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Marines Zero In On Requirements for Future MUX Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

The Bell V-247 tiltrotor is an unmanned aerial system (UAS) that will combine the vertical lift capability of a helicopter with the speed and range of a conventional fixed-wing aircraft, and would provide long-endurance persistent expeditionary and surveillance and fires capabilities. Bell Image

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.”

  • Uncle Mike

    please someone take away the Marines’ access to the DoD acronym generator – they’ve proven themselves unready for the responsibility.

  • PolicyWonk

    I just hope they have the physicists and engineers in the room when they’re dreaming up the mission profiles/requirements.

    It would be refreshing to successfully avoid another acquisition horror show, and those have become far too prevalent over these recent years.

    • D. Jones

      Yep, everyone jumping on the “unmanned” train is kinda unsettling. Unless they’re buying datalinked COTS gamer chairs, there’s not gonna be much seat of the pants feedback during transition/takeoff/landing. Maybe they’re counting on the flight computers to do it all. That’s some serious control algos in that configuration (quadrotors are simpler, response time is very fast)

      What’s next? An ULCS?

      • Rob C.

        It’s industry trend, politicians don’t need hear crap from parents of soldiers who are dying and being captured by enemy when the vehicle shot down. I don’t like it either. Balloning costs are always a problem no matter what cause of it is.

        This thing their asking their asking sounds more like a replacement for the AH-1 Cobra. If wasn’t for fact each time completely new manned system comes into development, something politically or economically sabotages it. While the enemies of the US develop new vehicles without issue. Sad State of Affairs.

        • D. Jones

          Politicians need to stop sending the military on endless adventures not directly related to the defense of the nation. That ends the needless dying and saves a few bucks in the process.

          Some things are necessary (i.e. N. Korea developing weapons to strike us and threatening to use them). Some are not.

          Developing unmanned tech is great to maintain technical superiority and minimizing risk to our men & women in the service. It also makes it easier for politicians to engage in military adventures without thinking things through.

          I would offer that every military campaign not on direct defense of the US should come out of Congressional Pension funds.

          That should tidy things up.

    • Duane

      The only horror show is the tiny cadre of dead enders who refuse to say anything but that the Navy and Marines are doing it all wrong, while racking up success after success in developing the fleet of the 21st century. A veritable chorus of Baghdad Bob wannabes.

  • r

    The B-21 program speaks of “systems of systems” and that may be the best solution for the MUX. Building all of your requirements into one vehicle can prove to be un-affordable; endless cancelled programs are in evidence. Designing a common airframe, engine, avionics, sensors, weapons that are field/ hangar configurable could possibly provide the vehicle cost value required for the desired mission set. Unmanned, unequivocal but with an adequate bandwidth mesh network similar to MADL as designed into the F-35B and autonomous mission controls, again configurable and common for the MUX systems. The Fire Scout could be a program that could prototype mission sets and when the MUX vehicle is set for flight testing the mission sets could be matured or at least advanced in flight testing. A flying radar/ sensor vehicle to provide the ARG/ ESG with high altitude, high endurace over-watch/ network node could be a higher priority mission set for the MUX.


  • Duane

    The Marines are approaching this acquisition sensibly. Getting industry input early, during the requirements setting process, is necessary to avoid blue skying and wasted time and dollars. The parallel track of FVL aircraft development is also very helpful to this program.

  • Curtis Conway

    IMHO an Attack-(X) Anything with tilt rotors makes no sense manned or otherwise because the rotor discs make it a larger target. One of the design criteria for any attacking platform is to limit its profile from attack and the tilt rotor does the opposite. Move troop, conduct surveillance, provide logistical support of large quantities, fast over long distances, and tilt rotor makes sense. As an attack platform, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

    I can see arming a V-280 Valor for a contested entry, but to use it in Light/Heavy Attack missions make no sense to me. I though we wrote specs, and used common sense, for a reason.

    • Duane

      The US and other nations have been successfully operating attack rotor craft since the Korean War without your so-called “disaster” happening. And likewise, the ISR role does not necessarily require a stealthy platform, again we’ve been operating decidedly non stealthy ISR platforms for many decades without “disaster”.

      Stealth is a highly valuable asset, especially in the opening hours and days of warfare inside contested airspace. But after our stealthy air platforms like F-35, F-22, B-2, and in just a few years the B-21 go to work attriting enemy air defenses, there is still a heckuva lot of warfare yet to conduct. This is where platforms like MUX become important.

      But, sigh …. unfortunately here in the comment threads of USNI the dominant theme among a certain crowd (you know who you are!) is a perpetual knee-jerk “the Navy/Marines are always doing it all wrong.”

      • Curtis Conway

        Once again Duane, you did not READ (e.g., comprehend) the subject matter of the comment. I in NO WAY boohooed the use of rotary aircraft in the Attack Role. I boohooed TILT ROTOR AIRCRAFT used in the attack role . . . because it fundamentally makes them more vulnerable by making them a BIGGER TARGET, thus a higher risk platform for that mission set. That is why an armed V-280 Valor approaching an LZ, and needing to address something locally before landing, makes perfect sense to me. However, a Light-Attack or Heavy Attack Tilt-Rotor craft makes no sense to me at all.

        • Duane

          No, I did not misread your comment, I used precisely your term of “rotor craft” and it applies equally well to tilt rotors or conventional rotary wing. Both conformations use large rotor areas, one uses one large diameter disk and the other uses two smaller diameter disks to create effectively the same disk area, adjusted as needed to account for gross weight, rotor speed, and other factors particular to aircraft design.

          The V-22 has certainly not been one of your silly disasters-awaiting. The Marines consider the Osprey to be a humongous success and a game-changer for marine operations since it went IOC more than a decade ago. The Navy just selected the CV-22 as its future COD platform after reviewing the Marine’s evident success.

          And a tilt rotor is no more un-stealthy than a conventional helicopter, and is vastly more efficient and speedy and reliable.

          • Curtis Conway

            1st Stealth in no way has anything to do with the topic. It has to do with presenting a target area in a high-volume of fire arena. Attack helos do preciely this, and a Tilt Rotor has basically twice the vulnerability (e.g., more than one rotor). When survailance systems begin to track IR predominantly, then Tilt Rotor will be a larger and louder target (heat created by compressed air of the rotors).

            2nd Concerning Marines and the new MV-22C standard configuration, hopefully this becomes the upgrade target model for the fleet as they rotate back into heavy maintenance cycles. The V-22 Osprey, even with all its problems has given the USMC the edge over the competition. We can move more Marines further, faster, and with greater assurety and precision, than any other nation on the planet.

            3rd In NO PLACE in any of my comments will you find the term “rotor craft”.

          • Duane

            You wrote abive that anything with rotors (that by definition includes helicopters just as much as tilt rotors – both are rotary wing aircraft), “makes it a larger target”. Helicopters feature rotor disks every bit as large, or in most instances larger, than tilt rotor disks. Larger in square feet, because the only operational tilt rotor warbird to date, the V-22, has much higher disk loading than military helicopters of similar or proportional lift capacity.

            Higher disk loading = smaller rotor.

            The V280 Valor, still in development, has significantly lower disk loading than the V-22, but still only about the same disk loading as that of a UH or MH 60 that it is to replace. Obviously we have been using attack helicopters with proportionally larger rotor disks for 68 years, and quite successfully. As well as for ISR and transport.

            You obviously don’t know anything on the topic of rotary wing aircraft design, so stop stamping your feet and declaring that the Marines are doing it all wrong on this matter … just as you claim the Navy does it all wrong on all of its ship designs and fighter designs for the last 20 years, in endless repetition of your silly complaint that the Navy needs to put you in charge of Designing Everything That Floats and Flies.


          • Curtis Conway

            I’ve done nothing but praise the Marines, and their MV-22 Osprey in its mission sets. You are so blinded by your own prejudices you cannot see anything but what you WISH to SEE, instead of what is really there. I am also a huge proponent of Attack Helos in EVERY configuration (save tilt-rotor) and that was my ONLY POINT. YOU have turned this into a discussion, and have gone in direcitons never actually proposed, and never intended. But, G-d Bless You, you keep trying.

            Keep having fun, and I’m OUT!

          • Duane

            You just don’t get it. Sorry, I can’t help you there. If, you know, you would just stop declaring in every thread that the Navy and Marines are stupid … just as you did above when you declared the Marines to be completely stupid for considering a tilt rotor for attack roles, then I wouldn’t challenge you.

          • D. Jones

            FIRST LINE IN HIS COMMENT: ” an Attack-(X) Anything with tilt rotors”

            TILT rotors.

            Tilt Tilt Tilt.

            Does the LCS Optics Module not include +7.0 reading glasses?

          • Duane

            Your reading comprehension is nil. His comment said tilt rotor, but tilt rotors, as I wrote but you did not comprehend, are identical in function to helicopters. Both are “rotary wing” and therefore both require very large rotors that Curtiss is whining about. Except that his so-called large rotor “problem” is much larger for helicopters that we’ve been using with great success for 70 years in the attack role, than the much smaller rotors of the V-22. At most, the rotor size of the current developmental V-280 is no larger than the UH-60/MH-60 it will replace.

            So Curtiss got it exactly backwards, but you still don’t get it.