AI and UAS will shape the US Marine Corps of the future
The US Marine Corps has embarked on a ten-year makeover to return to its roots as an island-hopping, Pacific-dominating force. As the corps moves towards distributed operations and long-range fires, Harry Lye finds out how AI can help the US Marine Corps keep up with the rise of China.
// Image: US Marine Corps
The US Marine Corps (USMC) is restructuring with a clear focus on dominating in the Pacific. Moving away from decades of counter-insurgency operations, the Marines are ditching their tanks and going all-in on long-range fires and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for their future operations.
“The future Fleet Marine Force (FMF) requires a transformation from a legacy force to a modernised force with new organic capabilities,” the USMC said when announcing the changes. “The FMF in 2030 will allow the navy and marine corps to restore the strategic initiative and to define the future of maritime conflict by capitalising on new capabilities to deter conflict and dominate inside the enemy’s weapon engagement zone.”
US Marines return to their roots
The main focus of this effort is for the US Marine Corps to return to its roots and challenge the rising power of China in the Pacific. This fits into the wider US Department of Defence’s (DoD) swing away from a distributed array of threats to focus on one major threat: China.
“This is very much in line with both the commandants’ planning guidance and the DoD’s adoption of a one-war standard,” says Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) sea power research fellow Dr Sidharth Kaushal. “Essentially, rather than focusing on deterring a full spectrum of challenges, the defence enterprise is being optimised for China.
“Within this framework, things like tanks – which can be useful in expeditionary warfare in the Middle East but have no real utility in the Asia-Pacific – are being pruned from the Marines’ force structure.”
“The emphasis of the USMC is to be supporting the fleet from expeditionary advanced bases formed on Pacific islands and atolls.”
The reinvented Marine Corps is going all-in on fleet support, island-hopping and fleet expeditionary bases. Part of this an effort to meet China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at its own game, with a 300% increase in rocket artillery among the USMC’s plans.
“The emphasis of the USMC is to be supporting the fleet from expeditionary advanced bases formed on Pacific islands and atolls,” Kaushal explains. “This will be achieved by using long-range fires, UAVs and loitering munitions to deny sea-space to the PLA Navy (PLAN) and operating forward bare-bones logistical and resupply nodes such as forward arming and refuelling points to enable the US Navy to operate in the theatre more effectively.”
AI and UAS power distributed operations
A key challenge of operating in an area as large as the Pacific, and with the speed of today’s warfare, is acting faster. According to a report from the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a US ship in the Pacific could find itself come under fire from 4,500 missiles per day – that’s roughly three missiles a minute.
Keeping up with this pace of conflict across such a vast area will require operational support tools that can pull in and instantly process vast quantities of information about the theatre.
Despite often being mooted as a buzzword in defence circles, artificial intelligence (AI) could excel in such an application. Anduril, a defence contractor specialising in AI and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and founded by Palmer Luckey, sees its LatticeAI platform as a possible example of what could power the Marine Corps Pacific push.
Anduril head of strategy Chris Brose told us: “It really gets down to the question first and foremost of how do you increasingly put machines into positions that they excel at? Doing tasks that they increasingly are capable of doing better than humans, particularly around making sense of large amounts of information, automating very repetitive menial tasks – so that human operators can really focus more on making better-quality decisions commanding systems and people.”
“The planned USMC redesign will double the number of UAS squadrons in the force, while the number of jets in its fixed-wing squadrons is shrinking.”
For the US Marine Corps, being the tip of the spear in the Pacific means distributed operations will be essential; with a small force spread across such a large area, personnel will need to make quick decisions, especially in a potential future conflict.
Brose, who previously worked on the US Senate’s Armed Service Committee, explains: “Specifically for the Marine Corps, this is important because they’re a small service and they don’t have excessive amounts of manpower. To me, the real opportunity and greatest potential for these technologies is really flipping the traditional model of command and control on its head.”
The second component of this is unmanned systems. The planned USMC redesign will double the number of UAS squadrons in the force, while the number of jets in its fixed-wing squadrons is shrinking. Using UAS to deny sea and air space can free up personnel to focus on other tasks – and keeping a drone in the air is cheaper than using an F-35B.
As USNI News reported in March, the Marine Corps is putting its efforts into a family of UAS, including smaller ship-borne aircraft and larger land-based systems. This would give the corps the ability to operate UAS directly from its vessels alongside fighters and from strategic bases in the Pacific.
China’s rapidly evolving threat
As the Marine Corps moves towards facing the threat of China, the country continues to press on with its own plans for Pacific dominance. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) believes that the Chinese navy is on course for a fleet of 400 battleships by 2025, and 425 by 2030.
This means that at the time the US Marine Corps finishes its restructuring project, it will be faced with a continually expanding PLAN in the region.
On top of this naval threat, as Global Defence Technology has previously reported, China has also poured funding into the development of AI as a means of leapfrogging the traditional dominance of the US when it comes to defence.
“We often tend to focus on the technologies and the real point of emphasis, I think, should be is what the technologies enable militaries to do and how they enable them to operate differently.”
“The investments that China is making and the ways in which it seems to be relying upon these technologies build its own military are inherently going to put significant challenges on the US and allied militaries,” says Brose.
“We often tend to focus on the technologies and the real point of emphasis, I think, should be is what the technologies enable militaries to do and how they enable them to operate differently. That’s been the real challenge for the US military in the Pacific, which is that the Chinese have been modernising their military in a way that is specifically focused to call into question how the US military would operate in the region.”
A decade in the future, the US Marine Corps will be almost entirely different from the force of today. The military balance in the Pacific will likely have shifted too, and the rapid pace of change in computing and AI means operations will be very different, too.
When the redesigned Marine Corps comes into full force, it will be faced with an equally advanced Chinese counterpart. How it faces this threat will be determined by the pace of technology evolution on both sides of the Pacific.