The Marine Corps has, in recent months, started to shift its focus away from operations in the Middle East and begun to emphasize preparing to operate in extreme cold— like that found in northern Europe and northeast Asia.
US forces “haven’t been in the cold-weather business for a while,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said in January 2018. “Some of the risks and threats there, there is a possibility we are going to be there.”
That reorientation has placed new demands on Marines operating at northern latitudes in Europe and North America — and put new strains on their equipment.
The Corps has issued requests for information on a new cap and gloves for intense cold, and it plans to spend nearly $13 million on 2,648 sets of NATO’s ski system for scout snipers, reconnaissance Marines, and some infantrymen.
But the transition to new climates hasn’t gone totally smoothly. Marines in northern Norway in 2016 and early 2017 reported a number of problems with their gear. Zippers stuck; seams ripped; backpack frames snapped; and boots repeatedly pulled loose from skis or tore on the metal bindings.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Brianna Gaudi)
Now the service is increasingly drawing on new technology to keep Marines equipped in harsh environments.
Marines at the Mountain Warfare Training Center, working with the Marine Corps System Command team focused on additive manufacturing, which is also known as 3D printing, have come up with a method for same-day printing of new snowshoe clips, which keep boots locked into show shoes.
“If a Marine is attacking a position in the snow while in combat, and the clip on their boot breaks, it makes it difficult for the Marine to run forward with a rifle uphill to complete the mission,” Capt. Matthew Friedell, AM project officer in MCSC’s Systems Engineering and Acquisition Logistics, said in a release. “If he or she has a 3D-printed clip in their pocket, they can quickly replace it and continue charging ahead.”
Th teams designed and printed the new clip, made of resin, within three business days of the request, and each clip costs just $0.05, the Marine Corps said in the release. The team has also 3D-printed an insulated cover for radio batteries that would otherwise quickly be depleted in cold weather.
“The capability that a 3D printer brings to us on scene saves the Marine Corps time and money by providing same-day replacements if needed,” said Capt. Jonathan Swafford, AM officer at MWTC. “It makes us faster than our peer adversaries because we can design whatever we need right when we need it, instead of ordering a replacement part and waiting for it to ship.”
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Damion Hatch Jr.)
The Marines aren’t the only ones working on 3D printing. The Navy is using it to make submersibles, and Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Carlton Everhart said in mid-2017 that the Air Force was looking at 3D printing to produce replacement parts.
But the Marine Corps has expressed particular interest in the technology.
A September 2016 message gave Marine unit commands broad permission to use 3D printing to build parts for their equipment. The force now relies on it to make products that are too small for the conventional supply chain, like specialized tools, radio components, or items that would otherwise require larger, much more expensive repairs to replace.
In June 2017, Marine Lt. Col. Howard Marotto, the Corps’ lead for additive manufacturing and 3D printing, told Military.com that Marines were the first to deploy the machines to combat zones with conventional forces.
Marotto said several of the desktop-computer-size machines had been deployed with the Marine Corps crisis-response task force in the Middle East.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Kaitlin Kelly)
The Corps is developing the X-FAB, a self-contained, transportable 3D-printing facility contained within a 20-foot-by-20-foot box, meant to support maintenance, supply, logistics, and engineer units in the field. The service also said it wants to 3D-print mini drones for use by infantry units.
Marine officials have attributed much of the Corps’ progress with 3D printing to its younger personnel, many of whom have taken initiative and found ways to incorporate the new technology.
“My eyes are watering with what our young people can do right now,” Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said at a conference in March 2018, adding that 69 of the devices had been deployed across the force. “I have an engineering background, but I’m telling you, some of these 21- and 22-year-olds are well ahead of me.”
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