In littoral environments, naval expeditionary forces rely on Marine amphibious reconnaissance operations ahead of large-scale combat. This includes hydrographic surveys, beach-landing site surveys, combatant diver operations, and terminal guidance for landing forces. A Marine amphibious reconnaissance operation is a time-consuming, manpower-intensive evolution, often fraught with risk and danger. The following vignette illustrates how a unit accomplishes this operation today.
How Marines Recon a Shoreline
A 26-Marine reconnaissance platoon is inserted into the water no closer than 12 nautical miles offshore in four combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC) to conduct a hydrographic survey and beach reconnaissance. They travel to the beach, stopping 2,000 meters offshore to observe the shoreline for no less than one hour, looking for an enemy presence. After one hour, four scout swimmers silently slip into the water and swim to shore. These Marines are lightly armed with minimal equipment—only a swimmer’s belt with a small amount of ammo, a radio, and shore-to-CRRC signaling equipment. The swimmers conduct a rapid reconnaissance of the beach, searching for signs of enemy presence, before communicating to the remaining 22 Marines that the shore is clear for insert.
In teams of 2, 18 Marines swim ashore. One coxswain is left in each boat. Once ashore, three teams of two turn to security—one security team at each flank and one at the six-o’clock position. Four Marines remain at the waterline (the beach team). Two serve as “paddlemen,” holding CRRC paddles aloft with directionalized chemlights facing the water. They kneel or stand in a line, acting as markers for those remaining in the water. One Marine serves as the recorder/compassman, noting the location of each point along the hydrographic survey and the direction of the survey line. The remaining Marine monitors a man-packed radio, likely a 117G VHF radio.
The remaining Marines pair up, maintaining contact with a 550-cord line stretching from the farthest team to the kneeling paddleman on the beach. This farthest team of swimmers ensures the line stays perpendicular to the waterline by lining up the two paddles held aloft. The other six teams of two place themselves at approximately two-meter intervals along the line. On the signal of the beach team, one swimmer per team dives to obtain a bottom sample of the ocean floor and feel for obstacles in the immediate area. On returning to the surface, the swimmer notes on a wrist-worn slate the composition of the bottom. The other team member quickly checks the bottom depth at that point via a handheld electronic depth gauge. Then the beach team indicates to the swim teams to move back on the line to a new, unmapped point, and the process repeats out to 100 meters from the waterline, or 25 meters of depth. Once this point is reached, the beach team shifts down the beach five meters, the swim teams return to their original positions on the line, and the data-collection process repeats for 500 meters of beach line.
On completing the hydrographic survey, the swimmer teams return to the CRRCs while the remaining ten Marines ashore conduct a beach survey consisting of beach exits, slope, ability to support foot or vehicle traffic, and other pieces of information critical to an amphibious assault. When the beach survey is complete, the security teams and ten Marines swim the 2,000 meters back to the CRRCs. The coxswains pilot the CRRCs to a predesignated pickup point where they meet their extract platform (likely a surface-connecting craft) for boat recovery. The platoon then takes the surface connector back to the ship.
On board ship, team leaders collect all data points from the hydrographic survey and, with the help of a Marine intelligence specialist, build the final product. Meanwhile, the rest of the platoon does post-operation maintenance on the CRRCs, outboard engines, and personal equipment over the next three hours.
How Machines Could Do It
Insert to extract to post-mission maintenance, an amphibious reconnaissance operation can take 12–20 hours, which translates into 312–520 man hours. However, the rapidly evolving technology of unmanned reconnaissance systems could dramatically reduce the manpower requirement and risk associated with these operations. In the not-too-distant future, an unmanned amphibious reconnaissance operation will be possible. The following vignette illustrates how it could be conducted.
From 100 miles offshore, the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) launches four autonomous rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs), each outfitted with one unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) and two unmanned aerial vehicles—one a quadrotor drone and one a medium-endurance, fixed-wing vehicle. Traveling at an average 10 knots, they reach the beach in just under nine hours. From 3,000 meters offshore the RHIBs launch three fixed-wing vehicles, each containing an advanced, blended-sensor array capable of penetrating up to three meters of water. They complete the preliminary beach survey, identifying beach entrances and exits and potential trafficability based on sensor data. The fourth fixed-wing vehicle acts as an over-the-horizon communication relay point to the Bonhomme Richard.
As the RHIBs continue to their final point 2,000 meters offshore, the quadrotor drones are launched and continually position themselves to maintain an optimal communications network between the autonomous craft and the ship. At 2,000 meters off the beach, the RHIBs automatically launch the four UUVs. Each one conducts a 500-meter-by-500-meter hydrographic survey in approximately 45 minutes.
Upon completing the hydrographic survey, the UUVs return to their “home” RHIB. After completing their shoreline and adjacent shallow-water surveys, the fixed-wing drones return to ship. Using edge-computing processes, this autonomous survey “team” processes and builds the hydrographic survey into a final product and sends it back to the joint intelligence center on the Bonhomme Richard.
At an estimated traveling speed of 10 knots, it takes the autonomous RHIBs approximately 12 hours to complete the survey and a total of 20 hours from launch to recovery to complete the entire mission. Not a single Marine is placed in harm’s way. The process does not replace Marines, but allows them to focus on more complex human decision-making tasks.
Maximize Unmanned Reconnaissance Capabilities
The Department of the Navy is closer than most think to having the ability to accomplish unmanned amphibious reconnaissance. Surface vehicles such as a fully autonomous RHIB are well within reach. Parallel efforts from organizations including the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL), the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Naval Research Laboratory have produced both prototype craft and communications systems, built from the ground up and maximizing unmanned systems engineering technology, to bolt-on autonomy systems capable of converting manned craft to unmanned craft.
JHU APL continues to develop impressive unmanned surface vehicle swarming capabilities. Unmanned systems teaming—the ability for unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater systems to work together—has been researched and developed by all three organizations, with notable work demonstrated most recently at the exercise Bold Alligator 17 and the Naval Postgraduate School Multi-Thread Experiment. Automated command and control continues to be heavily explored by the Naval Postgraduate School. And the Naval Research Laboratory is developing some remarkable unmanned systems capable of operating in the highly dynamic surf zone of the very shallow water region, not to mention artificially intelligent systems capable of advanced machine learning and dynamic goal reprioritization in the face of changing environments.
With measured, goal-oriented development sprints to meet specific, mission-critical requirements, a completely unmanned amphibious reconnaissance operation is possible in the immediate future. The Marine Corps and the Navy need to think now about how to exercise with and implement such an innovative solution.