Marine Cpl. John Watt works on an MQ-9 Reaper prior to a flight from Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The Corps is looking into adding more electronic warfare capability to unmanned systems. (Lawrence Crespo)
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Unmanned aircraft will play a bigger role in future electronic warfare operations, according to the Marine Corps' top EW officer, bringing alluring career prospects and the chance at timely promotions for those in the growing field.
To an extent, the U.S. military put its EW capabilities on the back burner after the Cold War. But a fresh need arose in Iraq and Afghanistan, where commanders sought a means to jam improvised explosive devices. Now, with rival superpowers China and Russia pouring money and man-hours into bolstering their EW capabilities, the Pentagon is working to keep pace.
Manned aircraft, specifically the Corps' EA-6B Prowler, will continue to provide EW capabilities, jamming enemy radars and communication systems while protecting those belonging to friendly forces. But the military's stock in unmanned systems is soaring, the heads of electronic warfare for each of the services said Jan. 31 during a taping of the Sunday news program "This Week in Defense News." Much of the Marine Corps' current EW efforts are centered on developing better capabilities for its unmanned aerial systems, or UASs, said Lt. Col. Jason C. Schuette, who runs the service's electronic warfare branch.
The RQ-7 Shadow already is capable of electronic countermeasures, and this spring the Corps will test an EW-capable MQ-9 Reaper during its Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., Schuette said. Although there are no immediate plans to purchase an EW-capable Reaper, the test is considered integral to the service's efforts to investigate future capabilities, he said.
The Corps needs more Group III unmanned aircraft, which compose the largest class, Schuette said. They conduct long-range missions, have the ability to stay on station for significant durations and can provide the electricity necessary to run powerful EW equipment.
As demand grows, Marines in UAS communities could see better career prospects, especially in newly created military occupational specialties — such as 7315 Mission Commander — that provide Marines who coordinate and pilot UAS missions with a dedicated career path. In years past, Marines who trained to operate UASs often returned to their primary MOS after a few years to remain competitive for promotion. That made it difficult to develop institutional knowledge within the community.
Junior Marines, in particular, could help fill future demand in these MOSs. Younger service members have demonstrated adeptness at such jobs because operating UASs bears similarities to playing modern video games, Schuette said.