Hundreds of U.S. Marines will begin receiving advanced training in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles before deploying to the war zone.
Combined, about 480 officers and enlisted Marines will attend schoolhouses at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., each year to learn how to operate and maintain the Corps’ smallest UAVs, according to Marine officials. The school at Camp Lejeune, called Training and Logistics Support Activity, began enrolling students in mid-July.
While operators of larger UAVs have their own military occupational specialties and belong to units dedicated to that purpose, Marines using the smallest UAVs have received training on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
“The training activity [at Camp Lejeune] will primarily support Marines from II Marine Expeditionary Force” and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, according to Jim Rector, the Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical UAS program manager. “The typical class is comprised of company grade officers and staff noncommissioned officers and below.”
That means even second lieutenants and junior-enlisted infantry Marines will get training, providing them an opportunity to learn how to plan and execute UAV missions before heading downrange. The school also supports other services, including Naval Special Warfare units. And if training requirements arise downrange or at stateside installations, the schools will deploy Mobile Training Teams, bringing a standard UAV curriculum to Marines throughout the fleet.
The Camp Pendleton school will begin training West Coast units before the end of the year.
UAVs, heavily used during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to gather intelligence, survey the battlefield and strike enemy targets, are gaining wider use among dismounted troops with the introduction of micro aircraft that weigh just a few pounds and can fit into a pack.
Recently acquired aircraft including the Switchblade, produced by California-based AeroVironment, have given even the most light and mobile grunts the ability not only to see over the next ridge, but to strike small targets with deadly force. At just 5.5 pounds, the kamikaze aircraft can be piloted into the enemy, unleashing its deadly payload — about equivalent to a grenade, according to the aircraft’s makers.
But the growing use of Group I UAVs — those which weigh less than 20 pounds, fly below 1,200 feet and stay aloft between 45 minutes and two hours — has created the need for standardized training. Before the East and West Coast schools, some training was provided through the Army while other training was provided through contracts with private small businesses.
“Historically, the training has always been opportunistic in nature, with no consistency in frequency or timing,” Rector said.
Marines were cobbled into UAV classes on an ad hoc basis to meet specific mission requirements, which meant some headed downrange without any training and had to be brought up to speed while on deployment. The new schools should alleviate that problem.
Once Marines complete the training they will receive a certification verifying that they can “effectively operate Group 1 systems to include mission planning, mission sensor/payload operations, launching, remotely piloting and recovering aerial vehicles,” according to Rector.