Improved Sensors, Loitering Munitions on Marine Corps Wishlist

By Mikayla Easley
A Marine prepares to launch a Stalker XE25 surveillance drone.

Marine Corps photo

More than two years into Commandant Gen. David Berger’s controversial transformation of the Marine Corps into an expeditionary force ready for great power competition, the service is shifting focus to improving its reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance abilities.

In May, the Marine Corps released its annual update of Force Design 2030 — Berger’s decade-long blueprint for how the force will modernize and prepare itself for potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific. First unveiled by Berger in 2020, the original strategy sketched out an aggressive plan to divest the Marine Corps’ legacy platforms while investing in new systems.

While the first iteration of the strategy placed a strong emphasis on increasing the lethality of small, distributed Marine units, this year’s update outlines a bigger interest in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

“Here’s what we’re learning: small, distributed, lethal teams that can employ organic ISR, loitering munitions and weapons like a Javelin … are much more lethal than larger formations that are using traditional force structures and concepts. And it’s not even close,” Berger said in May during the Modern Day Marine Exposition in Washington, D.C.

The updated document noted that today’s security environment “is characterized by proliferation of sophisticated sensors and precision weapons coupled with growing strategic competition.” Furthermore, it added that adversaries regularly use systems and tactics against U.S. forces that keep them just out of reach from the enemy.

The wargaming and experiments the service are conducting as part of Force Design 2030’s learning campaign have extended the Marine’s operating range, Berger said.

Observations of the war in Ukraine have reinforced those findings, he added. “The ability to manage your own electronic signature, locate a threat, detect and exploit their communications, jam their transmissions, interfere with their command and control — these have always been important in war, but today I would offer they can be decisive,” Berger said.

One major investment will be deploying more sensors within infantry battalions, the document said.

Marine littoral regiments will have to navigate contested maritime environments by hopping from island to island on amphibious warships.

The regiments “will possess an organic capability to sense the maritime battlespace in order to gain and maintain custody of targets as a reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance task and to assure their ability to deliver maritime fires, even when the larger sensor network is degraded or compromised,” it stated.

The service plans to invest in sensor payloads for its upcoming fleet of unmanned platforms, passive ground-based sensors and its Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar, or G/ATOR, the document said.

Col. David Walsh, Marine Corps acting program executive officer for land systems, said there are still some challenges to deploying such sensors.

“It’s got to be light. It’s got to be transportable. It’s got to be … easy to maintain with a small logistics footprint and cybersecure,” he said during the conference.

One weapon Ukrainian forces have used to great effect, Berger noted, are loitering munitions — an aerial weapon system that can have munitions wait passively around a target for an extended period of time before detonating.

“It’s incredibly frustrating to know that there’s a loitering munition above your head. There’s a psychological impact,” Berger said. “You don’t know whether it has a camera system or a lethal warhead on it. It has an impact on the atmosphere.”

The document notes that when paired with advanced sensing capabilities, these types of weapons improve the close-combat lethality of small units. “If those small units also possess an organic long-range precision fires capability … then this shortens the kill chain dramatically and enables that unit to out-cycle the enemy,” the document read.

Today, the Marines use mortars that have shorter ranges and less precision than loitering munitions. Berger emphasized that adding loitering munitions technology will provide greater flexibility in how Marines can engage with moving or concealed targets, as well as create the unnerving environment for the enemy.

The Marine Corps is currently investing in loitering munitions, said Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson, the commanding general at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. The near-term focus is vehicle mounted weapons, and in the future the Corps will target smaller ones that can be carried by a Marine on foot.

At the same time, the service is working on electronic warfare systems to prevent adversaries from locating or jamming munitions, he added.

“Now we’ve got to try to sense the enemy’s capability to jam, we’ve got to geolocate those jammers, and then we’ve got to build in a targeting solution on those jammers — either a permanent one or a temporal one that allows us to employ our capabilities,” he said during the conference.

The Marine Corps also wants to shore up its ability to conduct recon missions using unmanned vehicles based in the sea, on land and in the sky. The service’s biggest investment in uncrewed platforms is currently directed toward aerial systems, said Maj. Gen. Eric Austin, director of the capabilities development directorate at Marine Corps headquarters.

Some of the systems the Corps is working toward are shipboard solutions for Marine expeditionary units, small UAS for both the infantry and light armored reconnaissance battalions and large unmanned expeditionary systems for medium altitude and long endurance, he said.

The Force Design 2030 annual update indicated that the service’s next set of robotics will focus on logistics, manned/unmanned teaming capabilities and higher-end tactical systems.

Watson said while it may seem like drones are replacing the manned systems, the main goal of fielding more unmanned platforms is to boost the survivability and effectiveness of others by “either increasing capacity or automating the capabilities of manned platforms.”

As it bolsters its reconnaissance capabilities, the Marine Corps also must invest in more platforms that prevent adversaries with advanced ISR technologies from tracking and targeting them, Watson said.

“If you can be sensed — not just seen, but sensed — then you can be targeted. If you can be targeted, then you can be killed,” he said.

“Anything that we can do to increase our ability to hide against an adversary’s sensors, or if sensed, decrease the adversary’s probability of putting a warhead on one of our units or systems, then those things are all things that are exceptionally interesting to us.”

Meanwhile, the annual update also doubled down on the Marine Corps’ commitment to amphibious warships. The vessels provide more flexibility for the service and give them capabilities that cannot be replicated by any other service in the joint force, Berger said.

“No platform, no unit is capable of a more diverse set of missions across a range of military operations,” he said. “If you think about a Marine infantry battalion and put them onboard a ship after completing all of their training, that’s just a tremendous capability.”

The service wants 35 light amphibious warships, or LAWs. The vessels will have a length of 200 to 400 feet, a maximum draft of 12 feet, a displacement of up to 4,000 tons and a transit speed of at least 14 knots, according to the Congressional Research Service report, “Navy Light

Amphibious Warship Program: Background and Issues for Congress.”

The platform will offer the military increased flexibility and allow it to be more distributed and deployed with smaller sized Marine Corps units, Berger said.

Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration, touted the LAW’s ability to carry Marine littoral regiments from deep waters to island beaches.

“It is a shore-to-shore connector. It does not require a pier and it does not require [another] ship, it goes from shore to shore,” he said. “This is vital, particularly in a maritime dominant operating environment such as the Indo-Pacific.”

Despite it being a top priority for modernization efforts, budget constraints have threatened the Marine Corps’ ability to acquire all 35 light amphibious warships. The service is asking for $12.2 million in research-and-development funding for the program with hopes that the first vessel could be procured by fiscal year 2025, according to the Navy’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2023.

Because it is smaller, the Marine Corps’ LAW would be much less expensive to individually procure. If the service is able to procure four vessels between 2025 and 2027, each vessel would be an average cost of $145 million each, according to the CRS report.

However, experts are concerned with the ship’s survivability in the environment the Corps wants them deployed in, which could add to production and maintenance costs down the road.

In the meantime, the Marine Corps has contracted a commercial stern landing vessel that will deploy with the new 3rd Marine littoral regiment in Hawaii for “aggressive experimentation,” Heckl said. The ship is scheduled for delivery in late summer or early fall, he added.

“We’re taking the opportunity to do some experimentation and refine the prototyping so that we get what we need,” Heckle said.

The service is also looking to procure 31 larger amphibious ships — 10 large decks that resemble a small aircraft carrier for fixed-wing vertical-takeoff jets and 21 smaller transport dock landing ships for surface connectors and helicopters.

The Force Design 2030 annual update noted that such vessels could be used in a number of different missions.

“The flexibility of L-Class amphibious ships is also reflected in the need for these platforms to help counter so-called maritime ‘gray zone’ activities and their growing ability to launch uncrewed air, surface and subsurface vessels,” the document read.

Berger highlighted how amphibious ships can be paired with uncrewed vessels as autonomous technology matures and production costs decrease. Marines could deploy robotic vessels from an amphibious ship’s well deck for a number of different missions, from ISR operations to fires, he said.

“Think for a minute: Marines on board amphibious ships. That team — that Navy-Marine Corps team — employing unmanned underwater vessels from the [amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit], dozens of unmanned undersea vessels,” he said.

The force is on the cusp of releasing a study on amphibious warship requirements that includes findings on how many vessels it truly needs to inform future budgets, Berger said.

Topics: Marine Corps News

Comments (1)

Re: Improved Sensors, Loitering Munitions on Marine Corps Wishlist

Love the way our Grunts are reorganizing for the big show against China. Heavy hitting, light enough to be nimble and fast, using our tech advantages to see, hear & hide…. The only people who should have any say in this reorganization are the very people we asking to fight.
Well done boys!

Silicon Sally at 9:44 AM
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