In sci-fi entertainment, military engagements of the future often look supremely, well, futuristic, with orderly lines of armored troops firing bright lasers at each other across a clear, well-defined combat zone. But according to U.S. Marine Corps and Navy Officers with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) in Quantico, Virginia, the real battlefield of the future will be far less defined — and far more complicated.
Improving a Marine’s ability to meet these future conflicts head-on is “what the MCWL is all about,” said Capt. Kelsey Moore, Aviation Combat Element Branch Head for the lab. She added, “Marines like to say that we equip men — we don’t man equipment — so we’re trying to figure out ways to give Marines more equipment to help augment what they do.”
The defining aspect of the battlefield of the future will be its environment, and its distance from traditional bases and HQ infrastructure. According to Lt. Cdr. David Gribben, who heads up the MCWL Expeditionary Medicine Portfolio, Marines of the future will be stationed on floating sea bases, and will be inserted ashore, likely via unspecified next-gen versions of the Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs) or MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft that Marines have used for some time. “They’re going to go in very light [i.e. with a minimum of gear] … into very hostile, lethal environments,” he said.
America’s most recent wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, are atypical from what we can expect in the future. Despite the severity of those conflicts, the fact remained that there were world-class facilities within a quick flight from the battlefield that Marines could return to and recover. That won’t be true in the future, as Marines more frequently will be engaged in “crisis-response, limited-contingency fights ... with very, very basic resources,” as Gribben said.
In these austere, forward (near enemy lines) environments, Marines will have with them only what they can carry on the aforementioned AAVs or MV-22s. Thus, reducing battery size and increasing battery capacity, as well as improving the power-management systems on the smaller vehicles Marines use (such as ATV-type vehicles) will be of utmost importance. The technological march forward in the civilian sector already is taking care of a reduction in the size of lithium batteries, but Gribben believes that power-management systems, which reduce energy consumption and extend battery life, “are where we’re going to make our money.” These solutions, one example of which is increasing the size of the alternator on the vehicles, “aren’t glamorous, but certainly give us higher efficiencies,” Gribben said.
Battery size isn’t the only thing that will be smaller on the battlefield of the future: So will unit size. In the future, relatively compact 100-person units will be distributed across a field of operations. “You’ll have platoon-level efforts, alone and unafraid, across a battlefield of anywhere from three to 10 kilometers,” Gribben said. Since the Marines have historically been the smallest and most agile branch of the military, this “muscle memory” will allow them to adapt even more skillfully to these smaller-unit challenges.
Smaller units are desirable in that they can respond more quickly and be more targeted, with less of a logistical footprint. But it’s not possible for units of that size to have with them an expert in every possible situation or skill. That’s where Capt. James Piniero, who leads ground robotics technology development for the MCWL, and his team come in.
Humans have weaknesses, and these weaknesses are exacerbated by smaller unit size. So it becomes even more imperative to augment Marines with helpers. “You could probably trace this back to ancient times,” Piniero said. “People used to use falcons to hunt. You can use dogs to hunt, or to detect IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. This is another extension of that. How can we make the human system better — especially the team — by utilizing unmanned systems that can see and sense things we can’t?”
Presently, and in the past two wars, these ground robots have been mostly used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance — much like a pair of binoculars. The farther out you can see or sense a threat, the more time there is to make a decision on what to do about it. One of the challenges now, Piniero said, “is how we can push that down to lower levels, and get these machines to support the rifleman on the ground directly.”
Technology is a barrier to entry, but so is an organizational model that largely stems from World War II. “Right now a lot of these [autonomous systems] are not organic to an infantry battalion,” he said. Part of this is due to the resource constraint that comes with requiring someone in the unit (or multiple someones) to have expertise in the robotics systems that are being deployed. In the future, Piniero expects for robotics operation to become an official Military Occupational Specialty, or MOS, within the Marine Corps, which currently it is not. One way this might manifest itself is in long-range teleoperations, which looks at controlling a ground robot from a displaced location, similar to how larger airborne drones operating in, say, the Middle East are controlled from a Stateside base.
Ground robots are of course not the only robo-companions that Marines will have in years to come. Large unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, such as the Predator drones that are used to take out terrorist targets, are already fixed in the imagination of the public. But on the battlefield of the future, the UAVs accompanying Marine units may look much more similar to the simple quadcopters that hobbyists send aloft in parks and fields.
Capt. Moore said that UAVs are the cutting edge for gaining information, whether from the electromagnetic or visual spectrum, target designations, and more. “It’s a pretty broad application,” she said. Because there are so many different things these UAVs can do — especially the smaller ones — Moore and her team are interested in a “plug-and-play” aspect to their payload (i.e. what they carry). “At some times you might want to be able to see what’s out ahead of you in the battlefield,” she said. “At other times you might want to carry … something small that is vital, [but] that you don’t necessarily need an entire helicopter or airplane to carry.”
But mostly, though, Moore and her team are indiscriminate when it comes to innovative UAVs and their applications. “If it looks cool and has a cool feature to it, then we want to see if it has a potential military application,” she said. Two particular UAV examples that Moore believes have potential are one made by the manufacturer Lily, with “follow-me” functionality (the controller wears a GPS-enabled device, and the drones follows that person), and one that is very small and yet can carry an impressive camera. She said, “It was so small that a Marine could easily carry it in his pocket, so that has clear military application, just in that it’s light and easy to use.”
In the future, these machines may not come from a factory in the U.S., either — or at least not all of them. Moore is interested in how 3D printing could contribute. She said, “If you had a 3D printer that was in a safe location overseas, you would maybe be able to take an order for a part or the main platform, and then have some of the small UAV engines and payloads to be able to slap onto it.” That would provide a clear reduction in logistical requirements, especially in austere forward environments.
It’s clear that future Marines will be facing an even more demanding battlefield than what they experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it is imperative that the technology they have to support them keeps pace.
The people who Capt. Moore, Lt. Cdr. Gribben, and Capt. Piniero need to accomplish this mission do not necessarily have to be highly qualified scientists or engineers. “We call ourselves a lab, but we’re not wearing white coats and doing scientific experiments,” Moore said, pointing out that she herself has a liberal-studies degree. “You don’t need to be technically minded to find innovative solutions.”
And that, ultimately, is what the MCWL is focused on: leveraging what the rest of the Department of Defense and other government agencies, as well as the civilian sector, are doing to help “the war fighter,” as Moore put it. “The endpoint is to help the Marine who is in the forefront of the battle, who is blinded to his or her situation and carrying a million things and just wants to be able to execute the mission,” she said. “Improving a Marine’s ability to execute the mission is really what we’re all about.”
Hunter Slaton is the Content Director for Studio@Gawker.