THE PENTAGON – The Marine Corps has refined its vision for a large sea-based unmanned aerial system (UAS) after honing in on capability gaps the Marines most urgently need to fill.
Since creating a program of record for the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) UAS Expeditionary (MUX) in the summer of 2016, the service has learned much about what it really needs, what industry can provide, and how to keep the program’s cost from becoming unmanageable, Col. James Frey, the director of the Marine Corps’ Aviation Expeditionary Enablers branch, told USNI News in an April 18 interview.
MUX is meant to be a Group 5 UAS capability that launches from an amphibious ship or other ship and can land either on a flight deck or in an expeditionary airfield. This large system would supplement the Marines’ Group 3 RQ-21 Blackjack and the ongoing fielding of small quadcopters at the lowest levels of the infantry – dubbed “quads for squads.”
Though the MUX was originally given a lofty set requirements to perform seven distinct – and not necessarily complementary – mission sets, a March 8 request for information prioritized those missions. Tier 1 missions for the MUX are now early warning; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); electronic warfare; and communications relay. Offensive air support is now a Tier 2 mission, and aerial escort and cargo are listed as important but potentially being re-allocated to other systems in the MAGTF.
In fact, Frey said, the ongoing Future Vertical Lift program is almost certain to cover the Marines’ aerial escort and cargo needs, according to wargames that have been recently conducted. Whatever cargo requirement is not met by Future Vertical Lift could be accomplished with the CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter delivering goods in bulk or by a smaller UAS that the Marine Corps’ Installations and Logistics community is now working to develop, which would deliver smaller loads of supplies to distributed Marine forces.
“So what do we need? It is persistence and endurance and time on station,” he said of MUX, when put into the context of the MAGTF air combat element of the future: the CH-53K and the Future Vertical Lift to do major lifting, and the MV-22 Osprey and F-35B Joint Strike Fighter that would need a UAS that can keep up with their extended-range operations.
The decision to emphasize the four missions – and early warning in particular – was also in part due to how the threat set around the world has evolved and the “National Defense Strategy [that] dictates what missions and roles of the Marine Corps we should focus on,” Frey added.
It was also informed by industry feedback the Marine Corps solicited early on that said “you’re asking for too much, it’s going to cost too much,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration, told USNI News in February.
“The [initial capabilities document] we wrote was really all-encompassing,” Walsh said.
“We started really working with the contractors off the ICD and what we were kind of getting from them was, boy, this is a pretty big broad capability – this is going to be big and this is going to be expensive. They were almost looking to develop a V-22 unmanned sized and cost aircraft. So we looked at that and said, okay, that’s why we’ve got to work with industry more as we develop requirements.”
Ultimately, the new focus on persistence and endurance during these sensor-based missions will affect the shape of the vehicle that can best meet the MUX requirements as they stand today.
“When you put cargo lower, what that does is, you don’t have to have that dead space in the fuselage. That space can be used for fuel, for payload, for other sensors,” Frey said.
“Instead of focusing on 3,000 or 4,000 pounds internally on cargo, I’d rather have that on the wings as electronic attack pod, or look at weapons – weapons take up a lot of your weight, a lot of your drag, so you want to have that capability. So it absolutely will influence the design. Instead of the design having to have so much extra power to come in and deliver cargo … that’s a different model, different rotor. … What you get in efficiencies on slow-speed handling and takeoff, you’re giving up something in endurance. So there’s always a tradeoff, and if you prioritize this thing less on cargo and more on getting on the wing and have endurance at 300 or 700 miles” then industry can optimize the vehicle design for missions that will most benefit the MAGTF.
Much is yet to be decided about how the MUX will ultimately operate at sea, but Frey described for USNI News a vision of MUX: the air vehicle fits into an H-60 hanger for storage and maintenance, and potentially even folds up to an H-1-sized vehicle so that two can be stored in the H-60 hangar. It operates off the San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks (LPD-17) – or even potentially a frigate, a destroyer or the Future Surface Combatant – and as many as three or four might deploy on the big-deck amphibious assault ships to provide greater support for forces ashore and for the Joint Force. It provides persistent early warning and ISR coverage autonomously, and it could potentially have air vehicle command passed from the control station onboard a ship to V-22 or F-35B pilots nearby to more closely check out a target or to conduct a kinetic or nonkinetic attack.
Though he was careful to note “I’m not writing the Navy’s requirements,” Frey said the Navy’s MQ-8 Fire Scout was scheduled to sundown around the time MUX would reach full fielding, so if the MUX program were executed correctly the Navy could adapt the system for its needs as well.
The RFI outlines a vehicle that would autonomously take off from and land on either an amphibious ship or an Expeditionary Sea Base such as the USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3), or from an unsurveyed austere 150-foot-by-150-foot landing zone; cruise at speeds of 200 to 300 knots with a full payload; maintain a minimum time on station of eight to 12 hours at 350 nautical miles from the ship; and fly 350 to 700 nautical miles from the ship unrefueled with a payload to conduct a mission.
Ultimately, Frey said, MUX would be “the eyes and ears for most of the surface fleet. Absent AWACS (the Air Force’s E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System), absent E-2 (the Navy’s E-2C/D Hawkeye), it’s the best thing you have out there.”
Frey said the Air Force’s Group 5 UAS, the MQ-9 Reaper, costs about $15.8 million apiece for the airframe, which serves as a good goal for the MUX cost.
“We know [MUX] will probably be a little bit more than that because the capabilities are apples and oranges, and the vertical is another component” that adds cost, he said, in addition to being sea-based versus land-based. But he cautioned that if the MUX cost grew too much beyond the Reaper cost, it could become unaffordable for the Marine Corps.
To further ensure the Marine Corps is moving down an affordable and technologically feasible path, the service will host an industry day on June 6 and 7, 2018, it announced last week. After hearing from contractors – both those with prototypes already in development and those who just have an individual system or technology to contribute – Frey said the Marine Corps would likely go through multiple draft requests for proposals before releasing a final RFP to solicit industry bids. The analysis of alternatives should be completed in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2019, he said, with a downselect to two or potentially more contractors that the Marines will work with to develop the technology.
Ultimately, Frey said he’s hoping the program will reach initial operational capability in 2025 or 2026, and full operational capability by 2034. Frey said there may be some lag time between the IOC date and the system’s ability to operate off a ship due to shipboard integration test and certification requirements, but the RFI notes that the sea-based capability must be achieved by 2028. The RFI also notes the Marines are willing to use rapid acquisition authorities to achieve this timeline.
Frey said three systems are in the prototype design phase and should begin flight testing soon – the Lockheed Martin Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) ducted fan UAS that will begin flight testing later this year, the Bell V-247 Vigilant unmanned tiltrotor scheduled for flights in the coming years, and the Northrop Grumman TERN tail-sitter UAV that will wrap up a prototype phase with DARPA in FY 2019 and then move into shipboard testing with the Navy’s Self-Defense Test Ship.
Additionally, some manufacturers have technologies for individual components of the UAS that have caught the Marine Corps’ interest. Frey said Karem Aircraft has a new two-speed transmission rotor design that would “revolutionize” tiltrotor technology by slowing down the hub and therefore achieving three times the range. Frey said the company would be doing tests this fall.
Overall, with the MUX program’s lofty goals and challenging timeline for something that’s so new – Frey likened it to the V-22 not in terms of size or cost but rather the potential to overhaul how the military can conduct its missions – Frey said the pressure was on industry to step up.
“We are forcing them to take what they have and accelerate to get to this,” he said.
“We’ll make decisions over the next year, hopefully by the second quarter of FY 1’9. Downselecting to two, and then having a fair competition.”