Unmanned Cargo System Faces Uncertain Future Following Afghanistan Deployment

May 1, 2013
By George I. Seffers
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U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officials describe the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter as having met or exceeded requirements in Afghanistan, but they also report that the Marines have not yet developed requirements for the system to become a program of record and say they are unsure what effect sequestration will have on the system.

The Marines deployed two K-MAX aircraft to Afghanistan in late 2011 as part of an urgent operational need to ferry supplies to and from forward operating bases, reducing the number of manned flights or vulnerable convoys in an attempt to reduce casualties. The deployment is designed to demonstrate the system’s capabilities, and the Marines recently announced the indefinite extension of the K-MAX mission in Afghanistan. To date, the unmanned helicopters have delivered more than 3.2 million pounds of cargo and continue to keep ground convoys off the roads, significantly reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices and other lethal threats, Marine officials say. The system carries supplies such as ammunition, food and water, generators, medical supplies and even mail.

Maj. Daniel Lindblom, USMC, operations officer for Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, said during a May 1 teleconference with reporters that the system’s performance “has been absolutely superb.” The unmanned helicopter offers some advantages to manned aircraft, especially for emergency resupply missions. “That’s where we really make our money,” says Maj. Lindblom. “The ability for us to plan on the fly and execute on the fly is quite a bit better, in my opinion, than manned aircraft.”

In one case, warfighters used K-MAX to deliver 60-millimeter mortar rounds to a forward operating base in the southwest region that had been taking heavy fire for two days. The unit turned around and asked for another emergency resupply of 40-millimeter ammo the following night. Both missions were flown successfully on short notice, Maj. Lindblom reports. In fact, if more systems were available in Afghanistan, they would certainly be put to use, officials add.

At the same time, however, officials are not yet sure what will happen with the system following its Afghanistan deployment. Capt. Patrick Smith, USN, program manager at the Navy and Marine Corps Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air Systems program office, reports that, “Right now, we do not have any formal requirements from the Marines to go forward beyond the demonstration we’ve got here, but there’s definitely been lessons learned going forward from the 18 months that we’ve been there.”

In addition to a lack of requirements, the effect of sequestration is yet to be determined. “Sequestration adjustments are still being reviewed and analyzed both at the department level and down to the service levels. That’s an item that’s still being worked and reviewed,” Capt. Smith states.

Capt. Smith adds that the program office is working with the Marines on some post-Afghanistan options for the system. “One of the options has been to have the aircraft support demonstrations and testing out at Yuma [Proving Grounds, Arizona],” he says. But ultimately the decision will depend on requirements from officials at Marine Corps headquarters. Those officials are receiving and considering data and lessons learned from the system’s deployment.

Capt. Smith reports that the Marines also have not asked the program office to look at alternatives, such as the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System, which the Office of Naval Research is developing (SIGNAL Magazine, May 2012, “Robocopters Reduce Resupply Risk”).

K-MAX has undergone some modifications since its deployment, including additional fuel tanks to extend the system’s range. And it is now capable of pulling double duty of sorts, delivering supplies to the forward operating bases and then also carrying cargo back from the forward position to the main base, which military officials refer to as a “retrograde capability.”

Lockheed Martin, which has teamed with Kaman Aerospace Corporation to develop the system, describes K-MAX on its website as “a transformational technology for a fast-moving battlefield that will enable Marines to deliver supplies either day or night to precise locations without risk of losing life in the process.” The system can deliver a full 6,000 pounds of cargo at sea level and more than 4,000 pounds at higher altitudes. The system’s one-day record in Afghanistan was 30,000 pounds of cargo over six missions.

K-MAX flies to Global Positioning System navigation points entered into the computer as part of the flight plan. It also includes a beyond-line-of-sight data link for dynamic retasking or making in-flight changes. The algorithms are programmed into computers both onboard and at the ground control station, allowing the aircraft to essentially fly itself, rather than being controlled by an operator on the ground.

While Maj. Lindblom praised the system’s performance, he said his wish list of potential improvements includes greater cargo capacity and an onboard camera for viewing the drop zone or for monitoring the cargo itself.

The two systems in Afghanistan were purchased at about $11 million each.

Watch below for a video from MilitaryNotes of the first combat delivery by K-MAX in Afghanistan.

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