Marines Inserting New Technology into Forces

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Marines participate in a Sea Dragon 2025 exercise.

Photo: Marine Corps

The Marine Corps is looking at ways to insert new technology into its forces earlier in order to prepare for future battles.

Key to this effort is experimentation, said Lt. Col. Dan Schmitt, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory field testing branch.

Last year, the service introduced a new operating concept called, “How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century.” The document — which focused on how Marines will fight in 2025 — put an emphasis on the need for the service to return to its seafaring roots, conduct maneuver warfare and fight as a combined arms force.

Since the concept’s inception the service has embarked on a number of exercises and experiments, Schmitt noted during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Annapolis, Maryland.

“We have a campaign of Marine Corps Force 2025 and within that campaign we have a Sea Dragon 2025 experimental process,” he said. The goal is “to get our force postured for 2025, to be agile, lethal, naval and expeditionary, and we found that as we go through the experiment process, we’re building closer and closer relationships with the [research-and-development] enterprises.”

Testing new technologies with Marines in live experiments allows the service to realistically see if a particular system is fit for the battlefield, he noted.

“We understand that warfare is inherently, despite all of the technologies, … a human endeavor,” Schmitt said. “We want to recreate the uncertainty and fear and the danger associated with that so that we can get the best picture.”

The first phase of the experiment concluded in the fall of 2017, he noted. The service took an infantry battalion and established it as an experimental force.

“[We] put them in the construct of a sea-based [Marine Air Ground Task Force] and we reorganized them, changed some of their training, their culturing, their equipment, and over 18 months we conducted a series of operations and experiments before operationally deploying them in this configuration to the Pacific,” he said.

Much thought went into creating an adaptive enemy red team that reflected not what today’s threats look like, but what tomorrow’s would resemble based on how fast U.S. adversaries are adopting new technologies, Schmitt noted.

“Our experiment force could lose and could lose repeatedly during our experiments and we could learn from those losses,” he said.

The service looked at the size of squads, contemplated how to incorporate manned-unmanned teaming and examined mobility issues, he said.

History shows that mobility often is key to determining whether a unit will accomplish their mission or not, he said. Forces with the greater tactical and operational capability have an advantage, he noted.

The service must also prepare for increased conflict in urban areas, Schmitt said.
It is projected that there will be a steep rise in coastal populations, with millions of citizens clustering themselves into megacities filled with subterranean tunnels and skyscrapers.

“Why do we fight in cities? Because that’s where the people are and that’s where the security threats happen,” he said.

Cities are expected to be a chaotic and uncertain environment, he added.

One of the biggest takeaways from the experiment was that the individual Marine is a “tremendous innovation engine,” Schmitt said.

“The creativity of our Marines and small teams gives us a significant advantage,” he said.
“The Marine that grows up in a democratic culture with access to the education we have, when compared to the rest of the world … is a factory for good ideas.”

When exposed to new tools developed by industry and other research-and-development partners, Marines often find unique ways to employ the technology in a way that has a strategic effect, he noted.

Other efforts the service embarked on recently include its first advanced naval technical exercise experiment, where it asked industry to develop new ways to move Marines from the ship to the shore in contested environments.

How these innovations would be implemented was open for debate, he said. “We won’t necessarily do it the way we did it in the past. We’ll take your ideas and try them out.”

Testing occurred last May at Camp Pendleton, California, he noted. The service built what Schmitt called a “playground,” where industry had access to sailors and Marines from the amphibious force.

“What we ended up having was a playground with young Marines, young officers and a lot of industry engineers and scientists … solving the problem,” he said.

The Marine Corps benefits from bringing warfighters and industry together, he said.
“There’s something special when the engineer and the young Marine put their peanut butter and chocolate together and come out with a better product right on the spot,” Schmitt said.

Promising technologies demonstrated at the event were used at the Bold Alligator 2017 exercise that took place in the fall at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, he noted. The event focused on amphibious operations and included the Navy.

Lt. Gen. Robert Hedelund, commanding general of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, noted that some forces originally assigned to attend Bold Alligator had to be diverted to tend to storm-stricken regions after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria battered parts of the continental United States and its territories.

“We’ve had to de-scope Bold Alligator significantly in order to support the … operations, but the part that we did not sacrifice was the experimentation and some of the concept work that is being done with the help of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, better known as DIUx, is pushing forward new technology that will give the service added capability, said Col. Marshall Swor, Marine Corps lead at the organization.

DIUx focuses on several technology areas including autonomy, space, artificial intelligence and machine learning, information technology and human systems. It is based in the heart of Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California. It also has satellite offices in Boston, Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.

The unit — which is the brainchild of former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter — is meant to cut through the Pentagon’s bureaucratic red tape and make it easier for firms in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs to do business with the Defense Department. Officials hope the outfit will speed the acquisition of cutting-edge warfighting tools.

DIUx has been working on a number of technologies that can be used by the service, Swor said.

“We’re really quite satisfied with what’s going on there for the Marine Corps,” he said. The service pushes for “projects that tend to be more practical, more physical,” he added.

One promising program is known as the electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, or EVOTL, he said during remarks at the conference.

Sometime late in 2018, the platform will be able to travel 200 nautical miles at 200 knots and carry four passengers or 800 pounds of payload, Swor said. The system uses six rotors to fly. It takes off vertically and is able to immediately transition to forward flight, he explained.

“That is not someone’s imagination. The aircraft is flying right now,” he said.
DIUx — which has invested $2 million into the project — plans to put users inside the aircraft by early 2019. The system could contribute to a variety of missions including medical evacuation and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

EVOTL will also allow the Marine Corps to take a Marine company landing team and break them into smaller, four-man teams and put them ashore in separate aircraft, he noted.

“That enhances your mobility, it lets you surprise the enemy … and it really de-risks the force because instead of six aircraft you can now have 35 aircraft,” which makes the invading troops harder to target, he said.

The organization is also working on giving the system autonomous capabilities. “Initially it will be piloted, [but] we’re paying to get the autonomy [developed] … and we think we’ll have a fairly good autonomy solution in about two-and-a-half years,” Swor said.

Another emerging technology is a bone-conducting microphone built by Sonitus Technologies that can be attached to a user’s molar, he said.

“You get this microphone molded for your tooth, you clip it on and … you hear and can be heard through this microphone,” he said. “Imagine a crew chief on the back of a C-130 with the ramp down, ready to push out cargo, but the pilot has a hard time hearing [over the noise]. ... That problem goes away with Sonitus.”

For now, the company is “living on the DIUx dime” because it doesn’t have commercial customers, Swor said. “They will eventually, but this is a great example of someone who is reliant on us.”


Topics: Marine Corps News, Emerging Technologies

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