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Marine Corps Experiments Prepare for the Future

The U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory undertakes a busy agenda for the next two years and beyond after releasing its 2006 Experimentation Campaign Plan. The 41 initiatives in the plan fall into seven categories: command and control, maneuver, logistics, fires, intelligence, force protection and mine countermeasures.

One initiative in the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s (MCWL) 2006 Experimentation Campaign Plan is the On-the-Move Combat Operations Center. Using a small vehicle (top), troops have the ability to transport equipment (bottom) necessary to communicate during operations and maneuvers.
Strategy document explores advancements in communications and distributed operations.

The U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory undertakes a busy agenda for the next two years and beyond after releasing its 2006 Experimentation Campaign Plan. The 41 initiatives in the plan fall into seven categories: command and control, maneuver, logistics, fires, intelligence, force protection and mine countermeasures. 

Many of the laboratory experiments mentioned in the plan focus on improving capabilities over a larger area and making communications systems more portable for troops in the field. James A. Lasswell, former technology director at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL), Quantico, Virginia, says the laboratory is experimenting with different ideas in signal communications and information technology to improve Marine Corps missions. Lasswell now is a contractor in support of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, Joint Operations Office, Suffolk, Virginia, as the science and technology liaison in the Washington, D.C., area. 

The MCWL’s Science and Technology Plans Office produces and maintains the plan, while the Experimentation Division completes the detailed experiment planning, execution and assessments. The designers of the campaign plan use the document to provide an idea of what the laboratory intends to do with its money through 2008. “It’s [the plan] focused on distributed operations … how we can redesign the infantry of the future.” says Lasswell.

The experiments in the plan already are funded through separate initiatives, though financial support methods vary. The Marine Corps pays for many of them through money allocated from Congress. A few initiatives are determined by Congress and given specific money, but the Marine Corps determines most of the projects and distributes resources accordingly. Other agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provide money for some of the initiatives.

For example, the MCWL is evaluating the Wasp, an unmanned micro air vehicle, for DARPA. Testing for this initiative falls under the intelligence category. A separate intelligence category initiative deals with another unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a Tier II UAV system to fill a requirement for persistent surveillance at the regimental level. According to Lasswell, this vehicle is based on a need to gather and spread information over a large area with better and more reliable collection and dissemination.

A major focus for fiscal years 2007 and 2008 will be small unit enhancements associated with the distributed operations (DO) concept. This concept, according to the campaign plan, is “a capability that deploys tactical units across the depth and breadth of a battle space in order to maximize opportunities to achieve favorable intelligence-driven engagements.” The experimentation team will base its research on a rifle team from a selected Marine Expeditionary Unit. The Marine Corps will test the concept as well as sea-based operations during the Sea Viking 2006 exercise later this year.

Exercises such as Sea Viking give the laboratory a venue to accomplish experimentation objectives in concert with exercise objectives. In addition to furthering distributed operations capabilities, the event will further demonstrate the capabilities of the ship-to-objective maneuver (STOM) project. The purpose of this maneuver is to be able to take ground forces from a ship directly to the objective, eliminating the need to storm the beaches. According to Lasswell, concepts like DO and STOM require large communication architectures to make them successful.

One such communications project in the campaign plan is a major experiment known as Netted Iridium. The Marine Corps will test the first phase of the project later this year separately from Sea Viking. According to Lasswell, the process converts an Iridium telephone into an Iridium radio, producing a one-to-many, push-to-talk communications device. Netted Iridium could alleviate the communications gap the military experiences by creating a scalable, secure and global netted voice and data communications capability. The Marine Corps has the final user evaluation of this tool scheduled for fiscal year 2008.

Netted Iridium is a follow-on project to another initiative in the plan, the Expeditionary Tactical Communications System (ETCS). The system provides over-the-horizon, on-the-move communications between mounted and dismounted tactical warfighters. ETCS is a modified version of a commercial Iridium system and allows netted push-to-talk communications. Troops in the field use the system now but in small numbers because the project has limited scalability.

Similar to Netted Iridium and ETCS, which fall under the command and control category, other communications projects in the plan focus on giving distributed operations and STOM forces the capabilities they need to carry out their missions. According Lt. Col. Paul Martin, Royal Marines exchange officer attached to the MCWL and head of command, control, communications and computers (C4), a very specific communications need must be filled to carry out these types of operations successfully. “The current difficulty we have in STOM, and more particularly when we have disbursed operations that are part of DO, is that we do not have the over-the-horizon capabilities that are needed,” Col. Martin says.

Developing technologies that enable on-the-move, over-the-horizon communications is a main focus of the C4 work in the plan. According to the colonel, with STOM operating over a 200-mile area, the troops need over-the-horizon capabilities to succeed. “Really, most, if not all, of what the C4 branch is doing in the communications area is designed to facilitate and improve the distributed operations battle,” Col. Martin says.

Other elements of the initiatives explore how to improve information sharing at the tactical level. The C4 branch is looking at increasing communications capabilities from the company level and below, where the greatest communications gaps lie. The projects undertaken by the laboratory aim to provide the necessary communications capabilities and when complete will provide warfighters with better situational awareness and will make them more effective in combat.

One example is the Tactical Cellular (TACCELL), a flexible, capable and disposable communications device. The warfighter will be able to use the TACCELL in garrison, on the move or in the battlefield. The initiative combines the capabilities of cellular networks with the accessibility of portable handsets. This combination could provide platoon commanders or squad leaders with current photos and videos of an objective as they move toward it.

Another initiative involves developing a Modular Wearable Computer, which is a lightweight and rugged system that facilitates monitoring command and control and system status for three small-unit remote scouting system technologies. The computer will provide a common control system for the Dragon Eye UAV, the Dragon Runner unmanned ground vehicle and the Small Unit Sensor System Unattended Ground Sensor.

The C4 initiatives in the plan focus not only on the capabilities needed by the Marines but also on the most effective way to provide them. According to the colonel, throwing equipment at the Marines is not always the best answer. Instead, they need to find a compromise between giving troops the ability to get the necessary information and overloading them with gear, which might prevent them from operating as riflemen.

While the initiatives in the MCWL Experimentation Campaign Plan are geared toward Marines, some initiatives, most notably Netted Iridium, also could support the joint environment, especially as the services move toward digital communications and joint operations.

Lasswell sees signal communications and information technology as the technological edge the U.S. military has over other militaries, and he believes that information technology advancement is contributing to the joint vision.


The Dragon Runner is an unmanned ground vehicle deployed in Iraq. The MCWL is exploring the use of unmanned vehicles to carry out intelligence operations and counter improvised explosive devices.

Just as initiatives in the plan have joint operability potential among U.S. forces, some will provide more interoperability with U.S. allies. The plan’s Coalition C4 Interoperability Initiative aims to provide a method for the United Kingdom’s Bowman radios to interoperate with current and future Marine Corps communications systems at the tactical voice level.

Other C4 efforts focus on communications vehicles. The On-the-Move Combat Operations Center will provide infantry battalion commanders with a combat operations center for surface and vehicle employment during STOM (SIGNAL Magazine, February 2005). Another vehicle capability improvement in the plan, the Transportable Transponder Landing System, will provide an all-weather, precision, non-emitting, air traffic control terminal mounted in a rapidly deployable high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle or a smaller vehicle. Col. Martin stresses that there is a need for communications vehicles to travel more easily to improve warfighters’ communicating capability in the battlefield.

Most of the taskings undertaken by the MCWL are not intended to transfer directly to the field. Rather, laboratory personnel test different equipment and strategy ideas and pass the best practices to the acquisitions personnel who then request bids. Other projects are developed to support experiments. The laboratory conducts the initiatives concurrently, but the experiments do have a priority system, Lasswell explains. “Things supporting our experimentation efforts have a higher priority because more is depending on them. But if you look at capabilities for Iraq, those are pretty important, too,” he says.

According to Lasswell, one of the most important capabilities for deployed forces is defending against improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The experimentation plan includes several counter-IED technologies, including the Counter-IED Multi-Sensor Change Detection, which falls under the intelligence category of the campaign plan. This initiative will help detect IEDs along transportation routes in deployed areas while reducing false alarms.

The MCWL calls the first initiative under the mine countermeasures category IED Defeat. This initiative involves using UAVs and robots to detect the devices as well as other enemy systems and technologies. By developing these programs, the laboratory aims to reduce IED casualties.

In addition to exploring technologies that detect and remove mines and IEDs safely, the Marine Corps plan includes some less technological initiatives. The IED Detector Dogs initiative involves experiments using military working dogs to detect the devices.

Other initiatives with direct impact to deployed Marines include experiments with body and vehicle armor. In late fiscal year 2006, the MCWL will release its final report on an initiative that will provide vehicles with lightweight armor to protect them against IEDs. The Vehicle Armor initiative responds directly to the need for the material in current combat operations in Iraq.

The MCWL makes the plan available to the public through its Web site. Besides the initiatives section, the experimentation plan includes information on laboratory exercises, other projects, an explanation of the laboratory’s work and structure, a description of the laboratory’s technologies, and a section on war gaming.

Putting Infantrymen First

Experiences in Iraq have illuminated the need to lighten an infantryman’s load while improving connectivity and lethality. Addressing this requirement is at the heart of the U.S. Marine Corps Science and Technology Strategic Plan, which aims to help today’s warfighters by giving them the capabilities they need to influence future battlefields. James A. Lasswell, author of the plan, explains that technology advances can help the service achieve these goals, and in some cases, they already have.

One of the most urgent needs in operations today is increased protection of warfighters traveling in vehicles as well as on foot. Adding more shielding layers is not an option because this technique increases weight and the logistics footprint, Lasswell says. Instead, the “trade space” for accomplishing the task is power supplies, and advancements already have been made in this field, he maintains. In the military, today’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are an example of boosting power efficacy. In the late 1990s, UAVs could stay in the air for only 10 minutes. Now, UAVs better protect troops because they can stay aloft for hours, providing additional situational awareness. Despite these advances, more work in this field is needed, Lasswell states, especially in the area of hybrid electric vehicles, he adds.

Technology goals in the plan focus on information sharing as well. “The young corporal in the field needs to know that he can communicate a report. We want to make sure the information is accurate and assured. Almost everything we have in communications involves security,” Lasswell explains.

Pushing communications to the edge, however, poses several problems that are difficult to solve, he admits. For example, intelligence information from an infantryman in the field increases safety; however, not all infantrymen have clearances, which could hinder information sharing. One way to solve this problem is to build security into the technology, Lasswell suggests.

In addition, the Marine Corps must address the possibility that communications devices may fall into enemy hands if a warfighter is captured or killed. The ability to ensure that reports received from the field via radios or other devices are accurate requires more research and development, Lasswell says.

The plan also calls for improvements in other areas of information sharing. The Marines are interested in algorithms that translate data into information at the point of collection. This capability could be useful in preventing improvised explosive device (IED) injuries by intelligently sharing information about IED locations. For example, when a unit finds a device, it would enter the data into a computer. Smart computer agents, or some other technique, would then share this data with the appropriate people such as tactical, intelligence and forensic personnel. “Individuals studying how the bombs are being laid could use this information to determine how the IED was placed and then possibly trace the device to where it was made,” he notes. The information would not necessarily be shared with units outside of the area to reduce the amount of superfluous data they receive and to avert information overload.

Lasswell contends that one of the biggest differences between the Marines Corps Science and Technology Strategic Plan and other Marine Corps plans, as well as the plans of the other services, is its emphasis on training. “We don’t want just a lot of gear. We want to know how we train the Marines to use it effectively. We’re trying to embed new capabilities inside existing equipment. We know when we’ve been successful when they [the warfighters] don’t even know they have it,” he says.

One reason training is so important to the Marine Corps is that the equipment an infantryman carries today costs more than four times what was carried only six years ago. Lasswell relates that in 2000, the price tag per person was $8,000; today, it is $35,000.

But more important than the cost is the effect on the infantryman, he stresses. Word from the field is that Marines do not want to carry more equipment unless they are fully trained about how to use it to the fullest extent, and this has not been happening. “We’ve been handing the equipment out as they go out in the field,” Lasswell states.

Advances in modeling and simulation in the video game industry may remedy this situation. Video game manufacturers “are doing great things” in areas that could not only help Marines learn how to use new equipment but also allow them to rehearse missions, he says.

To support the Marine Corps in its quest to improve the infantrymen’s lot, Lasswell calls on industry to militarize many of its current products. This includes “getting serious” about trucks that run on hybrid fuels, improving power sources and finding commercial applications for products, which would reduce the cost to the military.

The Marine Corps Science and Technology Strategic Plan is available on the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Web site at www.mcwl.usmc.mil.


Web Resources
U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory: www.mcwl.quantico.usmc.mil
Sea Viking Exercise: www.mcwl.usmc.mil/SV/home.cfm
U.S. Joint Urban Operations: www.jfcom.mil/about/fact_juo.htm