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Marine Corps wants loitering munitions for its infantry units

Lance Cpl. William Henderson fires an 81mm experimental non-lethal indirect fire munition round during a weapons testing event, July 16, 2018 at Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii. (U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

The U.S. Marine Corps wants loitering munitions for the flexible targeting and unnerving effect they’ve shown in Ukraine, the commandant said Tuesday.

The newly-released update to Force Design 2030 calls for fielding such weapons with small units to “provide the close-combat lethality enhancements long-envisioned by infantry Marines.”

The Marine Corps’ Infantry Battalion Experiment is also demonstrating its relevance. At the 2022 Modern Day Marine exposition in Washington, D.C., Gen. David Berger told an audience that the service has conducted nine force-on-force exercises at Twentynine Palms in California over the past year and a half as part of the service’s efforts to redesign its infantry battalions, and so far has validated what the service witnessed in other wargames and experiments going back to the 1990s.

“Here’s what we’re learning: small, distributed, lethal teams that can employ organic [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], loitering munitions, and weapons like the Javelin, the Carl Gustaf, [are] much more lethal than larger formations that are using traditional force structures and concepts. And it’s not even close,” Berger said. “And even these findings, I would say, are not limited to Twentynine Palms. So far, everything that we’ve seen in the last 60 days, it’s entirely consistent with what’s happening in Ukraine.”

The U.S. has sent Ukraine more than 700 Switchblade drones, tube-launched weapons that can loiter for up to 15 minutes and hit a target up to 10 kilometers away. Loitering munitions had previously shown their effectiveness in Syria and especially the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Loitering munitions allow a squad to fire on mobile or stationary targets without the predictable trajectory of a mortar or artillery round, Berger said.

Just the sight or sound of the orbiting weapon can change an enemy’s calculus, Berger said.

“It’s incredibly frustrating to know that there’s a loitering munition up above your head. There’s a psychological impact, in other words. You don’t know whether it’s got a camera system or a lethal warhead on it, but it has an impact on that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Marines—and the entire joint force—are also seeking ways to defend against loitering weapons and other small drones, including camouflage and deception as well as air and missile defenses, said Maj. Gen Eric Austin, the director of the Marine Corps’ Capabilities Development Directorate at Combat Development and Integration.

“We find that we’re pretty good at detecting them for the most part, but the defeat mechanisms are challenging because there’s kinetic and non-kinetic defeat mechanisms. And there’s some really novel concepts coming out,” Austin said.

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