The Marine Corps Just Got Its First Live-Fire Range Designed for Robotic Targets

Robotic targets line Camp Lejeune’s range G-36
Robotic targets line Camp Lejeune’s range G-36, which opened Dec. 12. (Courtesy Ralph Petroff)

After years of training and qualifying on traditional ranges with stationary targets, the Marine Corps has turned a new page in warfare with the certification of a sophisticated "range of the future" aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Designed for company-size live-fire exercises, Range Golf-36 features, among other things, trenches, surrounding woods that would provide cover for the enemy, and a design explicitly intended to incorporate lifelike robotic targets that can dodge, change direction, shout and even charge the attacking Marine Corps force. The range also features targets in areas obstructed by terrain features such as trees and grass tufts, designed to be destroyed by rockets.

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On Dec. 12, a small group of senior military officers gathered at the range to observe a company assault demonstration with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, in which 45 of these robotic targets lined the trenches and attacked from the woods.

"The majority of the current U.S. Marine Corps population has not seen a world where the U.S. was not the dominant force," 2nd Marine Division gunner Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joshua Smith said in a released statement. "As the Corps transitions to the peer and near-peer fight, we strived to produce a live-fire problem set which removes the three-to-one advantage the Marine Corps typically enjoyed."

Smith said in his statement that he expects to see the range become the final event in 2nd Marine Division's Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation, for soon-to-deploy troops.

"One of the unique things about this range is that we incorporated the environment. Typically, on most live-fire ranges, the trees are removed and the grass is cut in order to allow for the safe execution and supervision of live-fire training," he said. "G-36 adds the environment as part of the problem. In parts of the range, the trees play into the problem, as it is harder to see some of the enemy -- just as it would be in real life."

Ralph Petroff, president of the North American branch of robotic target manufacturer Marathon, said the new range took shape on the initiative of Maj. Gen. Julian "Dale" Alford, commanding general of Camp Lejeune.

"My sense is that he decided that all these infrastructure targets were interfering with good training, and the best thing was to bulldoze them all and make a nice flat range with a couple of trenches," Petroff said. "This is a big deal."

Lejeune's 2nd Marine Division has been a pioneer in the use of robotic targets, which proponents say force troops to train with personal weapons in conditions as close to real combat as possible. The latest generations of the Marathon targets can travel at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour on wheeled platforms and can move as a concerted force against an element of Marines.

Last year, the division leased 16 targets for $2.1 million. Smith told at the time that a wait list rapidly developed as Marines clamored to train with the systems.

"A Marine went anywhere from a 20-30% hit rate on a moving target to 80-90%," Smith said. "Imagine, if I can do reps and sets like that all the time, how I could increase lethality at the individual level."

Despite a series of studies completed by the Marine Corps -- including one commissioned by then-Commandant Gen. Robert Neller in 2018 -- the robot targets have yet to become a service program of record.

But the new range will offer more visibility to the technology and could also serve to generate more interest beyond 2nd Division and Lejeune.

"These types of targets offer a more realistic enemy -- one that is not tied to a single point, but can maneuver across the battlefield, which causes friction to the attacking force," Smith said.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to remove disputed information about the origins of the range name.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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