The Marine Corps, in conjunction with the Navy, is readying for a major exercise to test new technologies and address potential capability gaps under the guise of multi-domain battle.

The Ship to Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation, or S2ME2, Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, or ANTX, will take place in late April at Camp Pendleton, California, with a focus on how the naval force projects power in a 21st century contested environment.

Much like the other services within the joint force, the Marine Corps is grappling with more than a decade at war against technologically inferior adversaries while near-peer competitors observed U.S. tactics and invested in technologies and concepts to compete and win against the military.

"Our challenge is in the information age trying to leverage technology to come up with solutions to be able to maintain the capability of projecting power against a near-peer competitor in a forcible way," said Col. Daniel Sullivan, chief of staff for the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.

He said the commandant has charged them with using creativity to leverage the naval research and development enterprise and come up with solutions to this problem — getting at electronic warfare, spoofing, swarming unmanned aerial vehicles, how to use autonomous robotic systems to do things that Marines used to do in the past, such as beach reconnaissance or mine clearing, he added.

What's unique about the upcoming exercise is the input, collaboration and side-by-side participation of war fighters and members of the science and technology community. At first, the military developed a problem statement, translated so that scientists and engineers could understand it to be able to articulate what they could bring to bear, then come back to operators in a workshop to make operational assessments of what was possible, said Capt. Chris Mercer, the Navy's director of rapid prototyping and experimentation.

Following this operational and technical planning, the Marine Corps released a special notice for the exercise listing five capability concepts, which were determined to be the keys to success for a future threat environment, said Doug King, director of The Ellis Group with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, which evaluates, assesses and writes about how Marines should fight now and in the future.

The five capability concept areas include:

  • Ship to shore maneuver
  • Amphibious fire support and effects
  • Clear amphibious assault lanes
  • Amphibious command and control, communications, and computers (C4)
  • Amphibious information warfare

Additionally, the service developed mission threads within these concept areas, King said, grouping similar technologies from proposals received together. They include:

  • Early intelligence preparation of the battlespace, early reconnaissance, to examine how to get forces in or capabilities in to determine the nature of the problem that exists in the littoral using things like sensors, signals intelligence, communications intelligence and the like.
  • Threat identification, which examined how to use some of those same aforementioned technologies as well as unmanned systems to find, locate and characterize the threats as to apply capabilities against them.
  • Reconnaissance and threat elimination, which seeks to eliminate threats such as mines using unmanned technologies
  • Maneuver ashore, which examined how to get capability systems and personnel to shore as a means of displaying combat power.
  • Amphibious command and control, communication and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, which looked at common operational picture integration and working around a GPS-denied environment to share and get information into the hands of the user.

What will the exercise look like? Maj. Jim Foley, a plans officer with the Ellis Group, explained to C4ISRNET that there will be swarming unmanned surface vessels doing maneuvers at sea, remotely operated ground vehicles coming to shore through the surf zone with other unmanned ground systems doing fire support — all of which will be operated by industry or government lab personnel.

Simultaneously, the operational piece will include fleet Marines and sailors accompanied by subject matter experts watching demonstrators perform, asking questions and evaluating the technologies in terms of their operational relevance.

All told, there will be more than 100 technologies with the chance to be technically and operationally assessed by subject matter experts, he added, noting that the best-performing technologies will be applied to future full-scale exercises with blue on red forces. S2ME2 will not have red or opposing forces, officials said, but Mercer noted that some technology will contest demonstrations, mostly in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Multi-domain battle

The services are looking toward future operating environments that will require seamless integration of capabilities across all the domains of warfare. The Marines have developed a multi-domain white paper in concert with the Army that will evaluate how to fight and win in complex operating environments in which forces will be contested and denied certain capabilities such as GPS and communications.

Officials have previously discussed the need to integrate unmanned systems into operating concepts, using unmanned systems, for example, to take the pointso as to not risk the lives of Marines in early insertion.

The newly minted Marine Operating Concept, published in September, focused intensely on adopting new and emerging technologies in the unmanned, cyber and electronic warfare space to keep pace with adversaries.

Rapid acquisition

The other piece of the puzzle is that once technologies and accompanying concepts are identified, the tools must get into the hands of war fighters. The current industrial acquisition system is "no longer satisfactory," Sullivan said. "You have to go faster."

The Marines stood up a Rapid Capabilities Officein late 2016 to "accelerate prototyping, demonstration, experimentation, and limited equipping of emerging capabilities."

In fact, the office’s initial mission set will include leading the S2ME2 task force.

Maj Justin P. Gogel, a plans officer with the Rapid Capabilities Office, told C4ISRNET as the Marines finish this process with the S2ME2 and understand what key technologies they want to move forward, they want to bridge that gap on the acquisition side and the first start is a more fully developed user evaluation.

Following the S2ME2, Sullivan envisions technologies tested that are most valuable and "ready for primetime" will be put in the hands of operators during the Bold Alligator exercise in October in North Carolina with the

II Marine Expeditionary Force

. Depending on the results, he added, they might have solutions ready for integration.

These types of exercises can be helpful not only from a future operational preparedness perspective, but in uncertain budgetary environments, Mercer said, the exercises can better inform the costs of new technologies.