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  SoldierMod Volume 10 - Jan 2013
Volume 10 Articles

Country flagMarine Corps Priorities

Lt. Col. Chris Woodburn, Capability and Requirements Manager, Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad & Infantry Combat Equipment, USMC Combat Developments Command

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The Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad (MERS) has always adopted a system of systems approach, seeing capability as invested in the squad rather than being ring fenced by what an individual can carry. However, this System of Systems approach has yet to be fully baselined in order to establish how best to form future requirements.

Science and technology funding is being used to help establish this, at the same time as thinking is shifting to considerations for post Afghanistan operations. Lt. Col. Chris Woodburn outlined what this means, “We are looking to regain our amphibious character. We are become expeditionary again, getting away from [fixed bases] and back to coming from the sea into an immature theatre of war and imposing our will... Those all have potential consequences in terms of the type of capability we require.”

The MERS philosophy is to influence requirements early on to ensure items in procurement are better designed for integration at the point of delivery of the material solution allowing more effective configuration management and integration of capabilities at both the squad and individual level.

In developing a requirement that identifies Squad and individual Marine capabilities, a system of capabilities are placed within a tradespace ‘box’ in which minimum capabilities are set along with an optimum Objective requirement albeit without introducing unrealistic expectations - Lt. Col. Woodburn gives the example of cold fusion in a rucksack.

“What are the box parameters; size and weight power, interfaces? We are very interested [in others moving] to translate their architecture into interfaces because we are struggling with the definition ourselves. By defining interfaces to industry, industry can understand how these capabilities need to fit together so they can work to a common standard. I think that is extremely important in the drive to integration.”

Right now the main tradespace for MERS is between protection or capability and mobility. Lt. Col. Woodburn explained, “I have to carry less of something else or potentially limit my mobility to take all the capabilities that I may think I need. We are looking at ways to redistribute the load across the body, not necessarily to lighten the load but make it so that to the individual it feels more manageable and it brings mobility back... Your ability to carry it and the time you can carry it changes significantly just based on where you place it on the body... We are also looking at developing the means to remove load from the body with robots and exoskeletons improved self sustainment and improved support delivery methods.”

Current Efforts?

The Marine Corps currently have an Initial Capabilities Document which identifies capability gaps. This dates from 2007 and there is now work on reviewing these findings.

Lt. Col. Woodburn said, “We want to go through and make sure the gaps are still valid, add information to the requirements based on some of the advancements and studies we have done since then and then develop a roadmap that really aligns all of the various efforts across the functions of the squad. We have roadmaps for individual capabilities but nowhere are they aligned so we can see where they may have potential gaps. We may have mismatches in the fielding of one capability versus the fielding of a support capability so we want to be able to better coordinate that.”

In the meantime, the MERS team has identified a number of capabilities for inclusion in the category of Target Acquisition. These include a sense through wall capability suitable for dismounted use; IFF both active and passive with passive capabilities already pursued via IR patches while active capabilities either on the rifle or on the individual are still seen as prohibitively expensive with the Marine Corps seeing C2 and Situational Awareness system as a major contribution Combat ID. Lt. Col. Woodburn commented, “If you have increased situational awareness within the squad you can see who is on your left and right regardless of what service or country they are”; a fused night vision system is a goal although for the time being a clip on thermal capability to existing PVS-14 and similar devices is being adopted. Lt. Col. Woodburn said, “The challenge is size, weight and power. I don’t want to put such a heavy optic on my weapon so that I can no longer employ it.” The Corps also want to bring in a number of these capabilities along with power together on an Integrated Headborne System and is being a pursued with the key concerns being weight and the issues with adding a tethered link between helmet and torso.

Moving to lethality, in the near term the Marine Corps’ M16A4 Product Improvement Programme (PIP) is progressing and although there had been a discussion about replacing this weapon with the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle (IAR) as the Marine Corps’ service weapon, this has now been shelved in favour of improving the existing weapon. Lt. Col. Woodburn said, “We had analysis that we could get a 50 percent of the [IAR] capability in our service rifle just by using these PIP. It makes good cost benefit sense as well.”

Features of the PIP include a free floating barrel to ensure better accuracy with optics, heavier barrel, improved trigger and an adjustable stock in terms of both angle and length which helps it integrate better with the body armour system.

Lt. Col. Woodburn said that the IAR has made a major weight saving over the Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) which it replaces in many roles. The replacement was not without emotion however, particularly in discussions over the loss of suppressive fire and its impact on lethality. Illustrating the effectiveness of the IAR, he gave anecdotal evidence where a unit equipped with SAWs on a standard basis was given a set of pop up targets to fire against. Some were hit others were not. Then the same unit replaced the SAWs with IARs and the targets were presented again. After 45 seconds the firing stopped. The range officer asked why the Marines had stopped firing to be succinctly told that they had no more targets left, reflecting the accuracy and ease of use of the IAR.

The Joint Small Arms Modernization ICD is the vehicle for the formulation of the requirements for future weapon weapons, optics, fire control, ammunition potentially caseless and case telescoped, and other enablers.


Mobility is being addressed in a number of ways by addressing Weight, Bulk, and Flexibility via Configuration Management in which “standard” loads are identified by billet. These include the Design Light Workshop set up under the aegis of MERS which looked at every single piece of kit placed on a Marine and is looking at ways to improve weight efficiency by eliminating ounces from individual items. Other efforts include the ETOWL or Enhanced Technologies for Optimisation of Warfighter Load which will allow virtual evaluation of gear with the capability embedded in MERS in the next couple of years. The Lightweight Individual Modular Body Armor (LIMBR) initiative is pursuing lighter ballistic plates, light weight modular and tailorable soft armour for the torso and extremities and new combat helmet designs with equal or greater protection.

Lt. Col. Woodburn, discussing personal protection said, “The challenge is as always with protection against evolving threats that the enemy has vote. Every time we field a ballistic plate and soft armour our solution provides a good amount of protection. There is however always a more lethal round that ends up out there somewhere. We keep an eye on that to make sure Marines are still receiving the necessary level of protection.”

“We do not direct commanders on what configurations they must use. Our goal in having standard configuration is one - to give us a baseline to study from and two - to be able to advise the commander on the best way to configure gear on the Marine to make them more mobile.”

The Marine Corp’s work on Integrated Power/Data Management and Distribution Squad Electric Power Network is designed to come up with a solution for managing and distributing power to all devices on an individual Marine and also being able to draw power from a battery or scavenge power from a variety of sources always balancing the desire for a central battery versus multiple individual teams.

In terms of removing loads with the body Lt. Col. Woodburn sees Unmanned Ground Vehicles as useful but can be loud and noisy and also bring an inherent logistical burden. He commented, “If you can’t get your gear off the robot what good is it. What capability do you put on the robot that you may not be able to access later.”

He sees exoskeleton as a potential future solution but sees meaningful deployment some five to ten years away.

The Marine Corps currently field individual water purification systems to Marines but can only use them with water from a pre-certified water sources which limits its use. The Marines want to ease those requirements for greater flexibility.

For resupply from the air, Lt. Col. Woodburn wants to see the replacement of larger bulky packages such as ammunition, food and water with items that individual Marines can more easily carry. The use of cargo Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Afghanistan is not being done autonomously and Marines have to carry a control unit which adds to the burden.

In terms of C4I, the goal is to enable greater dispersion in the field. The Marine Corps are now looking at the AN/PRC-152A as a voice and data backbone to provide connectivity for the Joint Battle Command platform hand held device. Lt. Col. Woodburn said, “We have a weight penalty right now for numerous non-integrated transmission platforms. What does that mean? It means that a squad leader carries two radios right now. He carries the PRC-152 for communications [up the command chain] because it has the encryption and waveforms necessary to talk to the PRC-117Gs that are resident at the platoon and company level. Then he has the PRC-153 that he uses for internal communications. We need to streamline that. There is no reason for the squad leader to carry that extra bundle.”

The Marine Corps is currently working with the Army to develop a requirement for the next iteration of soldier protection replacing the plate carrier which is going to be the programme of record solution for the entire Marine Corps.

Lt. Col. Woodburn said, “We want to go to one solution that can scale up or down, based on the threat. Again it’s the commander’s call. We have policy in place right now that allows the commander to make the decision on what level of armour to wear but we want to make that possible with just a single solution. Challenges are again weight versus protection. There is a modular scalable weight penalty in systems right now because of the means of connection. Adding the means to connect these pieces together adds weight.”

The Marine Corp is jointly pursing a joint camouflage study with the Army and, as part of the spectrum management work, rather than simply look at the camouflage pattern of clothing, all items worn on a soldier are now being assessed for their impact on the soldier’s profile so that for example a matt black weapon worn across the body will now be included.

Lt. Col. Woodburn was speaking at WBR's Soldier Technology 2012.

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