Unmanned Air Systems and the USMC: A MAWTS-1 Perspective


By Robbin Laird

Two years ago, I published a chapter on the USMC’s recent experience with unmanned air systems in the book edited by John Jackson, entitled, One Nation Under Drones. I focused on the substantial experience they have accumulated with Scan Eagle and then with the Blackjack system.

The primary use has been in terms of ISR in the land wars, but with the return to the sea and now the focus on how the Marines can best help the US Navy in the maritime fight, the focus has shifted to how to best use UASs in the maritime domain.

With the recent decision to cancel its MUX ship-based UAS to pursue a family of systems, the focus will be upon both land-based and sea-based UASs but not to combine these capabilities into a single air vehicle.

As the then Deputy Commandant of Aviation, Lt. General Rudder put it:

“In the next 10 years, the quickest way – the commandant wants to go quick on this – this quickest way will be some sort of land-based high-endurance that can be based and still be able to provide the surface force, the amphibious force the capabilities that we would call ‘quarterback,’ or some sort of node that can provide 24 hours on station time, it will have all the networking and early warning and electronic warfare capabilities that they require for that type of thing,”

But the path to do this is not an easy one. And it is a path which is not just about the technology, but it is about having the skill sets to use whatever system is developed, the connectivity so that the combat effect can be connected to the maneuver force, and to have communication links which have low latency, notably in the maritime fight.

During my visit to MAWTS-1 in early September 2020, I had a chance to talk with Captain Dean, an experienced UAS officer who is a UAS instructor pilot at MAWTS-1. We discussed a wide range of issues with regard to UAS within the USMC, but one comment he made really gets at the heart of the transition challenge: “What capabilities do we need to continue to bring to the future fight that we currently bring to the fight?”

What this question highlights it there is no combat pause for the Marines – they need to be successful in the current range of combat situations, and to re-shape those capabilities for the combat architecture re-design underway?

But what if this is not as significant and overlapping as one might wish?

This is notably true with regard to UAS systems. In general terms, the UAS systems which have been dominant in the Middle East land wars have required significant manning, lift capability to move them around in the battlespace and are not low-latency communications systems. Although referred to as unmanned, they certainly are not so in terms of support, movement of exploitation systems, or how that data gets exploited.

There clearly is a UAS potential for the blue water and littoral engagement force but crafting very low demand support assets, with low latency communications are not here as of yet.

And in the current fights ashore, UASs, like Blackjack provide important ISR enablement to the Ground Combat Element.  And as the Marines have done so, they have gained very useful combat experience and shaping of relevant skill sets to the way ahead for the UAS within the future force.

The goal is to have more flexible payloads for the UAS force going forward, but that means bringing into the UAS world, experienced operators in fields broader than ISR, such as electronic warfare.

But there is clearly a tension between funding and fielding of larger UAS’s for the amphibious task force, and between shaping new systems useable by combat teams. And the challenge here clearly is to manage information and to distribute by communications system. Although the phrase about distributing information at the right time and at the right place sounds good, this is very difficult to do, if the data links simply do not expose the combat force to adversary target identification.

This is yet another key area where contested combat space has not much to do with what can do with UASs in uncontested air space.

Captain Dean underscored that since 2015, “we have been able to normalize unmanned aviation with the USMC. We have been able to bring in a lot of experience into the VMUs and with the sundowning of the Prowlers, have brought in Marines experienced with electronic warfare as well. We continue to prioritize our training on the Blackjacks going to the MEUs.”

He highlighted that this posed a challenge for transition. To get full value out of the Blackjacks operating off the amphibious force, changes need to be made on those ships to get full value from operating these UASs. But if the Blackjack is a short term or mid-term solution, the kind of investment which needs to be made is not likely to happen.

What he highlighted was the crucial importance of the infrastructure afloat to make best use of the UASs which the USMC and US Navy will operate. And given the challenge of managing space onboard the ship, sorting out the nature of the infrastructure and how to manage it is a key aspect of the way ahead for UASs.

Another challenge is who wants what within the combat force. If we are looking at the fleet as a whole, the desire is to have fleet wide ISR, or capabilities to deliver combat effect. If one is focused on the battalion, they are focused on having capabilities organic to the battalion itself.

Again this is a development and investment challenges which as well raises questions of what kind of infrastructure can be developed to deal with each of these different operational level requirements. “What does the MAGTF want? What does the battalion want? These are not the same things.”

In short, a key question facing the Marines with regard to UASs: “What capabilities do we need to continue to bring to the future fight that we currently bring to the fight?”

Featured Photo: A U.S. Marines Corps RQ-21 Blackjack UAS is retrieved during Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course (WTI) 1-18 at Yuma, Ariz., on Oct. 13, 2017. WTI is a seven week training event hosted by Marine Aviation and Weapons Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) cadre which emphasizes operational integration of the six functions of Marine Corps Aviation in support of a Marine Air Ground Task Force. MAWTS-1 provides standardized advanced tactical training and certification of unit instructor qualifications to support Marine Aviation Training and Readiness and assists in developing and employing aviation weapons and tactics. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Rhita Daniel)