Marines stage an amphibious vehicle assault during training operations at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Credit: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jacob Wilson.

We know that the US Navy is working towards integrating unmanned combat ships, but now it appears that the US Marines are joining that endeavor, with a cool twist.

According to Popular Mechanics, the Marine Corps is taking a completely new tack to providing fire support during amphibious landings: unmanned boats stocked full of suicide drones.

The shipbuilder Metal Shark has announced it’s building a new type of unmanned surface vessel, which the Marines plan to equip with loitering munitions.

Such a boat would act as a mobile fire support platform, servicing calls for fire with salvos of drones equipped with explosive charges.

The Marines are reconfiguring for war with China, and they’ve already determined the future battlefield: the South China Sea.

According to a press release posted on Naval News online, Louisiana-based ship builder Metal Shark has enlisted autonomous technology developer Spatial Integrated Systems (SIS), recently acquired by Huntington Ingalls Industries, to provide the autonomy solution for the Long Range Unmanned Surface Vessel (LRUSV) system.

The latter will usher in a new era of naval technology while increasing the lethality of US forces, the press release said, pointing to a network of unmanned vessels traveling autonomously and transporting loitering munitions to address targets at sea and on land.

Under an “Other Transaction Authority” agreement with Marine Corps Systems Command, Metal Shark will design, build, test, and implement the vessels and will handle the integration of the autonomy system and an advanced Command and Control software suite.

In addition to the autonomous LRUSV, Metal Shark will also produce manned support vessels for the LRUSV system utilizing its 40 Defiant military patrol craft platform, which the builder is currently producing to create the US Navy’s new “40 PB” patrol boat fleet.

The LRUSV system will usher in a new era of naval technology while potnetially increasing the lethality of US forces. Credit: Metal Shark.

“The LRUSV program represents a significant milestone for autonomous technology, for the defense world, and for the entire shipbuilding industry,” said Metal Shark CEO Chris Allard.

“We are thrilled to be integrating advanced autonomy and Command and Control capability into these highly specialized surface vessels to provide the Marine Corps with a next-generation system.”

The LRUSV program is the latest success for Metal Shark’s Sharktech Autonomous Vessels division, a wholly-owned subsidiary launched in 2018 and specifically focused on the advancement of unmanned vessel technology.

In September, it was announced that the US Coast Guard had selected a 29-foot Sharktech autonomous test vessel equipped with autonomy.

Metal Shark has designed, built, and delivered over 400 autonomous and remotely operated vessels to date, the release said.

With military spending cuts looming large, senior Marine leaders have been called upon to help redefine the service’s central purpose.

The new Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance, crafted by newly appointed Gen. David Berger, lays out a striking new vision for the Corps — and jettisons a sizable number of long-held Marine articles of faith along the way, War on the Rocks online reported.

Berger’s guidance is both hard-hitting and remarkably well-written, and in many ways, the planning guidance responds to growing turbulence inside the Marines.

Since 2001, the Marines have served as the nation’s second land army in Afghanistan and then Iraq, organized crisis response task forces, and forged a special operations component, while still clinging tightly to their historic mission of large-scale amphibious landings.

These widely divergent directions have led some Marines to question their identity, with one even arguing that the service suffers from a multiple personality disorder.

Berger argues that future adversaries will be increasingly able to contest and even deny access to the maritime domain, where the US has long held unchallenged superiority.

He therefore intends to overhaul the Marine Corps so that it can operate inside this contested space during a major maritime fight.

The planning guidance specifically rejects the notion that the Marine Corps is a standalone fighting force that the Navy simply supports with sea transport, airpower, and logistics.

When the Marines hit the beach during an amphibious assault, they will have air cover from the unmanned Metal Shark, which will launch loitering suicide drones. Credit: Marine Corps Cpl. Matthew Kirk.

Berger also highlights the growing military threat posed by China, especially its sea denial capabilities. In response, he explicitly reallocates Marine forces away from the Middle East and other combatant commands, to double down in the Pacific.

The III Marine Expeditionary Force “will become our main focus-of-effort,” he writes, and will solely support the commanders of US Indo-Pacific Command and the Navy’s 7th Fleet. 

Furthermore, the Marines will eliminate all of their tank units (a capability the service has had for nearly a century), most of its tube artillery, and a substantial amount of aviation units.

If the US and China ever come to blows, the LRUSV fleet will also play an important part in that battle, Popular Mechanics reported.

The Marines plan to roll up Beijing’s fortified islands in the South China Sea, hopping from one island to the next, using one seized island to help seize another — all while keeping Chinese air and naval forces at bay.

Originally built under the guise of being scientific research stations, many of these bases feature ground-based radars, anti-ship missiles, artillery, and military-grade airfields capable of supporting fighter jets.

As for artillery, most of these islands are so small that howitzers can’t be employed at a safe distance from enemy fire, or might not be able to provide indirect fire at such close ranges.

Amphibious forces hitting the beach will still need some form of fire support, to blast apart bunkers, strongpoints, and other stubborn defenses.

While the Marines will have their own AH-1Z attack helicopters and F-35 fighters, enemy air defenses could keep them from performing the close air support mission.

The Marines have apparently hit upon a novel way of providing that fire support: putting it on boats that can circle these small islands, using loitering munitions as a form of artillery.

Enter the new, lethal Metal Shark — the bringer of death.

In the old days, it was usually a US Navy Iowa-class battleship, pounding the shore with its 16-inch guns. Now, it’s all about drones.

As the Marines hit the beach, LRUSVs will launch loitering munitions that take up station above the island. Advancing infantries will then report enemy positions, requesting drone attacks as needed.

The drones drop down from their roost above the battlefield, smashing into enemy targets and detonating an onboard explosive charge. As one enemy position after another is destroyed, the Marines advance until the entire island is overrun.

The drones will also be equipped with “friend or foe” technology, to avoid friendly fire casualties.

At least, that’s the plan.

Sources: Popular Mechanics, Naval News, War on the Rocks