CAMP PENDLETON, Calif.  – Once a remote-controlled assault amphibious vehicle trundled ashore here, it stopped and released from its hold a ground robot that continued its way across the wide beach before stopping and launching a quadcopter from its back.

The tracked ground robot was accompanied by another wheeled unmanned vehicle topped with a .50 caliber machine gun. At any one time a half-dozen or more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of varying shapes and sizes flitted overhead. In some cases they worked together by passing targeting data between platforms. In all cases the menagerie of weapons was controlled by Marines elsewhere, not on this simulated battlefield or safely within an armored vehicle.

The scene was instructive of how the Marine Corps envisions the future of forcible entry from the sea, it’s war-fighting specialty. The exercise, called the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) was designed so the service could quickly identify and test emerging technologies and their potential use in amphibious operations.

Marines prepared assault amphibious vehicles (AAVs) for an exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on April 26, 2017.
Marines prepared assault amphibious vehicles (AAVs) for an exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on April 26, 2017.

“Instead of our AAVs or the future ACV, we want to have some of these capabilities out front,” Brigadier General Julian D. Alford, vice chief of Naval Research and commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, told reporters during a visit to Camp Pendleton April 26.

“In a future fight, if the first thing in a building or ashore is a Marine, we have failed,” Alford said. “It’s going to be a machine, telling the Marine what’s in there.”

Instead of focusing on exquisite, do-it-all technologies like the expeditionary fighting vehicle – which sank under the weight and cost of its own requirements – the Marine Corps is focused on the mission it must fight and then allowing the capabilities to come to it, Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told Defense Daily.

“As we step back from Iraq and Afghanistan, we are again going to be operating from the sea with our Navy partners,” Walsh said. “We hadn’t focused on that in a long time and industry is moving a lot faster than we do. … So we thought about how are we going to get ashore in a different way. It’s about the capabilities, not necessarily about any one platform.”

Defense Daily Reporter Dan Parsons tries tries out the remote-control for an assault amphibious vehicle robotic applique system at Camp Pendleton during an April 26, 2017 exercise.
Defense Daily Reporter Dan Parsons tries tries out the remote-control for an assault amphibious vehicle robotic applique system at Camp Pendleton during an April 26, 2017 exercise.

Another AAV, from which the first was being operated, stopped ashore to let a Marine launch a Switchblade kamikaze UAV, which was taking its targeting cues from a RQ-20 PUMA drone flying high overhead. At another point a pair of rotorcraft hovered overhead and dropped food and water to troops ashore.

The inaugural ANTX was subtitled the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation and was heavily focused on robotics with applications on land, at sea and in the air. More than 100 technologies in all were tested over several days of simulated forcible entry operations from a prototype mini-submarine to the Vietnam-era AAV outfitted with a robotic remote-control kit operated with a video game controller.

Also present but less visible were undersea swarming mine-clearing unmanned vehicles, and another that had flapping wings modeled on how penguins swim. Whole suites of command-and-control systems were on display but many were involved in the classified side of the exercise that media observers were not allowed to see. Other classified capabilities included electronic warfare and cyber systems, according to organizers.

Most of the observable technologies were some version of unmanned or remotely operated systems. Companies were invited both to pitch technologies to senior leaders and to receive feedback on their practical utility from enlisted Marines who got hands-on experience during the 10-day event.

Cpl. Edmund Kennedy, part of the New Equipment Test Team assigned to the remote AAV, said driving the vehicle was just as easy as playing a video game, but insisted he was not trivializing the important life-and-death mission the vehicle could one-day perform. Marines operating the device said the technology would be most useful aboard the Mk 154 mine-clearing vehicle that approaches a contested beach and launches a long line charge that explodes sea mines and clears a lane ashore for manned vehicles to follow.

“This I serious stuff, I know, but the easiest way to describe it is like driving a car in a video game,” he told Defense Daily. “It takes almost no time to get the hang of it.”

Walsh said he would have liked to see more large-scale ship-to-shore maneuver technology, but was encouraged by the event’s success in bringing potentially life-saving technologies to the Marine Corps.

“Everything is moving toward unmanned and not putting women and men in harm’s way when we can,” Walsh said. “We’re not talking big-dollar things. A lot of what we’re seeing out here is repurposing stuff we already have or connecting them in different ways. Much of the rest is commercially available technology.”

The ANTX should become a model for how the Marine Corps does business in the future, especially with small businesses that find traditional acquisition bureaucracies overwhelming or unnavigable. While this one focused on maneuver, next year’s iteration will focus on logistics and weaponry that military officials call “fires.”

Business representatives who spoke with Defense Daily all said that the event was invaluable for the access it provides small companies and their prototype technologies. Aside from Walsh and Alford, the following day they had direct contact with both Acting Navy Secretary and its former chief weapons buyer Sean Stackley, and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller.