Unmanned Systems

USMC looks to augment amphibious ops with unmanned systems

With amphibious operations growing increasingly dangerous in contested coastal areas, the U.S. Marine Corps is considering more equipment and tactics for automated and unmanned tasks.

“Automation can mitigate risk, reducing the exposure of humans to harm, and reduce the workload on personnel,” the Corps says in its “Marine Operating Concept,  (MOC), How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century,”  service’s recently completed manual on amphibious operations and needs.

“As machines advance from performing repetitive tasks to dynamic workloads, it will free people to focus on the things they do uniquely or best,” the MOC says. “The challenge, as machines become more capable and autonomous, is how to put people and things together in the most effective pairings for the mission at hand.”

The manual suggests that the USMC needs to “refine the concept of manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) to integrate robotic autonomous systems (RAS) with manned platforms and Marines; develop concepts of operation (CONOP)s that support and embrace RAS as a critical enabler.; and develop unmanned reconnaissance and surveillance systems to investigate littoral environments and complex terrain features (sewers; tunnels; subways; buildings; caves; etc.).”

The Marines are have already started to develop MUM-T for amphibious operations, especially with UAVs in a series of exercises and experiments that they will be continued through this year.

“Everybody realizes the best location to place an antenna or a sensor is at some distance in the air above, with offset from the target,” says Lt. Col. Noah "Spool" Spataro, the UAS Capabilities Integration/Requirements officer for the Fires and Maneuver Integration Division in the Capabilities Development Directorate (CDD) at Marine Corps Combat  Development Command..

Depending on the location, he says, an airborne sensor can increase the situational awareness tenfold.

The Marines were able to put that to the test during a recent exercise in the Sea Dragon series exercise when they used a Reaper to help direct and support surface operations. The UAV helped provide immediate and actionable information, notes Maj. James “Ralfy” Foley, the plans officer for the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory Ellis Group.

Capt. Edgardo "Mooch" Cardona, Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Electronic Warfare (EW) Capabilities Integration officer for CDD’s Information Warfare Integration Division, says the intelligence turned Marine ground units into predators instead of the prey. “No longer were we taking casualties to find the enemy.”

With the “networked node” over top, Cardona explains, Marines could communicate “not just over the hilltop and at greater distances in the objective area, but also back to the cockpit and all the way back to Camp Pendleton.”

The Marines plan additional robust UAV and MUM-T operations this coming summer in the Australia Northern Territory during the Talisman Saber exercise. During the last Talisman Saber, the USMC used a COTS UAV for the first time to capture the action for training purposes.

“A lot of COTS are great for very specific scenarios,” Spataro says. “Like Talisman Saber (2015) on the beach – that was a great application. But that system wouldn’t work very well at night. That system wouldn’t work very well if I had just strapped it on my pack and found my way ashore. It’s not going to survive in saltwater or the maritime environment.”

The maritime environment is where the Marines work – they need more than just sharp unmanned eyes in the skies, especially for the dull, dangerous and dirty work often associated with automated and unmanned systems.

“When you think about clearing the lanes, think about amphibious operations,” Spataro says. “To get Marines ashore, you have to eliminate obstacles. You have mines. You have a very unknown situation you’re going into. How do you sense that environment to find the threats? Maybe it’s not a Marine going ashore first. Maybe it’s a collaborative robotic and autonomous systems capability that goes ashore.”

Or, as Foley says, it could be an unmanned and Marine team.

“It could be underwater systems,” he says. “Underwater drones, launched from other platforms. It could be something underwater with more persistence, a larger system that has the persistence to be deployed and allows you to increase your tempo – at the actual point of attack. We’re still going through different technologies for that.”

The Marines are considering even more autonomous technology to meet their logistical needs for coastal operations, hoping to avoid creating “iron mountains” of supplies that can hinder some ashore operations.

Whether the Marines use unmanned equipment below, above or on the water, all of those systems require something that comes at a premium on contested coastal areas – resilient, reliable communications and the bandwidth to support them.

“The high bandwidth requirements of dense networks place real restrictions on the scale of the information flow,” the MOC says. “We have to be prepared to operate with a ruthless prioritization of information sharing between the various command echelons …  no matter how much connectivity we achieve in peacetime, ‘information ubiquity’ is likely to be the first casualty in the next war.”

It is a casualty Marines must learn to mitigate to sense the battlespace and provide information for effective fires.

“In order to have usable information, to make whatever you sense actionable, you’ve got to have communications,” Spataro says. “You’ve got to have C2 to share – otherwise the information exists only in the vacuum it was created in. But, even today, to have plug-and-play high data bandwidth and data rates – to have those high bandwidth comms – that’s a hard problem to solve.”

The Navy is working to develop shipboard equipment for new amphibious operational needs, he says. “They are looking at ways to enhance comms when Marines are aboard.”

What the Marines need, he says, is for each sensor to become a node within meshed network technology, which would make the network more resilient. “It will change the way we operate.”

Right now, the Marines are seeking ways to change how unmanned systems operate. The Corps needs greater “onboard” processing and fusion, which will help alleviate some of the bandwidth worries.

“As we increase our use of autonomous units in these environments, the amount of data flow is going to increase,” Capt. Cardona says.

“We need these systems to not only give us data, but to collaborate among themselves and take the raw data and put into useful information for us to act upon.”

Marines, he says, need onboard processing that can take sensed information, put into formats other unmanned sensors can understand and share across a network. “That all can be tracked to other sensors that can be cross-cued to the same target,” he says. 

With onboard processing, he notes, “You can limit the amount of the information you have to push. You can manage the network much more effectively, for you are pushing valuable, actionable information.”

About the Author

Mike Fabey is a freelance writer for Defense Systems.

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