Marines and soldiers will have to fight terrorist organizations in the near future who have used virtual reality to practice attacks, have low-cost sensors to monitor the battlefield and possess the ability to create and modify weapons with 3-D printing from distant locations, disseminating those innovations anywhere instantly.

Those were a few of the capabilities of “non-state actors” that Dr. David Knoll of the Center for Naval Analyses told audience members at the annual Modern Day Marine military expo Wednesday in Quantico, Virginia.

Knoll was joined by Dave Ochmanek of the think tanks Rand and Phil Chudoba, assistant director of intelligence for Headquarters Marine Corps, for a panel discussion on potential challenges of the future operating environment.

Knoll, an expert on terror organizations and militias, said that while U.S. forces maintain many advantages over lower-level operators, non-state actors have been using commercial, off-the-shelf technologies — drones and 3-D printing — to contest battlefield superiority or even create advantages.

“ISIS is the latest and perhaps the greatest adopter,” Knoll said. “I argue in the future this trend will only continue and become more formidable.”

Knoll looks at current adversarial developments along with new, emerging technologies to try and project how they might be used by insurgents in the future.

One area not getting as much attention as it should is 3-D printing, according to the panel.

Currently, operators often set up shop and manufacture weapons in a battlespace or attempt to transport arms and munitions across U.S. and ally areas of operation.

But with 3-D printing moving from plastics to metal and ceramics, as well as emerging electronic capabilities to print circuit boards directly onto devices, the learning curve flattens, Knoll said.

And with online capabilities, adversaries can test and prototype their weapons or parts far from the battlefield, then simply transmit the plans or the software to their compatriots. New, effective weapons can then be assembled on the spot.

Drones and improved optics allow non-state actors to gather intelligence on U.S. forces and allies more efficiently than ever before.

Plentiful, cheap sensors with more powerful processors will give enemy commanders the ability to monitor their own battle space and quickly identify U.S. forces to better target them, especially in urban areas, the expected terrain of future battles.

Innovative weapons, sensors and intelligence can combine with deadly effect when adversaries can plan, coordinate and practice attacks online using virtual reality and modeling. These elements mirror current efforts and improved war gaming among Marines and Army leaders.

“Beginner and intermediate fighters or groups as a whole can experiment in this environment,” Knoll said. “They can plan and rehearse the mission.”

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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