To combat the rising threat to surface warships posed by low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles, the Navy is taking some unconventional steps. One of those includes experimenting with strapping specially-designed Marine Corps vehicles to the decks of amphibious warships as an added layer of defense — vehicles that, based on newly-released photos, include a somewhat rare armored reconnaissance vehicle equipped with a new electronic warfare system.

A series of photos published in late January to the Defense Visual Information Distribution system, the U.S. military’s video and photo database, show a rare Light Armored Vehicle-Electronic Warfare variant strapped to the deck of the Navy amphibious assault ship USS Bataan during an integration exercise between the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Squadron 8 in the littorals of eastern Virginia and North Carolina, 26th MEU spokeswoman Capt. Angelica White told Task & Purpose. 

Marines with the 26th MEU employed the electronic warfare variant of the tried-and-true amphibious armored reconnaissance vehicle “to support the Commander with Electronic Warfare capabilities including Electronic Attack (EA), Electronic Protect (EP), and Electronic Support (ES) across a broad frequency range” during a defense of an amphibious task force (DATF) exercise, White said.

Marines and Sailors with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit prepare for a defense of the amphibious task force (DATF) drill aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, Jan. 28, 2023. The DATF drill is conducted to provide full security to a ship during strait transit or when the ship is bound by land on both port and starboard sides. (Cpl. Nayelly Nieves-Nieves/U.S. Marine Corps)

Not to be confused with the LAV-Mobile Electronic Warfare Support System (MEWSS) fielded by the Corps in the late 1980s, very little information is publicly availably regarding the vehicle’s configuration and fleet size, and White declined to share details regarding the vehicle on the Bataan’s deck, citing operational security.

Based on budget documents, the thimble-shaped EW array on the top of the LAV is likely a variant of the Communication Emitter Sensing and Attack System II (CESAS II), a system manufactured by defense contractor Arotech that, initially fielded to a Marine Air-Ground Task Force in 2016, received a $20 million procurement boost in the Navy’s fiscal year 2023 budget request for slapping the system onto the LAV-EW, among other units. 

“Marines need to be able to rapidly and cooperatively disrupt, deny and degrade enemy communication systems by using nonlethal and lethal attacks on the ground,” said Heather Place, project officer for CESAS at Marine Corps Systems Command, during fielding in 2016. “CESAS II is designed to do just that by jamming commonly used communication frequencies.”

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In the case of the LAV-EW deployed to the deck of the Bataan, the CESAS II array gave Marines the ability to detect, disrupt, and deny potential threat communications, like those between, say, an incoming adversary drone loaded up with explosives and someone operating it from the shore. 

CESAS II ”provides stationary and on-the-move capabilities, and is lightweight, modular, scalable, reliable, cost-effective, ruggedized and economically sustainable,” Place said in a separate statement. “The system is capable of conducting static, stationary, and vehicle mobile electronic warfare operations in support of the MAGTF and joint force commanders.”

Strapping EW-capable vehicles to the decks of warships for defensive exercises during strait crossings has become a growing trend for the Navy and Marine Corps in recent years. Indeed, Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit used a Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (L-MADIS) installed on an MRZR all-terrain vehicle on the deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer to knock an Iranian drone out of the sky in the Strait of Hormuz in July 2019.

The L-MADIS system was also pictured in DVIDS mounted on a Counter Unmanned Aerial Surveillance Utility Task Vehicle alongside the LAV-EW systems on the deck of the Bataan during the 26th MEU DATF exercise. 

U.S. Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), track a simulated adversary vessel using the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (L-MADIS), and a Counter Unmanned Aerial Surveillance Utility Task Vehicle, during a defense of the amphibious task force (DATF) drill aboard the Wasp-Class Amphibious Assault Ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) Jan. 28, 2023. (Cpl. Matthew Romonoyske-Bean/U.S. Marine Corps)

The 22nd MEU had previously used the L-MADIS on the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge during a transit through the Suez Canal in January 2019 to provide additional security, while the 13th MEU also employed the system as recently as this past July aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island.

“This was the 26th MEU’s first time incorporating these niche assets into a DATF exercise during our first at-sea period with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group to experiment with concepts in accordance with Force Design 2030 for our upcoming deployment to the Fifth and Sixth fleets areas of operations,” White told Task & Purpose. 

Iran has ramped up aerial drone attacks on vessels near its territorial waters in recent years, according to the U.S. Navy, and crossings like the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab Strait, where the U.S. 5th Fleet has pledged to provide maritime security, can prove hazardous choke points for commercial and military ships alike.

As part of the Marine Corps Force Design 2030 force restructuring plan, the service plans on pursuing new electronic warfare capabilities for both mobile air defense and counter-precision guided missile systems, among other applications, according to the Congressional Research Service’s latest update on the initiative. 

“The ability to manage your own electronic signature, locate a threat, detect and exploit their communications, jam their transmissions, interfere with their command and control — these have always been important in war, but today I would offer they can be decisive,” Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger said last May during a speech at the Modern Day Marine expo in Washington, D.C.

The Navy has been working on its own unique counter-drone systems for surface warships like the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN) and High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) weapon systems which are designed to blind incoming adversary drones and burn them out of the sky, respectively. 

But given the proliferation of drone swarms among state and non-state actors alike and the threat they pose to the Navy’s surface fleet, the service may have to invest in aerial denial capabilities that are more aggressive and effective than the point defense of a laser beam — and until the Navy’s newly-formed division focused on high-powered microwaves can churn out a solution, the LAV-EW and L-MADIS will have to do.

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