In summer 2017, our position in Syria came under fire from Islamic State rockets. The enemy was outside the range of our 120-mm mortars, and the nature of our mission meant I could not displace our reinforced platoon. The nearest air support was more than 20 minutes away, meaning there were few options to respond immediately. We were in luck, however. A team of Green Berets picked up the rocket signatures on their light counter-mortar radar and could range the point of origin with a Switchblade loitering munition. They quickly executed their battle drill, launched the Switchblade, and detected and engaged the enemy position, killing three enemy fighters and causing the others to disperse. The Green Berets disrupted the attack with permissive fire-support coordination and a responsive, organic capability. The enemy only had time to fire two salvos of rockets before our adjacent unit killed them.
With experiences such as this, I reported to the Naval Postgraduate School to study operations analysis and conduct thesis research to support the Marine Corps. During my first quarter, Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger published his planning guidance, calling for a new force design and innovation. The new design includes experimenting with loitering munitions in infantry formations to enable dispersion and improve survivability in the future operational environment. Loitering munitions nest into an organic precision-fires (OPF) construct outlined in the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations. The Commandant s Planning Guidance has raised concerns among some that a future infantry battalion will not generate sufficient combat power to win without tanks and with limited cannon artillery in support.
The Tentative Manual envisions that by not massing Marines and relying primarily on organic precision fires, future infantry companies would make it more difficult for the enemy to find and target them. Proposed changes fall into two categories—changes to tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and changes to equipment. For commanders on the ground, operational necessities govern these two sets of changes. Specifically, future company commanders must determine how to best design their engagement areas and how much ordnance of what types they will require to engage an enemy force of a given size and type.
Agent-based combat modeling and simulation techniques to examine the proposed kill webs and associated risk to mission and risk to force enables practitioners to understand complex interactions between different equipment and TTPs. It also allows relative comparisons between unique model instantiations to find asymmetric value propositions that increase the enemy’s risk and decrease the risk to friendly forces.
The scenario I simulated was an infantry company defense of an expeditionary advanced base’s flank. All data used came from open sources, and the outputs are meant to provide accessible insights to tactical leaders as they experiment with new equipment and TTPs. In the combat model, an enemy amphibious mechanized company seeks to seize maritime terrain to later destroy a Marine littoral regiment with follow-on forces. The Marine infantry company aims to defend and control the critical maritime terrain with fire, without massing forces into a linear defense. The combat modeling process used an iterative, first-principles approach to initially simulate the future Marine fire team and then scale to simulate an entire Marine infantry company with OPF loitering munitions. Both an antipersonnel and anti armor OPF loitering munition were simulated.
The success of these two systems is key to the Commandant’s vision of distributed operations at the small-unit level. For modeling purposes, I assumed the infantry company would not attack enemy shipping with its OPF systems, as their antiship effects are unknown. Once the combat model was internally reviewed and approved, I began to execute different experiments that varied critical parameters in each model replication. Parameters such as the presence of enemy loitering munitions and naval surface fire support allowed recommendations to battalion-level attack guidance matrices. Parameters such as OPF swarm size, kill-web latency, and loitering-munition probabilities of kill enabled the examination of unknown factors in future proposed systems. Overall, the experimental design explored nine critical parameters in more than 44,500 simulated battles.
Observing model playbacks alone, without output data analysis, was informative. Both friendly and enemy loitering munitions crowded the airspace around the company, especially at the decisive moment in the engagement. From a fire-support control perspective, tracking and understanding what is happening in the battlespace was immensely challenging. Considering how many unmanned aerial systems (UASs) were in the forward and main engagement areas, positively identifying friendly and enemy UASs would be almost impossible at the speed at which they were moving. Synchronizing battlefield effects, while ensuring timeliness, also was a significant challenge. Under certain conditions, the enemy force discovered and destroyed entire Marine infantry platoons. However, the destruction of a whole platoon did not necessarily result in the defeat of the Marine company. Adjacent Marine platoons often massed antipersonnel OPF systems on the enemy company and attrited it enough to control key maritime terrain.
Small actions can be taken at the company level to increase the survivability of critical assets. In the scenario, enemy loitering munitions often destroyed Marine Javelin teams, as they are a high-payoff target. Because both Marines in the Javelin teams were operating together in the combat model, one enemy loitering munition often killed both individuals. To conduct a Javelin battle drill, only one antitank missile Marine (military occupational specialty 0352) is required.
A fire-support Marine with the First Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, launches a lethal miniature aerial missile system during an exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. Loitering munitions change the character of war and will be both problems and solutions for Marine Corps commanders.
Future infantry company commanders should consider disaggregating 0352s into separate hide sites before an amphibious assault to increase the probability that at least one 0352 survives to conduct an antitank guided-missile attack. Once the enemy makes landfall, the 0352s could move out of their hide sites and link up with their camouflaged weapon system to engage enemy forces.
While qualitative observations such as these are informative, the quantitative analysis of the outcomes provided greater understanding of kill-web requirements to generate victory. From the quantitative model analysis, four key trends emerged. Analysis techniques included metamodeling with regression and partition trees.
1. To succeed in distributed operations, a Marine infantry company must have no less than ten antiarmor loitering munitions if relying solely on organic combat power against a company-sized mechanized force. Conversely, more than 18 antiarmor loitering munitions did little to improve the outcomes in the model Linking OPF systems into semi- autonomous swarms increased the speed of engagements and led to higher probabilities of victory. In the model, however, there was only a single red force amphibious mechanized company. Munition requirements against larger forces require additional study.
2. Future Marine infantry companies must operate under permissive fire-sup- port control methodologies that enable OPF employment within their areas of operation. I recommend exploring a restricted-operations zone in which future company commanders own airspace to a sufficient altitude and can clear all fires in their battlespaces.
3. High attrition is probable on the future battlefield if both sides employ precision loitering munitions. In the simulated battles in which blue forces won, the Marine infantry company, in particular instantiations, still suffered a casualty rate of more than 30 percent. Future commanders must prepare themselves for this possibility.
4. The concept of engaging as soon as possible with heavy, medium, and light antiarmor weapons is superior to mass surprised fires at the company level. A mixture of heavy, medium, and light weapons takes full advantage of standoff capabilities. The massed surprised fires concept advocates for holding engagements until effects from all weapon systems can be synchronized to achieve surprise and shock. This research found that ZBD-05 amphibious infantry fighting vehicles moving at three to five knots through the surf are highly vulnerable to OPF. Company commanders should engage with OPF loitering munitions as early in a battle as feasible. Once they make landfall, enemy vehicles gain the opportunity for cover, concealment, and increased speed to close with friendly forces.
Finally, a significant problem not examined in the model is how to counter enemy loitering munitions in an expeditionary environment. What is clear, however, is that loitering munitions change the character of war and will be both problems and solutions for commanders. Just as the Marine infantry company in the model relied heavily on tactical UASs to sense and kill, so did the enemy. By disrupting this part of the enemy kill web, Marine infantry companies increase the probability of successfully defending an expeditionary advanced base.