Marine Special Operators Rely Heavily on Hand-Launched Drones

By Grace V. Jean
If every marine is a rifleman, then every marine special operator is an unmanned aircraft system pilot.

The newest component of U.S. Special Operations Command has quickly embraced drone technology, particularly the small hand-launched aircraft that weigh less than 20 pounds and fly at speeds under 100 knots.  

“They are being used actively in theater by our guys. We’re having a lot of success with them,” said Jon “Blade” Hackett, unmanned aircraft systems program manager at Marine Corps Special Operations Command.

Every marine in the command learns how to fly the Raven B and the Wasp III, which are tossed up by MARSOC units to provide overhead coverage when larger systems like the Predator or Reaper are unavailable.  

“We’re rapidly gaining experience and competencies and discovering what a great asset they are,” said Hackett, a former commanding officer of Marine Light-Attack Helicopter Squadron 269.  

Though MARSOC comprises 2,000 marines, or 1 percent of the entire Marines Corps, it receives 25 percent of the service’s fleet of small UAS.

Both the Raven and Wasp are considered team assets. The Wasp is a small, light aircraft that an operator can stash in his backpack while on foot patrols. The Raven, on the other hand, is larger and must be transported in a vehicle or stationed at a forward operating base.

The Wasp’s quiet nature and small size make it ideal for covert surveillance missions. “If you saw one of these vehicles in the air, unless you knew it was a Wasp UAV, you’d think it was a bird,” said Hackett. But its size means that it is susceptible to turbulence and high winds. “If the weather’s not right, the Wasp isn’t going to fly,” he said.

The Raven is not as vulnerable to weather and winds, but it looks and sounds like a small airplane in the sky. There are ways to mitigate the motor noise to enable the plane to fly covert missions, Hackett added.

Each team deploys with a set of the two systems, which come with a number of vehicles and a ground control station. An operator could go downrange with one controller and fly multiple vehicles at the same time, said Hackett. But if troops wanted to conduct sustained operations with the aircraft tag-teaming for persistent surveillance, they require more than one station. Depending on the mission, they would receive an additional UAS system, or even a third one.

Though software makes it possible for an operator to fly a Raven solo, it is configured to fly with two operators at the controls. One functions as the pilot, the other acts as the mission operator who keeps track of the aircraft’s position and manipulates the payload.

“Even with Wasp, it’s better to have two operators than to just have one,” said Hackett. “All of our operators are trained to fly the Wasp as a single operator, but it’s much more effective to split up the duties.”

Normally the two operators sit next to each other. Before they launch the vehicle, they conduct mission planning and make sure the airspace is clear of other aircraft just as traditional pilots would for larger planes.

“There’s a certain amount of training overhead that these guys have to have before they can operate these systems. It’s not in the same league as the guy who’s flying Reaper halfway around the globe through clouds, airways, and navigating with manned aircraft. But it’s more than the weekend model airplane guy who’s just flying it casually over his grass field,” said Hackett. “It is definitely a skill, and a very perishable skill.”

Keeping operators trained is the command’s biggest challenge.

“We don’t have a dedicated UAS operator. All of these guys, they have a primary job. This is a collateral duty,” Hackett pointed out.

Marine special operators already have to juggle and maintain expertise in skills including parachute jumping, diving, breaching, surveillance and reconnaissance. On top of that, they now have to learn how to fly a small airplane.

To maintain their skills, an operator has to fly sorties every 60 days and pass written and oral tests. Then he’s evaluated annually. “He actually gets a check ride with a formal evaluator,” Hackett said. “All that is geared to make sure the operator is proficient, and still has the skills necessary to safely go out there and operate the vehicle.”

Some of the flight time can be done in simulators. But operators have to hit the training range and physically fly the aircraft.

Despite the training pressure on marine special operators, the UAS missions are expanding.
“When people think of a UAV, it’s the eye in the sky. I’m collecting video or taking pictures,” said Hackett. “We’re looking at a lot of different ways to use the real-time capability of the aircraft to affect other mission areas, to make them better,” he said.  

In Afghanistan, marines are employing them beyond base and checkpoint security missions and using the systems to detect enemy mortars and rockets.

“Normally [the launchers] are on a timer, and sometimes they’re manned by someone who drops the mortar in the tube. So the UAV overhead can be used to look for the launch sites,” said Hackett. “If [enemies] hear the motor, it’s a deterrent. They know they’re being watched.”

That’s an effect that is not typically considered by special operators who often discount a system that can be heard and seen. “What we’re learning is that visible presence actually has a significant deterrent effect,” said Hackett. “It’s that psychological effect on Tommy Taliban out there shearing a goat. ‘There’s that buzz again. They’re watching me.’”

MARSOC is leading efforts to expand the small UAS mission into other areas, to include control of indirect fires and mobile target tracking.

Traditionally, when troops are shooting artillery or mortars, they have a spotter on the ground to see where rounds strike. If operators had one of these UAS overhead, they could attain coordinates on the targets. That would yield more accurate firing and faster adjustments on the fly, said Hackett.

The first remotely piloted drones were designed to spot naval gunfire, he pointed out, so the aircraft’s birthright is control of indirect fires. “This isn’t anything revolutionary. I think we just forgot we could do that, for a while. Now we’re rediscovering that great utility,” he said.  

Sometimes marines do not want to expose their location by standing up and launching or recovering the UAS. The command is experimenting with a concept called remote launch and handoff, where the aircraft would be sent airborne elsewhere, flown over to the covert operators who would then take control and collect imagery from their hidden position.

“Flying these little guys is great, because you always have them. You always have control, so you always have some capability available, no matter what’s going on around you,” said Hackett.  

As the Marine Corps at large evaluates current UAS in the inventory and charts their future direction, officials are developing a family of systems to include a range of small- to medium-sized aircraft.

“We’re remaining aligned with them now, because the systems they provide meet our needs,” said Hackett. If at some point, the service stops fielding the small “group 1” UAS or the current drones do not provide the capabilities that special operators need, then officials would look to U.S. Special Operations Command to field new aircraft to cover the gap, he added. “As of right now, there are no problems,” he said.

But officials are always on the lookout for technology improvements — for more range and endurance, greater speed and better payload in existing platforms.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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