MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. – Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger has given the Corps’ its way forward, a three-star general and six key Marine colonels spoke Tuesday about how they’ll use technology fight future battles.
Lt. Gen. Eric Smith kicked off the annual Modern Day Marine Corps Military Expo here with a focus on the role of the Marines in the “weapons engagement zone.” The term is highlighted in Berger’s Commandant’s Planning Guidance, released this summer.
The guidance pushes deeper naval integration, an increase in gear and tech that’s expeditionary, affordable and disposable.
“We can’t be training in Thailand, something happens and we say oh, wait, we have to go back to Okinawa for two weeks,” Smith said. “We have to take it with us. It has to be affordable and light.”
To that end, colonels with the Combat Development Directorate under Smith’s command, the Combat Development Command, are pushing their priorities to industry to find new ways to fight what all involved see as a complex, fast-moving, zero-room-for-error future war.
The future will be lighter, more autonomous and involve manned and unmanned teaming, Smith pulled from Berger’s guidance.
Top Marine brass will favor “newer and more affordable over exquisite,” and be looking for smaller, lighter, less exquisite but more numerous” solutions to their warfighting problems.
They’re getting after that not just with canvassing booths and pushing out needs statements but instead by wargaming concepts and solutions and using those to build mid- and long-term ways of developing new equipment that can evolve alongside their warfighting.
“We are going to bring about a level of change in the Marine Corps that we have probably not seen at least in this table’s lifetime,’ said Col. Paul Weaver, who heads CDD.
One of the key ways in which they’ll have to catch up to the demands of the modern battlefield is in an age-old arena – ground fires.
Col. Dave Bardorf, director of the Ground Combat Element at CDD, said that while the aviation side of the Marine Corps has the fires that are needed for the fight in their zone, the ground side is, “woefully behind on that capability.”
“In order to be relevant to the joint force and to us, ground base fires have to be effective,” Bardorf said. “If they’re not effective, we’re not relevant as a force.”
But for those ground fires to be effective, they need ammo and ways to fix vehicles when they break.
That falls in Col. Jesse Kemp’s lane, as he heads logistics for CDD.
Berger hit on possibly one of the Corps’ sacred cows in his planning guidance: the Maritime Preposition Force. The strategic sealift that puts gear with Marines in far flung areas will need changing if it’s going to survive a complex fight.
Kemp called that program the “jewel” of the Marine Corps, but quickly admitted that while it’s provided a great capability it is “quickly becoming not as relevant as in the past.”
And pushing the right amount of gear, resupply, maintenance to support Marines in the weapons engagement zone will be critical.
“Our effectiveness, our agility as a force is going to depend on the capability we design,” Kemp said.
Whatever replaces it will have to offload under threat conditions.
In the past doing effective offloads and sustaining combat operations was measured in months. That will become hours.
Future projections look to do a Marine Air Ground Task Force of substantial size in a 72 to 48 hour window. That’s lighting speed compared to where the combined Fleet Marine Force paired with strategic lift MPF units are now.
And maintaining whatever is offloaded is key.
“No matter the system, that capability, if it doesn’t have a simple maintenance system easily diagnosed on a forward, austere battlefield that can bring contact systems in to replace key items then no matter the system it quickly becomes untenable on the battlefield of the future,” Kemp said.
Another word that stuck out of the guidance will be paramount to how these colonels develop systems.
Col. Kurt Schiller heads aviation for the CDD. He recalled work he did in theater with an Army Stryker Brigade Combat Team that had to push soldiers and vehicles to a hot zone to retrieve a downed drone, risking lives and equipment for what should have been a throw away item.
That can’t be the way units use resources.
Instead they must be able to, “accept risk and lose platforms without worrying about losing assets or having someone come down on you for losing an asset,” Schiller said.
Col. Matthew Rau heads the command element for CDD. Boiling his portfolio down to three areas, he explained that advances in those areas – systems, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and the signals intelligence/electronic warfare branch – will require streamlining and miniaturizing to be effective.
And the last but likely most used element – information warfare.
That’s in Col. Scott Stebbins’ arena.
First on the docket is to reduce the footprint and needs of the combat operations center.
As Stebbins said, it’s too big, too heavy and too slow.
The future COC will be built around software solutions. “It’s all about the apps these days,” he said.
Corps wide they’re reducing data centers down to 10, which helps consolidate data and also reduces threat level to those sites.
He’ll also head ways to improve electronic signature management, another of Berger’s priorities.
All of those are aimed at those Marines, forward deployed, who must shift from a day to day training role to intense combat in moments.
“We live inside the weapons engagement zone. We’re not going anywhere,” Smith said. “We live inside the weapons engagement zone and we fully intend to stay. Our goal is to best persist inside the weapons engagement zone and be lethal.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.