Marines: Marines Create an Unmanned Aircraft Carrier


June 8, 2023: The U.S. Marine Corps is reorganizing and improvising to make itself useful in a future war in the Pacific. The latest innovation is a LRUSV (Long-Range Unmanned Surface Vessel) that does not carry aircraft but a large number of the Hero-120 loitering munition. Hero 120 weighs 12.5 kg (27.5 pounds) including a 4.6 kg warhead. Max endurance is 60 minutes and max range of the control signal is 40 kilometers. Because the LRUSV has to remain silent (no transmissions) to avoid detection, the Hero-120 will be modified to home on enemy transmissions.

The LRUSV is a 12.5 meter (40-foot) autonomous (unmanned) boat designed to operate at ranges of nearly 2,000 kilometers and launch loitering munitions to engage enemy targets afloat and ashore. The LRUSV must maintain accurate knowledge of position and time for navigation. During hostilities, GPS availability may be disrupted, degraded or denied by jamming. There is also the risk of spoofing (a form of jamming that changes the GPS data received). LRUSV has a backup INS (Inertial Navigation System) which requires position updates from GPS or an automated celestial navigation system to survive potential enemy jamming and spoofing efforts. Celestial Navigation (CELNAV) is a technique which has been around for hundreds of years and there is new technology that allows CELNAV to be performed without human intervention. This system still has reliability problems, which will delay a fully protected from uninterrupted accurate navigation system for the LRUSV. This means that initially LRSUV will enter service without a dependable, under all conditions, navigation system.

The primary mission of LRUSV is surveillance and reconnaissance. The Hero-120 missiles are an optional accessory for special operations that require a missile weapon. The marines already have some experience with Hero-120. Earlier experiments included converting some of their marine LAV-M 8x8 wheeled armored vehicles to carry an eight cell MCL (Multi-Canister Launcher) that will use the Hero-120, modified for USMC command and control systems. Hero-120 is one of many similar loitering munitions that Israeli firm Uvision has been developing and selling since 2011. The smallest Hero system is a family of small loitering munitions. The latest and largest of them is the Hero 20, which weighs 1.8 kg (four pounds) including a 200-gram (7 ounce) warhead, Endurance is 20 minutes and operator range is 10 kilometers. Hero 30 weighs 3 kg (6.6 pounds) with a .5 kg (1.1 pound) warhead, and 30 minutes endurance. Hero 70 weighs 7 kg (14.4 pounds) with a 1.2 kg (2.6 pound) warhead and 45 minutes endurance. All these weapons are stored and fired from a canister and the smaller three are designed to be carried by infantry. All use the same controller and digital camera. All use fold-out wings and an electric motor with the propeller in the rear that provides speeds of up to three kilometers a minute. Cruising speed, to obtain max endurance, is about half that.

The marines planned to use the MCL launcher on other vehicles or on ships. The Hero-120/MCL combination gave the marines a recon/attack UAV that can find and hit boats and other small craft as well as a wide variety of land targets. The MCL can be reloaded with different size canisters carrying more of the smaller Hero 30s or fewer of the Hero 400.

Uvision has developed and produced numerous Hero munitions in different sizes. All are battery powered except the largest one; Hero 900. This one uses a gasoline engine; weighs 97 kg (213 pounds) and carries a 20 kg (44 pound) warhead. This Hero has seven-hour endurance and a max range (from the operator) of 250 kilometers. In 2015 the Hero 400 was introduced with four-hour endurance, weight of 40 kg (88 pounds) with an 8 kg (18 pound) warhead. This UAV is battery powered and can operate up to 150 kilometers from the operator. In 2017 a new version, the Hero 400EC was released that had improved software and a return and land (using a parachute) capability. All Hero models are reusable and can be sent on longer range missions against a target using the GPS location. This is what made Hero-120 so attractive for the marines: a portable, inexpensive guided weapon with a max range of over 100 kilometers.

The marines have been using the 13-ton 8x8 LAV25 since 1983 and most are personnel carriers (11 crew and passengers) but some have been converted to carry heavy weapons, like the LAV-M mortar carrier equipped with an 81mm mortar.

The marines have already tested use of M142 HIMARs (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) guided rocket vehicles on the flight deck of an amphibious ship. In 2017 the marines found that, with a few modifications to the HIMARS fire control software, the vehicle could accurately fire GMLRS (GPS guided MLRS) rockets from the flight deck of one of an LHA or LHD ships. This is nothing new as during World War II U.S. forces fired unguided rockets from ships in support of amphibious operations. But the use of GMLRS meant HIMARS could provide precision fire support from a ship at sea and hit targets up to 85 kilometers away.

Innovations like LRUSV and the use of Hero-120s or GMLRS missiles from a flight deck are the sort of moves the marines have made before to remain useful. This is because the marines have opposed becoming too large and treated like an elite ground combat force. In 2010 the marines proposed a sharp reduction in the Corp’s size. Senior marine commanders expressed a preference for a smaller force, one that concentrated on its main mission; amphibious operations. The current proposals take that further and want the marines to become soldiers in a new Army Amphibious Corps. That misses the point about what makes the marines special.

Currently the marines were still dissatisfied with the way they have been used as an army auxiliary since 2001. The marines consider themselves specialists, while the army proved adaptable in major wars. It was the army, for example, that carried out more amphibious operations than the marines did during World War II. A 1956 law specified the minimum size of the Corps as three divisions and three air wings. While this law could be changed by Congress, it also allows the marines to reorganize themselves. For over a decade the marines have been asking for the 1956 law to be amended to allow a smaller minimum size of the marine corps. The marines point out that they have come to comprise a quarter of America's ground combat forces. That's active duty, when you count the much larger army reserve force, the marines were 18 percent of ground combat forces in 2010 and that has not changed much since then. The marines never wanted to be just another part of American ground combat forces, even if they were still marines. Among many liberal politicians, efforts to eliminate the marine corps entirely is always a good way to get some attention.

For over a decade the marines were also concerned about their relationship with the U.S. Navy, which formed another ground combat force in 2005. To understand how this came about, you have to understand the relationship between the navy and the marines. The marines are not part of the navy, as they are often described. Both the navy and marines are part of the Department of the Navy. The Department of the Army and Department of the Air Force each have only one component.

Over the years, the marines have acquired more and more autonomy from the navy. When the U.S. Marine Corps was created at the start of the American Revolution, marines were sailors trained and equipped to fight as infantry, and they were very much part of the navy, and a standard component of ship crews. This changed radically in the late 19th century, when all-metal steam ships replaced wooden sailing ships. The new "iron ships" really didn't need marines, and there were proposals to eliminate them. In response, the American marines got organized and made themselves useful in other ways. For example, the marines performed very well as "State Department Troops" in Latin America for half a century, from the late 19th century to just before World War II. This was a period when American troops were frequently used to deal with civil disorder abroad, and attempts at nation building. During World War I (1914-18), they provided a brigade for ground combat in Europe, where they demonstrated exceptional combat skills.

During the 1930s, as World War II approached, the U.S. Marine Corps saw an opportunity because the navy realized they would have to use amphibious assaults to take heavily fortified Japanese islands in any future war. Thus, once the U.S. entered World War II, the marines formed their first division size units, and ended the war with six divisions, organized into two corps.

At that point the Marine Corps was no longer just a minor part of the navy, but on its way to being a fourth service. Over the next half century, it basically achieved that goal. But in doing that, the navy lost control of its ground troops. Navy amphibious ships still went to sea, each with a battalion of marines on board. But because the marines are mainly an infantry force, and the war on terror was basically an infantry scale battle, the marines spent a lot more time working alongside the army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In effect, the American marines want to be more like the British marines. That's interesting, because British marines are called Royal Marine Commandos, and are quite different. Britain, which invented the modern concept of the commando, disbanded it's ten army commandos, as the battalion size commando units were called, at the end of World War II. The Royal Marines, however, saw the commando concepts as a welcome addition to their own amphibious doctrine and retained three of their nine Royal Marine Commandos. Since World War II, the Royal Marines have maintained at least three commando battalions. Artillery and engineer units are supplied by the army.

Like the U.S. Marines, the Royal Marines realized that assault from the sea was always a commando operation, requiring special training, bold leadership and an aggressive spirit. The Royal Marines, like their American counterparts, continued to innovate. In 1956, it was a Royal Marine Commando that launched the first helicopter assault from ships against a land target during the invasion of Egypt. The Royal Marine Commandos were used extensively to keep the peace in Ireland during the 1970s and 80s. In 1982, it was two Royal Marine Commandos and one parachute battalion that did most of the fighting to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina. The Royal Marines have performed peacekeeping duty in the Balkans and Africa, and served as an amphibious fast reaction force.

While the U.S. Marines made a name for themselves with multi-division amphibious operations in the Pacific during World War II, the Royal Marines stuck with the commando type operations that characterize what marines spend most of the time doing between major wars. An important aspect of this is that the last large scale amphibious operation took place seventy years ago when American marines, accompanied by South Korea marines they had trained, led a daring operation to seize Inchon, Korea in 1950. That was deemed impossible by the invading North Koreans, who did not leave a large force to defend Inchon from such an attack. Because of the marines, and the army divisions who came in behind them, the North Korean forces further south were cut off from supplies and reinforcements and soon defeated. As remarkable as the Inchon operation was, since then the typical marine mission has been a quick assault using a small (usually battalion size) force.

In anticipation of this, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was created in 2006. Over the next four years MARSOC sent some of its 2,400 personnel on over thirty deployments to South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. MARSOC is organized into a headquarters, a two battalion Special Operations Regiment, a Foreign Military Training Unit, and a Marine Special Operations Support Group. There are 3-4 Special Operations companies in each battalion. The marines basically lost two of their four Force Recon companies in order to build MARSOC. Meanwhile, more troops have been added to division level reconnaissance units, to take up some of that slack. The marine Special Operations troops provide a combination of services roughly equal to what the U.S. Army Special Forces and Rangers did, as well as some of the functions of the marine Force Recon units.

All the other services, except the marines, contributed to the formation of SOCOM in the late 1980s. The marines finally got around to working with SOCOM in 2005, when it was agreed that they would create a marine special operations command (MARSOC). The Marine Corps had long resisted such a step, largely because of its belief that marines are inherently superior warriors, capable of highly specialized missions. This attitude began to change during the fighting in Afghanistan, when marines were assigned to support SOCOM troops there.

As a result of that experience, marines were attached to SOCOM for liaison and observation purposes. In 2004, the marines organized a company sized unit of commandos, "Detachment One", using volunteers from their Force Recon troops, the closest thing the marines had to commandos. Detachment One was sent to Iraq, where it's performance convinced SOCOM that marines could operate at the SOCOM level.

The marines see their future as a smaller, by up to a third, or more and even more elite force that is better equipped. The marines want to get back to sea, and that can be done without losing a lot of the valuable combat experience the marines have gained in the recent wars. The marines continue the more extensive training marines have been getting for several decades now. This makes the marines an even more elite and very resourceful force, which is what many marines are fine with. That does not impress many peacetime critics who forget how marine attitudes and improvisations proved invaluable time and again in wartime.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close