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Command Answers Call From the Field

April 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 
Marines inside a light armored vehicle engage targets during the first major exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps’ Improved Thermal Sight System. The system is now being fielded in current operations.
Innovative technologies fill immediate needs while military prepares for shift in focus to Afghanistan.

The U.S. Marine Corps is redefining the phrase “quick turnaround time.” Whenever possible and appropriate, warfighter requirements identified in the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan are being fulfilled expeditiously—sometimes in as little as three months. Although other solutions may take a bit longer to get into the hands of Marines in current operations, the tempo of fielding much-needed capabilities rivals the speed of military missions in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

During the past 12 to 24 months, the U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM), Quantico, Virginia, has been outfitting Marines with some of the most advanced technologies in areas that range from weaponry to communications to injured care. One of the fastest turnarounds as a result of a need identified by Marines in the field is the 155-millimeter infrared (IR) illuminating projectile. According to Brig. Gen. Michael M. Brogan, USMC, commander, MARCORSYSCOM, the projectile casts IR illumination over the battlefield so U.S. troops can see using their night-vision equipment; in the meantime, enemy combatants, who are not similarly equipped, remain in the dark.

“Every time we would pop a visual flare, the enemy would just go to ground and wouldn’t present themselves as targets. But with these IR illuminating rounds, they stand out against the background, and our troops are able to effectively engage them,” Gen. Brogan explains.

Industry already had been working on the capability when Marines identified this need; MARCORSYSCOM collaborated with the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office (PEO) Ammunition to get the projectiles type-classified and into the field within approximately three months of being notified of the requirement. “[It was] type-classified and put in the field about the same time all the paperwork was completed here in the National Capital Region. So there was almost no delay in getting this capability in the hands of our troops,” the general says.

Another item that currently is being fielded is the Improved Thermal Sight System for light armored vehicles (LAVs). The capability moves the Marines to the second generation of thermal sights, improving the lethality of the 25-year-old platform. Unlike the first generation of sights, which use ambient starlight and moonlight to enable warfighters to see using night-vision equipment, detectors within the new sight sense heat differences that occur down range from an LAV. Enemy combatants and vehicles are displayed as either white or black objects—the option is left up to the user—and stand out against a relatively cool background. The sight provides clearer images, increases the detection range and is more sensitive than the first generation of thermal sights, boosting targeting effectiveness, Gen. Brogan says.

The Marine Corps does not rely on U.S. products alone to bring needed capabilities to its troops. As the result of the foreign comparative test program, the service procured and will field the Monitoring Oxygen Ventilation and External Suction (MOVES) system. The system draws oxygen from the atmosphere and delivers it as pure O2 to litter-bound patients. Not only does the system improve patient care, but it also reduces the need to transport oxygen canisters around the battlefield, which can be extremely dangerous. Thornhill Research Incorporated, Toronto, developed the device.

Following Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ lead, MARCORSYSCOM continues to pursue improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. Gen. Brogan shares that the Marine Corps’ interest and work in this area focuses on tactical-level sensors. These sensors could be mounted either on towers or on small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or air-breathing aircraft to benefit troops while they conduct missions away from a forward-operating base.

In conjunction with the Army, the Marine Corps currently is fielding the Raven B. This small UAV features a sensor package that allows the services to see areas of interest both day and night. In addition, the Marines are fielding the ground-based observation and surveillance system (GBOSS), which comprises 80-foot and 106-foot towers that sport thermal and daylight cameras and laser rangefinders. GBOSS systems include a pan-and-tilt mechanism, and the cameras can be rotated 360 degrees, allowing warfighters to survey a large area outside of the forward-operating bases.

“Typically, we would use a GBOSS in a fixed site, and the feed is displayed directly to users in real time. It’s also recorded so that we can play back [video of] areas if there is an event that occurs that is of interest. We can home right in on that time and see what occurred. Did someone plant the device? How did they plant it?” the general explains.

Another area of high interest in new capabilities is counter-improvised explosive device (IED) solutions. “We’re most interested in things that happen ‘to the left of the bang.’ How can we break that chain so that we don’t have to protect the troops with armor—what we would call ‘to the right of the bang’? [We’re interested in] mine resistant ambush protective vehicles; personal protective equipment, that sort of thing,” the general relates.

 
The Monitoring Oxygen Ventilation and External Suction system, or MOVES, revolutionizes emergency care by drawing oxygen from the atmosphere and delivering it as pure O2 to litter-bound patients. This capability reduces the need to transport oxygen tanks, which is a dangerous task on the battlefield. Thornhill Research Incorporated, Toronto, developed MOVES.
To this end, MARCORSYSCOM has been working with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, also located in Quantico, and with the Joint IED Defeat Organization, Arlington, Virginia. Together, they have been examining and fielding technologies that either prevent IEDs from detonating, such as jammers, or cause them to detonate well in front of a vehicle, such as mine-rollers.

Knowing that preemptive action is not always 100 percent effective, and in light of the other dangers that lurk on the battlefield, MARCORSYSCOM is continually developing personal protective equipment. Gen. Brogan explains that this work involves more than just ballistic or soft-body armor and encompasses items such as ballistic eyewear and flame-resistant gear. “It includes anything that involves protecting the Marine from the elements, from manmade threats as well as from the atmosphere,” he says.

For example, the Marine Corps’ Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts, or ESAPI, which are inserted into the Marines’ modular tactical vests, have been fielded to all troops in current operations. In addition, the service continues to evolve its flame-resistant clothing. “We’ve got another generation [of flame-resistant clothing] that’s about to go into the field, some in heavier-weight fabrics for use in the cold weather. Obviously, the first items we got out there were the hot-weather flame-resistant clothing because that was the environment we encountered most in Iraq. Now, with the shift of focus to Afghanistan, we need to provide it both in winter weight and summer weight,” Gen. Brogan explains. MARCORSYSCOM also is collaborating with the Army to improve helmets and future body-armor plates, he adds.

Although MARCORSYSCOM’s primary focus is on Marines, some of the programs it is working on extend beyond the individual service and into the joint world. The mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) all-terrain vehicle (ATV), for instance, will benefit the joint force. MARCORSYSCOM is the program executive officer for the program.

The MRAP ATV is being designed to address concerns from joint task force commanders in Afghanistan. While the protection level that MRAP provides is needed, the Afghan landscape necessitates a vehicle that features the cross-country attributes of a high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle.

Earlier this year, the command managed the MRAP ATV source selection process to choose up to five vendors to move on to the next phase of the program. The goal is to choose only one vendor to prevent logistics problems later; the vehicles are scheduled to be fielded late this year.

In the Marine Corps’ M-1 tank program, the command is working on a 120-millimeter multipurpose high-explosive round. The fuse will be programmed when a round is put into the breech of the tank cannon, and information is fed from a laser rangefinder so that the round detonates at a precise point and time. “For shooting at a building, for example, you would laser the target, and then add a short distance on top of that figure so that the round explodes inside the building rather than on impact with the outside of the building. If there are troops that are dug in, it also allows you to detonate this over the top of their heads and have the shrapnel rain down on them rather than having to run it into the ground in front of them and have the shrapnel fall forward where they’re protected by their fighting position,” Gen. Brogan explains. “We’re looking forward to this. It’s an effort that the Marine Corps is leading, and then once the round is type-classified, we would make it available to the Army.” The general says the M-1 tank improvements are probably at least a year away.

Another project MARCORSYSCOM is working on involves 155-millimeter rounds. A precision guidance kit is being developed for retrofit onto existing “dumb” rounds to make them more precise. The first procurement of the precision-guidance kit is scheduled for fiscal year 2011, with first delivery to the field anticipated in fiscal year 2012.

The solutions MARCORSYSCOM is developing address the toughest challenges the Marine Corps faces, Gen. Brogan relates. But challenges exist within these challenges because of competing requirements.

For example, in the area of personal protection, the command wants to provide the greatest level of ballistic shielding possible but at the lightest weight. “That’s really the most difficult technical challenge because the ceramic plates that we use right now, though they are very effective at stopping bullets, they’re very heavy, they’re bulky, they don’t bend,” the general allows. The goal is to create equipment that performs well yet is more comfortable to wear in the hot climate. It also should allow the Marines and soldiers to remain maneuverable, so they can climb over walls and through windows or kick in doors without degrading the level of protection, he adds. In addition, it is important that the gear does not interfere with weapon use.

“A number of those requirements fight against each other, and it’s a matter of finding that sweet spot in the balance and then continuing to improve that. I think we’re pretty close on most of it right now. What we’d really like to be able to do is drive the weight down. We’ve been hearing for a long time about how nanotechnology is going to change things. I would sure like to see some nanotechnology brought to bear on body armor and have it be effective and producible, so that we can get something that performs well but is much less heavy in the hands of our troops,” Gen. Brogan says.

This reduction in weight is important because most troops currently carry at least 90 pounds of equipment during missions. If this weight could be cut in half, “it would be tremendous,” the general states.

Also in the area of personal protection, MARCORSYSCOM is in search of a fabric that is water, wind and flame resistant. And while the uniforms troops currently wear during missions provide visual camouflage, the command is ready to improve even that traditional garb. The next step will be to include infrared camouflage so that when an adversary is looking for U.S. warfighters through thermal imagers, the troops would blend into the background, Gen. Brogan reveals. “We’re not there yet. That’s an area that needs some development effort,” he says.

A similar struggle for balance exists in the area of military vehicles. In what the Marines call the “iron triangle”—protection, performance and payload—MARCORSYSCOM seeks either equilibrium among the three or modular designs so that vehicles can be modified depending on the mission. “Trying to find the right balance between protection, performance and payload and being able to scale each of those depending on the needs of the mission would be valuable,” Gen. Brogan relates.

This description resembles what the U.S. Defense Department intends to procure in its Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. However, the Army is managing the joint vehicle through a traditional research, development and production manner, while the MRAP ATV project involves using marketplace solutions, testing them and then putting them into the field.

The general admits that MARCORSYSCOM needs to work more closely with industry to find and develop solutions, but he points out that this is not always simple. Revealing the Marine Corps’ shortcomings to industry through public media could lead to adversaries taking advantage of those weaknesses. “So it’s finding that right balance between disclosing what we need to our industry partners yet protecting that information from those who would do us harm. And we haven’t completely broken that nut yet,” he says.

As the United States wraps up its current operations in Iraq and prepares to support troops in Afghanistan, the military must review its gear for use in a much more austere environment that has less infrastructure and colder weather extremes, Gen. Brogan says. For example, while the Marine Corps has addressed the issue of fire-resistant uniforms for use in hot weather, it will now have to provide the same feature for uniforms worn in cold weather. “We’re rapidly producing that so we can get it to the troops as they deploy to Afghanistan,” he says.

In addition, the lack of roads in Afghanistan will make vehicle maintenance more challenging and more important. “It’s just difficult to put large convoys together and move from place to place over there because you become predictable, which then makes you targetable,” the general relates.

As a result, MARCORSYSCOM is searching for ways to either limit the amount of cargo that must be moved or moving it via air, whether that is by finding some type of cargo UAV or other aircraft. “Hopefully we don’t have to fly the wings off of our helicopters,” Gen. Brogan quips.

“And then we’re going to need to re-set gear that comes out of Iraq. We have a large amount of equipment over there, not all of it is either needed or suitable for Afghanistan. So it will have to be triaged in-theater to determine how much repair is required, and whether it will go to a depot in the U.S.; whether it will be repaired at an intermediate maintenance activity forward in Kuwait; or if it’s in such bad shape that it should just be disposed of.

“Because there is gear that is washed out of the system since it’s no longer economical to repair, we will have to do some new procurement. Some of that will be procuring more of the same, if the gear still has a lot of useful life; some we’ll be buying the next generation, if the gear is one that’s either already being replaced or is planned for replacement in the near future. And those are the sorts of decisions that will have to be made in conjunction with the budget deliberation process as we go forward,” the general explains.

Web Resources
Marine Corps Systems Command: www.marcorsyscom.usmc.mil
U.S. Army Program Executive Office Ammunition: https://www.pica.army.mil/peoammo/Home.aspx
U.S. Army Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems: www.peogcs.army.mil
U.S. Army Program Executive Office Missiles and Space: www.msl.army.mil