US Marines Want Shipboard VTOL Drone For $20 Million a Copy

By Dan Parsons | June 6, 2018
Send Feedback | @SharkParsons

Bell V-247 Vigilant. Photo courtesy of Bell

Currently the only U.S. military service without a high-end unmanned aircraft, the U.S. Marine Corps is in the market for a high-altitude long-endurance drone that can launch from a ship, perform reconnaissance and relay communication to deployed ground forces for about $20 million per copy.

Other missions for what the Marine Corps calls MUX — a mercifully 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 solidify its requirements for what will likely be a short- or vertical-takeoff-and-landing UAS in the same class as an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper.


“We are at that stage now to start looking at committing some serious resources in this direction,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, chief of Marine Corps Combat Development command and deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said Wednesday. “This is going to shape us. We think we are at the right point in 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 mark of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act slashed that 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 should land somewhere in that wide delta. Either way, the Marine Corps is “serious” about ramping up investment in the program, Walsh said at a MUX industry day in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Meeting with the industry will “help get this tighter, and then we can get our rear-ends up to 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 is asking drone manufacturers and systems engineers to demonstrate what is possible with existing technology so that it could shape a set of realistic, achievable criteria at a reasonable price, he said.

Group 5 UAS, which the military classifies as weighing more than 1,320 pounds with an operating altitude of more than 18,000 feet, are operated by the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy. What will make MUX stand out is its expeditionary footprint. It will operate independent of the runways that tether those other platforms to lengthy runways, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, deputy commandant for aviation, said at the industry day.

“There’s no question in our mind … that unmanned systems at this level off amphibious shipping is the future,” Rudder said. “Now the question is, how do we make it happen?”

“We believe the technology exists to do it,” he added. “We believe now is the right time to begin this journey of this program to be able to the United States Marine Corps, the Navy, the Army, the joint force a capability that is expeditionary.”

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

Fast is the name of the game for development and procurement, and the Marine Corps is prepared to move as fast as technology will allow, Rudder said. After an acquisition decision planned for fiscal 2020, the service wants a land-based early operational capability in within five years and a land-based initial operational capability two years later, with a sea-based IOC to follow.

Walsh said white papers that flow in from industry days will be parsed and parlayed into at least three competitive, flying prototypes that Marines will test to arrive at its preferred design.

Ultimately, the airframe and its current and future capabilities will support all of the Marine Corps’ modernization priorities: Information warfare, long-range precision fires, air defense, command-and-control in a degraded environment and protected mobility and enhanced maneuver.

All that should be packaged in an affordable platform that tracks with the unit cost of an MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, or about $20 million a pop, although there is not a prescribed price point or enforced cost cap, Walsh said.

“When we start talking about a group-5 capability and you start looking at Reapers at $16 million, Predators at $22 million — it’s got to be somewhere in that area,” Walsh said. “It’s got to be not a whole lot more than that.”

“We’re not talking something $80 to $90 million,” he added. “If we’re talking that, the Marine Corps is not going to be able to afford it. That’s not us. Go to someone else. Go to the United States Air Force, somebody that can afford something like that.”

By partnering with the Navy, the Marine Corps hopes to arrive at an airframe that also suits the surface force, other navies and the U.S. Army, therefore boosting procurement volumes and driving down unit cost, Walsh said. The service also plans to siphon funding from other aviation programs as they conclude procurement and enter sustainment, Rudder said.

The Marine Corps is buying its third and last lot of MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors and plans to close out procurement of the aircraft in the fiscal 2022-2023 timeframe. Once the latest Air Force multiyear deal for Lockheed Martin KC-130J is finalized, procurement of that aircraft is scheduled to conclude around the same time.

Fiscal 2018 marks the end of procurement for the H-1 upgrade program, and the service will transition to sustainment of the UH-1Y and AH-1Z in fiscal 2019. With the F-35B having entered service and preparing to ride the ramp to full-rate production, that program’s cost also should plateau by 2022 or the year after, Rudder said.

Walsh said funding those programs freed up as they approach sustainment can be funneled back into MUX.

“The money is out there in our [total obligation authority],” Walsh said. “Now we have got to figure out what programs are right to compete for that TOA. We think this is the right capability that we have to move forward, to start investing on.”

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox