The agency that invented stealth technology, the internet, and the M16 has its sights focused on enhancing how the infantry squad works on the battlefield with robots, and advanced targeting and sensing gear.

The Squad X program saw its first week-long series of tests at Twentynine Palms, California, this past year. At that event, Marine squads used air and ground vehicles to detect physical, electromagnetic and cyber threats, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The agency’s program manager for their Tactical Technology Office, Army Lt. Col. Phil Root said that the first experiment in the program demonstrated “the ability for the squad to communicate and collaborate, even while ‘dancing on the edge of connectivity.’”

Squad X Core Technologies program, or SXCT, is an ongoing effort to develop novel technologies that would “extend squad awareness and engagement capabilities without imposing physical and cognitive burdens,” according to a DARPA press release.

They aim to speed the development of new, lightweight, integrated systems that provide infantry squads awareness, adaptability and flexibility in complex environments.

That effort is to enable dismounted soldiers and Marines to more intuitively understand and control their complex mission environments, according to Root.

Those efforts fit within wider work being done by the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, a group set up this past year to enhance close combat capabilities for infantry, special operations, scouts and some engineers.

Root is also the program manager for Squad X Core Technologies.

He laid out four key technical areas that the program is exploring:

  • Precision Engagement: Precisely engage threats while maintaining compatibility with infantry weapon systems and without imposing weight or operational burdens that would negatively affect mission effectiveness. Capabilities of interest include distributed, non-line-of-sight targeting and guided munitions.
  • Non-Kinetic Engagement: Disrupt enemy command and control, communications and use of drones. Capabilities of interest include disaggregated electronic surveillance and coordinated effects from distributed platforms.
  • Squad Sensing: Detect potential threats at a squad-relevant operational pace. Capabilities of interest include multi-source data fusion and autonomous threat detection.
  • Squad Autonomy: Increase squad members’ real-time knowledge of their own and teammates’ locations in GPS-denied environments using embedded unmanned air and ground systems. Capabilities of interest include robust collaboration between humans and unmanned systems.

Some of those areas were previously explored in 2015 with DARPA’s squad technology integration efforts.

The tools used to detect threats in the experiments were newer, lighter, versions of previous capabilities. But the release did not provide detailed examples of the gear that Marines tested.

DARPA is testing new ways of pairing human troops with air and ground robots at the squad level. (DARPA).
DARPA is testing new ways of pairing human troops with air and ground robots at the squad level. (DARPA).

“Each run, they learned a bit more on the systems and how they could support the operation,” said Root. “By the end, they were using the unmanned ground and aerial systems to maximize the squad’s combat power and allow a squad to complete a mission that normally would take a platoon to execute.”

The August event at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center was one of a number of experiments in communications, cyber, EW, loitering munitions and targeting that was conducted over the past year.

Both Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, and CACI’s BIT Systems are working for ways to enhance infantry capabilities using manned-unmanned teaming, according to the release.

Marines testing Lockheed Martin’s Augmented Spectral Situational Awareness, and Unaided Localization for Transformative Squads, known as the ASSAULTS system, used autonomous robots with sensor systems to detect enemy locations, allowing the Marines to target the enemy with a precision 40mm grenade before the enemy could detect their movement, according to the release.

Small units using CACI’s BITS Electronic Attack Module were able to detect, locate, and attack specific threats in the radio frequency and cyber domains.

This is all part of larger efforts to put more detection and fires at lower echelons in both the Army and Marine Corps.