Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger’s sweeping changes will prepare the force for a future conflict against China. In the first island chain, the Marine Corps’ mission will be to establish a layered defense in depth to disrupt China’s ability to maneuver. A central problem of this mission is figuring out how Marines will detect the adversary across wide swaths of the ocean while remaining undetected themselves. The Marine Corps is underprepared for this; its current table of equipment has only limited organic sensors to detect enemy surface vessels over the horizon. To address this, the service must adopt commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) maritime sensors to provide collection capabilities to distributed units, cover large areas of maritime terrain, and use cost-effective platforms to bring redundant capabilities to Marines at the lowest tactical level.
National-level collections assets cannot always easily support tactical Marine Corps units. For example, the U.S. military only possesses 16 E-8 JSTARS aircraft, which are capable of surveying large areas of terrain, but their strategic value and low numbers limit what they can offer to small units in real time. This problem will worsen as the Air Force has begun retiring the E-8s. In addition, organic Marine Corps sensors are either not designed for maritime sensing or will not provide the necessary range to sense over the horizon. For example, the new AN/TPS-80 radar was not designed to detect surface ships. The Marine Corps will need to augment its collection assets more quickly than the traditional military procurement process allows.
The Marine Corps needs multiple, redundant layers of sensors to support targeting kill-webs. According to the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, these sensors should have the ability to “sense beyond the maximum effective range of Marine Corps organic fires to detect, establish positive identification, and derive target-quality location data of adversary naval and proxy forces using organic . . . sensors.” The solution lies in commercially available platforms used in the private sector to track ships at sea. These COTS sensors would permit the Marine Corps to cover large areas of maritime terrain, augment existing programs to add redundancy to kill-webs, and bring improved all-weather capabilities while also not exceeding yearly budgets and meeting the Commandant’s force modernization timelines.
Some models of commercially available maritime radars, such as the Furuno DRS25AX, advertise the capability to detect seagoing vessels at a distance of 96 nautical miles (nm). Once modified to operate from shore, these systems can be operated by two or three people using battery or generator power indefinitely. Compare this with the shorter range of existing Marine Corps systems such as the RQ-21 Blackjack (50 nm) and the Man Portable Surveillance and Target Acquisition Radar (MSTAR) (42 km) or the time on station of the MQ-9 (30 hours). COTS systems distributed throughout the first island chain would allow the Marine Corps a low-cost first layer of defense that provides a capable, redundant collections capability with improved range and a small footprint.
COTS sensors are comparatively inexpensive, making them more risk-worthy than specialized Marine Corps systems. For example, the 2022 cost of a Furuno radar ranged from $1,200 for basic designs to $14,000 for more advanced systems. The average cost of a similar military surveillance radar such as the MSTAR was $137,000 per system, based on a 2010 Marine Corps purchase of 71 of the systems. COTS sensors can provide redundant collection capabilities when employed alongside organic Marine Corps sensors.
Marine Corps’ Warfighting Publication MAGTF Intelligence Collection states that collection managers should “mix different sensors in different intelligence disciplines to achieve combined arms effects on enemy targets.” COTS maritime radars, for example, can cue more capable sensors to positively identify suspect enemy vessels. In addition to maritime radars, a variety of commercially available sensors could contribute, including vibration-measuring underwater fiber-optic systems. Budgets permitting, tests of commercially available equipment could make Marines more lethal in keeping with the Commandant’s intent for future force experimentation.
Accepting civilian systems into Marine Corps collections networks carries risk, including exploitation by adversary signals and electronic intelligence capabilities. Commercially available maritime radars operate on commercial X-Band and S-Band frequencies—easily detected by the adversary. But this is not all bad; friendly forces can hide in plain sight in the baseline spectrum when a frequency is in widespread commercial use. In the first island chain, fishermen, cargo ships, and others employ most of these commercial sensors every day. Perhaps most important, COTS sensors can be used before an open conflict to collect information without disrupting the spectrum baseline in a potential area of operation. Essentially, if COTS sensors are employed in a busy radio-frequency region, Marine Corps operators should be able to hide in plain sight.
Marine Corps force modernization has required rapid change, innovation, and adaptation. One of the central challenges of the future fight will be gathering information on where the adversary is located in an unimaginably large area. When used alongside national level collections platforms and organic sensors, COTS systems will enable Marines to create a clear picture of adversary movements, close kill webs, and ultimately succeed in the fight.
1. U.S. Marine Corps, MAGTF Planner’s Reference Manual (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps MSTP Division, January 2017), II-13 and II-32.