Unmanned Air Systems and Shaping a Way Ahead for the USMC

By Robbin Laird

For the USMC, the use of 21st century unmanned systems involves two strands of development involving larger unmanned systems.

The first was the decision during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to join in with the US Army and use the Shadow unmanned aerial system, for similar operations as the US Army was engaged in the land wars.

According to a USMC publication on the Shadow UAV there use was closely tied with the land wars.

The recent development and fielding of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) has delivered even more capabilities to our Marines. One such aircraft, the RQ-7B Shadow, is deployed in squadrons as an asset of the Marine Expeditionary Force or Marine Expeditionary Brigade. 

Designed to provide reconnaissance, relay communications and assist in target acquisition, the RQ-7B Shadow keeps an eye above the battlefield for extended periods of time, constantly relaying information between Marine air and ground controls. 

The Shadow enhances the capabilities of Marine commanders across the spectrum of military operations and was first deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom in September 2007.[1]

An additional USMC publication adds this to the description of the Shadow and its use for the USMC:

The RQ-7B Shadow UAS supports the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) and Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB). The first Shadow system was deployed with VMU-1 to support OIF in September 2007. Employing MCTUAS electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) sensors, communications relay payloads, and laser designators, provides commanders on the ground with increased visual reconnaissance and communications capability within their areas of responsibility. The VMU squadron supports the Marine Corps Ground Combat Element (GCE) with route reconnaissance, fires integration and force-protection prior to, during, and post-mission.

But concurrently with the introduction of Shadow into the Corps, the ScanEagle was also introduced.

And this system would fit the trajectory of the evolution of the Corps as it moved from a primary occupation with the land wars to a “return to the sea” and the joining of unmanned systems to the significant evolution of the Amphibious-Read Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit pairing into a flexible amphibious ready task force, a change driven initially by the introduction of the Osprey but being reshaped as other manned aircraft systems come to the force and unmanned systems woven into the overall force insertion capability of the amphibious task force.

Shaping the 21st Century Amphibious Task Force

The USMC is changing significantly as it shifts from the land wars to its evolving role as the nation’s key full spectrum insertion force. An entire generation of Marines has fought ashore and become a flexible land force; with the drawdown in the land wars in the Middle East, the Marines have returned to the sea and are for a new generation learning how to operate from the sea base.

But under the twin impact of the Osprey and the F-35B this is unlike any Navy-Marine Corps team to operate from the sea. The Marines can operate at distance and with greater lethality from the sea. And also, crucial to the reworking of the Navy-Marine corps team operating from the sea has been the evolution of the amphibious task force itself.

The classic ARG-MEU operating within a 200-mile operational box dictated by the rotorcraft onboard has changed dramatically as the Osprey has liberated the ships to operate at much greater distance from one another. A new generation operational capability of the disaggregated force able to operate from the amphibious task force has emerged.

The amphibious task force is a work in progress as new capabilities are added to the force, such as the CH-53K, the new heavy lift element and unmanned systems. These systems are being incorporated into the most flexible and lethal insertion force built in history.

For the Marines, unmanned systems have been utilized significantly during their participation in the land wars. The Marines have operated the Shadow unmanned systems along with the Army in the Middle East; this UAV requires land basing and as such goes against the grain of the return to the sea and the evolution of the amphibious task force.

It is their other unmanned system, namely the ScanEagle whose origin was at sea which has formed to core experience being taken to sea. And along with it the next round of unmanned development for the Marines, namely the Blackjack or as it is known in its commercial variant, the Integrator.

UAS’s for the Marines are to be understood in the context of the overall evolution of the amphibious task force and the flexibility the commander of the force will be looking for. He may operate the UAS from the ship to assist Marines inserting force for a short duration mission. He may take that UAS from the ship and operate it ashore with deployed Marines. It is the flexibility of the overwatch asset and evolving payload flexibility of the UAS, which will be important to that commander going forward.

A good perspective on the transition from the Shadow land tethered force to the ScanEagle-Blackjack expeditionary approach was provided by one of the key ground combat marines involved in the transformation of the Osprey.

In a 2014 interview with then Major Cuomo who was head of the Infantry Officer Course at Quantico, he focused on the overall shift towards empowering the marines with aviation assets to become a more flexible and lethal ground combat maneuver force.

In that interview, Major Cuomo described how innovation was being generated and in the process the Shadow being shed.

The process started with a bootstrap operation.  The IOC Team  started by simply setting up a training exercise operating from Quantico to Paris Island.

 We took off from a commercial airport near Quantico.   We flew two Ospreys.  We were to fast rope out of the Ospreys at the “enemy” area on Paris Island; we had to fast-rope in due to suspect enemy mines in the primary LZs.   We were doing it at night but one of the Ospreys developed a hydraulic leak, which led to us executing with only 1 Osprey.   We continued on and the 22 guys on the plane fast roped into the objective area.

The exercise highlighted two problems which have been addressed in later exercises: given the distance covered by the Osprey, intelligence received at the point of departure is not that accurate on the point of arrival.  And given the distance of the Osprey team from the command element, who is giving the fires approval?  In other words, the plane can outrun the normal fire controls process.

The IOC Team, led by Captain Deane, published a piece in the Marine Corps Gazette in January 2013 which General Schmidle read and then contacted Major Cuomo.

This meant that prior to the second exercise in Camp Blanding, FL that DCA and his team offered IOC their full support.  Notably, they were offered a “Shadow,” unmanned aerial system (UAS for the second experiment.  The idea was to operate in a very humid and tropical objective area similar to many areas in the Asia-Pacific region.

This exercise was very helpful in highlighting the limitations of the “Shadow” for the type of expeditionary operations being tested in the exercise.  And as well, it highlighted what kind of UAS support asset the GCE would find most useful to such operations.[2]

Put bluntly, with the Marines looking to advance their capabilities as an expeditionary force, the Shadow was not on the menu; and they turned to leverage their ScanEagles and by working with the company providing the ScanEagle, they generated a new UAS which had even greater flexibility for the evolving USMC expeditionary force.

This interview was supplemented by an interview with a former Marine officer involved with manned and unmanned operations who is now working for Insitu, the company that introduced the ScanEagle and developed and supports the Blackjack with the USMC. This second strain of evolution, namely support to the expeditionary force by a UAS able to operate onboard a ship and on ashore, has been shaped to date by the Insitu working relationship with the USMC.

An Overview on UASs within the USMC: The Perspective of Lt. General (Retired) George Trautman

To provide an overview of the evolution of UAS capabilities within the USMC, an interview with Lt. General (Retired) George Trautman, former Deputy Commandant of Aviation who was a key figure in generating the aviation innovation wave enveloping the USMC currently. Trautman provided his perspective in a recent interview concerning the evolution of UAS’s within the USMC from his time as DCA until now and how the USMC is looking at the future pattern of change.

Question: The UAVs going on ships now really had their origin in the land wars.

How did the process get started?

Lt. General (Retired) Trautman: It goes back to the time General Jim Conway was in Iraq with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and he found a little company called Insitu that was making the ScanEagle UAV.

Believe it or not, the ScanEagle was being used for the Albacore fishing fleets up in the Pacific Northwest at the time.

In other words, ScanEagle has a shipboard legacy already built right into it.

But, the Marines evolved the ScanEagle principally as an asset for land based operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And, in recent years with the focus placed on returning to the sea it became obvious that a similar capability on board our amphibious task force would be quite useful.

That is what led us to make the selection of the Insitu RQ-21 Blackjack which is now deploying on our Marine Expeditionary Units and by all accounts it is doing quite well so far.

Question: It is very challenging to operate unmanned air systems onboard ships and could you discuss those challenges?

Lt. General (Retired) Trautman: Many people who have not spent a lot of time at sea really don’t grasp the inherent challenges that you have when you launch and recover from a sea base.

The Marines over the years, along with their partners in the US Navy, have built an aviation force that’s quite credible from the sea. F-35Bs, MV-22s, H-1s and the evolving CH-53K all come into the force at a very important time as our nation evolves into a better understanding of the value and proper use of the amphibious task force.

In parallel with those developments, we must figure out how to take advantage of unmanned aerial systems.

As we do that operationally, we at the same time have to experiment and learn and use systems from the sea in ways that cause us to understand what new systems we should procure in the coming decade as well.

In other words, the foundation for the future is being built with our experience on board our amphibious ships today as the new aviation assets marry up with the unmanned systems onboard our ships.

Question: And having the UASs onboard allows the Marine Corps commanders to sort out how best to use those assets in operations as well.  How might they do that?

Lt. General (Retired) Trautman: If I’m a task force commander and I’m deployed somewhere around the globe, I want to be prepared to conduct operations at a moment’s notice when the mission dictates.

I also want to have the flexibility to conduct all of my sorties from the sea or if necessary transition to an expeditionary land base for short duration operations that make an impact on the enemy before quickly returning to sea.

I want unmanned aerial systems that enable me to do whatever I need to do in order to accomplish the mission.

That means I need range, speed, endurance, the ability to take off and land vertically, a wide range of payloads, non-proprietary payload “hooks,” and the best Size, Weight and Power (SWAP) advantage I can attain.

To do that, you have to think long and hard about the types of capabilities that you wish to procure.

Whether it’s classic UAS capabilities like intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, the delivery of precision weapons, or electronic warfare, there are a whole host of missions that unmanned systems can do with the right payloads.

The key is to have those systems with me, use them and determine how to get the most effective use from them in the widely varied operations that an amphibious task force will pursue.

Question: When you were DCA you worked the decision to sunset the Prowler electronic warfare aircraft.

That clearly has an impact on the payloads which you want to have on a UAS as well?

Lt. General (Retired) Trautman: It does.

We made the decision in 2009 to sunset the Prowler a decade out in 2019.

We did that with our eyes wide open knowing that the F-35B would be coming into the force in a more robust way by that time.

There are inherent electronic warfare capabilities resident in the F-35 but our vision also included the need for unmanned aerial systems to proliferate in the battle space to round out the electronic warfare requirements that the force will have.

We’re in our infancy right now in developing those capabilities, but the first step in achieving something is to get started, and to put the capabilities in the hands of young men and women who are in the force and then evolve the capability in a way that makes sense.

I’m confident that we are on that trajectory with our unmanned aerial systems and the payloads that we will develop for those systems in the next few years.

Question: And the experience being gained now and in the next decade will clearly shape the way ahead not only for the amphibious task force but for the unmanned element.  In other words, the approach is to experiment by operational use.

What happens next?

Lt. General (Retired) Trautman: The current Deputy Commandant for Aviation has been very prescient in laying out a requirement for a program called MUX (MAGTF Unmanned eXpeditionary UAS) which the current aviation plan says will be ready for initial operations in the 2025 time frame.

That platform, whatever it becomes, should have the capability to take off and land from the sea base, to take off and land from an expeditionary operating location ashore and deliver long-range relatively high-speed service to the fleet so that you can use that range and speed to your advantage.

It should also come in with adequate power and non-proprietary “hooks” so that future users can employ whatever payloads make the best sense for the force as it evolves.

This is a very exciting time for the development of unmanned systems in support of the amphibious task force and the Marine Corps.

The Role of ScanEagle and Blackjack in USMC Expeditionary Capabilities

Lt. General (Retired) Trautman highlighted both the ScanEagle and the Blackjack as key elements of shaping the transition. To get a sense of how this process was involving, an interview was conducted with a former Marine officer involved with manned and unmanned operations who is now working for Insitu, the company that introduced the ScanEagle and developed and supports the Blackjack with the USMC. This second strain of evolution, namely support to the expeditionary force by a UAS able to operate onboard a ship on ashore, has been shaped to date by the Insitu working relationship with the USMC.

Art Crowe is a former Harrier pilot who became the operations officer of VMU-2 in 2003-2004. He participated in the second battle of Fallujah and his combat experience clearly guides his thinking on how remotes can provide a combat edge for Marines as they build out their amphibious capabilities.

Question: What was the origin of the coming of ScanEagle to the Marine Corps?

Crowe: General Conway, later Commandant of the USMC, was in Iraq in 2004 and was looking for support for his maneuver force.

He wanted a way to get support from an effective UAS without having to wait for a long acquisition process.

He got that through a services contract with Insitu whereby the company provided ISR services but operated the assets.

The Marines provided security and operational support; the company operated the asset and delivered the product to the Marines.

Question: This was the origin then of a company operated and company owned system. What was the advantage to both company and the Corps of such an approach?

Crowe: The company could evolve the capabilities of ScanEagle in concert with the feedback from their UAS Operators and Marines on their operational needs.

Rather than going through a long requirements generation process, the company could evolve the capabilities of the aircraft and the payloads to provide for the services the Marines required.

This allowed for rapid innovation and adaptation to customer needs.

The payloads then evolved over time to provide data to meet the evolving needs of the USMC, with the service contract delivering the payoff for the company.

ScanEagle’s latest generation of infrared/electro-optical sensors is the 900 series of turrets.[3]

And this evolution of capability has been driven by the company in interaction with the USMC, the US Navy and other DoD and foreign customers.

ScanEagle has become a product and capability deployed worldwide.

The genesis of ScanEagle was in fact to support weather reconnaissance and commercial fishing fleets, so it has been a maritime-proven platform from the beginning.

The return to the sea for the Marines has provided a venue within which ScanEagle has returned home so to speak.

Question: One of the other deployed UAS from Insitu is the RQ-21A Blackjack.

How was this procured and how is it being used?

Crowe: The Navy and Marines procured The Blackjack through the traditional procurement model.

The Navy approved acquisition in 2010 and operated the first Early Operational Capability (EOC) Blackjacks in 2014.

The Program achieved Initial Operational Capability in 2016.

The Blackjack is different from ScanEagle.

While it operates with similar launch and recovery equipment, it is larger and designed to be an air vehicle that can operate a variety of payloads simultaneously.

The aircraft is built around a center of gravity payload bay.

It is a modular set up where you can configure a variety of payloads, to include all previously integrated ScanEagle payloads.

There is room on the air vehicle for up to 39 pounds of payloads, which operate with up to 500 watts of power.

As long as you can meet those requirements and operate with the interface control, you can integrate various payloads.

The Marines have operated ashore and have now brought it to the amphibious force.

Blackjack is configured to operate off of San Antonio class L ships. It first deployed last year with the 22nd MEU and is currently operating with deployed forces.

Operating a UAS off of a ship can be more challenging than ashore.

Integrating the air platform within the workflow of the ship is one challenge; operating with the different operational impacts of the air fleet is another.

And working the launch and recovery can be more challenging in a dynamic shipboard environment. This continues to be a focus of effort for the Blackjack team.

Question: The sun setting of the Prowler has set the stage for another key development for the Blackjack, namely providing support for the MAGTF along with the F-35 for electronic warfare.

How do you see this challenge?

Crowe: The sun setting of the Prowler in 2019 is a key driver of needed capability.

The payload flexibility of the Blackjack means that it could be part of the EW capability for deployed Marines and because we are working the shipboard integration it could be part of that package as well for the at sea force.

It is a work in progress but a key part of the way ahead for the Marines and Blackjack.

The VMUs and Innovation within the USMC

As with other services, the introduction of unmanned systems requires the development of core training and skill sets both to operate current systems and to shape innovation going ahead with the role of unmanned systems within the core USMC approach which is the Marine Corps Air Group Task Force or MAGTF.

There are four VMUs in the USMC, which are geographically located to support their relevant force elements. VMU-1 is part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and is based at Yuma, Arizona. In 2007, VMU-1 was the first squadron in the USMC to operate RQ-7 Shadows in Iraq. They now are operating Blackjacks as well.[4] VMU-2 is part of the 2nd Marine Air Wing and is based at Cherry Point, North Carolina and is operating Blackjacks.[5] VMU-3 is part of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and is based at MCAS Kaneohe Bay and its primary mission is to provide support for the III Marine Expeditionary Force. They operate Shadows but are transitioning to Blackjack.[6] VMU-4 is a USMC Reserve united based in Camp Pendleton, California and they operate Shadows.[7]

The shift from the old to the new was highlighted in these comments attributed to VMU-1 in 2016 when they first received Blackjacks.

“The Blackjack is runway independent, expeditionary, modular and a lot quieter than the Shadow,” said Cpl. Preston Martin, a UAS maintainer with VMU-1.

 VMU-1 Marines received hands-on mobile training from maintenance instructors from Insitu, the company who developed the Blackjack.

 “The Blackjack is faster to set up and tear down,” said Cody Cavender, a maintenance instructor with Insitu. “It comes loaded with payload packages, it has a longer endurance, and the training out here is going great.”

 The Small Tactical Unmanned Aerial System Launching equipment and the STUAS Recovery System require a significantly smaller space to store and set up for operations, explained Capt. Garon Taylor-Tyree, director of safety and standardization for VMU-1 and will be the detachment officer-in-charge for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

 “The fact that our footprint has decreased substantially is the first benefit,” said Taylor-Tyree. “The second is that we don’t require a runway to operate the RQ-21.”

VMU-1 is slated to deploy in summer 2017 in support of the 15th MEU with the new RQ-21A Blackjack UAS which will primarily bring the unit Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance.

 “The capability of the new aircraft will bring organic ISR to the MEU that is persistent and easy to manage,” said Taylor-Tyree.

 “We’ll be able to distribute that [ISR] feed to other ships, or if satellite capabilities allow, back to the states to various units,” continued Taylor-Tyree. “This means that we can provide persistent ISR organic to the MEU instead of having to request it from sister services.”[8]

Interviews were conducted with VMU-2 during 2014 and 2015 and with VMU-3 in 2017. These three interviews provide a sense of the evolution within the USMC and the perspective of the leadership of the unmanned units about the way ahead seen from the operator’s perspective.

VMU-2 Discusses the Future (2014)

The CO of VMU-2 during the 2014 visit was Lieutenant Colonel Kris Faught. The CO most recently served with VMM-266 as the Air Combat Element Operations Officer for the 26th MEU.

The Mission Statement for the squadron highlighted its contextual support role, both now and evolving future capabilities. The Mission of VMU-2 is described as follows:

“To support the MAGTF Commander by conducting electromagnetic spectrum warfare, multi-sensor imagery reconnaissance, combined arms coordination and control, and destroying targets, day or night, under all-weather conditions, during expeditionary, joint and combined operations.”

The CO highlighted some key limitations facing UAVs for the USMC, and identified what he saw as a solid growth path going forward. He started with a discussion of the value of the Shadow UAV and its experience for the USMC. Clearly, Shadow has provided important operational experience, yet the Shadow is not congruent with where the USMC is headed.  “It is clearly not expeditionary; and looks like it has been designed by a tanker.”

The CO then highlighted that the squadron was working with the RQ-21A Blackjack to evolve an expeditionary support capacity from its UAVs. Notably, 2nd MAW Forward was working with an Early Operational Capability (EOC) run up to the RQ-21A in Afghanistan to gain operational experience in order to help shape the way ahead for the UAV role within the USMC.

The principle differences are software and some ship compatibility issues with launcher and retriever between the EOC system and the RQ-21A system. A key quality of the Blackjack is its non-proprietary payload system.

“The payload bay is not patent-protected.  This means that L-3 is building payloads.  Lockheed Martin is building payloads.  Little one-off shops in San Diego are building payloads.” And clearly the trend line, which the Marines would like to see, is an ability to shape modular payloads to provide for the support missions envisaged for UAVs.

At the time of the interview, the Blackjack carried the following types of payloads:

  • Electric-Optical
  • Mid-Wave Infrared
  • IR Marker
  • And the Secondary Payload Bay Supports: CRP and EW.

The approach to support the RQ-21A is considerably less than the Shadow and clearly allows the Marines to work on their expeditionary support approach.

With regard to the RQ-21A, the squadron was working with industry to shape ways to enhance capability.

“We are looking at size, weight, power tradeoffs to enhance overall platform capability.  Currently, we are at 135 pounds with the platform and we could go as high as 165 which would give us more payload to carry onboard.”

Lt. Col. Faught emphasized throughout the discussion the need to evolve the payloads along with other key aviation capabilities being shaped for the MAGTF.  He especially felt that EW payloads would be increasingly of interest going forward.

And he felt as the F-35B joins the force along with the Ospreys, the opportunity to rework evolving UAVs to operate with these more expensive combat systems would be significant.[9]

VMU-2 Revisited (2015)

It is clear that the use of UASs in Afghanistan was an important phase in the evolution of UAS use within the US forces. But this really is a phase and one which needs to be put into its historical place with a clear need to move on. UASs were used in a land operation with many years of infrastructure put into place, and this infrastructure – wide ranging, expensive and significant – is hardly going to be waiting for an expeditionary insertion force.

And the conops utilized in Afghanistan clearly are a problem as well. As one squadron member put it: “The UAS controllers were more part of the intelligence system in Afghanistan than of the Marine Corps. They were an asset which plugged into the intelligence gathering system, and did not operate as we do more generally with air assets in the USMC.”

“Normally, the airborne assets work with the ground element and share the intelligence picture in an operational context. This was the norm in Afghanistan: an external asset managed by the intelligence system rather than organic integration with the MAGTF.”

As the operations officer put it bluntly: “We are trying to burn down the whole UAV structure which the Marine Corps created in Afghanistan and shaping a new approach, one in which it is integrated within MAGTF operations.”

According to the Marines interviewed, the intelligence community views UAVs as “their assets” because that is how the system evolved in Afghanistan. “UAV operations personnel would basically check in with the air officer who would then pass them over to intel and they would then work together.”

Rather than having UAVs as part of the fire support system, they became assets, which were part of observation and evaluation, and the authorization of fires was handled separately. “This became a loop rather than a straight line which is where we would like it be when we operate as a MAGTF.”

The separation of Marine Corps UAV assets was the norm rather than the exception. “When I would fly in Afghanistan, I might look down and see a Shadow or ScanEagle below me, but I never once coordinated with these assts. I had no idea what they were looking at. I just knew that they were below me,” noted the Operations Officer.

Lt General David A. Deptula, who in his last active duty position oversaw the planning, policy, and development of Air Force UAVs, and grew that force by over 500 percent in the Air Force, agreed with the Marine officers interviewed about the need for integration.

“One of the biggest advantages of remotely piloted aircraft is that they allow for the condensation of the ‘find, fix, and finish’ kill chain onto one platform. To capitalize on this capability these aircraft need to be integrated into the entire combat enterprise, not just one piece of it.”

That is exactly what the next phase of UAVs involves in the Marine Corps—the integration of these systems within the Air Combat Element (ACE) of the MAGTF. “The GCE should be requesting the capability, not the asset. If you need persistent IS with full motion video, that will probably fall to UAS.”

The UAS operator is a key part of the equation and when it works properly, the operator can work with the GCE and work with the sensor onto the target by shared situational awareness. The challenge is shaping ways to parse the information to the appropriate element within the MAGTF to empower the GCE or ACE to become more effective.

A clear requirement going forward is to build swappable packages for the evolving USMC UAS birds as well, for missions can highlight C2, ISR or EW needs. “When we looked at an after action report for a SP-MAGTF mission, there was a desire to have communications reachback, the ability to have armed escort and persistence surveillance, all capabilities which the proper UAS can provide. Why would put in anything else but a UAS to provide for those capabilities?”[10]

Shaping the Way Ahead: The Perspective of Colonel J.B. “Buss” Barranco

Appropriately, we will end this article by looking forward to the evolving path for the USMC with regard to UASs.

On June 16, 2017, I had a chance to discuss that future path with the person charged with Headquarters USMC with working that mission area.

Col. Barranco is a veteran Marine Corps aviator and graduate of the Naval Academy with several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is from this operational background, and from a very clear focus on how UASs serve the evolving USMC concepts of operations that he approaches the question of the future of those systems for the USMC.

The current operation of Blackjacks at sea and on land is a key part of the learning curve with regard to the operation of the systems and their integration within evolving Marin Corps operations. As is Marine Corps practice, the Blackjack is in the force in advance of fully being able to support the force. The Marines it is about getting capability to the force and letting the war fighter use that capability as that capability evolves and becomes fully operational.

According to Col. Barranco, the Blackjacks are providing a significant learning experience, which will impact later evolutions of UASs within the MAGTF. He highlighted that learning how to work the unmanned with the manned onboard ships, learning how to operate onboard ships, more generally, and learning how to use the various payloads in support of the Marine Corps afloat and ashore all were being facilitated by the Blackjack experience.

And the Blackjacks as part of the new Air Combat Element for the Marine Corps is impacting on the ship design for the LHR which will be modeled on an enhanced San Antonio Class ship and on the America class LHAs. A key part of this effort is the need to expand significantly the capability to handle much larger volumes of data generated by F-35s and UASs to the ship as well. In this regard, it is the Navy-Marine Corps team, which is learning from Blackjack deployments, not just the Marine Corps.

He also noted that as a medium range tactical UAS, the Blackjack has replaced the Shadow. The Blackjack does not need to rely on runways, which is a core requirement for the USMC. He argued that the Blackjack will remain with the Marine Corps even as they work to add a new UAS to the force.

For the Marines, the requirement to operate without a fixed runway is crucial. As Col. Barranco underscored the Marines were focused on force insertion in an area of interest and having an organic capability carried with the force was indispensible. Also, airfields are under threat from peer competitors and cannot be relied upon. And allies are crucial but if allied facilities are denied for political reasons, the Navy-Marine Corps team needs to be able to operate with organic sea-based assets.

The Marines are working to add a new more robust UAS capability to the force by the mid 2020s. And they are hoping that the US Navy will buy in as well, and allies who are building up their amphibious fleets might well be candidates for the new platform as well. The Marines are looking for a platform, which can fly with the Osprey, which means range and speed, are essential. It may well be a tiltrotar platform although other platform variants might be feasible as well.

This Group 5 UAS will have an open architecture system allowing complete software upgradeability to keep abreast of threats. The RAAF speaks of the need to build in software transient advantage and this is clearly what the Marines are looking for in their new UAS system as envisaged.

They are looking for the new platform to have a number of plug and play capabilities. They want to it to be an armed UAS with a variety of weapons which can be configured to the mission. With the core focus on shaping a digital interoperable MAGTF, they look to the UAS to be a key node in the network afloat and ashore. They are looking at the new UAS as a partner with the F-35, Osprey and CH-53K, where the UAS could be as well a cargo carrier as well, dependent on the operation and the mission.

As the Marine Aviation Plan 2016 put it about one of these requirements:

“UAS are a planned critical component of the MAGTF EW concept. As such, EW expertise normally resident within the VMAQ community began to transition to the VMU community in 2015. Airborne electronic attack (AEA) capabilities post-2019 will be provided by EW payloads such as the Intrepid Tiger II EW Pod, UAS EW payloads, and the EW capabilities inherent to F-35.”[11]

The new UAS will be STOVL as that fits both the shipboard and well as no fixed airfield requirement. The MAGTF will rely on the F-35 and related systems for forceable entry, so that the UAS as envisaged will operate largely in a non-contested air environment, although arming the UAS will be crucial for its self defense in gray operating situations.

The Marine Corps Aviation Plan put forward the following as how to characterize the way ahead for UASs:

“In the 2016-2029 timeframe, the family of unmanned aircraft systems (FoUAS) provides support to any sized MAGTF for influence of the electromagnetic spectrum, battlespace awareness, offensive air support, target acquisition, force protection, and digital communication backbone. Marine Corps UAS employment will continue to enhance and extend the lethal and non-lethal capabilities of MAGTF and joint force commanders, facilitating advancements in observation, understanding, and influence on the battlefield. The FoUAS will play a key role in all USMC missions across the range of military operations to include forward presence, security cooperation, counterterrorism, crisis response, forcible entry, prolonged operations, and counterinsurgency.”[12]

The new UAS, labeled as MUX, would leverage the operational experience of the Blackjack and combine with Blackjack in shaping a way ahead. Given the payload flexibility of the Blackjack, this system could well complement the new MUX as well.

But Col. Barranco clearly underscored that UASs were part of the future of the MAGTF and of Marine Corps aviation, not the future of Marine Corps Aviation. Notably, he underscored that the need for forceable entry was crucial to the Navy-Marine Corps team and did not see the UASs on the horizon as the key enablers for that crucial mission. He also highlighted that both the Navy and the Marine Corps were working the manned and unmanned systems in an integrated manner and were clearly avoiding creating a UAS stovepipe.[13]


President Trump has come to power at a time when a very flexible force able to insert from the sea and rapidly return to the sea has emerged. This USN-USMC capability has migrated beyond the classic Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG-MEU) into a very flexible and lethal amphibious task force.

The evolving Marine Corps aviation assets, coupled with the reshaping of Marine Corps concepts of operations for conducting force insertion from the sea, are shaping a new capability and within that capability unmanned aerial assets are playing a key role.

Evolving the capability of the insertion forces rather than simply relying on putting “Walmarts” ashore and conducting combat support from Forward Operating Bases and airbases in contested territory, the sea base provides its own integrated support and operational integrated capabilities.

This force and support integration offshore provides capability for not only force protection but also surprise against enemies who wish to use agility to their advantage. And integrating unmanned with manned systems able to operate from the sea base or to move from the sea base for a limited duration operation can provide the American leadership with a very powerful tool set indeed.

Insertion forces are a key tool set and with the changes in how amphibious task forces operate and with the coming of a whole new capability associated with the USS America, the sea base is adding to its capability for the insertion of force into a vector of assault, destroy and withdraw.

For example, changing the nature of the force being used against ISIS and reshaping the operational compass against a mobile force which likes to pop up across the region can meet its match – there is no place you can hide that we cannot come and find you and kill you. And integrating the unmanned elements into this evolving force structure is the Marine Corp’s approach and challenge.

[1] http://www.sldinfo.com/shadow-company-uas/

[2] http://www.sldinfo.com/the-gce-drives-usmc-aviation-innovation-major-cuomo-of-the-infantry-officer-course-discusses-the-iocs-team-perspective/

[3] https://insitu.com/information-delivery/unmanned-systems/scaneagle/imagers#2

[4] http://www.3rdmaw.marines.mil/Units/MAG-13/VMU-1/

[5] http://www.mag14.marines.mil/MAG-14-Units/VMU-2/

[6] http://www.1stmaw.marines.mil/Subordinate-Units/Marine-Aircraft-Group-24/VMU-3/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VMU-4

[8] http://www.3rdmaw.marines.mil/News/News-Article-Display/Article/918857/vmu-1-receives-new-rq-21a-blackjack/

[9] http://www.sldinfo.com/visiting-a-usmc-unmanned-aerial-vehicle-squadron-the-vmu-2-discusses-the-future/

[10] http://www.sldinfo.com/visiting-a-usmc-unmanned-aerial-vehicle-squadron-the-vmu-2-discusses-the-future/

[11] https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com/sites/default/files/files/Marine%20Aviation%20Plan%202016%20FINAL.pdf

[12] Ibid.

[13] For Col. Barranco’s discussion as well of future vertical lift technology, see the following: https://news.usni.org/2016/12/12/pentagon-vertical-lift-technology and https://www.c-span.org/person/?johnbarranco

The featured photo shows U.S. Marines with Marine Aerial Vehicle Squadron One retrieving a RQ-21 Blackjack UAS during Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course (WTI) 1-18 at Yuma, Ariz., on Oct. 13, 2017.

WTI is a seven week training event hosted by Marine Aviation and Weapons Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) cadre which emphasizes operational integration of the six functions of Marine Corps Aviation in support of a Marine Air Ground Task Force.

MAWTS-1 provides standardized advanced tactical training and certification of unit instructor qualifications to support Marine Aviation Training and Readiness and assists in developing and employing aviation weapons and tactics.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Rhita Daniel)