Lighter force has double meaning for Marine Corps

Thursday - 10/18/2012, 5:26am EDT

Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, USMC

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The Marine Corps is relying heavily on energy efficiency and alternative energy as it tries to build the leaner, lighter force it says it'll need in coming years.

With the military's strategic shift in focus away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region, the Marine Corps wants to get back to its maritime roots and transition to a "middleweight," expeditionary, seagoing force.

There's one big problem with that, according to Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, the Marines' deputy commandant for combat development and integration.

"Over the past 10 years, we've become a heavy Marine Corps. We've fought a land war, requiring us to become heavier. That was all well and good in its time, but that time now is rapidly passing us by," he said.

Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, Marine Corps

Deployed marines, Mills told the Navy's annual energy forum, have become too dependent on the large fuel farms that now populate heavily-protected fixed bases in Afghanistan, tying them down to hard-won, but secure lines of supply for energy.

"That allowed us to become almost sloppy," he said. "It allowed us to become less aware and less conscious of fuel efficiency on the battlefield and the problems of fuel resupply on the battlefield. Those times are changing."

The times ahead, Mills said, are likely to involve deployments to conflict zones with energy sources that are far less reliable, and likely to be at the end of a sea-based supply line. To deal with that reality, the Marines must redevelop an expeditionary mindset and build a force that can operate in an environment where energy is not an unlimited resource.

"Our energy demand increases our strategic and tactical risk. It tethers us to supply lines that are vulnerable to disruption," he said. "It reduces our range and our freedom to maneuver, especially as we operate from the sea and operate on land. It risks the precious lives of our sailors and marines as they carry fuel and water on patrol and on combat operations. Energy inefficiency is just simply inconsistent with our current and future operational concepts and the environments in which we're going to have to fight."

Acquisition considerations

But Mills said the Marine Corps now is getting serious about energy efficiency. He said the service quickly has begun using innovative technologies that reduce the need for fuel and batteries in a combat zone. And he said energy use now is a major consideration in the service's acquisition of weapons systems.

"Fuel efficiency must play a part in every decision we make as we look at future capabilities, future requirements and how we meet those requirements," he said. "We've been putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to our requirements for future vehicles and aircraft. We must look at size, weight, logistics footprint, energy consumption, and how we'll use that equipment. We have to develop a lighter force, capable of operating in smaller, more distributed units and translate that eventually into a faster, more deadly and middleweight force."

Many of the Marine Corps weapons systems definitely are closer to the heavyweight end of the spectrum. Some weapons carried by individual marines pack 35 pounds of weight into a single system, a load the Marine Corps wants to cut in half. To get a better handle on the entirety of the load on a marine's back, the service has designated the Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad program as the single configuration manager for everything a marine carries, both now and in the future.

Field tests worked well

Part of reducing that load is cutting back on the energy sources marines have to take with them, and giving them gear that can harness renewable energy instead.

"We've applied some $350 million to expeditionary energy initiatives, and as a result of those initiatives, four systems have moved beyond the experimental phase and into formal programs of record. They're providing support to the marine on the battlefield right now," Mills said.

Those four technologies, including solar blankets that can supply power to radios and GPS units in the field and low-power LED lighting technology, first rolled on to the battlefield in Afghanistan as an experiment with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment when Mills was a commander there. He was skeptical at first.

"The last thing I wanted to do was to burden these marines with some science project as they jumped into high-intensity combat against a determined enemy. I was wrong," he said. "The marines jumped all over it. They understood what those systems offered to them. I got nothing but praise for those kinds of systems, because it made the grunt's life easier. It reduced the amount of fuel they had to bring forward. It reduced the amount of maintenance on generators. It reduced the number of convoys brining batteries, and it reduced the weight during foot patrols."

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