AUVSI: There’s money in the 2018 budget to develop a new sea-based, armed vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drone the size of the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper, Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, Lt. Gen. Jon “Dog” Davis, says. Davis expects to see them in the inventory well before the Army-led Future Vertical Lift program produces new manned VTOLs.
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility we will have technology demonstrators next year,” Davis told the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International defense conference on Wednesday.
Davis also revealed that, in addition to Bell Helicopter’s proposed V-247 Vigilant and Northrop Grumman’s TERN, among the contenders for what the Marine Corps calls the MUX program is a tiltrotor drone being offered by Karem Aircraft, whose president and namesake, Abraham Karem, invented the Predator drone built by General Atomics. MUX is an acronym that stands for Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aerial System Expeditionary.
Some in the Pentagon have argued that the Marines don’t need a sea-based drone with capabilities akin to the Air Force’s Reaper, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) fixed-wing drone that can carry four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and two 500-lb. guided bombs. Davis said in reply: “Absolutely we do. And we’re going to get it.”
The drone he envisions, Davis said, must be VTOL to operate from ships but also to deploy in austere locations ashore where Marines often operate. The MUX also could be used for a wide range of missions, he said, from escorting V-22 Osprey tiltrotor transports to providing Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) to ground troops and ships or flying 24/7 picket line guard missions around amphibious ready groups carrying Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs).
Davis told the conference he already had “laid money into the budget to buy this airplane.” When I asked how much money, he said he couldn’t remember the figure off the top of his head but it was “as much as I can afford.”
Karem Aircraft’s candidate for MUX would be a version of Karem’s patented Optimum Speed Tiltrotor called Swift. Bell unveiled its planned tiltrotor V-247 – named for the 24/7 coverage Davis wants — after Breaking Defense revealed its existence in August. Northrop’s TERN, an acronym meaning Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, is a VTOL flying wing with coaxial propellers on its nose being developed under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program. Davis said he isn’t pushing any of the candidates, but after mentioning the V-247, he offered: “Pretty catchy name.”
Davis made clear that the MUX is far from the only unmanned aircraft program he’s enthusiastic about. He began by proudly reporting that the RQ-21A Blackjack, a derivative of Boeing Insitu’s twin-boom monoplane Scan Eagle ISR drone, “just had its first combat operation the other day.”
The Blackjack, he said, is now fielded in two combat zones overseas – he didn’t name them – and carries a 34-lb. payload that is providing the 22nd MEU and Marine special operators an important new capability.
“I’d like to call that ‘MQ-21,’ because it’s not just an ISR platform, it’s multimission,” Davis said, adding several times that the drone is now carrying a 34-lb. payload of great value. Davis didn’t say what the payload is but among the possibilities, clearly, is an electronic warfare suite. As we reported in April, the 22nd MEU had great success in an exercise this year flying RQ-21s that carried a signals intelligence package called Spectral Bat.