STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The U.S. Marines are changing the way they're organized. Marines are divided into units, of course. Brigades consisting of thousands of people are split into regiments and so forth on down - companies. The most basic infantry unit is the rifle squad, and it's changing. It'll be one person smaller, down to 12 Marines, who are getting new weapons and other equipment. And one Marine in each squad gets a new role, which says a lot about modern combat. Jay Price of WUNC reports from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE FLYING)
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: A civilian instructor is giving four young Marines their first hands-on lesson in flying a four-prop quadcopter drone that's a bit larger than a dinner plate.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And so go ahead and dip it forward, dip it backwards about 20 degrees, so a significant amount.
PRICE: The first in the group to try is 21-year-old Lance Corporal Jared Merrell. He puts the buzzing craft through simple maneuvers without much trouble. There's a straightforward reason it's not hard for him.
JARED MERRELL: I do own a drone so...
PRICE: He has his own quadcopter at home. These Marines will be some of the first squad systems operators. This means they'll fly drones in combat and run some of the Marines' expanding array of digital devices. There's so much technology in combat now that the Marines say they had to designate someone to handle it so that the squad leader has enough mental bandwidth left to lead the troops.
ROBERT NELLER: Everybody keeps saying, oh, it's going to slow down. It's going to slow down. It doesn't. It gets faster. It gets cheaper. It gets more capable.
PRICE: General Robert Neller is the commandant of the Marine Corps.
NELLER: Because certainly our adversaries are doing the same thing - or our potential adversaries.
PRICE: Under Neller's leadership, the Marines have already made significant changes to larger units. But he said he wanted to also push technology, like drones, down to the rifle squads.
NELLER: That's where the point of contact is. That's where the casualties are taking place. And they're the ones that are doing all the dirty work.
PRICE: The drones, he said, will save lives.
NELLER: All right. So you and I are on patrol, so if I go, hey, Price, go up there and take a look and see what's on the other side of the hill, well, I don't have to do that now. I can say, Price, go fly their drone up there, and let's see what's on the other side of the hill.
PRICE: The squad systems operator will remain an infantry Marine. Meaning, he or she will also carry a rifle and be expected to fight just like the other members of the squad...
(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE FLYING)
PRICE: ...Like PFC Evan Perez, the next young Marine to try the drone. He's never flown one, and it's unusually windy. Perez says it isn't hard. He plays video games, like "Halo" and "Call Of Duty."
EVAN PEREZ: I definitely felt familiar with the controls as a video gamer so...
PRICE: Neller, the top Marine, says this is typical.
NELLER: They'll figure it out. I'm pretty confident since the young Marines in there are digital natives.
PRICE: And he says more is coming, like the robots now being tested that could act as pack animals for the Marines or 3-D printers to spit out spare parts for equipment that could reduce the reliance on lengthy supply chains...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If you could, go head and retrieve the bird. Make sure the power is turned off there first and then here.
PRICE: ...Or just the next kind of drone. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Camp Lejeune, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.