MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Marines are facing new threats on the battlefield in the form of The battlefield is now shaped — if not defined, by small unmanned aerial vehicles, and the Marine Corps is working on ways to not only combat the them, but remain on the offense.

The declining cost of ir falling cost puts airpower is putting new weapons in the hands of insurgents. — once the purview of wealthy nation states — within reach of under-funded insurgents Marines could be called on to fight.It's Experts say it's a frightening prospect with groups like Hezbollah recently launching their first UAV-borne attacks against al-Qaida-backed al-Nusra fighters in Syria.

The development only serves to highlight the importance of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab's UAV work. Capt. Adam Thomas, the project officer for the Warfighting Lab's Aviation Combat Element Branch, said the threat once considered futuristic could pose a danger to Marines today.

"We have seen our own people in the U.S. make mistakes and run them into the White House," Thomas said. "There were videos released just last week of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq operating armed unmanned ground vehicles. It is not very hard to come up with these things."

He stressed that while much of the focus is on aerial vehicles, they also account for unmanned vehicles that could pose a threat on the ground or on water.

Offensive operations like those recently carried out by Hezbollah are just one facet of the UAV threat, according to officials at MCWL. The lab is also investigating an array of capabilities that include futuristic UAV swarms; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; counter-ISR; and medical resupply.

The elevated profile of UAVs across the Defense Department was in large part sparked by their proven utility in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Thomas and Maj. L. K. Phillips, the head of MCWL's ACE Branch.

Now Thomas, a Cobra pilot who is a qualified forward air controller and has deployed with infantry Marines, and Phillips, an aviation command and control officer who deployed with UAV squadrons, both say UAVs went from something few understood to something all commanders wanted.

Leaders They grew accustomed to the advantage of persistent surveillance and strike capabilities during operations and want that capability even as the Marine Corps returns to its expeditionary roots.

That is a challenge the lab seeks to meet under the framework of the Expeditionary Force 21 concept of operations, which . EF-21 emphasizes dispersed, small-unit operations, making it difficult to offer the same resources on demand to units spread across large areas. MCWL is developing and testing new systems that could someday provide small enough to push as far forward as individual infantry companies with more security, intelligence and attack options.

Marine Corps Times We sat down Thomas and Phillips at their office here to learn more about the new projects. the two at their office aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico for details on a few of their flagship projects.

Counter-UAV systems

One priority MCWL is working to provide are more effective defenses against enemy UAVs beyond an infantry unit's standard small arms arsenal.

Efforts are primarily aimed at so-called group 1 through 3 UAVS, which current anti-aircraft systems cannot effectively detect, track or attack because of their small size. A group 1 UAV, for example, would weigh between zero and 20 pounds, and fly at less than 100 feet. Group 3 is a bit larger, but still small and includes the RQ-7 Shadow, which has a wing span of about not-quite 13 feet.

While a Predator drone, nearly 50-feet across, can be tracked and attacked in the same way as a manned aircraft can, a 5-pound UAV at 100 feet might not even show up as a blip on the radar. But its potential for harm is significant.

They can provide enemy forces with real-time intelligence on Marine movements. Worse yet, they can deliver or worse delivers an explosive like the Marine Corps' own Switchblade UAV, which can place a charge equivalent to a 40mm grenade through a small window with devastating effect.

In order to save time, money and reduce the need for additional training, MCWL is considering at least one existing system — the AN/TPQ-49 Light Weight Counter Mortar Radar. Because mortars are small and fast, Phillips said he believes it could also track UAVs and even show their launch location, enabling a strike against the drone or its operators.

This fall, the lab will experiment with technologies that also include a 2-pound nose-mounted radar on a Stalker UAV, which has a 10-foot wingspan.

Once they can track UAVs, the next effort is to counter them.

During Black Dart, an annual exercise in California during which where the Defense Department investigates ways to counter drones, Phillips said a shooter struck a UAV multiple times with a tripod mounted medium machine gun and failed to even knock it off course.

MCWL could highlight technologies that would allow Marines to zap an armed drone out of the sky with a laser, something the Office of Naval Research ONR has already proven aboard Navy ships and may put on future Joint Light Tactical Vehicles.

Or a counter-UAV kamikaze could be kept on station to crash into and detonate near threats.

"You hear that the next IEDs are flying IEDs of the future," Thomas said. "At the same time you can use that to counter them."

And iIf the threat is merely a surveillance platform, Marines may only need to destroy its sensor, disorient it, or commandeer the vehicle, Phillips said. Tests at the University of Texas in 2012 demonstrated the ability to spoof and take over an unencrypted drone.

When taking into account developments in swarm technology, which means the where UAV threats could come from dozens or more at the same time, electronic warfare may be the answer.

"That's where the leap ahead will be and where focus will give the largest payback," Thomas said.

Whatever the solution is, it must meet the needs of an EF-21 operating environment and deploy from a Marine's pack, or on an Internally Transportable Vehicle, which fits in the belly of an MV-22 Osprey.

Vertical takeoff and landing

MCWL is testing of a vertical takeoff and landing UAV that could prove highlights the advantages of a group 1 VTOL UAV, particularly useful in an urban environment where buildings, antennas and power lines make it difficult to launch, fly and recover fixed-wing drones.

The programs capstone event in February yielded positive results, Phillips said. Those were handed to the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, which will draft requirements leading to procurement if the need is validated.

Vertical takeoff and landing TOL UAVs would give Marines the ability to launch even from an alleyway while keeping eyes on a target through a window or even enter structures.

Shrike VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) UAV.
Shrike VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) UAV.

The Marine Corps is developing unmanned aerial vehicles with vertical take-off and landing capabilities. The technology would allow Marines to deploy UAVs from urban environments more easily.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Aerovironment

Their ability to accurately navigate and land precisely also makes them an appealing solution for medical resupply, as well. The Warfighting Lab at is why VTOL is considering unmanned VTOL UAVs being considered as part of another of MCWL's lines of investigation to deliver bring advancedmedical supplies like blood care forwardto in austere environments where Marines are forward deployed. to include blood resupply by UAV.

The utility of VTOL UAVs is something already recognized by special operations units. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command has already deployed them, according to Thomas, but there is no Corps-wide program of record.

Rotary wing UAVs do not come without their disadvantages, however. They are not as well suited to tracking a target in a vehicle, for example. Class 1 VTOL UAVs simply can't keep up with a car traveling 35 miles per hour in the way that a Raven can.

Unmanned Systems Swarm

The most futuristic, but perhaps most important, UAV project MCWL is working on is the Unmanned Systems Swarm.

Developers have worked to created drone swarms through a consortium of Defense Department agencies, including Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, ONR and a number of top universities like including the Naval Post Graduate School.

Inspired by creatures in the animal kingdom, they are are able to work with precise coordination or disaggregate as needed to pursue separate tasks.

Thomas and Phillips said they envision any number of possible uses for drone swarms. When used for a kinetic attack, a swarm would be harder to repel than a single missile or bomb, Thomas said.

"We are looking to flip the cost-to-kill ratio," he said. "Why use a $1 million missile on one target? Instead use many cheap systems."

Swarms could also be used as a Civil War-style picket line, he said. Marines could place dozens of them at fixed intervals to serve as an early detection warning of a closing enemy. Their feeds could also be strung together to give a commander an accurate real-time picture of his entire battle space. Or they could be outfitted with electronic warfare nodes to jam enemy communications in entire areas.

Not to be discounted is the psychological effect of a swarm as ground troops see them closing, or a radar operator sees dozens and dozens of incoming blips.

To put things in perspective, Phillips said if we are working on the capability "they" are working on it. Our adversaries are certainly pursuing the same lines of investigation, so there is also the need to counter swarms, something likely best handles through EW.

To date, nearly all swarm testing has been performed in an indoor lab environment, so MCWL would like to see how they perform in the them in the sort of field environment they would be called upon to operate in. In fiscal year 2016, Y16 the lab will run modeling and simulation efforts in a virtual environment to pave the way for follow-on field testing, although NPS is running their own using consumer UAVs, Phillips said.