The Marine Corps will equip four battalions with small unmanned aerial systems down to the squad level before the end of the year in an ambitious plan to purchase and field commercial quadcopters as rapidly as possible.

Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, chief of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, on Tuesday said he plans to buy enough commercially available quadrotor-type UAS to equip squads in four battalions before the end of 2016.

“The timeline is as fast as we can buy them,” Walsh said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International Unmanned Systems Defense conference outside Washington, D.C.. “So, really, by the end of the year, is when we are looking to buy these things and get them out there.”

Once the capability is established as a standard piece of squad combat kit, the UAS can be updated or replace on the cheap as battalions rotate deployments, Walsh said. Given the standard organization of the Marine Corps where a battalion consists of five companies that each have three platoons of three squads each, the initial quantity is about 180 small UAS.

U.S. Marines with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 2 launch a RQ-21A Blackjack for Assault Support Tactics 2 at Canon Air Defense Complex (P111), Yuma, Ariz., Oct. 12, 2016.
U.S. Marines with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 2 launch a RQ-21A Blackjack for Assault Support Tactics 2 at Canon Air Defense Complex (P111), Yuma, Ariz., Oct. 12, 2016.

Through war gaming exercises like Sea Dragon 2016 and the Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force Integrated Experiment 2016 (MIX 16), the service has learned that small hand-launched quadcopters are sufficiently mature and easy enough for Marines to use in tactical intelligence gathering. Now the service plans to operationalize that capability for individual deployed rifle squads.

“One quick thing we saw was having a small UAS, a Group 1 UAS, a quadcopter-type UAS … coming right out of that experiment we learned enough that this is an easy one,” Walsh said. “we’re going to do this.”

Leading the way is 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, which the Marine Corps calls its experimental, deploying force. It will take many of the commercially available technologies tested at United States bases overseas and report back on their utility.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller last month called for equipping every deploying rifle squad with a small UAS and eventually every squad across all of the service’s 24 battalions as soon as practical. A total of 4,320 small UAS would be needed to equip every squad within the Marine Corps. Neller at the Modern Day Marine Expo last month set that as a goal for 2017.

“They’re like $1,000 bucks and I’m not advocating for any particular manufacturer,” Neller said. “The technology … it’s like iPhones, every six months there’s another one. So it would be kind of silly, I think, to field the whole Marine Corps at one time because in six months there’s going to be something better to buy and hopefully cheaper.”

Walsh said equipping the entire Marine Corps remains the end goal but commercial UAS technology advances faster than the Marine Corps can buy the systems, so it has scaled back to this still-aggressive incremental approach.

“We probably want them across the entire force,” he said. “But as we see this technology changing so rapidly, we are going to buy four battalions’ worth and see how they operate and then see what’s the next thing that comes along and how quickly the technology advances so we’re not behind the curve of buying old technology across the entire force.”

Fielding quadcopters to riflemen is one step on the road to employing UAS, ground robots and other unmanned systems as a “first wave” that will gather information on a battlefield and perhaps target and attack enemy positions during future forcible-entry amphibious operations. Walsh described “sensors that are out forward in that first wave – whether it’s on the surface or in the air – sensing, locating and maybe killing out in front of those Marines.”

Unmanned air and ground systems are gaining favor with Marine Corps generals and enlisted ranks because of their ability to “bring mass to the battlefield,” Walsh said. They have the potential to increase an individual soldier’s or platform’s combat capability while lessening burdens on both.

“Being able to operate in every domain down to the lowest levels is where we see the opportunity to keep our tempo up,” he said.

At the MIX 16 exercise, Marines practiced dismounted combat scenarios with tracked ground vehicles armed with M240 squad automatic weapons and acting as mobile gun platforms for a .50-caliber machine gun. The service tested out at least 40 unmanned systems of various design and capability during the exercise.

Another aim is to field a Group 4 or 5 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS capable of spying on enemies and potentially striking them within 10 years, Wash said. The so-called MAGTF unmanned expeditionary capability would parallel the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle and work in concert with the Marines’ smaller RQ-21 Blackjack.

“We would like to do this in 10 years or less,” Walsh said. “The normal requirements process would take longer and we would like to go faster if we can. We will work to find that money to be able to do that and have that capability.”

The system should be capable of ISR and strike missions and have room for growth into other missions like persistent resupply on demand and others, he said.

“When you look at that size [UAS] it better be multi-mission,” Walsh said. “It should be able to take every mission on that we’ve got and then have growth capability for other missions that may be in the future.”