Marine Corps Focuses on Urban Scenarios

By Stew Magnuson
That the Marine Corps would like to return to its expeditionary, sea-based roots after serving the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan is well known.

Once that is accomplished, it sees itself conducting operations mostly in urban environments, said a senior leader at the service’s Warfighting Laboratory.

“We conduct war games and experiments that inform us on what technologies we need to pursue,” said Col. John Armellino, general staff officer for operations at the lab. These exercises are telling the service that it will be called upon to operate in large cities with diverse populations and high “urban canyons” that make sensing, communicating and resupply difficult.

That supposition is driving much of the Marine Corps’ research and development budget, said Armellino.

The Marine Corps has its own list of top four research-and-development priorities: 21st Century Combined Arms (its term for command and control); unmanned aerial systems; technologies for complex urban environments and high-water speed vessels. Many of these, Armellino agreed, overlap and can be expanded into five categories: command and control; unmanned systems/autonomy; logistics; battlefield medicine and the high-water speed vessels.

Many of these R&D priorities flow from the Expeditionary Force-21 document published in March 2014 that outlines the service’s vision of the future. It wants to be “fast, austere and lethal.” More than 80 percent of the world’s population resides within 100 miles of a coastline, the report pointed out.

One of the Marine Corps’ technology Holy Grails has been a landing craft that can quickly and safely transport troops from ship to shore over the horizon in access-denied scenarios and then continue to fight once ashore. Speed on the water equals survivability. The service has made several high-profile attempts to field such a hybrid boat/fighting vehicle, and failed. But it isn’t giving up. Its amphibious assault vehicle program is taking an incremental approach to fielding this capability.

Amphibious high-water speed remains near the top, if not the top of the service’s R&D list, its leaders have said. The Office of Naval Research recently held a one-day forum looking at the problem.

“I don’t think there’s a more important capability challenge for the Marine Corps’ … than being able to get Marines from ship to shore to [an] objective seamlessly and expeditiously,” Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command and deputy commandant of combat development and integration, said at the forum.

The challenge is making the watercraft glide across the water, or plane, so it can achieve higher speeds.

Even though contracts for the first increment of the new amphibious assault vehicle are forthcoming, research-and-development opportunities abound on the program. It must be light and powerful enough to plane, which means looking at the hull form, propulsor hydrodynamics, powertrain and power generation, and fuel efficiency. Researchers are looking at turbine engines to help it rise onto the surface of the water, a PowerPoint presented at the forum said.

The Expeditionary Force-21 document said new anti-access weapon system’s require that landings be staged as far as 65 nautical miles from shore, with amphibious assault vehicles deployed at about 12 nautical miles away when conditions are favorable. Once ashore, the Marines want the vehicles to be survivable, so work needs to be done on materials and structures.

“A high-water speed amphibious combat vehicle is of critical importance to the Marine Corps,” said Jeff Bradel, program manger for maneuver science and technology. “We are seeking new, breakthrough technologies and innovative concepts in order to bring this needed capability to fruition.”

The Marine Corps once ashore sees a future where it is mostly fighting in urban settings and its Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) are broken up into smaller units that are spread out conducting missions. There, keeping track of forces, communicating with them and directing fires all become more challenging, Armellino said.

One of its chief programs is the MAGTF integrated command and control, which seeks to reduce gaps in communication, situational awareness and the common operating picture by improving existing systems and the integration of new ones at higher headquarters. The Corps wants seamless digital interfaces for forces in the air and on the ground, while on the move when transmitting voice, network data, targeting information, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance video and position location, documents provided by the lab’s futures directorate state.

The Marine Corps’ lab is pursuing more than two dozen command-and-control related programs, many of which focus on communicating in urban and austere settings.

Sending forces forward will “result in greater separation from command-and-control and support nodes and increased requirement of self-sustainment,” a fact sheet said. “To that end, reliable, redundant and adaptive communications infrastructures are needed.”

MAGTF enabler-light is a communications system for battalion and company landing teams that is internally transportable on V-22 Ospreys or CH-53 King Stallion rotor-craft, and is intended to provide command and control to troops without sacrificing operational momentum in austere environments. It carries its own 3-kilowatt generator and has a variety of communication systems that allow companies and battalions to link to squad levels.

Pushing communications down to dismounted troops is the next-generation command-and-control program, which envisions mobile ad hoc networks for voice and data on handheld radios in harsh radio frequency environments such as “downtown urban centers,” aboard ships, in tunnels and bunkers.

Like all of the other services, the Corps is looking also at improving its unmanned aerial systems.

Small fixed-wing unmanned aircraft used for reconnaissance and surveillance are not always useful in constrained, urban scenarios, the laboratory has discovered in a series of experiments with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It concluded that there is a need for an electric vertical take off and landing aircraft with a gimbaled camera to fill some of the maneuverability gaps.

The UAS in GPS denied environment program is looking at mitigating the effects of enemy jamming through alternative navigation and making its system less susceptible to electronic warfare.  

Ground robots also figure into the Corps’ future as it anticipates navigating and operating in urban settings.

It has not let go of the idea of fielding an armed ground robot, Armellino confirmed.

Armed ground robots were first sent to Iraq in 2005 by the Army, but never used as envisioned. Leaders there were not confident about their ability and used them in stationary positions behind sandbags.

They have the potential to lessen a soldier or Marines’ exposure to snipers or enemy combatants in areas surrounded by buildings. Marines can send the robot around a corner and remotely fire at a target.

The modular advanced robotic system can either have an M240B machine gun mounted on it, a M203 grenade launcher or nonlethal weapons. While the capability to move, then fire a gun mounted on a robot remotely was proven a decade ago, the Warfighting Laboratory is still investigating a host of features including target evaluation, understanding the man-machine interaction on the battlefield and how they can collaborate with UAVs.

Hand in hand with that is the combat area robotic targeting (CART) payload that will be installed in either UAVs or ground robots. The shoebox-sized module will provide all-weather fire support for autonomous unmanned systems.

Another ground robot system being evaluated is the robotic vehicle modular, a light vehicle-sized robot transportable on the Marines’ rotary-wing aircraft that can serve a variety of missions including logistics, communications, weapons, casualty evacuation and the CART targeting system. The robot is needed as troops become spread out in an area of operations. They are expected to be self-sufficient, Armellino said.

“Separation” is the key word in this and many other programs the Marine Corps is investigating, he added. Smaller units may be cut off from support for long periods.

That is one reason why the lab is focusing on battlefield medicine in austere environments, he said.

The shock trauma section is a module small enough to travel with ground forces, but can provide emergency room level care. It comes in an all-inclusive medical container that fits inside an Osprey. It has its own shelter, generator, portable blood storage refrigerators and patient warming systems to stabilize those who have gone into shock.

For the laboratory, logistics, robotics and autonomy go hand in hand to support dispersed troops. It is looking at a variety of air, ground and sea-based systems that can deliver needed supplies without using humans.

The Marines want a significantly smaller logistics tail after forces have gone ashore with the bulk of supplies remaining on sea bases until needed.

“The new footprint will be characterized largely as a transportation/distribution system that delivers sea-based supplies to smaller and significantly dispersed units,” the Expeditionary Force-21 document stated.

The service pioneered such systems when it used unmanned helicopters to deliver supplies to forward operating bases in Afghanistan.

At sea, the autonomous logistics connector program is investigating a fully independent platform capable of carrying supplies from a sea base to the shore. It will essentially be a pilotless Landing Craft, Air Cushion boat that will lessen exposure to lethal attacks while supporting expeditionary forces.

In the air, the laboratory has a three-pronged program called tactical aerial delivery. It includes the aerial reconfigurable embedded system, ARES, first developed by DARPA. It is a ducted fan system that can fly like a plane, but land vertically and carry heavy loads, which may include casualties.

The logistics glider is released by a manned aircraft then autonomously guides itself to a landing zone. It can carry up to 200 pounds of supplies. Tying these two systems together is an Office of Naval Research-funded sensor suite, the autonomous aerial cargo utility system, that will automatically look for landing zones and fly the systems where needed without a Marine in the loop.

On the ground, along with the aforementioned robotic vehicle modular, which can carry supplies, the Marine Corps has been experimenting with the ground unmanned support surrogate autonomous internally transportable vehicle, for several years.

It is outfitted with a variety of sensors and lasers to help it navigate difficult urban terrain for distances of up to 300 miles with 1,700 pounds of cargo.

Topics: Logistics, Robotics, Science and Engineering Technology, Shipbuilding

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