Thursday, July 25, 2019


When the Navy announced that it had destroyed an Iranian drone in late July, the public’s assumption was that it was shot out of the air by a missile or anti-aircraft gun. In actuality, it was downed by electronic warfare by jamming its link to ground controllers, causing it to lose control and crash into the sea, according to a July 18 article on military.com. 

What is interesting is that the electronic warfare weapon employed was not developed by the Air Force, NASA or the National Security Agency. The Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS) is a Marine Corps weapon. Marines are generally considered knuckle-dragging grunts in the mode of John Wayne or hot shot fighter pilots portrayed by the likes of Will Smith in the movie “Independence Day,” but the reality is that some of the most cutting edge military technologies of the last century have been developed by the smallest of the four services in the Department of Defense.

This is no accident. Innovation is as much of the Marine Corps legacy as the Halls of Montezuma or the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. The Corps’ existence has been under fire almost from its beginning, and the service has a strong institutional culture of paranoia — much of it justified — but paranoia can often lead to inventiveness.

Since the end of World War I, the Marine Corps has pioneered in a number of areas now seen as normal in all Defense Department services. These have included: amphibious operations, military use of the helicopter, advanced urban operations, advanced non-lethal weapons and the American adoption of unmanned aircraft (now commonly called drones). The LMADIS is a direct result or the latter.

The Marine Corps was the first U.S. service to acquire Israeli-developed large unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance purposes and quickly recognized the value of even smaller drones for supporting combat units. In 1990, during a threatened Philippine coup crisis, I commanded a Marine Contingency Air Ground Task Force (now called a Special Purpose MAGTF) that contained two very small experimental drones called Pointer. They proved extremely useful in scouting ahead of our patrols. Over the course of the next decade, the Marine Corps experimented with this technology resulting in deploying operational systems to Iraq and Afghanistan. But during this period, the Marines quickly realized that drones could be a two-edged sword; swarms of small, armed suicide drones could potentially overwhelm the conventional air defenses of mechanized columns rendering our superiority in armored warfare moot. The LMADIS is a direct result of that concern.

Although primarily designed as a ground defense system to counter unmanned aircraft, LMADIS was deployed aboard the USS Boxer which carries elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit operating in the Persian Gulf. Marines show their flexibility by contributing to the overall defense of ships that they are deployed aboard in a number of ways. Their fighter and attack aircraft contribute to the defense of Navy Amphibious Ready Groups and Marine Corps helicopters and communications assets also prove invaluable when the American military is called upon to react to the humanitarian disasters caused by storms, earthquakes, and man-made famines.

Much of the Marine Corps’ success in innovation comes from its tight turning radius. Unlike other service chiefs which are constrained by competing — often semi-independent — communities vying for attention and resources, the commandant of the Marine Corps has pope-like control of his service. When the commandant says “jump,” the universal response from the Corps is “How high?” Since the 1980s, the Marine Corps has enjoyed several strong-willed and innovative commandants. Gens. Bob Barrow, Al Gray and Chuck Krulak fostered ground-breaking innovations in the areas of technology, doctrine, organization, training and education.

Over the years, there has been an occasional hue and cry from Congress for service unification in the name of economic efficiency. The Marine Corps is often the target of these forays as it is alleged to provide a second land army and a fourth air force. In a country that encourages — actually demands — competition in the private sector, it is curious that healthy competition among the services is somehow viewed as counterproductive. Harry Truman was the last president to actively try to abolish or stifle the Marine Corps. The Korean War came as an unpleasant education for him.

Marines sometimes joke among themselves that their Corps represents 243 years of tradition unhindered by progress but the perceptive among them know that without timely innovation, there would be no Marine Corps.

• Gary Anderson lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. He was the chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and the first director of its Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities.

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