US Marines want VTOL drone on board for $ 20 million a copy

Bell V-247 Vigilant. Photo courtesy of Bell

Currently the only US military service without a high-end unmanned aircraft, the US Marine Corps is looking for a high-altitude, long-endurance drone that can be launched from a ship, perform reconnaissance and relay communication. to deployed ground forces for about $ 20. millions per copy.

Other missions for what the Marine Corps calls MUX – a thankfully short acronym for Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) ​​Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Experimental – will include airborne early warning and electronic warfare. Offensive air support has been pushed to a secondary mission profile as the service begins to ramp up its requirements for what will likely be a short or vertical take-off and landing UAS in the same class as an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper.


“We are now at this stage to begin to consider committing serious resources in this direction,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, chief of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and Deputy Commander of Development and Development on Wednesday. of combat integration. “It’s going to shape us. We believe we are at the right time to move forward with this program.

In fiscal 2019, the Marine Corps sought to set aside $ 25 million, but the House Armed Services Committee, in its hallmark of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, reduced this allocation to $ 10 million. . Meanwhile, the Senate version of the same bill authorizes $ 100 million for the same program, so the ultimate figure for fiscal 2019 is expected to land somewhere in this large delta. Either way, the Marine Corps is “serious” about increasing investment in the program, Walsh said at an MUX industry day in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Meeting with the industry “will help tighten things up, and then we can get our backs on the Hill and start explaining what we’re doing,” Walsh said. Instead of dictating requirements and spending years developing an ideal solution, the Marine Corps asks drone manufacturers and system engineers to demonstrate what is possible with existing technology so that it can shape a realistic set of criteria. and achievable at a reasonable price, he said.

Group 5 UAS, which the military classifies as weighing over 1,320 pounds with an operational altitude of over 18,000 feet, are operated by the US military, air force, and navy. What will set MUX apart is its expeditionary footprint. It will operate independently of the runways that connect these other platforms to long runways, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, deputy commander of aviation, told industry day.

“There is no doubt in our mind… that unmanned systems at this level of amphibious navigation are the future,” said Rudder. “Now the question is, how do you get there? “

“We believe the technology is there to do it,” he added. “We believe the time has come to begin this journey of this program so that we can equip the United States Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Joint Force with an expeditionary capability.”

It must operate from the decks of amphibious ships and ashore from a 150 square foot landing area. It should fit inside the hangar of a Navy DDG-51 destroyer, ensuring it will fit larger ships.

Fast is the name of the game for development and supply, and the Marine Corps is ready to go as fast as technology will allow, Rudder said. After an acquisition decision slated for FY2020, the service wants an early land-based operational capability within five years and an initial land-based operational capability two years later, with a sea-based IOC to follow.

Walsh said white papers from Industry Days will be analyzed and turned into at least three competitive flying prototypes for the Marines to test to come up with his preferred design.

Ultimately, the cell and its current and future capabilities will support all Marine Corps modernization priorities: information warfare, long-range precision fire, air defense, command and control in a degraded environment, and protected mobility. and improved maneuver.

All of this should be packed into an affordable platform that tracks the unit cost of an MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drone, which is roughly $ 20 million per pop, although there is no price tag. prescribed or imposed cost cap, Walsh said. .

“When we start talking about a Group 5 ability and you start looking at $ 16 million Reapers, $ 22 million Predators – that has to be somewhere in that area,” Walsh said. “It can’t be much more than that.”

“We’re not talking about something $ 80 million to $ 90 million,” he added. “If we talk about this, the Marine Corps won’t be able to afford it. It is not us. Go to someone else’s house. Go to the US Air Force, someone who can afford something like this.

By partnering with the Navy, the Marine Corps hopes to come up with a cell that will also be suitable for the Surface Force, other Marines, and the U.S. Army, thereby increasing supply volumes and lowering unit costs, a said Walsh. The service also plans to siphon funding from other aviation programs as they close supply and enter sustainment, Rudder said.

The Marine Corps purchases its third and final batch of MV-22 Osprey tilt rotors and plans to close supply for the aircraft during fiscal period 2022-2023. Once the Air Force’s last multi-year deal for the Lockheed Martin KC-130J is finalized, the purchase of this aircraft is expected to end around the same time.

Fiscal 2018 marks the end of supply for the H-1 upgrade program, and service will transition to sustainment of UH-1Y and AH-1Z during fiscal 2019. The F- With 35B entering service and preparing to ride the ramp for full-rate production, the cost of this program is also expected to level off by 2022 or the following year, Rudder said.

Walsh said funding for those programs released as sustainment approaches can be reallocated to the MUX.

“The money is there in our [total obligation authority]”Walsh said.” Now we need to figure out which programs are the right ones to compete for this TOA. We think that’s the right capacity that we need to move forward on, to start investing. “

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