New Infantry Challenge: Drones Pose Risk to Aircraft in Training

A Marine with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, assists his squad by providing reconnaissance with an “Instant Eye” unmanned aerial system at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., July 31, 2016. (US Marine Corps photo)
A Marine with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, assists his squad by providing reconnaissance with an “Instant Eye” unmanned aerial system at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., July 31, 2016. (US Marine Corps photo)

The Marine Corps is going back to the drawing board on some of its range training policies and procedures to take on a new challenge that simply didn't exist a decade ago: how to safely integrate drones and manned aircraft in range training exercises.

One of the insights to come out of an 18-month-long infantry experiment was a need for range training areas better suited to unmanned aerial vehicle operations and updates to deconfliction procedures that would let drones and planes come together for training without posing risks to each other, said Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman, commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.

In a brief with reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Wortman said the military had long practiced deconfliction protocols for aircraft and indirect fires systems such as howitzers, mortars, and naval gunfire, but had never before had to tailor policies for drones.

The Corps is already moving forward with a plan, informed by the recent infantry experiment, that would place small UAVs throughout the infantry battalion: nine in each squad, three at the platoon level, and one at the company level. Wortman said he could not yet say which make and model of unmanned systems would equip future grunt units.

"Now we're putting all kinds of UAVs in the air, and those represent a potential risk to our manned assets," Wortman said. "So we need to make sure that as squads, platoons and companies are launching [unmanned aerial systems] in order to heighten their situational awareness, be able to conduct their operations with more precision, and be more lethal, we are making adjustments to our techniques and procedures for managing that airspace and deconflicting our manned assets from those unmanned assets."

Among unmanned systems that have been used by experimental infantry unit 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, over the course of testing is the Aerovironment Switchblade, a kamikaze-style loitering munition designed to be launched from a tube toward its intended target. The unique profile of that missile-like drone, which can close in on a target at almost 100 miles per hour, provided its own challenges.

It raised questions about whether the Marines need new training ranges that are better suited to UAV operations.

"The traditional layout of our indirect fire ranges for artillery fires and mortar fires doesn't always account for the employment profile for the [Switchblade] as an example," Wortman said. "So we need to make sure that we have ranges and training areas so that the Marines are able to get reps on this new type of system."

So far, the Corps has been conservative about its employment of drones and aircraft together, scheduling them so they don't intersect and risk disaster.

But new deconfliction rules, Wortman suggested, could allow the service to train like it wants to fight, with all its assets working together to enhance capability.

"We need to advance to a level of sophistication where we're able to employ [UAVs and aircraft] simultaneously and use other deconfliction tools so that we can create maximum effect and opportunity," he said.

Wortman added that the Corps is also re-evaluating the training of joint fires observers, who are responsible for deconfliction of aircraft and indirect fires, to ensure infantrymen on the ground have what they need to safely operate drones in the fight.

"We're on the cusp of incorporating new technology and capabilities with the unmanned air systems and the [lethal miniature aerial munitions], and we need to make sure that our training program supports empowering small unit leaders to employ those assets and those capabilities in a responsive and timely manner," he said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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