Marine Rifle Squads are Getting Drones

By the end of 2017, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps wants every Marine grunt squad downrange to carry an unmanned aerial vehicle for reconnaissance and surveillance.

Gen. Robert Neller described to Marines a brave new world of high-end threats, new technologies and an increasingly complex operating environment as he unveiled the new Marine Corps Operating Concept here at the Modern Day Marine expo.

The document describes future fights in littoral mega-cities, a battle of electromagnetic signatures, and an operating environment in which drones and unmanned systems shoulder more of the load.

“As machines advance from performing repetitive tasks to dynamic workloads, it will free people to focus on the things they do uniquely or best,” the concept document states. “The challenge, as machines become more capable and autonomous, is how to put people and things together in the most effective pairings for the mission at hand.”

And to put teeth to the vision, Neller laid out a timeline to incorporate at least one technology.

“At the end of next year, my goal is that every deployed Marine infantry squad had got their own quadcopter,” he said. “They’re like 1,000 bucks.”

Neller said he wasn’t advocating for a particular manufacturer and suggested this relatively cheap piece of gear would be strategically fielded outside the normal supply chain. Since commercially available quadcopter drones are being constantly upgraded, he said, a more selective process made sense.

“It would be kind of silly, I think to field the whole Marine Corps at one time, because in six months there’s going to be something better to buy hopefully cheaper,” he said.

It’s not the first time Neller has talked about putting inexpensive drones in infantry units to enhance situational awareness. In August, he told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. that he was interested in creating an assistant squad leader position with a primary focus on operating the unit’s UAVs.

The assistant squad leader concept and the idea of equipping small units with drones were both tested out in the recent Marine Air Ground Task Force Integrated Experiment 2016, held at Twentynine Palms, California in August. The exercise proved the operational value of these concepts, senior officials said Wednesday.

It remains unclear how a quadcopter manufacturer will be selected, or whether units will procure the systems individually.

The MIX-16 exercise also employed a small number of pocket-sized PD-100 drone systems, made by Proxdynamics. But while these systems are lightweight and easy to operate, they don’t meet the $1,000 price point that Neller mentioned. The systems cost $50-$60,000 apiece, with additional costs for accessories.

One future solution Neller proposed is 3-D printing, a new technology being aggressively explored by the Marine Corps logistics community.

“Maybe we can just buy the design [for a quadcopter] and print our own,” Neller said. “I’m not joking.”

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