An M1A1 Abrams tank with 2nd Tank Battalion rolls through a Camp Lejeune, N.C., range last month during a training exercise with an RQ-11 Raven Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, upper right. The UAVs did reconnaissance on the enemy and relayed the information to tank crews before they attacked the objective. (Lance Cpl. Jose Mendez Jr./Marine Corps)
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An M1A1 Abrams tank with 2nd Tank Battalion rolls through a Camp Lejeune, N.C., range last month during a training exercise with an RQ-11 Raven Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, upper right. The UAVs did reconnaissance on the enemy and relayed the information to tank crews before they attacked the objective. (US Marine Corps)
Marine Corps tank units have begun using unmanned aircraft to help spot enemy forces and engage targets with greater accuracy, the latest in a series of developments for the service’s drone fleet.
During a recent exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C., 2nd Tank Battalion’s scout platoon turned to one of the Corps’ smallest unmanned assets, the RQ-11B Raven, to detect mock enemy forces before they reached the Marines’ defensive lines — and then to help launch a counterattack by directing tank rounds with deadly precision. The goal, said 1st Lt. Torn Roth, one of the scout platoon’s officers, was “to gain a better understanding of how the Raven could be used in a conventional war in support of offensive and defensive operations.”
The results were mostly positive, he said. Here’s how it played out:
During the exercise, the scout platoon pushed out about 1½ miles ahead of the tanks, M1A1 Abrams, to catch enemy infiltrating their position. Aided by the Ravens, the scout platoon located an advance element and attempted to destroy it. Once overwhelmed, the scout platoon fell back and used the Ravens to acquire targets for the tanks. Finally, when the enemy retreated, the tanks pursued them with help from above.
“The Raven was used to determine the position and size of enemy elements,” Roth said. “Once the targets were identified and confirmed by the gunners, a position was determined [by] utilizing the laser range finder in the Raven and double checking it with map plotting. Often this was found to be very accurate, even with difficulties caused by the weather.”
At 4.2 pounds, the man-portable, hand-launchable Raven can have trouble when it’s wet or windy, as it was during 2nd Tanks’ exercise. Roth said the aircraft were buffeted by gusts up to 17 mph and its sensors were challenged by rain.
“These factors lead to a drastic decrease in speed ... as well as its overall ability to get a clear picture of enemy targets,” Roth said. “The turbulence caused by the wind caused the Raven to become a very unstable platform in flight.”
Despite these vulnerabilities, Roth said the battalion will continue to use unmanned aircraft in exercises and operations.
The Marine Corps has prioritized development of unmanned aircraft and encouraged implementing them in more tasks. Originally dedicated to reconnaissance, the service has adapted them for direct-strike missions.
The Marine Corps’ RQ-7 Shadow, for example, was retrofitted so it can carry a 25-pound munition capable of eliminating improvised explosive device-emplacement teams in Afghanistan. Its Switchblade unmanned aircraft, a small tube-launched unmanned aerial vehicle that Marines can carry in a pack and pilot over obstacles enemy forces may use for cover, can be used almost like a grenade, flying through windows or into buildings and detonating within range of specific targets.
Additionally, in an effort to ensure unmanned aircraft can perform well at sea, the Marine Corps is adopting technology that will allow them to land in and be recovered from the water. The RQ-20A Puma AE, procured last year for use in Afghanistan, already has such amphibious capability.