The Marine Corps is planning to field new high-tech combat gear — a rifle-mounted laser range finder — that will give squad leaders some extraordinary new capabilities and revolutionize the way the Corps' small units operate in battle.
The laser range finders could for the first time allow infantry squad leaders to call in air strikes and artillery fire, a change that would vastly increase the lethality of small infantry units and push previously unheard of responsibility down to junior Marines at the squad level.
Specifically, the sophisticated laser range finder, which could cost nearly $10,000 each, would give squad leaders instant access to detailed information about distances and locations for targets that require heavy fires.
"A squad leader with accurate range data can quickly assign the appropriate force to eliminate threats," said Chief Warrant Officer Five Mark R. Salmons, a Marine gunner, or infantry weapons officer.
"This is a huge time savings that results in a higher probability of first round effects on target," Salmons told Military Times.
The increased capability and lethality these devices provide, Salmons said, "will allow for additional responsibilities such as requesting indirect fires and air-delivered ordnance."
Marine Corps Systems Command has not yet selected a specific model for the laser range finder. But officials aim to begin fielding the devices next year. With a roughly $16 million budget, Marine Corps Systems Command, known as MARCORSYSCOM, currently is doing market research, and plans to procure about 1,800 units.
The first shipment will be in the hands of Marine squad leaders by the summer of 2018, with a full roll out by 2021, according to a Marine spokesman.
With new laser range finders, ground-level Marines may play a more central role assisting artillery and close-air support.
One key consideration is limiting the weight of new combat gear.
"The Marine Corps desires a smaller and lighter range finder for use in the infantry squad as it will be mounted on the squad leader's weapon (the M4) and minimizing any addition to the individual combat load is always a prime consideration," said a representative at MARCORSYSCOM.
SAVING TIME — AND LIVES
Currently, the Marine Corps does not have a rifle-mounted laser range finder in their arsenal.
Today's Marines do have various laser designators and illuminators that help improve the accuracy of traditional small arms. For example, the AN/PEQ-15, fielded in 2009 helps accurately identify and shoot enemy targets at night by aiming with a laser beam that is visible through night vision goggles.
But the laser range finder would be different because it would provide key targeting data that Marines could use to accurately assess distance and direction to enemy forces, allowing for quick precision strikes from air or artillery assets.
Fielding new laser range finders could trigger big changes in how Marines train and fight as well as the rules of engagement for how enemy targets are identified and approved for air strikes or artillery fire missions.
These days, that process relies on a cadre of highly trained individual Marines who are uniquely authorized to call in air strikes, known as a joint terminal attack controller, or a JTAC.
But infantry platoons today rarely have more than one JTAC. And modern counterinsurgency operations often require dispersing platoons of 50-plus Marines into several smaller, squad-level combat patrols with fewer than a dozen Marines, meaning those smaller units are unlikely to have their own JTAC-qualified Marine to call in artillery or air power.
Without a JTAC, today's squad leader facing a potential target would be forced to radio the information to their unit's forward observer. This traditional process requires more time and effort to bring air strikes or artillery on enemy positions. It also increases the risk that enemy forces might flee the area before a bomb's impact.
Marine squad leaders calling in target information often use conventional tactics for estimating direction, grid location and distance; for example, comparing known distances or imagining football fields. The result is potentially imprecise fire support data that increases the risk of mishaps or civilian casualties.
All of those dynamics would change if the Corps equips squads with small range finders.
"When the first rounds begin to fall, it is quite regular for corrections to be needed … a good range finder could help make that series of corrective missions as few as one mission by accurately transmitting the near-exact distance from the impact of the round to the intended target," said Ethan Field, a former infantry Marine with combat experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Barren and flat landscapes like Iraq or Afghanistan have made range estimation exceedingly difficult and troops there would especially benefit from the precise target information provided by laser range finders, Field said.
In some cases, the new capability could help save lives, Field said. In high-stress combat environments, the task of guiding a helicopter to evacuate wounded comrades can be fraught with error, delaying the evacuation and putting aircraft at risk. A laser range finder can reduce that human error — translating into more rapid, effective operations, he said.
While a laser range finder would aid infantry squads in providing more accurate fires, direction and distance are not the only ingredients for air strikes or artillery missions, according to Adam Routh, a former Army Ranger and defense strategies expert at the Center for a New American Security.
Squad leaders would be required to attend formal schooling to hone skills related to targeting identification. The Corps could draw up new regulations for who can approve a strike and under what circumstances. For example, some troops might be permitted to request artillery strikes but not the 500-pound bombs from combat aircraft.
"These qualifications are typically stricter for close-air-support than they are for artillery, which means while a squad leader could probably send an artillery fire mission, it is unlikely (however, not improbable) to call for close-air-support, unless at the special operations level," Routh explained.
A more likely scenario would see a more effective and accurate use of an infantry unit's internal 60mm mortars, Routh added. "A squad leader could call for mortars from the platoon's internal 60mm mortar teams using the laser range finder," he said.
FINDING THE BEST DEVICE
MARCORSYSCOM is still in the early stages of user evaluation of three separate range finders, and is unable to identify the systems currently under consideration. However, two potential candidates may include the Steiner Intelligent Combat System and Wilcox Raptor-S.
The Steiner range finder is both a range finder and scoped optic built in one and boasts an impressive six-times power magnification scope, which makes it a potentially attractive alternative to the four-times magnification of the Trijicon optic fielded by Marines today. Because the laser range finder is built into the scope, it has the potential to replace the Trijicon, thereby eliminating any increased weight or additional gear and helping alleviate heavy kits already carried by infantry Marines.
The Wilcox Raptor-S is a small rifle-mounted laser range finder that also includes an infrared laser for nighttime target designation and a visible laser for daytime operations. The addition of the infrared laser could potentially allow the Marine Corps to replace the AN/PEQ-15. This would assist MARCORSYSCOM's goal of procuring a range finder that does not substantially add to the weight carried by Marines.
However, these systems are not cheap, the going rate for the Steiner scope is roughly $4,000 per unit, and the Wilcox Raptor-S comes in at a steep $8,600 apiece.
This is not the first time the Marine Corps has experimented with rifle-mounted laser range finders. The Marines have fielded over 700 AN/PSQ-23s in an effort to support accurate range determination and to increase the likelihood of hitting desired enemy targets on the first strike, without the need for corrections or adjusted fires.
However, the Marine Corps identified a major flaw with the AN/PSQ-23: its size and weight. Currently, the device is only mounted on heavy machine guns, specifically the M2 .50-caliber machine gun and MK19 automatic grenade launcher.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.