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Small Units Need Big Data Pipes

I came across an interesting Marine Corps Gazette article, by retired Marine Col. Vincent Goulding, on their experimentation with a company-sized rifle team as the primary expeditionary maneuver unit. We’ve written before about how the Marines are leading innovation and experimentation with small units optimized to battle hybrid enemies –- state and non-state armed groups that mix guerrilla tactics with advanced weaponry.

The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory has been trying to right size its company level headquarters to provide command and communications equivalent to what’s typically found on the large and bandwidth-friendly forward operating bases (FOB) but in more remote and austere expeditionary environments. In an article he wrote this summer, Goulding said the mantra for the company level headquarters was simple: “if it couldn’t come off the ramp of an MV-22 [Osprey], it was not part of the package.”

It’s a tall order. But the Marines view it as vital to its emerging warfighting concept that emphasizes distributed operations: the ability of small units to operate independently, at a fast and fluid tempo when either dispersed or concentrated. Think here of German sturmtruppen tactics from World War I developed to infiltrate heavily defended trench lines, or, more recently, Hezbollah fighters that operated in small dispersed, yet highly lethal, groups in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Hezbollah of course is the hybrid enemy archetype and there is certainly emulation if not outright imitation in the Marines effort. As Dakota Woods, a super smart analyst and retired Marine at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), put it: “perhaps to beat Hezbollah you must fight like Hezbollah.”

The key to making distributed operations work is pushing down to the company and platoon level the high-tech computer based command and control and key “enablers,” such as aerial drones for surveillance and on-call artillery and bombers. Now, all that good stuff is usually kept under the firm grip of zealous field grade officers at the brigade or battalion level.

The Marines realize that getting a rifle company ashore, either by Osprey or amphibs, is the easy part. The hard part is fighting the company across large, complex battlefields. Getting that FOB quality communications to a small headquarters will be a huge challenge. As Goulding writes, getting drone video feeds and other data sharing to small units, “will require robust pipes that currently do not exist in on-the-move tactical systems.”

Existing tactical military satellite linked communications systems are too cumbersome and don’t provide near enough bandwidth: “There is no place for generators and satellite dishes in the MV-22 or expeditionary fighting vehicle,” he writes. Yet, without the big data pipes, distributed operations won’t work. “Viable on-the-move, over-the-horizon tactical communications is a nonnegotiable requirement on distributed expeditionary battlefields.”

While a fifth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite has been commissioned since Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed the Transformational Satellite -- the ultimate secure on-the-move communications solution -- the first AEHF bird has not yet flown, though the program appears now to be on course. And, while it will provide the military with bigger pipes, AEHF will not provide secure, on-the-move communications.

While industry lags in providing the needed communications architecture, the Marines are plowing ahead experimenting with fighting the rifle company. Next summer, the company landing team will be dropped into the “rugged” Kahuku training areas on Oahu, Hawaii, for four days of tests against a “hybrid threat.”

The company will be beefed up with aerial drones and unmanned vehicles for resupply, a platoon of 155mm towed howitzers and a large scout section for reconnaissance and calling in indirect fires. The tests will look for capability gaps and whether the company headquarters can handle calling in fires, handling logistics and directing the company’s platoons. CSBA’s Wood told me he thinks these company level units will need a major as commanding officer instead of a captain.

One thing that stands out in the company table of organization is the glaring lack of direct fire weapons; it doesn’t even include a Javelin anti-tank missile section. Perhaps the idea is that on-call fires will substitute for direct fire capability. It’s hard to see how that pans out though. Engagement ranges in complex urban battlefields are often too close to effectively use artillery or air strikes. One of the things that made Hezbollah so lethal when they battled the Israeli military in 2006 was their prolific use of anti-tank guided missiles as portable artillery.

These ideas are still in the experimental stage so organizationally the company will certainly change. It will be interesting to see where the Marines go with the small unit, distributed operations concept. This trend of configuring ever smaller units into ever more lethal packages is likely to continue.

Colin Clark contributed to this story.

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