MARINE CORPS NEWS
From Head to Toe, Marine Corps Hunting for New Gear
Photo: Marine Corps
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — The Marine Corps is embarking on a major effort to equip infantrymen with a slew of new technologies as the military faces great power competition with Russia and China.
“We are undergoing probably the largest modernization in the infantry squad in the last 25 years,” said Lt. Col. Tim Hough, program manager for infantry weapons at Marine Corps Systems Command’s ground combat element systems division.
Everything from optics to the weapons themselves are getting revamped, he said during a panel discussion at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Armament Systems Forum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
The overhaul will significantly change how the Marine Corps fights and maneuvers on the battlefield, as well as increase the lethality of infantrymen, he added.
For example, the service is currently seeking a new rocket motor, he said. It is decreasing the number of tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided anti-tank missiles in the infantry battalion from eight to four and increasing the number of Javelins from eight to 12, he said.
With “that increase in the number of Javelins we need reliable motors that are low cost,” Hough said.
Javelins would be particularly useful against near-peer competitors, he noted.
Another area of interest is a new suppressor for rifles. The Marine Corps is planning to release a request for proposals to industry soon, Hough added.
“The intent is to suppress every M4, M4A1 and M27 in the infantry community,” he said. “Our intent there is to move quickly and find the best possible suppressor we can that is good enough in order to move out in a quick enough fashion.”
The Marine Corps plans to award a contract for a suppressor by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020, he noted.
Another top priority for the infantry weapon program office is the dual-tube, white phosphorus squad binocular night-vision goggle. The service issued an RFP for the system and proposals were due in June. While Hough noted that an award was expected by mid-July, as of press time, an award had not been announced.
The service is also working on a new squad common optic that will be outfitted on the M27 to give Marines greater fidelity. The Marine Corps plans to field the optic to every infantry rifle platoon in order to give them an automatic capability, Hough said.
An RFP is planned for late first quarter or early second quarter of fiscal year 2020, and a contract award is slated for third quarter of fiscal year 2020, he said.
Hough noted that the Marine Corps is planning an industry day with the infantry weapon program office for late fourth quarter of this fiscal year or early first quarter of the next fiscal year.
John Knapp, program manager for infantry combat equipment, said the service is also looking for a slew of new gear that Marines can wear.
“Part of our business in PM infantry combat equipment is clothing Marines, making them look good, but also allowing them to operate safely and effectively” in any environment, he said. Knapp’s team covers everything from uniforms to body armor to load-bearing equipment.
“Like everyone, we want it cheaper, better, faster,” he said. “We [also] want something that’s scalable.”
The service doesn’t want to have different sets of clothing or armor for different missions, but rather modular pieces, he said.
According to legislation passed by Congress, the Marine Corps cannot design a new uniform, he said, so it aims to improve the existing one.
The current uniform is performing well, but the service wants to combine some capabilities, he said. For example, the Marine Corps’ fire-resistant organizational gear, or FROG suits, work well in vehicles but are not well suited for walking through woods because they can give off short-wave infrared signatures that the enemy can spot, he noted.
“[We] stand out a lot and that’s kind of bad when you’re trying to camouflage someone,” he said. “We’re looking at bringing all of those things together — a lightweight, durable uniform that has FR and SWIR” concealment, he said.
The service is also looking for a new lightweight tropical uniform that can be worn in hot and humid conditions, he said.
On the other side of the coin, the program office also wants new cold weather gear, Knapp said.
“If you look at where we’ve been for, say, the last 20 years, it’s kind of been hot and dry,” he said, referring to the Middle East. But the service is now preparing for potential operations in environments such as North Korea or parts of Europe that will have a very different climate, he noted.
A new intense cold weather boot would be required, he said.
“The seabag-issue boot works well down to 20 degrees” Fahrenheit, Knapp said. “The ‘Mickey Mouse’ boot — the big, rubber black one — works well, minus 20 or below. But ... [it] makes your foot kind of really hot and sweaty in between so that’s not so good.”
To fill that gap, the service is looking for a boot that can be worn in temperatures between minus 20 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. The Marine Corps recently conducted testing with new boots and found some that worked well. However, challenges still remain, he noted.
Because of suede material on the footwear, “once they get wet on the outside they stay wet, and that just transmits the cold to the Marine’s feet, so they don’t like it so much,” he said. “In the dry cold it works great, stays well insulated — so we’re looking for something that works a little bit better in those wet, slushy conditions.”
The service is also mulling over new general purpose boots, he said.
“We have some good boots, … but we’re always looking for better,” Knapp said.
Additionally, it is pondering a “grunt boot” that would be specifically crafted for Marines working in infantry operations, he said.
“What we keep running into is, we’ll find a boot that works well in one circumstance, but maybe not so in another or the durability sufferers,” he explained.
Knapp’s office is also looking at new protective equipment. Current helmets handle direct fire and fragmentation threats well, he noted. However, as the Marine Corps works to reduce traumatic brain injuries, it needs industry’s help to make sure it is reducing TBIs while keeping Marines safe from bullets.
“A lot of times when you get into ... traumatic brain injury [research], everyone has ideas” about what the right solution is, he told the crowd made up of members of industry. “I just don’t know that we really understand it well enough [yet]. … How does TBI protection degrade against direct fire or indirect fire? … That’s something we could really use some help on.”
Hough, of the program infantry weapons program office, emphasized the need for better dialogue between government and industry as they collaboratively approach the development of new equipment.
There has to be “engagement at the grassroots level, right where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “Engagement at the PM level and below is where I think you’re going to make the most traction for your efforts and what you’re trying to do.”
The government needs realistic timelines and estimates of what can be fielded, when it can be fielded and what’s in the realm of the possible, he said.
The Marine Corps is focused on getting the right capability faster, even if that means something isn’t perfect, he added.
“If I need a car to drive down [Interstate]-95 … I don’t need the Tesla when I can drive the Honda Odyssey,” he said. “That’s good enough and gets us what we need.”
Hough called for industry to invest more internal research-and-development dollars toward new technology, but also noted that the Marine Corps must do a better job of crafting forward-looking strategies so companies can make the right choices.
“We all recognize it’s hard for industry to invest their IRAD when you don’t know where we’re going,” he said. “You need some level of plan or strategic direction by the service so that you can make informed decisions ... because we understand there’s a fight for dollars within each company.”
Lt. Col. Brad Sams, program manager for fires, noted that the Marine Corps is embracing the use of other transaction authority agreements as it works to acquire technology faster.
Industry will need to “get used to them because they are coming out fast and furious here and very quickly,” he said. “We do several of them in PM fires to try and get at ... capability very quickly.”
OTAs offer the government increased flexibility and facilitate experimentation with new equipment, which is particularly useful as the service mulls over what gear it will need to support its future operating concepts, Sams said.
Many of the Marine Corp’s requirements are still undefined, he said.
Another benefit of OTAs is the fact that they are mutual agreements between the government and industry that can be started or terminated at will, Sams said.
“At any time, the government or industry can say, ‘Look, this isn’t ... working out for us, and probably not going to go the direction we’re looking for,’” he said. “But at the same time, it also provides us an opportunity to move quickly into production.”