Marine RQ-21 Blackjack Drones Are Flying Three Times More Than Expected In Iraq and Syria

The service needs extra funds to support operational demands now and it only wants the aircraft to have more even more capabilities in the future.

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The U.S. Marine Corps has been using Boeing Insitu's RQ-21 Blackjack unmanned aircraft so much in Iraq and Syria that it had to shift funds around earlier this year to help pay for unexpected operational costs. It’s yet another example of the insatiable appetite for aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support across the U.S. military, as well as a desire within the Marines to better integrate the drones into the service’s operations as intelligence gathering and electronic warfare platforms, and more.

In February 2018, the Pentagon approved a U.S. Navy request to reallocate nearly $18 million from other portions of the 2016 and 2017 fiscal year defense budgets to support Marine Corps RQ-21 operations. This included pulling funding from the U.S. Army’s Tactical Signals Intelligence Payload program, which has reportedly run into trouble due to poor test performance, and line items that support Marine RQ-7Bv2 Shadow unmanned aircraft operations. In addition, more than half of the total money was already left over after lower-than-expected costs associated with the Blackjack operations in previous years.

“The U.S. Marine Corps has identified a spares and sustainment shortfall in FY 2018, due to RQ 21 flight hours for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) exceeding budgeted flight hours by more than 300 percent,” the reprogramming document explained, using the official nickname for operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon, as with any federal agency, must seek congressional approval to use funds lawmakers approved for one particular purpose to pay for something else.

The request offers no additional detail about what the RQ-21s have been doing in the Middle East in the fight against ISIS. However, for years now, the Marine Corps has been actively supporting both Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq and local, predominantly Kurdish partners in Syria, as well as U.S. and other coalition special operations forces advising those groups in both countries.

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An RQ-21 Blackjack sits on its catapult, ready for launch.

Most notably, the Marines provided precision artillery support, primarily with M777 155mm howitzers firing GPS-guided shells, during the lead up to the liberation of the city of Mosul in Iraq and throughout the campaign to eject ISIS from Raqqa in Syria. These locations represented the terrorist group’s main centers of gravity in the two countries.

With an endurance of up to 16 hours and a range of approximately 50 miles, the Blackjacks could have spotted targets for artillery units and assessed the results of those strikes. With its sensor turret containing both electro-optical and infrared cameras, as well as a laser marker, it could help identify targets for other friendly forces, including fixed and rotary wing aircraft. On top of all that, the drones would have been able to perform overwatch missions for friendly forces, keeping an eye out for the sudden appearance of enemy forces or potential ambushes. 

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Navy personnel wheel an RQ-21 to its launch catapult onboard the landing platform dock ship USS Mesa Verde.

Highlighting how ubiquitous and important American unmanned aircraft have become for operations in Syria especially, there have been growing reports that the unspecified "adversaries," likely Russian or Russian-support forces, are increasingly trying to jam them in certain parts of the country. Available information has suggested that smaller, tactical unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the RQ-21, are particularly vulnerable due to the relatively limited power of their data and control links.

In addition, using other drones as communication relays, the aircraft can effectively double its maximum range, further extending the area that might be able to cover. For operations in the region against ISIS, especially in Syria, this could be especially beneficial since the operating locations are often in remote, austere areas that might be physically separated by substantial distances from other supporting elements or even the deck of an amphibious assault ship.

The RQ-21 is also well suited to those types of sites since it uses a catapult to launch the unmanned aircraft and a tethered hook to snatch it out of the sky at the end of its mission. Unlike similarly sized drones, such as the RQ-7, the Blackjack has no need for an actual runway of any kind. The complete system, which consists of five RQ-21s, a launcher, a Skyhook Recovery System, two trailer-mounted generators, and four Humvees with various other necessary components and pieces of equipment, is relatively mobile, as well.

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Marines work to disconnect an RQ-21 from the Skyhook Recovery System after a mission.

And while the Marines need the extra funds at the moment specifically due to operations in Iraq and Syria, the Blackjack’s heavy use in that theater strongly suggests that this will increasingly be the trend for the service’s operations in general. This unmanned aircraft is already the primary type support Marines at the Regimental and Marine Expeditionary Unit levels, occupying a space between lighter, hand-launched types and larger drones, such as the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper.

The RQ-21’s small operational and logistical footprint makes it especially good for the Marine Corps’ expeditionary operating concepts broadly, even though it has a slightly shorter maximum range than the RQ-7Bv2. The service plans to completely replace its Shadows with the Blackjacks by the end of 2019, at which time it will have four operational units with the latter type, according to the 2018 Marine Aviation Plan. Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron Three will complete its transition in 2018, leaving just Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron Four flying the Shadow.

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Marines move an RQ-7 Shadow off the runway after a mission.

In 2018, the Marines also plan to expand the Blackjack’s payload options with the AN/PDY-2 Split Aces radar and the AN/DSY-4 Spectral Bat signals intelligence suite. There are also plans to integrate a version of the Intrepid Tiger electronic warfare system into the RQ-21.

The Split Aces systems is an active electronically-scanned array radar with synthetic aperture and ground moving target indicator functionality, which will allow it to track and monitor moving vehicles, as well as capture radar imagery in any weather condition. Spectral Bat is a signal detection and geo-locating system that also has a secondary electronic support function, allowing operators to spot and classify certain emitters. Intrepid Tiger is a communications jammer that can also monitor enemy transmissions.

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A AN/ALQ-231(V)3 Intrepid Tiger II electronic warfare pod on a Marine UH-1Y helicopter.

It’s not clear whether a single RQ-21 might be able to carry one or more of these systems at once, along with its existing sensor turret. However, a single complete “system” with five drones fitted with a mix of this equipment could dramatically expand the capabilities of Marine expeditionary forces, giving them options to locate enemy forces, jam their transmissions, and alert other elements to the presence of hostile sensor or communications nodes.

In addition, the drones could provide at least semi-persistent surveillance over a particular area or of a specific moving target for offensive and defensive purposes. All of these capabilities could be very important for relatively small units to maintain an advantage while operating in a distributed manner without necessarily having the benefit of immediate direct or indirect fire support. It could also be a boon for maneuvering in dense urban areas, which is another increasingly likely conflict environment.

The RQ-21 has already demonstrated its ability to carry the Redkite lightweight wide-area persistent-surveillance system, as well. The manufacturer, Logos Technologies, says a drone flying at 12,000 feet can use the sensor to grab imagery of a five-by-five mile square area. Data links can then transmit that feed to ground stations for further exploitation in near real time. In March 2018, Logos brought one of the drones with the sensor package to the Advanced Naval Technology Exercises (ANTX) at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in California.

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A RQ-21 with the Redkite wide-area persistent surveillance sensor package.

This would allow Marine units, include reconnaissance and special operations elements, to develop so-called “patterns of life” about a specific target or small group of individuals. Understanding their routines and typical movements could help in the planning for a raid or strike that eliminates as much collateral damage and as many civilian casualties as possible – a process known to the U.S. military as finding, fixing, and finishing the enemy, which also happens to be the motto of the Navy’s RQ-21 program office.

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The US Navy's RQ-21 Blackjack program logo. The service manages these aircraft on behalf of its own units and the Marine Corps.

The Blackjacks may eventually be able to carry miniaturized munitions themselves in order to directly strike targets they come across in the future. There are a steadily increasing number of suitably diminutive precision-guided bombs and missiles.

In 2007, an older MQ-5B Hunter reportedly conducted a strike in Iraq using a GBU-44/B Viper Strike munition, a clear demonstration of the utility of drones of this size in an armed role. Textron has already demonstrated versions of its RQ-7 with small weapons, too.

The video below reportedly shows an MQ-5B using a GBU-44/B to strike militants in Iraq.

Another possibility is that the RQ-21s could serve as spotters for new loitering munitions that the Marine Corps is also interested in acquiring to give additional firepower to smaller units. AeroVironment has already pitched the concept of employing its Switchblade man-portable suicide drone together with its hand-launched, but longer-range RQ-20 Puma unmanned aircraft. 

And given the aforementioned growing concern about jamming, the Marines may look to install anti-jam data and control links and encryption capabilities to prevent an opponent from intercepting and decoding the data streams from the aircraft. If developments in Syria and Western Europe over the past 18 months are any indications, these threats exist now and will only become more pronounced as time goes on.

The Blackjacks are definitely a key component of the Marine Corps larger desire to add drones to their concept of operations where ever possible from small, hand-held quad-copter types for infantry squads and platoons to large unmanned aircraft to conduct much more far-reaching operations with traditional aircraft and helicopters as part of a manned-unmanned team. 

The RQ-21, though, is significantly cheaper to operate than larger Predator- and Reaper-sized drones and already offer a wide array of capabilities, albeit on a more limited, localized scale. This could make them an attractive and cost-effective option in many cases, even as new, more capable systems, such as the Marine Corps' proposed Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System-Expeditionary, or MUX, become available.

With the Marine Corps set to push toward adding the new RQ-21 units in 2018 and 2019, and test the various new payloads at the same time, the service looks set to continue expanding its use of the drones where ever it might find its units deployed. And it will have to budget funds to match that increased operational tempo in the coming years to avoid any more shortfalls.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com