In 21st Century Fires (p.64) from The Marine Corps Gazette, the Ellis Group argues that fires must be integrated with sensors and explicitly states that “smaller Group 1 or 2 (Puma/Raven), which are located organic to [Marine Corps infantry] battalions, should have the capacity to spot indirect fires at a minimum.” This capability already exists; the current inventory of Small Unmanned Systems (synonymous with Group 1 UAS), the Wasp, Raven, and Puma, has the ability to determine target location, adjust rounds, and provide battle damage assessments. The process to use Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) to call for fire has not existed, until now.

The process to use call for fire using SUAS as an observation tool is simple. The system generates all of the necessary data to conduct a fire mission from beginning to end by providing the ten digit target location, the ability to adjust rounds using the organic Range and Bearing Tool, and the ability to conduct a battle damage assessment.

The Range and Bearing Tool is an application that exists on the software used to fly the Wasp, Raven, and Puma and is used to measure the distance between two points on a captured image. Once an image is captured, the Range and Bearing Tool is used to determine the distance between two points. The bearing from the 'S' point (which stands for 'smoke') to the 'T' point (which stands for 'target') and the range between 'S' and 'T' provides the add/drop and left/right data necessary for corrections. The bearing between 'S' and 'T' is the MAGNETIC bearing between the points. The magnetic bearing and the range are used to calculate the corrections. The Range and Bearing Tool removes the need for the forward observer to make any calculations whatsoever when using SUAS to make adjustments to the impact of rounds.

The following is the call for fire step-action process used to observe rounds with SUAS developed from trials conducted by 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines at Fort Pickett, Virginia and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Step 1: The Mission Coordinator (MC) conducts planning to determine the desired target area or flight path, then tasks the Mission Operator (MO) and Vehicle Operator who operate the SUAS. a. Ensure that the MO knows the location of supporting indirect fires agencies to determine gun target lines from the agency to the targets.

Step 2: The air vehicle is launched to collect information and search for targets.

Step 3: The VO announces 'target' upon identification of a potential target. Using the Ground Control Station laptop, the MO gives a description of the target to the Fire Support Team (FiST).

Step 4: The VO uses the air vehicle’s sensors to determine the target’s grid location and announces the information to the FiST. a. SUAS are capable of generating ten digit grids of targets on the ground.

Step 5: If the FiST decides to engage, the target location generated from the system is used in the call for fire.

a. The FiST must announce 'UAS in observation' in the warning order.

b. The MO establishes a 'racetrack' pattern for the air vehicle that is parallel and 200-1000 meters, ground distance, from the gun target line. A flight pattern beyond the target, in relation to the firing agency, can also be used.

Step 6: The vehicle operator continues to observe the target using a wide field of view in order to observe the spotting round. Once the round lands, the field of view should be narrowed to capture an image of the target and the impact.

Step 7: The VO uses the Range and Bearing Tool to determine the spottings which are displayed on the Hand Controller. Spottings are accurate to within 1 meter and the corrections are announced to the FiST verbatim.

a. The VO must place the 'S' ('smoke') on the point of impact and the 'T' ('target') on the target point.

Step 8: The FiST transmits the corrections to the firing agency in accordance with established doctrine (i.e. MCWP 3-16.6).

a. The Range and Bearing Tool calculates corrections based off magnetic north. The target direction is 6400 mils magnetic plus or minus the G-M angle: e.g. a G-M angle of 0006 mils West renders an Observer Target Direction of 6394 mils.

Step 9: Upon end of mission, the system is used to conduct a battle damage assessment. 

The ability to use the current inventory of SUAS to spot indirect fires can have immediate effects on how infantry units currently execute maneuver at all levels. Incorporation of SUAS into the fires process contributes to maneuver in two interrelated areas: a faster and more accurate target identification process at increased range resulting in greater tempo; and greater dispersion and decentralization of infantry companies.

Accurate and rapid organic fires at increased range are essential for the infantry company to act independently and maintain tempo. Current FiST employment techniques slow down the tempo of the infantry company dramatically because of the time required to deploy and recover, then redeploy the FiST. The range of the firing agency is limited by the ability of the FiST to deploy deep into the battlespace. SUAS in the call for fire must be incorporated into the FiST for two reasons: it provides the company the ability to prosecute targets deeper into the battlespace, and generate targets more rapidly than current processes allow.

SUAS will not replace the FiST; it will enhance the FiST by allowing teams to observe and engage adversaries that cannot be observed due to obscuration, distance, darkness, observation angle, or flat terrain. The practical limitation of any indirect fire assets is the ability to observe fires; if you cannot see it, you cannot shoot it. The commander must assume risk by employing the FiST from a vantage point to view an enemy that is trying to conceal its location. SUAS provides a bird’s-eye view of the battlespace with the enhanced ability to observe in the electro-optical and infrared spectrum. With current capabilities (from as little as 5km for the Wasp and up to 20km with the Puma), SUAS can be employed to engage targets previously untouchable and unobservable due to the inability to employ the FiST at great distances from the company.

The simple process to use SUAS in the call for fire will accelerate the call for fire process, increase the infantry company’s tempo, and provide an unprecedented ability to distribute companies across the battlespace. These factors will contribute to an exponential increase in tempo across the force and enable the future force to rapidly overwhelm the adversary’s system by attacking the enemy from all directions. In order to fully realize this capability, units should also experiment with the use of small teams whose sole job is SUAS operations. So charge your Raven batteries, schedule a range, reserve a restricted operating zone over the impact area, and use SUAS to call for fire, today!

About the Authors

Paul Niggl is a Ground Intelligence Officer in the United States Marine Corps. Mark Sousa is an Artillery Officer in the United States Marine Corps. Frank Miner is an Infantry Officer in the United States Marine Corps. All three have recent operational experience.