The Marine Corps wants to increase its rapid prototyping fund by nearly a factor of six in 2023 as it leans hard into development of new and customized unmanned aerial systems and devotes serious resources to human performance improvements and other high-tech capabilities.
The fiscal 2023 defense budget request calls for nearly $63 million for rapid prototyping ― up from $11.6 million in fiscal 2022 and just $5.5 million in 2021. Those funds would be spent by the Marine Corps rapid capabilities office, established by then-Commandant Gen. Robert Neller in 2016 to fast-track “emergent and disruptive technologies” to the fleet.
The lion’s share of requested 2023 funds will be allotted to three efforts: a “Family of Integrated Targeting Cells,” or FITC, project, with $20.5 million in funds; enhancement to the MQ-9 Reaper drone, with $14.5 million; and development of low-cost attritable aircraft, at $14.4 million.
“The Marine Corps affirms with a high degree of confidence that the programs in this line item are executable,” the service stated in budget documents.
All prototypes to be assessed, whether they’re a commercial off-the-shelf technology, a developmental item or something in between, and need to be at technology readiness level seven or higher, according to the documents. This means they’re at or near operational capability and ready for a demonstration in an operational environment.
And while details are relatively scarce, demos do appear to be on the calendar for 2023.
The funding for the Family of Integrated Targeting Cells will support the start of key test events, according to budget documents. This test effort appears to support the broader force with a focus on the Pacific.
The Senate version of the NDAA included a $245 million increase for Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, which includes creation of a Joint Force Headquarters at Indo-Pacific Command and “acceleration and integration” of these targeting cells.
The idea of integrating and streamlining targeting operations for the benefit of the joint force has been a talking point for decades, but the existential threat of China in the Pacific ― a particular focus for the Marine Corps as it prepares for future missions focused on the littorals and operations from small expeditionary bases in austere environments ― has brought with it a greater sense of urgency.
The Marine Corps’ investment in experimentation with attritable aircraft, essentially, cheap and plentiful drones that can be deployed in swarms or on riskier missions because their loss won’t break the bank, is a relatively new line of effort for the service.
Plans include the start of “development of partnering crewed assets with attritable, risk-worthy uncrewed assets that will employ weapons, sensors, and communications suites to execute mission sets in an operationally relevant environment,” budget documents state.
This description aligns with “loyal wingman” drone concepts such as those developed by Northrop Grumman and Boeing. Boeing, which has partnered with the Royal Australian Air Force on the effort, debuted an attritable unmanned aircraft that can partner with manned fighters ahead of the 2021 Dubai Air Show.
While the Air Force has defined “attritable” aircraft as costing between $2 million and $20 million, Marine Corps budget documents describe the prototypes it wants as “highly attritable,” indicating it is after an even cheaper and less exquisite platform.
In addition to giving warfighters greater situational awareness on the ground and in the air, the unmanned systems the Marine Corps wants to develop need to be “capable of operating in austere environments,” documents state.
This echoes the priorities of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, stated in his Force Design 2030 planning document.
In this vision for the force, he said the Marine Corps was overinvested in short-range, nonlethal flying drones, but fell short when it came to long-range unmanned systems that could carry lethal payload and operate both from ships and from shore.
He directed planners to focus on range and endurance when it came to unmanned platforms “given the expanse and non-contiguous nature of IndoPacific geography and the ever-expanding range of threat systems.”
In that 2020 document, he also said the force needed six active-component unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons, up from the current three. And after a long journey to acquire MQ-9 Reaper drones, the first Marine Corps UAVs that fit into the largest “group 5 UAS” category, the service is ready in 2023 to innovate and put these systems through their paces.
After several years of leasing Reapers from General Atomics ASI, the Corps took possession of two of its own MQ-9s in 2021.
In 2022, Berger announced the service would stand up a first Reaper squadron in Hawaii as part of its Pacific focus. In 2021 GA-ASI also debuted a short takeoff-and-landing, or STOL, version of the MQ-9 that can launch from ships, a modification that would allow the drone to better support Marine expeditionary units and provide cover and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as Marines move from ship to shore.
In May, the Navy published a presolicitation notice announcing its intent to procure hardware needed to integrate the SkyTower 1 Pod onto the Reaper.
This would give the drone Link-16 networking and communication capabilities, allowing for communication and coordination with ground forces. Marines would receive that capability later in 2022, InsideDefense reported, adding that additional electronic warfare capabilities are on the way as well as payloads that enhance the Reaper’s ability to conduct essential Marine Corps missions in the Pacific, such as airborne early warning and maritime surface search.
Earlier in 2022, Berger suggested the Corps’ need for organic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance would drive it to invest in even more large drone platforms. The service scrapped plans for a ship-based drone called MUX in 2020, but still sees a need for a capable and deadly eye in the sky that can operate wherever Marines do.
“So absolutely, we’re going to expand in Group 5, large-scale, big-wing, medium-altitude, long-endurance, uncrewed aircraft,” Berger said, according to a report from Seapower. “That’s so we can have, for the naval force, persistent organic ISR access from the MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] level on down to the squad level.”
The FITC, MQ-9 and attritable aircraft development efforts are all expected to be complete by the end of 2024, according to budget documents.