When the Navy and Marine Corps consider innovation, they usually focus on technology they do not possess and not on how to make better use of technology they already have. It is time to ask the question: If otherwise reliable ground- and space-based assets become unavailable or seriously degraded in a full-spectrum conflict with a peer adversary, how can the Navy and Marine Corps maximize the technology that still works?
Two excellent examples of currently underused capabilities are the Marine Corps’ ultra-heavy amphibious connector (UHAC) and the Navy’s ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). With greater imagination, bold experimentation in fleet exercises, and a willingness to share these capabilities beyond their intended program-of-record missions, the Sea Services can begin to ingrain a more agile, innovative warfighting culture in their leaders. These relatively inexpensive, lower-technology systems may threaten more complex and expensive programs, but they also could solve problems many do not even know exist.
Use UHAC for Fueling
The Marine Corps envisions the UHAC—the full-scale unit will be similar in size and cargo capacity to the planned universal landing craft (LCU) replacement—moving heavy loads such as multiple tanks from amphibious ships to shore. It could contribute even more to the fight by rapidly deploying flexible pipe for the Military Sealift Command’s unique Offshore Petroleum Distribution System (OPDS). Operating from the USNS Vice Admiral K. R. Wheeler (T-AG-5001), OPDS can provide forces ashore with 1.7 million gallons of fuel per day from tankers moored to the ship.1 Before pumping can begin, however, the ship must get close enough inshore to launch an amphibious truck that transports a messenger line and a terminal end unit (TEU)—essentially a hose connection and anchor—to the beach. There, a logistics team bulldozer pulls the initial scope of pipe up the beach and connects it to the TEU. With the connection established, the Vice Admiral K. R. Wheeler moves out to sea where it can host the tankers, paying out as much as eight miles of flexible pipe as it goes. UHAC would help with a significant limitation to this procedure. Obstacles such as sea walls, mudflats, and anything but a shallow beach with firm sand are beyond the current capabilities of the OPDS. With its three main-battle-tanks capacity, UHAC could easily transit exposed mudflats and mount a crane to emplace the TEU with flexible pipe already connected beyond a seawall, significantly reducing both the time OPDS deployment takes and how long the ship needs to stay close to shore.2
The OPDS is part of a larger joint logistics enterprise initially falling under the Navy’s amphibious warfare commander, but its primary beneficiary is the joint land-component commander, normally an Army general. Since the Navy’s LCU replacement program is already funded and the Vice Admiral K. R. Wheeler and its civilian crew are meeting OPDS requirements under the Military Sealift Command contract, it is difficult to envision a Marine Corps project that primarily benefits the Army moving forward without joint force support at the highest level.
ScanEagle Goes Beyond Surveillance
The capabilities of the ScanEagle drone, used for years by special forces for low-cost, high-duration monitoring of threat locations, go far beyond the surveillance mission. The ScanEagle family includes higher-payload airframes such as the Integrator/RQ-21A Blackjack, which could easily carry radar, communication relay gear, or a warhead.3
The special forces community uses civilian contractors to operate ScanEagle for surveillance missions, and generally they have been satisfied with that arrangement. The fleet, however, has committed to the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter and MQ-8 Fire Scout UAV (helicopter) for short- to medium-distance surveillance. But war at sea will move quickly beyond what a few manned and unmanned sorties a day can support. Moreover, land- and ship-based helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft used as sensors require satellite or high-frequency (HF) systems to provide secure communications beyond the line of sight and network with ships’ fire control systems. Therein lie serious problems. Ballistic missiles and diplomatic pressure can prevent fixed-wing aircraft from using non-U.S. regional air bases. Satellites can be dazzled or destroyed. The ionospheric conditions favorable to HF communications can be disrupted with high-altitude nuclear blasts.
The ScanEagle family of small, modular, inexpensive, high-endurance, aviation-facility-independent UAVs, or something like them, should be used in more agile, innovative ways to mitigate these vulnerabilities in both high-end maritime warfare and low-tech anti-
piracy, counterterrorist, and narcotics interdiction missions. The diminutive ScanEagle comes in a box smaller than a Mk 46 lightweight torpedo. Dozens of ScanEagles and their associated launch, recovery, maintenance, and control gear can be put on board combatants for the price in money and space of a single hybrid MH-60/Fire Scout detachment. A ScanEagle detachment numbers four personnel; an MH-60/Fire Scout detachment numbers 20 or 30, plus another 20 the ship must provide to support launch, recovery, refueling, and rearming operations every few hours.
Long-duration surveillance of fixed points is the ScanEagle’s forte, but it can also be fitted with an inverse synthetic-
aperture radar or communication relay gear.4 A team of ScanEagles could provide over-the-horizon search and communications in the absence of fixed-wing aircraft and satellite or HF communications. ScanEagle also is a good fit for non-hangar-equipped guided-missile destroyers and berthing- and weight-limited littoral combat ships. And since a ScanEagle is cheaper, has more endurance, and is less likely to be detected than the Hellfire missile a manned helicopter or UAV would employ against a fast patrol or pirate craft, arming it with explosive charges in its modular bays would be a prudent way to attack such enemy craft.
Experiment to Innovate
U.S. military organizational and bureaucratic constraints prevent the Navy and Marine Corps from staying ahead of adversaries by taking full advantage of disruptive technologies. The only way to break through these barriers is to turn the military into a true learning organization. Expensive at-sea exercises held primarily to train and certify could, and should, be more than that. Force-on-force exercises in which persistent over-the-horizon surveillance, satellite communication access, and HF communications are denied will show the need for a communication-relay capability. The need to upgrade the OPDS capability also would be apparent if that planned-for capability were tested in a realistic exercise where shortage of fuel affected the outcome.
If the Navy and the Marine Corps were to force more innovation into their exercises, program managers and contractors with access to the ideas tested and lessons learned in these experimental evolutions could collaborate on prototypes. Only by being aggressive with innovation and transparent with all the stakeholders in complex warfighting problems will the services get the feedback they need to learn and progress.
1. SGT Maricris McLane, USA, “CJLOTS Team Connects Pipeline at Anmyeon Beach, Republic of Korea,” U.S. Army Public Affairs, 19 August 2015.
2. Chuck Oldham, “Ultra Heavy-lift Amphibious Connector (UHAC) at RIMPAC,” Defense Media Network, 15 July 2014.
3. Mike Hanlon, “ScanEagle UAV Gets Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR),” New Atlas, 19 March 2008.
4. Hanlon, “ScanEagle UAV Gets SAR.”