‘Robot Marines’ In Every Formation: Corps’ Robotics Chief Casts Vision

Intelligent Robotics and Autonomous Systems chief for the USMC lays out just how critical robotics will be in a future fight.

byHope Hodge Seck|
USMC is wanting to incorporate drones across its forces.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Zachary Candiani)


In last year's update to Force Design 2030, the Marine Corps' primary planning document, leaders introduced a new mandate for integrating smart machines into warfare: "Marines must fight at machine speed or face defeat at machine speed."

With that message came a new catch-all term for this field of technology development and integration: Intelligent Robotics and Autonomous Systems, or IRAS. At the Modern Day Marine conference in Washington, D.C., the officer tasked with leading the Marines' IRAS efforts described a near-future service with robots that bounce, trot, and slither as well as fly; and specialized robotics operators in every Marine Corps formation to best use their capabilities.

Lt. Col. Keenan Chirhart called on the Corps to treat IRAS as its own unique and vital capability, rather than an adjunct objective supporting other primary ones. And to do that, he said, the Marines had to get serious about establishing a dedicated military occupational specialty (MOS), or job field, for martial robotics – something he said has been slow going so far. 

"Right now [we have] a little bit of a lack of holistic MOS solution," Chirhart said, noting the service had an unmanned aircraft systems operations specialist job field but nothing encapsulating all unmanned systems. "We've got [communications] Marines in every formation, we need to have robot Marines, IRAS Marines, integrated in every formation so we can fully leverage these capabilities."

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jacob Sprankle, a student with Small Unmanned Aerial System School and a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, uses a tablet to control a R80D Skyraider during an exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Mar. 12, 2024. Marines with SUASS practiced tactical flights and operations to simulate scenarios such as moving cargo, navigation, and concealment. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Zachary Candiani)

In addition to devising an integrated career field, Chirhart indicated the Corps needed to build out a full accompanying infrastructure for robotics on the battlefield, including schoolhouses to train in related specialties and software and data delivery systems capable of providing those machine-speed updates to ground-pounders anywhere in the world. 

The major adaptations Chirhart is seeking correspond to a vision of a near future in which smart war machines are ubiquitous in every domain. According to the goals he presented, the Marine Corps wants to expand existing uses of IRAS over the next three years, using drones to carry loads and provide force protection and situational awareness while developing better common user interfaces and supporting infrastructure for their management.

Over the next three to five years, he said, the Marines want to build out their smaller sensing and swarming drones and make progress on unmanned combat vehicles with advanced payloads.

In the more undefined future, Chirhart said, the service also hopes to seek opportunities to augment humans with machines, perhaps in the form of smart exoskeletons. 

"If you've got a product like that, come talk to me," Chirhart joked.

Of note, the Defense Department and in particular the Special Operations community have courted "Iron Man" style exoskeleton concepts for years. The most popular of these concepts, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, was a U.S. Special Operations Command darling for more than half a decade before officials finally admitted an executable version was technologically "out of reach."

Within the next decade, the Corps, Chirhart said, wants to better connect multi-domain architectures, advance manned-unmanned teaming to reduce risk, and devise ways to control unmanned systems that meaningfully reduce the human workload. The USMC’s handful of MQ-9 Reapers require a "whole host" of personnel to fly the system, ID targets, push information and more, he said.

"We want to get unfixed from the system," Chirhart said. "I want to be able to control many unmanned systems across domains" whether from a stateside ground station or via a tablet from the back of a C-130 transport or MV-22 Osprey.

 A Hero-400EC loitering munition on its launcher ahead of a Marine exercise where the drone was handed off among airborne platforms and ground operators. (USMC)

As the Corps continues to pursue bespoke large unmanned aerial systems, he said he also envisions unmanned tankers pairing with F-35s, allowing the manned aircraft to increase standoff range and reduce risk.

The vision Chirhart is casting includes, in addition to highly advanced technological goals, the pursuit of unmanned systems for which the Marines don't yet have an established use. A slide he presented at the briefing featured a number of small ground robots including a "terrestrial snake" being developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a BB-8-style spherical robot, and a squat ISR-focused "throwbot."

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"Ten years ago, if you'd told me there was a robotic snake we'd be looking into for warfighting functions, I wouldn't have believed you – I'd have said you were crazy," Chirhart said.

Chirhart is not yet ready to speculate on what those functions might be. In a brief follow-up conversation with The War Zone, he characterized the Corps' interest in these systems as "from a technology admiration standpoint," and said that while he was interested in backpack-sized robots that might be able to assist Marines on foot, "no capability gap exists for them right now."

He does, however, paint a compelling picture of what fully integrated IRAS-enabled warfare can look like.

In a possible scenario, Chirhart said, a Marine task force ordered to neutralize threats and secure objectives in a hostile area could first sweep the region with armed hunter-killer drones, possibly augmented by small swarming UAS guided by artificial intelligence algorithms and advanced sensors toward the likely target. They also relay location data about enemy munitions and defenses back to a commander, who can order stand-off strikes. These small systems clear the way for manned F-35s fueling from an unmanned tanker controlled by a ground operator at a stateside base. 

USMC F-35B aerial refueling. (USMC)

At a second position, Chirhart said, tactical resupply unmanned ground systems navigate rugged terrain thanks to AI and GPS coordinates, getting real-time information about the units they support about the status of current supply stockpiles.

Meanwhile, in this scenario, unmanned surface vessels off the coast launch loitering munitions to clear enemy fighters off a small adjacent island, paving the way for that most treasured Marine Corps concept: the amphibious beach assault. Over the battlefield, sophisticated larger UAS equipped with LIDAR and electronic surveillance sensors scour the broad battlefield – identifying and classifying enemy targets while building an accurate digital map of the objective area, transmitting the information being synthesized back to every networked commander. And where the battlefield is contaminated or riddled with explosive hazards, robotic dogs and explosive ordnance disposal robots case the region, cleaning up and neutralizing the threat before a human is put at risk.

"This is not sci-fi; this is not ten years from now," Chirhart told expo attendees. "This is happening in the room behind you."

While all the military services have vocally embraced the promise of robotics and smart, learning machines for more effective future warfare, the Marine Corps is arguably out ahead in some ways. Last year's Force Design 2030 update called for a dedicated IRAS strategy document to guide capability development as well as a talent management game plan for IRAS-focused Marines. The service has been working closely with the Navy, which introduced a first-of-its-kind robotics warfare job rating last year. The Marines are set to make a decision about whether to roll out its own IRAS MOS by the start of 2025.

Contact the editor: tyler@twz.com