Strike Platoon: Employment of Loitering Munitions in the Battalion Landing Team
By Sean Parrott
In 2019, the United States Marine Corps released a Request for Information (RFI) seeking a munition "capable of attacking targets at ranges that exceed weapons systems currently in an organic infantry battalion." The RFI recognizes the need for a precision strike capability that commanders at lower echelons can employ to support their scheme of maneuver. While there have been debates about the form or function this capability might take, it is unquestionable that great-power competition necessitates it. As emphasized in the 38th Commandant's Planning Guidance, Marine infantry formations fighting on the 21st-century battlefield require an organic capability to find, fix, and destroy enemy targets that pose the greatest threat to friendly units. The USMC should purchase and field lethal unmanned aerial system (UAS) capabilities at the battalion level, employing them as a fusion of the intelligence and fires warfighting functions. What follows is an analysis of the conditions necessitating the creation of this capability, the form and function it might take, and a proposal for implementation in the force. The USMC has always been on the cutting edge of innovation and adaptation of new military technologies, leveraging low-cost solutions and an indomitable spirit to overcome complex challenges. Adding an armed UAS platoon organic to the battalion landing team (BLT) provides commanders with a rapid and semi-autonomous collection, targeting, and strike capability to better meet the 21st-century battlefield's challenges.
Infantry units have always required indirect fire in support of maneuver. Javelins and slings gave way to bows and arrows, and so on throughout history. While modern artillery and mortar systems offer relatively imprecise fire support to the modern warrior, surgical fires in support of maneuver have long been the domain of aviation. Yet the degraded, denied environments the United States plans to compete in require fire support assets that can provide precision, long-range fires to smaller maneuver units within the enemy weapons engagement zone (WEZ). In a future fight against an enemy with peer capabilities, it cannot be assumed that close air support will be feasible in all stages of ground combat operations. It is likely that as the inside force operating in the contact layer USMC forces stationed inside the first island chain will be wholly reliant on capabilities explicitly task organized to the unit, bereft of the MEU assets planners have become accustomed to employing. Commanders need an organic, responsive precision strike capability able to be utilized in support of their objectives, one that is cheap and serves multiple purposes. This weapon needs to possess range and precision while remaining flexible enough to operate independently or as a part of a larger force. Marines can expect to be outgunned and outnumbered in the next fight and thus need an effective force multiplier to punch above their weight.
Precision loitering munitions with the capability to destroy enemy infantry and light armored vehicles are one solution for providing Marines with an ability to achieve overmatch against an enemy that is likely to possess superior firepower and mobility advantages. Using cheap, armed drones is hardly a novel concept, as the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh illustrates. The Washington Post's Robyn Dixon examined how "Azerbaijan used its drone fleet — purchased from Israel and Turkey — to stalk and destroy Armenia's weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defenses and enabling a swift advance." Armed drones, working in concert with other fire support assets, can provide relatively cheap tools to lower echelon maneuver commanders to deal with a variety of enemy problems. Formerly the domain of higher echelon shaping operations, enemy armor and air defense assets can now be swept off the battlefield chess board by a company level drone strike. Small and disposable, loitering munitions like the AeroVironment Switchblade can be transported and employed at the squad level against enemy anti-air defense systems and other targets of value. Armed drones, offering a low signature and comparatively lethal effects to piloted aircraft, can dismantle A2AD systems from within the enemy's WEZ, allowing for more conventional armed air assets to enter the battlespace. For a small force maintaining a low signature, the ability to shape the operating environment at the tactical level is crucial. Modern conflicts have demonstrated the efficacy of drones as an anti-air defense tool. Ridvan Bari Urcosta, writing for Small Wars Journal, explains that "kamikaze-drones are ideal for countering enemy air defenses, since the small size of the drone makes it possible to avoid detection by ground-based radars. This was the biggest challenge for the air-defense forces of Syria and Russia in Idlib". The adoption of armed UAS provides a powerful tool to enable friendly freedom of maneuver. It is as much a protection asset as a fires asset when considering the significant A2AD threat posed by near-peer competitors like China. There is no question that the USMC desperately needs a precision strike capability at the battalion level, though there has been spirited debate as to how and when to employ these assets.
While the idea of equipping lower echelon maneuver units with lethal UAS is becoming more palatable to military decision-makers, there is still disagreement regarding the most effective way to implement these tools into ground combat units. Some argue that drones with lethal munitions are inherently higher-level assets due to the capabilities and personnel involved in operating them, and the strategic consequences drone strikes can invite. These objections fail to withstand cursory examination; armed UAS have been employed by tactical units to significant effect in recent years, seldom with collateral damage. Small units operating short-loiter UAS are in position to target and observe effects and are arguably better equipped to ensure they are engaging lawful combatants. The concept of armed UAS is no longer the exclusive domain of expensive long-loiter drones, targeting terrorist cells from above the clouds. Systems like the Switchblade or Hero-120 do not require an army of support technicians or permanent airfields. They are readily employable munitions no more cumbersome than the ubiquitous mortar system found in arms rooms the world over. But that does not mean that these tools are best employed at the company level. Distributing a handful of armed drones to rifle companies fails to leverage the ability to mass fires, dramatically hinders the range and endurance of acquisition assets, and occupies leadership bandwidth that could be better served elsewhere. Maintenance and training requirements are best addressed by a headquarters with a dedicated staff, allowing commanders to benefit from the capability without worrying about the inherent logistical tail. In essence, weight the customer (the rifle companies) by delivering an on-call effect without shifting the 'how' onto company command teams. The most logical echelon for centralization of the armed drone unit is the Battalion Landing Team or its successor in the Marine Littoral Regiment construct. As the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) 's primary ground combat element, the BLT commander relies heavily on higher echelon assets to shape his battlespace to facilitate tactical success. With the planned reduction in tube artillery and main battle tanks, the BLT currently lacks an organic asset that can target and destroy high-value targets in the shaping phase. Thus, armed drones' employment in the battalion landing team provides the commander with an organic option to shape the deep fight while still retaining the ability to support companies maneuvering in the close area. What might this capability look like within the battalion? To maximize the loitering munition's effect, the USMC must fuse intelligence and fires capabilities to facilitate a tight, effective kill-chain.
The author proposes creating a Battalion Strike Platoon, organic to the BLT, which would provide the commander with the capability to deliver lethal and precise effects throughout the area of operations and significantly expand the ability of the BLT to shape its deep fight. This unit would integrate fires and intelligence to support the ground scheme of maneuver, controlled by the BLT fire support coordinator (FSC) to ensure optimal use of assets and deconfliction of airspace. The proposed strike platoon would mix medium-endurance collection UAS platforms for acquisition and lethal loitering munitions with extended range. These assets would form a "hunter-killer" tandem, with the UAS cueing the munition onto a target. Centralizing these capabilities dramatically shortens the kill chain, allowing for rapid, responsive effects where desired. Platforms like Lockheed's Stalker-XE and Martin UAV's V-Bat, already in use with some US military forces, offer decent loiter time (~8 hours) while doing away with cumbersome launch systems. These would serve in the "hunter" role, removing the strike platoon's reliance on external collection assets for cueing. The platoon must have enough systems to allow for near-persistent surveillance and redundancy. Like the previously discussed Switchblade, loitering munitions would act as the "killer," delivering precise effects on the target being observed by the hunter as far as 80km away from the launch site. Crucial to the efficacy of this concept is the fusion between fires and intelligence. The strike platoon must contain representatives from both warfighting functions for the best results. Make no mistake, the strike platoon as conceived is not an intelligence or collection asset, however tempting it may be for some commanders to use them to look at areas of interest. Ideally, it acts as a fusion cell that allows for precise effects as part of the larger fires plan while not burdening actual intelligence collection capabilities. If used correctly, the strike platoon is a force multiplier, able to shape critical enemy assets in support of the BLT commander's plan.
As envisioned, the strike platoon would have the capability to locate and engage high-value targets following the commander's intent in a semi-autonomous or highly controlled manner. Providing a menu of options gives the commander flexibility in employing the platoon, allowing them wide latitude during shaping operations that can then be tightly synchronized in the close fight as they support maneuver units in contact. The modularity of the USMC would maximize the flexibility of the strike platoon in a multitude of environments, across the range of military operations. The platoon could conduct targeted deep strikes on A2AD assets before leaving the assembly area, and then be attached to maneuver units to provide direct support in later phases of the operation. Assets in the platoon can be transported by the individual Marine and deployed from vehicles or slow-moving aircraft. The small form-factor of these munitions make logistics easy, as they resemble and may even replace current battalion-level mortar systems. Due to their limited quantity, fire supporters should reserve the Strike Platoon’s weaponry for priority targets that cannot be actioned via conventional shaping means. As a part of a sequenced fires plan however, their effects can be devastating. The killer munition's loitering capability would allow multiple drones to orbit the objective area, providing near-instantaneous "on call" effects for Marines on the ground. Company commanders and fire supporters can request an effect and receive it, while the battalion absorbs the coordination and deconfliction necessary to deliver the munition, unburdening commanders to manage the fight.
The United States Marine Corps is currently undergoing a period of visionary transition, remaking the force to fight and win in the most challenging circumstances. The pivot from counterinsurgency to strategic competition requires new technologies to fight an enemy with similar military capabilities effectively. Air superiority will not be guaranteed, though ground combat elements will still require precision fires in support of maneuver if they are to succeed. Rifle battalions must possess an organic strike capability that the commander can employ to locate and destroy enemy high-value targets to support operational objectives. The Battalion Strike Platoon answers this requirement by providing a scalable mix of armed and unarmed drones able to shape the enemy in the deep area and support infantry companies in the close fight. By centralizing these assets at the battalion level, end-users can request and receive an effect, while the burden of coordination and deconfliction rests with a more robust higher headquarters. Recent conflicts have shown the utility of small, disposable armed drones as shaping and support assets, and combat drones are no longer the exclusive purview of strategic planners. Loitering munitions, yesterday’s tool of counterinsurgency, will shape the future of the 21st-century battlefield. In the low and high-intensity conflicts it must win, the BLT desperately needs a capability that will allow it to punch above its weight. Ground force commanders will ask for additional options to deal with threats while increasingly unable to rely on external units to achieve mission success. The Battalion Strike Platoon gives commanders another tool to compete and win in an environment where flexibility and the precise delivery of violence is often the difference between victory and defeat.
Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and do not represent the official or unofficial position or opinion of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any branch of the U.S. Government.