WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps’ Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicle is undergoing testing throughout this year, cementing a previously debatable requirement that senior officials now believe will be critical in Europe, the Middle East and Africa — though too heavy for Pacific environs.
As the Corps continues on its Force Design 2030 modernization quest, it found a “requirement for littoral, multi-domain reconnaissance capabilities that our light armored reconnaissance (LAR) battalions do not currently provide,” reads a Force Design annual update document, released June 5.
The service has long struggled to find a replacement for the 1980s Light Armored Vehicles. In 2021 the Marine Corps awarded Textron and General Dynamics Land Systems contracts to build ARV prototypes, which were submitted in December for testing that began in January and will continue into the third quarter of the year.
The Corps is also testing a BAE Systems’ amphibious combat vehicle outfitted with similar mission equipment as the ARV prototypes: tethered and untethered unmanned aerial systems, electronic warfare systems, long-range weapons and a battle management system that allows vehicles to share information and control a wide battlespace.
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told Defense News in a May 31 interview that the light armored reconnaissance community has been a focus of Force Design experimentation over the past year. The 2022 Force Design update placed great importance on reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance battles.
The service’s analyses show that “we do still have a requirement for some type of LAV thing,” Heckl said. “And it’s going to be ARV. Initially, there were thoughts that perhaps that wasn’t required; it is. When you think of, from an [U.S. Africa Command], a [U.S. Central Command], a [U.S. European Command] perspective, that piece of equipment is necessary.”
While he said the legacy LAVs have a 25mm Bushmaster cannon and drive fast, the ARV “is going to be a node, another part of that sensing ecosystem at the tactical edge that is going to connect other pieces of kill webs and command and control.”
Because that need is clear, Heckl said there would be no delay in evaluating the three ARV prototypes this year and making a decision about down-selecting to a single vendor — though the Marine Corps has not released a timeline for when that decision might occur.
But the new vehicle may not work everywhere.
That is because the Marines’ vision of small units operating dispersed over large areas in the Pacific places a premium on light equipment, said Heckl. Any large vehicle with significant sustainment needs “is probably going to be borderline more of a liability than an asset” in that scenario, he told Defense News.
Other solutions could include light and ultra-light tactical vehicles and small boats, as forces move around their operating area and increasingly rely on unmanned vehicles to spread out in all directions and help sense the area and pass targeting data to other Marine Corps or joint force units.
“A light reconnaissance entity in the Indo-Pacific is probably going to look dramatically different from one that would be roaming around in Northern Africa or in CENTCOM’s AOR,” he said.
According to the 2023 Force Design update document, the current proposal for new mobile reconnaissance battalions (MRBs) would include maritime reconnaissance (waterborne) companies, light mobile companies and light armored companies, “all with greater reach and lethality.”
To help accelerate the transition from the current LAR battalions to these MRBs, each of the three active-duty LAR battalions will experiment with designing one of the new MRB companies: 1st LAR in California will experiment with the maritime reconnaissance company design; 2nd LAR in North Carolina will experiment with the light mobile company design; and 3rd LAR in California will experiment with the light armored company design.
Scott Lacy, the deputy director at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, said in the interview that this setup of concurrent experimentation, with each unit responsible for a distinct portfolio, will allow the Marines to answer its remaining questions “at the fastest possible pace.”
1st LAR and I Marine Expeditionary Force will experiment with small boats in support of the maritime reconnaissance company, something that that organization has already done and something the Marine Corps is familiar with from its old riverine squadrons.
The Marines will also pull from lessons learned by the Navy and special operations communities, as well as allies and partners that routinely conduct small boat operations, according to Marine Corps Warfighting Lab commander Brig Gen. Kyle Ellison. This existing body of research will help point the Marines in the right direction for their light reconnaissance platforms, he said.
This research and experimentation with small boats will also include the minimally manned Long-Range Unmanned Surface Vessel that will help provide multidomain reconnaissance, electronic warfare and deception, Col. Daniel Wittnam, the director of the Marine Corps Integration Division, told Defense News.
Heckl acknowledged the magnitude of change the reconnaissance community would see in the coming years, not only absorbing a new vehicle type but also rethinking the mission overall.
In preparing the latest annual Force Design update, he said, “I thought one of the most difficult things we were going to tackle was going to be this very subject, was going to be the MRBs, because it is so broad and I believe at this point the change is going to be so dramatic.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.