Marine Corps Set to Deploy Next-Generation Unmanned Aircraft

By Stew Magnuson
The Marine Corps and Navy will launch their newest unmanned aerial system, the RQ-21A Blackjack, from a ship this spring for the first time, and are looking into developing pocket-sized reconnaissance drones, a service aviation official said.

At 140 pounds, the new Blackjack is considered a small tactical unmanned aerial system designed to support infantry regiments.

“Blackjack is still in test and low-rate initial production, but will provide persistent land-based and maritime, tactical [reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition] data collection and dissemination capabilities,” Col. Eldon Metzger, program manager for the Navy and Marine Corps small tactical unmanned air systems program office at Naval Air Systems Command, said in an email.

“RQ-21A will bring the Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Expeditionary Units a dedicated [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] system capable of delivering intelligence products directly to the tactical commander in real time,” he said.

Blackjack is slated for its first maritime deployment this spring, he added.

The aircraft, manufactured by Boeing Insitu, has already seen action in Afghanistan. A Marine UAS squadron took one system there in spring 2014 for operational land-based tests.

The twin-tailed drone is eight-feet long and has a 16-foot wingspan, according to NAVAIR press releases.

It fits the service’s expeditionary nature by not requiring a runway for launch or recovery, Metzger said.

It is the first unmanned aerial vehicle specifically designed for the Marine Corps. Other such aircraft currently in the service’s inventory were off-the-shelf products adapted for expeditionary applications.

The Backjack is intended to replace the Aerosonde UAS and the Boeing Insitu Scan Eagle. The two companies are providing ISR services to the Marine Corps using their off-the-shelf UAVs. Aerosonde is a business unit of AAI-Textron Systems.

Insitu Boeing began work on the Blackjack program in 2010. The program of record entered its test-and-evaluation and low-rate initial production phase in early 2014. 

The aircraft can fly up to 16 hours at 19,500 feet, and cruises at about 60 knots, specifications on the Boeing Insitu website said. The contract called for 56 Backjack systems, with the Marine Corps receiving 32 of them and the Navy the rest. The Navy placed a $41 million low-rate initial production order for three more systems in late December.

The company touts the modular, plug-and-play system, which will allow program managers to add new payloads as they become available. It can carry up to 40 pounds of sensors. The launch and recovery system is the same as the currently used Scan Eagle. The aircraft are configured for a day-night full-motion video camera, an infrared marker, a laser range finder, a communications relay package and an automatic identification system receiver, which can track ships.

Its small footprint means it can be deployed from amphibious warships where space is already tight, or on land where there are no airfields.

“RQ-21A brings a new level of flexibility and expeditionary capability not present in any UAS to date,” Lt. Col. Anthony Bolden, commanding officer for Marine unmanned aerial vehicle squadron 2, said in a 2014 NAVAIR press release. It will significantly improve situational awareness, he added.

Metzger said work is already underway to improve the Blackjack’s endurance.
“RQ-21A Blackjack is planned to receive an upgraded engine, providing longer endurance and time on station. We will continue to provide new payloads as the Marines’ missions and requirements evolve, allowing them to stay ahead of the threat,” he said.

Along with the new Blackjack, the Marine Corps is upgrading some of its off-the-shelf drones, Metzger said. The RQ-7B Shadow, manufactured by AAI/Textron, is currently being changed to the tactical common data link configuration, which includes more secure data and video transmission, air vehicle modifications for improved endurance and a transition from analog ground control station to digital, he said. The Shadow is the Marine Corps largest drone at 500 pounds and is intended to provide situational awareness to higher level echelons.

The hand-launched RQ-11B Raven, used by small tactical units, is being upgraded with a gimbaled payload, which will make it more versatile in the field, Metzger said. That will be completed by this spring.

There is another Marine Corps UAV program in the pipeline, he said.

The service has requested a nano-sized, vertical takeoff and landing UAS for special operations. NAVAIR is currently working on the details of this requirement, Metzger said.

Nano-UAVs are generally defined as being able to fit in a soldier or Marine’s pocket. The Hummingbird — developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and contractor AeroVironment, weighed a little more than half a pound and could fly about 11 minutes, long enough to give ground troops a view over walls or through a building’s window.

As far as nano-UAVs, there are a growing number of products in the marketplace for the Marine Corps to choose from, said Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the Teal Group.

A Norwegian company, ProxDynamics, is offering a palm-sized miniature helicopter, the PD-100 T Black Hornet, which can fly with an electro-optical camera and thermal sensor provided by FLIR Systems Inc. for night operations. U.K. forces, and possibly U.S. Special Operations Command, have purchased some of the mini-copters, Finnegan said.

Nano-UAVs “definitely [are] a rapidly growing market. That being said, the [contract] value is nowhere near those of the larger systems,” he added.

Analysts said the Marine Corps, as one of the smaller services, has not traditionally been one of the largest customers for unmanned aerial vehicles, but it is now an important one because there are few new start programs such as the Blackjack on the horizon.

“Looking at the Marine Corps UAS budget over the next several years, it will be driven primarily by the Blackjack, the RQ-21A,” said Joshua Pavluk, senior analyst at Avascent, a strategy and management consulting firm.

The service’s budget request from fiscal years 2015 to 2019 calls for $375 million to be spent on the Blackjack alone. There are no new major programs that show up in the budget, he noted. Overall, Marine Corps spending on unmanned aerial vehicle technology is expected to be relatively flat over the next five years with only about 1 percent growth annually, Pavluk said.

“In the current market, any new program is an extremely valuable program,” Finnegan said.

There are several areas of interest in Marine Corps unmanned aviation for industry to keep tabs on, Pavluk said. The service wants improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads as well as better tactical data links for all its unmanned aircraft.

It is also interested in adding electronic warfare capabilities  — the ability to jam an enemy’s communications in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) scenarios, he said. The Marines on its concepts and programs website said it wants EW capabilities on unmanned aircraft to take up the slack after the retirement of the manned EA-6B Prowlers.

The service wants new payloads to be modular and “plug and play” so they can be swapped out easily depending on the mission, he said.

“Essentially, they want to upgrade current capabilities to be able to do more with less,” Pavluk said.

They are also considering a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system on par with the Air Force’s Predator or the Army’s Gray Eagle, but one that is compatible with flying off and on ships and can survive in A2/AD environments, he said.

The Marine Corps differs from the other services in that it does not have a medium-altitude, long endurance UAV. It must depend of the Air Force or Navy for that kind of overhead surveillance.

The so-called MQ-X program would change that equation, Pavluk said.

“These requirements are a work in progress, but they [the Marines] want to take advantage of affordable and emerging technologies,” he said.

“But it is important to note that many of the Marine Corps’ interests are — as of now — unfunded aspirations,” he added. “So it is going to be absolutely critical for industry to shape opportunities and bring forward affordable, yet innovative solutions to the Marine Corps.”
The service will be looking for both innovation and off-the-shelf solutions.

“I would expect to see a balance of both, where they are looking for proven and affordable solutions, but also taking advantage of new technologies as well that can provide game-changing of incremental benefits,” Pavluk added.

Finnegan noted that many of the Marine Corps’ UAV plans have not really been fleshed out.
“The overall market for military UAVs has declined dramatically over the past few years, and a lot of the potential new starts have fallen by the wayside. To have a new start like the Blackjack that is moving ahead is extremely important,” he said.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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