To Keep Up With Modern Combat, Marines Add Drone Operators To Infantry Units

Jun 4, 2018

One Marine in each rifle squad will be designated to fly small drones and run some of the Marines' expanding array of other digital devices.

The Marine Corps is retooling its basic front-line infantry unit.

The rifle squad will be trimmed by one person - down to 12 Marines - and get new weapons and other equipment like sound suppressors for their rifles.

And one Marine in each squad will get a new role that says a lot about what modern combat has become: "squad systems operator." That person will be designated to fly small drones and run some of the Marines' expanding array of other digital devices, like tablets that do things like track troops and vehicles around the battlefield.

There is so much technology in combat now that the Marines say they had to designate someone to handle it so that the squad leader has enough mental bandwidth left to lead the troops.

"I think we're at a point now where we had to do something," said Gen. Robert Neller, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. "The amount of data and the complications of the battle space, it's getting beyond one person's ability to do it."

Neller was deeply involved in the changes, down to approving the name for the new role. He says the Marines have to innovate because they face the same hectic pace of technology-driven change that has become such a part of civilian life.

"Everybody keeps saying it's going to slow down, but it doesn't," Neller said. "It gets faster, it gets cheaper, it gets more capable, and so we've got to take advantage of that. Because certainly our adversaries are doing the same thing."

Under Neller's leadership, the Marines have already made significant changes to larger units. But he said that it's important to push technology like drones down to the rifle squads.

"That's where the point of contact is, that's where the casualties are taking place, he said. "They're the ones that are doing all the dirty work, and so they needed to have increased lethality and capability."

The drones, he said, will make the squads more lethal in combat and save Marine lives. For instance, the drones can take the place of Marines when there's a need to explore unfamiliar places.

"What's on the roof of that building? I can't see, it's too high," said Neller, spinning out a common scenario for urban combat. "And now, I mitigate risk by not having to have you, a human being, go in there. I put a machine in there."

At first, being a squad systems operator will mainly mean flying the drone. But the role is designed to be flexible so that it can accommodate innovations that might be only weeks or months away. The person in that role may eventually be in charge of things like tiny swarm drones, kamikaze drones that are flown into enemy troops or vehicles, and various kinds of information systems.

"We're looking at tablets that allow navigation and delivery of orders and instructions and delivery of fires whether they come from ground or air systems," Neller said. "We're looking at communication between adjacent units, we're looking at potentially helping track everybody where they are, where other units are to have better battlefield situational awareness."

The systems operator will remain an infantry Marine, meaning he or she also will carry a rifle and be expected to fight just like the other members of the squad.

Lance Cpl. Jared Merrell peers at the screen of the quadcopter’s controller, checking of the drone’s battery and tiny motors before his first flight.
Credit Jay Price / WUNC

And the systems part of the role is less about being some kind of combat IT person or hacker than it is about being really good with consumer electronics.

On a recent afternoon at Camp Lejeune, civilian instructors were giving young Marines their first hands-on lesson in flying a the four-prop InstantEye "quadcopter" drone that's little larger than a dinner plate.

In one group, the first to try was 21-year-old Lance Corporal Jared Merrell. He put the buzzing craft through simple maneuvers without much trouble.

There was a simple reason for that: Merrell owns his own drones, he said.

After Merrell, the next young Marine to try the quadcopter was 18-year-old PFC Evan Perez.

He did well, too, even though he had never flown a drone and it was unusually windy.

"It was pretty straightforward, and I did enjoy it, I did learn a lot," Perez said. "I definitely felt familiar with the controls as a video gamer."

Neller said Perez's reaction is typical.

"I'm pretty confident since the young Marines in there are digital natives," Neller said. "They grew up with smart phones and they know how to surf and use apps and all that, they're Google map people. So I don't think it's going to be that big a deal."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.