The Marine Corps wants an 'R2D2' robot for every squad

QUANTICO, Va. — A Marine infantry squad with its own “Star Wars” drone. A combat unit in the field making its own spare parts with a 3-D printer. A truck that tells its operators when it needs maintenance.

These are a few of the innovative concepts a panel of senior Marine Corps leaders on Sept. 27 said were being developed or considered to help the Corps operate and, if necessary, fight in a future that could include a “great power war.”

The officers also discussed broader ideas such as the Marines finding ways to help the Navy achieve sea control in a heavily contested littoral environment and developing the capabilities to fight information warfare to match the newly threatening Russians.

Spot, a quadruped prototype robot, aids Marines in clearing a room during a demonstration at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, Sept. 16, 2015.

Spot, a quadruped prototype robot, aids Marines in clearing a room during a demonstration at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, Sept. 16, 2015.

The officials’ report to industry came on the opening day of the Modern Day Marine exposition at the historic “home of the Marine Corps.”

The focus of the report and the expo is innovation and a drive to move the Corps quickly into the future to respond to the rapid increase and global proliferation of advanced technology and an increasingly complex security environment.

Those themes will be highlighted by the unveiling of a new operating concept by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.

The panel listed a number of efforts already underway, including a rapid capabilities office designed to reduce the prolonged acquisition process. That is tied into an innovation center that has a website eliciting revolutionary ideas from Marines at all levels. They also mentioned a 10-year experimental effort called Sea Dragon and a drive to change basic organization in the Marine Corps Force 2025 initiative.

“What we see is how technology is changing so rapidly. That excites us, but also scares us a bit,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration.

To avoid falling behind potential adversaries, Walsh said, the Corps is changing, but “we have to go faster. The commandant is pushing us to go faster.”

Deputy Commandant for Programs, Plans and Operations Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey noted the Russian capabilities in information warfare and warned “we have to be able to operate in that environment to be successful.”

Highlighting the need for greater use of robotic system, Bailey envisioned “every infantry squad having an R2D2,” a reference to the Star Wars drone.

Director of Combat Development and Integration Brig. Gen. Roger Turner said he is moving into phase two of the Force 2025 study that is developing the kind of Marine Corps needed for future conflicts with peer competitors or against “non-state actors” that could use asymmetric guerrilla tactics or high technology weapons.

“It is sobering to think we could be engaged in great powers war. … That is a major driver in Force 2025, that we’re not prepared to fight great power war,” Turner said.

In the emerging combat environment, Turner said, naval force will “really have to fight for sea control,” and his office is looking for ways that the Marine Air Ground Task Force deployed with an amphibious force can contribute to sea control to enable power projection in a contested environment.

Assistant Deputy Commandant for Installations and Logistics Brig. Gen. Terry Williams described efforts under way to achieve “hybrid logistics” that would reduce the burden of pushing supplies and support into isolated combat units by improving their ability to provide their own water, recharge batteries and use less fuel.

He said use of 3-D printing could allow deployed units to produce their own spare parts and “sense and response” maintenance would allow vehicle maintenance to be conducted only when needed and would avoid unnecessary work.

Marine Corps Systems Command chief Brig. Gen. Joseph Shrader described a number of ways to reduce the weight of combat forces, including shifting to “active protection” systems for tactical vehicles, instead of the “passive protection” of armor plating, and changing the combat gear carried by ground units. Active protection would use small munitions to intercept anti-armor missiles.

He said other efforts were ongoing that might provide different combat equipment for the different jobs performed by Marine infantry units, such as riflemen, machinegunners or mortar crews.

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