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Unmanned Supply Drones, Forward Basing Key to Marines’ New Logistics Plan

U.S. Marines with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Rein.), refuel a CH-53E Super Stallion during a forward arming and refueling point exercise within a combat service support area on Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 9, 2023. US Marine Corps Photo

The Marines have a plan for a fight spread out across wide swaths of the Pacific with small units moving from island to island. Now, the service is working through how it will get bullets, beans and bandages to units spread across thousands of miles.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger signed off on a logistics vision Thursday to pair with the Marines Force Design 2030.

“Currently, our logistical capabilities are under-resourced and do not meet the demands of our future force to succeed on future battlefields,” Berger wrote.

The Marines Corps is learning how to supply its global stand-in forces – the forward elements that will operate under the umbrella of enemy-guided missiles. The service is planning for its toughest challenge: operating along the edges of the South China Sea in the event of a war with China.

“We’re talking about the entire marine littoral regiment working at advanced bases and other dispersed sites across the Indo-Pacific. From a logistics point of view, that presents a challenge on how we sustain that inside force,” Col. Aaron Angell, the executive assistant for Installations and Logistics, told reporters on Thursday.

“It’s one thing where we have some of the larger ships, which are intended to move from the United States into a theater of operations. It’s another thing to actually sustain that force in [the] maritime environment,” Angell said. “When you think of a place like the Philippines with over 1000 different islands in the archipelago, how do we move – move sustainment, food, ammunition, fuels, people, medical supplies and medical capability – amongst those islands?”

Instead of massive mountains of iron off-loaded at piers and then trucked to where they’re needed, smaller formations will get supplies from boats or unmanned aerial vehicles, rely on prepositioned gear in friendly bases under the umbrella of Chinese guided missiles or find other resources down range, service officials told reporters today.

“You don’t have to link back to a supply system, like back in the United States, to take advantage of all of the capabilities that are forward,” Angell said. “Some folks will use a term of either forward provisioning or 21st century foraging, taking advantage of everything that’s forward. You actually have to carry less with you to the site.”

Keeping units lighter and mobile is essential to the 2030 plan, according to the document.

U.S. Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 31, stand by to connect a Humvee to a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Reinforced), both with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), during external lift training at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Feb. 19, 2023. US Marine Corps Photo

“The operational requirements levied on smaller units have the potential to significantly increase their footprint and signature if we are not careful. This means the future force will have to become more self-sufficient and self-reliant, particularly when operating in distributed formations,” reads the report.

An example, the Marines used was if a forklift operator needed to order a new part, they would contact a local Caterpillar dealer, rather than ordering the part from the U.S..

Other concepts would use “additive manufacturing” with 3D printers to replace broken parts down range.

Much of the effort is ahead of the Marines as they develop the new concepts, but some work is ongoing.

Combat Logistics Unit Battalion 3 in Hawaii is now a multi-functional unit, beyond the basic logistics missions.

“They have the ability to do transportation, as well as medical capability supply, maintenance, general engineering and even some other fluid services like contracting,” Angell said.

Marine logisticians at Camp LeJeune, N.C., are experimenting with teaching their truck drivers to drive other vehicles.

“They took a bunch of Marines and actually hadn’t been licensed and trained them up in different type[s] of boat categories,” Col Matthew Mulvey, Futures Branch Head – Logistics Vision and Strategy, told reporters. “They ended up actually doing a training operation in Europe and executing that in real life.”

All the efforts will be tied in with a global positioning network to forward-base material, like the services caches of supplies in Norway.

U.S. Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicles prepare to support bilateral convoy operations during Iron Fist 23 at Hijudai, Japan, Feb. 21, 2023. Marine Corps Photo

“Over the next two years, we will forge even closer ties with the Navy and other services, defense support agencies, defense industrial base, and our allies and partners to increase resiliency, capability, and capacity. This will provide a greater range of options for our commanders. In seeking new capabilities, we must be willing to forgo the perfect solution and instead seek the solution that meets threshold requirements and improves interoperability,” reads the report.

Unmanned vehicles may also play a role in the plan.

U.S. Marines with 3d Marine Littoral Regiment, 3d Marine Division, employ a Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System (TRUAS) during Marine Littoral Regiment Training Exercise (MLR-TE) at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, Feb. 1, 2023. US Marine Corps Photo

“We’re experimenting with unmanned aerial systems,” Angell said. “We’re looking at manned and unmanned teaming of vehicles. So drivers in one vehicle will be teamed with unmanned vehicles behind those vehicles.”

Marines with the 3d Marine Littoral Regiment, 3d Marine Division in California tested out a Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System (TRUAS) quad-copter earlier this month in a training exercise service release. The Marines are also looking for their own unmanned surface ship that can do resupply.

“All of these are just different examples of diversified distribution. And part of the point of diversified distribution is so there might be times when distance is an issue… There might be times when [a] threat at different domains is an issue and we need to develop a force that’s mature enough and agile enough to utilize every available capability for distribution,” Angell said.

“This isn’t an effort that we just all of a sudden came up with,” he said. “We’ve been thinking about this hard problem for years now.”