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Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal – The Marine Corps Seeks to Automate More Warfighting

Veteran News
Veteran News
October 1, 2023
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There is a common joke in the American armed services that the Marine Corps does more with less… Because it must. Often the Marine Corps gets tasked with the country’s most difficult and dangerous missions, and a budget of one whole straw penny. Excellence being its own punishment has frequently kept the Marines in Army hand-me-downs, battlefield acquisitions, and personal purchases for most of its history.

 In fact, the proposed 2024 budget for the Marine Corps is approximately $53.2 billion; that sum would seem large, until compared to the other services which average $191 billion each. (Not including the Space Force, which is still trying to decide on what exactly they do.) 

Despite the crumbs, the Marine Corps is modernizing their tactics and the equipment they want to use to do so. We’ve previously written about Force Design 2030, an overall restructuring plan to bring the force from 20 years of desert warfare against insurgence into a future where it can operate in multiple difficult environments against near peer enemies. With an emphasis on China and the Pacific theater, more mobile and multifunctional units are the objective, allowing for coverage of wide swathes of contested territory without a massive expenditure of troops and equipment.

There are portions of Force Design 2030 which are badly needed, and others that are seen by some as a repeat of past mistakes due to, ironically enough, not considering future needs. Which programs fall into which category is up for some debate but hidden within the line items and budget numbers are some tech upgrades any Marine who has humped a pack can agree on… Provided Skynet doesn’t get involved. Automation seems to be the focus of simplifying the battlefield’s logistical functions to allow the warfighter to keep doing what they do best.

Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft Systems - TRUAS

This device does, at first glance, resemble a much larger version of a drone you might purchase on Amazon, the TRUAS is anything but. Current models can carry a payload of up to 150 pounds at a distance of approximately nine miles. That alone would be sufficient to justify the drone’s $325k price tag, but there are a few more crucial features built in.

TRUAS isn’t manually flown in the manner of its smaller civilian cousins, only monitored by the operator. Instead, route markers are set, and the drone makes decisions on how best to accomplish the assigned journey. According to the budget justification, TRUAS reduces the danger of aerial resupply dramatically, allowing beans, bullets, and band-aids to be dropped to forces “where the risk to manned aircraft would deny manned aviation resupply operations.”

If that wasn’t enough to sell you, the entire system’s function and maintenance can be achieved by two Marines who attend a five-day course. Temporary duty, a cool cert that can help with the resume, and you get to fly drones? Deal.

Remote Expeditionary Autonomous Pioneer – REAPr

The specifics of this remotely driven off road vehicle are still sparse, as the company awarded the contract is still tweaking the design, the concept is simple: a robotic “Swiss Army knife” for Marines on the battlefield. From logistical operations, multiple tool functions, and clearing mines, REAPr will be a “workforce multiplier” for the service, said Ross Wehner, Senior Analyst for Corporate Development and Strategy at Stratom. “The idea is to create a single vehicle that can be versatile to address a lot of those challenges and objectives,” said Wehner. The device represents a serious step up from using a hand scythe on the end of a stick to deal with mines.

REAPr is currently remote piloted, which allows Marines in the field to complete dangerous operations from relative safety, but even that system could see an upgrade sooner rather than later. Stratom already has a program called Summit Off-Road Autonomy platform, which will be the origin point for giving the REAPr more initiative in completing its missions.

Autonomous Low-Profile Vessel

Marines are known for a great many things, but craftiness and asymmetrical thinking is always high on the list. Don’t misunderstand, Marines aren’t prone to wanton disregard of law and order, quite the opposite… In keeping with the tradition of not letting the bad guys get the better of us, we did what Marines do best. We stole their tactics. 

Drug trafficking remains a constant issue, which points to the effectiveness of their logistical adaptations. “We just copied the drug lords down in [Joint Interagency Task Force] South running drugs. They’re hard for us to find, so now we figured, yeah, it works,” according to Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration.

The latest version of the ALPV is the Expeditionary Fast Transport 13, the USNS Apalachicola. Designed for high speed delivery of materials and munitions in shallow waters, the vessel copies the drug runner tactic without breaking the law. 

The USNS Apalachicola has been fitted with navigation and guidance technology that has since allowed the plucky ship to deliver its payload to the shore from littoral vessels and back unassisted. While crew were present to observe, numerous supply runs were executed without intervention. During a conflict in which small units would need resupply to arrive quickly without threatening additional lives, this is a force multiplying capability.

One more aspect of the ALPV raises the eyebrow in a positive way: they can be made cheap. Lt. Gen. Heckl stated that he was unsure how many the Marine Corps would buy, but because of their price “they’re almost expendable,” an important feature for a craft that would be a tempting target in open water. 

The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory continues to tinker and experiment, making their section of the Force Design 2030 an ongoing series of options and course adjustments. 

Emphasis is being placed on robotics, automation, and technologies which will be robust enough to not get an eye roll when the words ‘military grade’ are spoken, and can put Marines in a position to maintain their position as the world’s toughest and most prepared fighting force. These concepts are by no means new, as many are continuations of programs that began decades ago, but as our technology advances, it seems we are getting closer to the realization of their true potential.

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