Evolution of the Marine Corps UAS Capabilities

Evolution of the Marine Corps UAS Capabilities
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In my recent interview with Lt. General (Retired) Trautman, the former Deputy Commandant of Aviation highlighted how he saw the way ahead for unmanned air systems in the MAGTF:

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.

I had a chance to follow up on these thoughts with the current senior Marine involved in working the evolving UAS issues, namely, Col. J.B. “Buss” Barranco.

Col. Barranco is an experienced Marine Corps aviator with significant combat experience. He has been an instructor at MAWTS, and has had eight deployments. He was the escort flight leader for the Afghan operation for the Marines in 2001, and then was involved in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then back to Iraq in 2005 and 2007 as well. He worked the H-1 transition task force for Lt. General Trautman when he was DCA in 2008. He then deployed to Afghanistan again in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

When the Col. discusses platforms he does so from the standpoint of what they bring to the Marine Corps and how they integrated into the evolving capabilities of the MEU or MAGTF.

Question: Clearly, you are looking at unmanned air systems from the standpoint of how they work to enhance USMC capabilities. How do you view the evolution to date?

The Blackjack at Sea from SldInfo.com on Vimeo.

Col. Barranco: I think we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to fully integrate our unmanned into our manned aviation in the aircraft wings. And we are in the process of going back to sea after a long period of being focused on the land wars. We want to get back to sea. We want expeditionary. We want VTOL.

Although Reaper is a tremendous capability is is limited to runways, and runways are going to be targeted by peer competitors. And we want to be independent of the need to use allied runways as well. Sovereignty needs to be exercised independent of absolutely needing to use allied airfields. These are the drawbacks of land-based systems.

Question: How then are you looking to build that VTOL capability?

Col. Barranco: We are looking to build airborne early warning capability, and air to air capability into MUX, something that you don’t find in Reaper. We want an expeditionary, shipboard capability. We are building a digital interoperable network and we want the MUX to be a node in that digital network.

We want air to ground capability but we also want air-to-air capability as well. By being able to operate shipboard, we can free up our manned aircraft in some cases for other missions. We’d also like to have a cargo capability to avoid having to use trucks on the road when we wish to avoid that.

The Osprey has raised the bar with regard to range and speed. We need range and speed that’s comparable to the Osprey in the new UAS, the MUX. MUX will be a key element in our execution of distributed operations.

We will operate our forces further from the ship and the assembly area and need to operate with smaller distributed forces that are network prior to any massing of our forces. The MUX will need to fit into that template. Classic helicopters are not going to get it done in terms of range and speed to deliver a distributed strike force.

The MUX by being VTOL will be heavier and give up some time on station. We need to operate it shipboard and have it protected against corrosion, which will add to the weight. But because it is expeditionary, able to take off virtually anywhere, we can give up that slight loss of time on station and range of current UASs.

Question: How does your current experience with Blackjack fit into your learning curve with regard UASs?

Col. Barranco: Blackjacks currently operate from LPDs and are deployed with our MEUs. We have our second MEU using the Blackjack afloat underway right now. We have also done a land based combat deployment as well in Afghanistan. Our first MEU using the Blackjack, the 22nd, was a sea-based deployment with Blackjack supported combat ops in Libyas as well. It is more difficult to operate at sea. It’s not just our operators, our UAS operators, who are gaining experience at sea, but it’s everyone else who’s getting experience within part of a MEU MAGTF ACE at sea and learning how to use the systemAnd of course the NAVY is learning as well and this joint learning could well inform a joint acquisition of the MUX as well. We are deploying Blackjack in advance of MSD or the material support date. We always lean forward and try to get equipment into the hands of the warfighter as rapidly as possible. This means that the reliability rates will be lower initially but as we approach MSD then they adjust upwards. There are clear limitations on a Group 3 system like Blackjack, for example, it is a line of sight system. But we have a number of payloads for the Blackjack which give us operational flexibility, and Blackjack is evolving and will remain in the force even after we add MUX.

Question: There is a challenge clearly with how to handle data onboard current Navy amphibious task force ships. How will you deal with this?

Col. Barranco: There is no question that the LPDs and LHAs are going to have to see significant expansion of their ability to manage data. The coming of the F-35 alone would require that but as well augment UAS capabilities this demand will grow.

Question: So in effect as you are designing MUX you are building on the Blackjack experience and shaping inputs into Navy ship design as the LPD-17 morphs into LXR, for example?

Col. Barranco: That is a good way to put it. The evolution of the ACE, including UASs, is driving significant change in how we need to design our ships to manage the MEU afloat and work with the MAGTF ashore. Marine Corps Aviation is focused on integration; not just inside the air wing, but on the MAGTF and its evolution. And that is how we look at the evolution of UASs in the force.

In short, 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.

For 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.

And the Blackjacks is 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.

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.


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.


[2] Ibid.

Editor’s Note: In the video clip below, Col,. Barranco discusses the future of vertical lift systems in a CSIS seminar in 2016.


This article appeared originally at Second Line of Defense (SLD).


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