforms are fast coming to an end. Because of the expense of the platforms and budget realities, we try to ensure they are capable of doing as many tasks as possible.”
Just how robotic systems fit into the future of the Marine Corps is dependent on further advances in three different, but key, industry segments, McConnell added: Computing power – small and fast – mechanical engineering to create a system that can perform increasingly delicate maneuvers, and power to operate everything.
“Today, unmanned ground robots are just one small part of this division’s portfolio. But looking across that portfolio at how it has worked out in the past decade, when you find a role a specific type of robot can fill, it prioritized pretty well. In countering the IED threat, for example, we went from no robots in the Marine Corps 10 years ago to several hundred robots today. So when they fill a mission well, then unmanned systems prioritize well in a huge portfolio,” he said.
“As to the next 10 years, that is hugely dependent on what happens [after Afghanistan]. If large Marine units are deployed in a combat role, I think robots could be a huge growth industry. If, on the other hand, we are largely in a peacetime standing in the next decade, within the Corps we may see that technology stall out a bit. In either case, it will be budget-dependent, which looks pretty bleak, as far as the future goes.”
What is likely to drive future developments and expanded use of unmanned systems is a combination of cost and independent efforts by industry, he added.
“That is a major robot utility – they are saving money and, more importantly, saving lives. But the story of any future robot probably will depend on industry to independently develop capabilities that somehow match what our requirements are in the future,” McConnell concluded. “So, in the realm of unmanned systems, for industry to match what the military is doing is key.
“If someone asks me what I want a robot to do, I really can’t answer that. But if they look at what Marines are doing and come up with a robot to do that, that is how our problems will be solved – having people who not only understand the technology but also what the users are really doing and need. If an unmanned system shows up and proves useful – or certainly essential – then that’s where we will start to invest.”
This article first appeared in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.