Marines equipped with sophisticated optics, ops-core helmets, tablets and sensors move swiftly from room to room, clearing buildings in a futuristic urban environment.
As autonomous and remote-controlled ground vehicles provide security and overwatch, it’s a redolent image of elite special operators amid a high-speed raid.
But in reality, its part of an exercise aboard Camp Pendleton, California, and these Marines are grunts with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.
The weeklong Urban ANTX-18 exercise at Camp Pendleton, California, will help Marine leaders narrow down what to field as the Corps continues its quest to retool its most basic block of combat power for a future fight.
Those choices will be “fully informed by the perspective of the Marine that will carry it in the fight,” Brig. Gen. Christian F. Wortman, the commanding general for the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said at the exercise on March 23. “The ultimate test is how it performs on the battlefield.”
Any new gear added to the grunts means more weight, but it also could also extend them beyond their original purpose: to close in on and destroy the enemy. It may also counter the commandant’s ultimate goal of lightening the infantry and the entire ground combat element.
“We are adding lots of gear, more weight, more equipment, more technology,” said Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh, the commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and deputy commandant, Combat Development and Integration. “We want this to get them to improve how they operate, move faster, keep tempo up.”
Marines themselves appeared to shift toward lightweight, practical pieces of equipment that added increased lethality, while shunning bulkier pieces that the grunts may still view as a foreign to traditional infantry employment.
Two hits were the new M-72 light assault weapon, or LAW anti-tank rocket, and L3 Technologies’ binocular night vision device currently fielded by Marine special operators.
The new LAW comes with a few extra pounds of increased weight compared to its older predecessor, but has the added benefit of no backblast and comes with more lethal dual fuze rounds.
Lance Cpl. Sam Elichalt, a squad leader with second platoon, described the new rocket as “game changer,” noting that Marines could now fire the anti-tank rockets from concealed positions without the fear of overpressurization.
The new night vision aided in better depth perception and clearer images, Marines argued.
“I can just pop into a room and see everything,” Elichalt said.
Also popular with Marines: Tech that supported better situational awareness and communication.
One of those devices is a small ruggedized Samsung tablet running a software program called Killswitch.
The tablet, “gives me the ability to identify the things I think are important on a map,” said Capt. Benjamin Brewster, the Kilo company commander. “It’s battle tracking we’ve never had before.”
Marines also tested a smaller GPS watch device with similar functions.
“Guys get separated pretty easily,” Sgt. Adam Shane said. The new watch allows a squad to pinpoint locations of friendly forces or highlight high value targets. “The battlefield gets pretty chaotic.”
But not all Marines were fond of the new tablets and GPS devices.
“I don’t like something I have to look down on,” Elichalt said. There’s also the increased risk that the new tech will fail on the battlefield, or become hacked, he explained. If Marines become dependent on the new tools, it could put them at risk, he said.
Key to the success of the Corps is the proper balance between tech and lethality, with the potential to inadvertently overburden Marine infantry with heavy and cumbersome equipment.
“I think the part that changes is when you bring in all this technology and experiments that we’ve been using, in some ways, it puts almost an increased burden on the squad because now they have more capabilities,” Walsh told lawmakers in late March.
Marine infantry has saddled the cost of extended American counterinsurgency conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East with more train and advise missions. The grunt’s duties have grown to include operations once the purview of elite commando forces.
With a possible battle on the horizon with a sophisticated adversary like Russia or China, the Corps needs to equip its Marines with new tech to aid them in a multidomain battle that includes information warfare and the increasing threat posed to ground forces from manned and unmanned aircraft.
The Corps has a lot of decisions to make as it retools a force once frozen in the quagmire of counterinsurgency conflict. And still sitting on the commandant’s desk is a plan to change the makeup of the rifle squad from 13 Marines to either 11,12 or 14. New equipment loadouts will fundamentally alter how the rifle squad operates in battle.
Any changes “are going to have long term effects,” Walsh said.
Counter drone tech had a big showing at the ANTX, but many of the systems were bulky or only practical for use on a larger forward operating base, not a tactical environment.
Some of these systems utilized radio direction finding, radar and electronic jamming to find and knock drones out the sky. It’s not tech to pack in a ruck and take to the field, but it could be beneficial on a small command outpost or forward base.
Nevertheless, the drone threat to U.S. troops overseas is very real and something the Corps isn’t taking lightly. Even ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria have managed to weaponize small commercial drones to drop small explosive devices like hand grenades.
While the munitions dropped from ISIS’ commercially acquired drones is rather small, a large swarm of them could do considerable damage to any American outpost.
“One of the things I see, a lot of this is we are taking a lot of capability, let’s try this, let’s try that, it hasn’t really been fused into a systems approach,” Walsh said at the ANTX.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.