Potent Guns, Peering Dragons

April 2002
By Maryann Lawlor
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Marines examine advanced field technologies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles the size of model airplanes, ruggedized minicomputers that automate calls for air support and remotely controlled rifled mortar capabilities will change the way the U.S. Marine Corps fights on future battlefields. Armed with information they can safely gather about what lurks over the next hill, front-line troops will be able to send accurate data to pilots and commanders so they can respond expeditiously with appropriate fire support.

Research currently underway at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL), Quantico, Virginia, is defining and refining these and other technologies that military leaders believe will improve the naval expeditionary warfighting capabilities in current and future operations. The MCWL brings new capabilities to the battlespace by taking a concept through capabilities refinement into fleet experimentation and finally into development within the U.S. Marine Corps’(USMC’s) Combat Development System. It has divided its efforts into focus areas that include command and control/information technology, asymmetric threat, military operations in urban terrain, and reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA), and it is supporting work in areas such as fire and maneuver, logistics and wargaming. More than 30 projects are currently in various stages of research and development at the laboratory.

To support RSTA, the laboratory is researching the Dragon Eye unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This backpack-portable aircraft would provide a Marine small unit leader with a UAV that can conduct over-the-hill or over-the-next-building surveillance and reconnaissance. Information can then be relayed to other units.

The Dragon Eye UAV can be disassembled into five pieces that fit into a 15-inch by 15-inch by 7-inch package that is carried in a marine’s all-purpose lightweight individual carrying equipment, or ALICE, pack. Once assembled, the Dragon Eye has a wingspan of 45 inches. Made of lightweight Kevlar material, it weighs 4.5 pounds and is battery-powered.

Dragon Eye flies autonomously. Missions are programmed via a wireless modem that is integrated into a 10-pound wearable ground control station. After being launched by hand, the mini-UAV flies to preassigned global positioning system (GPS) points via an onboard autopilot that can be reprogrammed in flight. It flies at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour and can remain in flight for up to one hour.

According to Maj. Bryan D. McKinney, USMC, aviation combat element projects officer, MCWL, Dragon Eye’s payloads include full-motion color, low-light black and white or infrared cameras, but it also could be outfitted with a chemical or biological agent sniffer payload. The camera transmits real-time video to the operator who could be located more than six miles away as long as the line of sight is retained.

A total of 40 mini-UAVs and the accompanying 20 ground control stations are scheduled for testing in Marine Expeditionary Force experimentation this spring. If the testing is successful, fielding and the initial procurement of 1,000 aircraft and 200 ground control stations could occur later this fiscal year.

In addition to having enhanced RSTA capabilities, marines in forward units also could call in air support more efficiently with another MCWL technology project. The Advanced Close Air Support System (ACASS) would increase the situational awareness of forward air controllers and allow them to direct pilots to targets quicker and more accurately.

Maj. McKinney explains that today’s process for calling for close air support involves forward units using a radio both to communicate with pilots to relay the nine-line brief and to ascertain the pilot’s position, munitions payload and fuel status. The brief includes targeting information that the marine gathers through observation. As the information is relayed, the pilot writes the data on a kneepad. This process is cumbersome and is susceptible to errors as information is passed back and forth between the forward unit and the pilot, the major remarks.

ACASS is composed of a ruggedized handheld computer that features an internal GPS device, a laser range finder and multiband inter/intra team radio. Prior to entering the area of operations, the latest available National Imagery and Mapping Agency satellite imagery of the area is uploaded into the computer.

Using the laser rangefinder, the marine gathers data about the target location. This information appears on the computer screen and can be passed digitally to the firing commands or aircraft. Pilots and the ground unit view the same map; however, pilots do not enter any targeting information into the system. The Marine on the ground also will be able to view information such as an aircraft’s location and fuel status.

The operator on the ground sends the nine-line brief information in data bursts directly to the pilot who now can see the position of the designated target as well as the ground unit that is sending the information about the area. In addition, the pilot sees the areas adjacent to the target area, zones that are referred to as the bow tie. This information is critical, Maj. McKinney relates, because it alerts the pilot when friendly forces are in the area, helping to prevent fratricide. The ground unit can see the aircraft on the computer screen as they approach the target, and the mission can be aborted at any time by relaying an abort message via radio.

Maj. McKinney points out that the communications using ACASS are secure for two primary reasons. First, the information is sent in data bursts, so intercepting the entire message is highly unlikely. Because targeting data is different for each call for fire, it would be useless in other circumstances. Second, the sophistication of the software design makes it almost impossible for someone to duplicate, he adds. The major admits, however, that jamming is always a threat when using these types of communications systems.

The MCWL also is examining technologies that would fill the fire support gap between the infantry’s 81-millimeter mortars and the 155-millimeter howitzers used by the artillery. Maj. Lance A. McDaniel, USMC, ground combat element section head, Advanced Technology Division, MCWL, points out that early entry operations are not likely to have the 155-millimeter artillery units ashore in the initial waves of marines entering a battlespace. “That means the biggest fire support system would be our 81-millimeter mortars. We simply think we need to close that gap with something like a 120-millimeter rifled mortar,” the major relates.

To meet this requirement, the MCWL has been examining the Mobile Fire Support System (MFSS), also known as Dragon Fire, for several years. One key advantage of the weapon is that it can be left alone in an area of operations, then activated remotely to align itself and engage targets with highly accurate projectiles.

Working in conjunction with the U.S. Army’s Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, the laboratory designed a 120-millimeter advanced mortar system. It features communications equipment, fire control, an aiming and pointing system (APS) and an onboard GPS that allows it to determine its own location. The fire control on the gun computes the technical firing data that together with the APS allows the gun to traverse and elevate to the proper azimuth and elevation to engage the target. Once the gun crew places the properly charged round on the loading tray and seats the tray, the gun can be fired manually or remotely, Maj. McDaniel explains.

During the past two years, MCWL personnel have tested Dragon Fire during experiments, firing more than 550 rounds of various types of 120-millimeter mortar ammunition, including both rifled and smoothbore. “The precision, particularly of the rifled ammunition, which has a conventional range of 8.2 kilometers and 13 kilometers with rocket-assisted projectiles, has been noteworthy. The goal is to translate this precision into accuracy that allows the first volley to have effect on target—assuming the gun has an accurate target location,” Maj. McDaniel states.

One of the key requirements in the Expeditionary Force Support System mission need statement is that the weapons must be able to respond immediately to a call for fire. Dragon Fire’s response time is between 12 and 20 seconds. In addition, it can fire at a rate of 10 rounds per minute.

Lt. Col. Forrest R. Lindsey, USMC (Ret.), senior engineer, technology branch, MCWL, asserts that Dragon Fire is a significant improvement over how fire support has been delivered in the past and even today. “The way we do things today, we can hit them, but by the time we hit them, the enemy has finished dinner, cleaned the dishes and gone home. Weapon accuracy is lacking. With Dragon Fire, we’ve automated the process and the system. We mated the artillery to a radio and a gyro. When it receives a call for fire, it aims itself and can be ready to fire in 12 to 20 seconds. Because the gyro is aiming, it is about 100 times more accurate, which means fewer rounds are used,” Col. Lindsey offers.

“This will change the way we do battle because right now we attempt to beat up the adversary a bit and then clean up with what I call paint chippers—rifles. But if we have good, accurate high explosives and technologies like laser rangefinders, we will engage them at will. We will win because there’s less cleaning up to do with the paint chippers,” the colonel remarks.

Maj. McDaniel agrees. “The MFSS is a technological leap in several respects, and this is important as we will be able to be more responsive, accurate and lethal as well as waste fewer rounds accomplishing our mission,” he says.

MCWL researchers have identified several new design parameters for Dragon Fire. They would like to reduce the overall weight of the equipment from its current 6,500 pounds to 5,300 pounds. In addition, they would like to reduce the power requirements and convert from hydraulic to electric drives. Plans also call for developing a breech-loading system for low-angle and direct fire capability.

Initial exploration of the weapon called for a design that would be transported via an MV-22 or CH-53 and then towed by a high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle or light armored vehicle (LAV). The LAV is now being considered as the primary transportation for the equipment, and modifications will be necessary to both the equipment and the vehicle to meet this goal. Plans include a capability to fire the weapon while the LAV is in motion.

According to Col. Lindsey, the MCWL also has taken a rather unique approach in handling Dragon Fire’s software. The government is designing the software and will retain ownership of it so it is not the property of an individual company. Maj. McDaniel explains that with this approach the U.S. Defense Department “is not likely to be held captive contractually to a vendor.”

Dragon Fire underwent a limited technical assessment last year. The major relates that the assessment produced important data that will allow the fire control system to be refined for greater accuracy. “Based on the limited assessment that MCWL was able to complete, it is clear that the technologies represented in MFSS show great promise for future application as the Expeditionary Fire Support System, subsequent to some design refinement.

“The advantages are the compact size, relatively light weight, precision, lethality, responsiveness and ability to shoot in any direction. The reduction in the requirement of logistics and support personnel is a substantial benefit as well, particularly in conditions of expeditionary warfare in which early entry forces are limited to what can be flown into the objective area.

“The technologies of the MFSS could usher in a new generation of ground-based fire support weapons with great mobility, accuracy, lethality and relevance to the maneuver element being supported,” Maj. McDaniel states.

Dragon Fire system tests are scheduled for February 2003, and experimentation with the Marine Corps Systems Command is planned for later next fiscal year. Under the current timetable, Dragon Fire’s drawings, software code, data, weapon and the modifications for the LAV will be transferred to the command in fiscal year 2004.


Additional information on the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is available on the World Wide Web at www.mcwl.quantico.usmc.mil.

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