TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — The future Marine Corps fighting force is taking shape in the desert this summer with the start of an 18-month experiment that could transform the basic infantry unit into a deadlier revolutionized team.
The Marine Corps must be prepared to counter and defeat a range of adversaries in high-tech environments, leaders say. And the company landing team, which has long been considered the backbone of the infantry, could get a major makeover.
Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, was tapped by Commandant Gen. Robert Neller earlier this year to help the Corps figure out what these teams need to be successful. The grunts were recently sent out to the desert in varying-sized teams, equipped with new high-tech gear like drones, robotic vehicles — some with weaponry — and self-supporting energy systems.
The goal is to make this updated force, which was coined the expeditionary landing team, more self-sufficient and combat ready.
Neller dropped in on the company at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms to get a close look at the gear the Marines tested. The 18-month experiment will rely heavily on user feedback from the Marines and sailors involved, who formed a company landing team during an integrated exercise here.
“One of the best parts of this is [that] we're giving them some tools and seeing what they come up with — and hopefully we'll be smart enough to listen to what they tell us,” Neller told Marine Corps Times.
Results from the experiment will also be used in the development of a new war-fighting doctrine called Sea Dragon 2025, a road map for future operations that Neller announced in an Aug. 2 servicewide message.
“Future threats will evolve in ways that the current force is not postured to address,” the commandant wrote. “Our potential and current adversaries continually innovate and develop new capabilities, many of which now equal or exceed our own. This unstable and increasingly dangerous global situation is further complicated by a constrained resource environment.”
Here's a look at what Kilo Company has been up to and how the Marines' findings could change the way Marines deploy.
Experimentation in the desert
When Kilo Company arrived here last month, they were flown into a mock urban environment via helicopters and MV-22B Ospreys. Their mission was to assist after a United Nations helo went down in a foreign town that had the potential to turn hostile. The Marines could face conventional military threats as well as irregular warfare and possible cyber attacks during the exercise.
Kilo Company set up patrol bases and began assessing the situation. Capt. Joe Patterson, Kilo’s company commander, had reason to believe his Marines faced a credible risk of being ambushed, so he opted against traditional patrols that could leave them vulnerable to threats like roadside bombs.
Further complicating the mission was the need for Patterson and his Marines to find reliable sources of power and water. There were no options for quick resupplies from their ship, which housed their headquarters element, or large-scale logistics support. The company was in their desert on their own.
What made this exercise unlike any others, though, was the gear the Marines were given to help sustain themselves — and that was a game changer, said 1st Lt. Casey Kociuba, Kilo Company's executive officer.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory equipped the Marines with items like the Small-Unit Water Purification System and the Joint Infantry Combat Prototype, which can harvest a Marine's energy to charge up equipment, in order to make them far more self-sufficient. They also had self-driving vehicles that could help carry their equipment, special medical gear, and the drones they used to collect intel and drop bombs.
It was a big difference from a seven-day exercise Kilo Company participated in last year when they had to rely on aircraft to deliver water to a nearby landing zone. Kociuba said the Marines spent hours trekking to that spot to bring the water back to their base. It not only left them feeling hot, tired and thirsty, but also pulled them away from their combat mission.
"Having those vehicles ... and technologies has allowed us to fight,” Kociuba said.
Sending Marines into the desert midsummer to test those concepts didn't come without risk. While they didn't suffer heat casualties, Patterson said the experiment did lead to more casualties than he expected. If it was a real mission, “we would have been stressed at the casualty level,” he said.
Grunts already carry a lot, and adding things like water purifiers, energy harvesters and drones was going to prove problematic, said Capt. Mike Malandra, ground combat element branch head with the Warfighting Lab's science and technology division.
“They are probably overburdened, but we're trying to gather a lot of data in a limited amount of time,” he said.
The Kilo Marines embraced the new tech, though, which 2nd Lt. Eric Cybulski, first platoon commander, said helped his Marines to be more decisive in battle without requiring much from the company or battalion. While they were pretty overwhelmed at first, they quickly learned how to use the drones, unmanned vehicles and heavier weaponry to their advantage.
They loaded up the vehicles with some of the gear. Kociuba liked the Multi-Utility Tactical Transport and small trailer in particular in order to carry heavy items. The Marines could also attach a .50-cal weapon, which gave the company extra standoff power they usually lack.
“The ability to not put a Marine in harm's way, you can't put a number on that,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Julian Alford, the Warfighting Lab’s commander, said the Corps just bought 144 of the diesel utility tactical vehicles, which he said are great for “the light infantry moving around.” The High-Efficiency Internally Transportable Trailer was also a hit. That vehicle includes a “green” energy hub to power and recharge batteries.
The Marines got similar benefits from a power-generating exoskeleton called the Joint Infantry Combat Prototype. The Army-designed product has a frame that slides up and down as a Marine walks or runs, which captures the energy. The item can be used with Marines’ existing packs and an additional waist pouch holds rechargeable batteries and other nodes that the grunts could use to charge their stuff. The item caught the commandant’s eye when he met with the Marines.
As for the drones, the Marines used a pair of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles. One, which was owned and flown by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., provided aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to Kilo Company and the headquarters element, working with joint terminal attack controllers with each platoon. A second Reaper, belonging to the 163rd Attack Wing of the California Air National Guard, was equipped with Hellfire missiles and bombs that were dropped during live-fire training in early August.
“The sensor capability the Reaper has is very good, even at the altitude it flies at, which is very high,” said Staff Sgt. Jon Traylor, one of three seasoned JTACs assigned to Kilo to work with aircraft and deconflict air traffic. The JTACs guided platoon leaders, who can see imagery and video on tablets, and worked with the flying crew to identify targets to find or further investigate.
During the exercise, Traylor spent most of his time working alongside the platoon commander, who in the experiment was “doing something that traditionally a company commander or a battalion operations officer would do,” he said.
Having the Reaper available to loiter long hours over an area and carry ordnance is a big deal for ground forces, which don't typically have access to such strategic assets to enhance situational awareness. While the Marine Corps doesn’t have any Reapers, Neller said he was impressed by the drones’ ISR and striking capabilities, adding that he thought “those are things … are going to be on our shopping list for sure.”
The Marines also tested small drones to find enemy forces and identify friendly positions when communications went down. Alford said the Warfighting Lab is on the hunt for drones that can take off and land vertically and operate from the sea.
“Right now, that technology is not there, but we're working toward it,” he said.
It’s technology that can’t come fast enough for Marines.
“Having the Reaper on station was the most important thing,” Patterson said as the field exercise wrapped up Aug. 3. He was impressed by the amount of situational awareness the aircraft provided, calling it “something that we need right now.”
Marines also need strong weaponry, so officials are considering new armed autonomous vehicles. A remote gun — or robogun — would give a unit more firepower while risking fewer lives. It can also provide covering or suppressive fire.
The Kilo Marines also used the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, or MAARS, a small, tracked unmanned ground vehicle outfitted with an M240 machine gun and 40mm grenade launcher. They also tested the Robotic Vehicle Modular outfitted with a 7.62mm minigun.
The Marine Corps isn't about to field such devices just yet, but leaders are interested in collecting data on how they perform.
Revamping infantry units
Kilo Company, along with the rest of its battalion, will continue this experiment through the fall with an integrated training exercise here. They'll then move onto some pre-deployment workups before rotating to Okinawa, Japan.
The battalion will serve as the ground combat element for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which will embark with the Bonhomme Richard amphibious ready group and join in exercise “Talisman Sabre” in Australia next year.
While some of the lessons learned during this test could be applied to future exercises, like the next iteration of Bold Alligator, Alford said no final decisions on technologies, equipment or company structure have been made.
The hope is “it's not only going to make us communicate better and be able to move faster under less load, but just be more lethal. That's really what it comes down to,” Malandra said. “Now, how do you define or measure lethality?” The experimentation will help determine that.
As Marines face enemies around the world with increasingly lethal technologies, Malandra said it’s vital that the Corps develop concepts of operations and techniques that will give them the advantage.
“We're not just going to concede the technological advantage to the enemy because we're so set in our ways of using maps and boards,” he said. “We need to change something.”
But high-tech gear isn't the end-all. The Marine Corps is also looking at the makeup of platoons and squads, potentially adding new assistant squad leaders that could be responsible for flying drones and handling some of the gear.
“We can become way more effective as a platoon and we can take on more difficult tasks because we have this equipment,” Cybulski, the first platoon commander, said. “At the end of the day, a lot of it is going to save Marines' lives.”