PENTAGON: A sleek little model sits on the desk of Lt. Gen. Jon “Dog” Davis, Marine deputy commandant for aviation. What is that, we asked? The next tiltrotor Bell Helicopter Textron hopes the Marine Corps will buy. But it’s not the V-280 Valor, the new manned tiltrotor Bell plans to fly next year. It’s an unmanned tiltrotor designed to give the Marines a drone that can do everything the Air Force’s armed MQ-9 Reaper does – and more. Especially taking off and landing from ships or from land where there’s no runway.
“I think there is a big need for a UAS that can go aboard the sea base,” Davis told me in an interview last week. “General Neller says he doesn’t need a Reaper, but he needs a Reaper-like capability that can go from the sea base.” Gen. Robert Neller is the Marine Corps commandant.
“This is what Bell is proposing,” Davis says, placing the model of Bell’s new concept on the table. “Single engine. It looks a lot like a V-280, doesn’t it?”
One reason the Marines want such an aircraft is to reduce their reliance on Air Force Reapers — always in short supply — to support operations launched from the sea, Davis said.
“It’s actually pretty exciting,” Davis said. “It’s a tiltrotor, Group 5-size UAS that’s of great interest to the Marine Corps. Sea-baseable, Group 5 unmanned capability.” Davis added that “the unmanned platform could actually come faster than the manned,” an apparent reference to the V-280 Valor.
The 10,500-lbs. maximum take-off weight Reaper, an MQ-1 Predator derivative made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, is a Group 5 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), the military category for drones weighing more than 1,320 lbs. Besides daylight and infrared video cameras and other sensors, the Reaper typically carries four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and two 500-lb. guided bombs. But, crucially, it needs a runway.
Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), flotillas of three vessels with a couple of thousand marines and their own small air force aboard, currently rely on Air Force Reapers and Predators launched from land bases to provide the capability the Marines want. The Marines would prefer to have their own, sea-based, armed Group 5 UAS.
Another officer said the Marines’ desire to get its own Reaper-sized vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drone partly reflects pressure from ground commanders to keep the Corps’ relevant in an era where ground combat is primarily special operations. “The Marine Corps does not have a Special Operations Aviation Regiment like the Army does,” this officer said. “I sense a lot of desire from the traditional ground component of the Marine Corps to support special operations, much like the U.S. Army Rangers. Having a higher-tier UAS is part of that.”
For now, Bell is calling this previously unrevealed tiltrotor the V-247, the numbers standing for the duration the Marines want one or more to be able to stay on station – 24/7. Bell plans to officially reveal the new concept at a Washington news event next month. Larger models of the V-247 are likely to appear at the Sept. 27-30 Modern Day Marine exposition at Quantico Marine Base, Va., and at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference that begins Oct. 3 in Washington.
The manned, 38,000-lbs. V-280 is one of two technology demonstrator aircraft being built under the Army-led Joint Multirole Technology Demonstrator (JMR TD) program. The other is the SB>1 Defiant, a compound helicopter with coaxial rotors and a pusher propeller, being built by Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky in a team with Boeing Co. Both the Valor and Defiant are to make their first flights next year. No production is guaranteed, but the JMR TD program’s goal is to develop faster, more agile and more efficient vertical lift aircraft for all the military services.
The desire for a Marine Corps Group 5 UAS is outlined in the official Marine Aviation Plan 2016, which labels the concept the MUX, a tortured acronym standing for “MAGTF Unmanned Expedition Capabilities,” the acronym within an acronym MAGTF standing for Marine Air Ground Task Force.
“The Marine Corps requires a UAS that is network-enabled, digitally interoperable, and built to execute responsive, persistent, lethal, and adaptive full-spectrum operations,” the document says. “The concept of employment will be shipboard and expeditionary.”
The Aviation Plan says that the MUX would be “a multi-sensor, electronic warfare” aircraft with “strike capability at ranges complementary to MV-22 and F-35,” referring to the Marine Corps version of the Osprey and the new Joint Strike Fighter. Such a shipboard compatible armed drone, the plan adds, will give Marine commanders “flexible, persistent and lethal reach.”
“When I have V-22s in there, I have a 450-mile radius airplane, air refuelable,” Davis said. “I’ve got my F-35 that has a 450-mile radius and air refuelable. I have CH-53 (a heavy lift helicopter), which has about a 350-mile combat radius and air-refuelable.” Davis said. What the Marines need to go with those aircraft is an armed UAS with equal range and much greater endurance, he added..
“The normal sea base operates about a 12-hour day flight ops,”Davis said. “What I’d like to be able to do is, when I’m getting ready to secure flight ops, launch one of these beauties and it’s refuelable.” Such a drone, he said, could be “your picket. It could be out there protecting the ship, protecting the fleet, giving us the deep view out there of the battle space when I don’t have manned platforms up.”
The Aviation Plan notes that DARPA’s TERN (Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node) demonstrator, a VTOL flying wing being developed by Northrop Grumman, is to make its first flight in 2018 and could be among the candidate designs for the MUX, as could other “OEM (original equipment manufacturer) prototypes.” But with the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey now established as their medium-lift aircraft, Marine leaders now seem to have a bias in favor of tiltrotors generally. In any event, with two new tiltrotors on offer, that’s clearly what Bell’s banking on.