Marines Want Their Multi-Role Vertical Takeoff Combat Drone To Be A Flying Radar First

The service wants the first examples to be sensor nodes, but after that, they could take on a host of different missions from armed escort to strike.

Bell

The U.S. Marine Corps has outlined seven potential mission sets for its proposed future drone, which will be much larger than the service’s existing unmanned aircraft, but will still be able to take-off from and land vertically on the deck of an amphibious assault ship. Though the plans include a wide array of tasks, the top priority is to get the Marine Expeditionary Unit its own airborne early warning capability to help it operate independently of the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Strike Groups in a high-end conflict against a potential near-peer adversary, such as Russia or China.

Earlier in June 2018, the Marines held an industry day event, which was open in part to members of the press, on the status of the project, which has the painfully long official title of Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System Expeditionary – or MUX. The Corps subsequently released additional information from the briefings on the U.S. government’s main contracting website, FedBizOpps.

The Marines envision a basic MUX air vehicle with a vertical takeoff and landing capability and the same physical footprint as a UH-1Y Venom helicopter. It would have low-observable features, including a reduced infrared signature, and ballistic protection for key components. The service wants the initial design to have a minimum internal payload capacity of 3,000 pounds, the ability to carry between 3,000 to 9,000 pounds of weapons or other stores externally, a cruising speed between 230 and 345 miles per hour, an unrefueled combat radius of 350 to 700 miles, and the ability to refuel in flight.

As of June 2018, the mission sets for these aircraft are, in priority order, are airborne early warning, air reconnaissance, electronic warfare, communications relay, offensive air support, scout and aerial escort, and cargo. The Marines say the first four of these are “Tier 1,” meaning they will be a threshold requirement for the final unmanned platform. Offensive air support is in a lower priority “Tier 2” category, while the service explained that other drones might ultimately perform the scout-escort and cargo tasks.

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An early "operational view" of the proposed MUX and its mission sets. The Marines now say the drones may not necessarily end up being able to perform all of these roles.

But even within Tier one, the early warning requirement is clearly the Marine Corps’ most immediate priority. At present, U.S. Navy surface forces get this support from the E-2 Hawkeye radar planes, which can only fly from the big deck of a full sized carrier or bases on land.

There had been proposals in the past for an airborne early warning version of the V-22 Osprey, which the Marines and U.K.’s Royal Navy considered, but which proved to be too expensive and complex. As such, if a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embarked on an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), even as part of a larger Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), wants this kind of support right now, it has to operate in close coordination with and in relative proximity to a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) or rely on support from the U.S. Air Force or an ally. 

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A slide showing various potential V-22 missions.

“Think about the ESG, the Amphibious Ready Group, the large-deck amphib: even if it’s up-gunned with a set of [other surface warfare] assets with Aegis radars, we are still missing an airborne early warning capability,” U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General James Adams, who is in charge of the capabilities development directorate at Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., said at the industry day, according to USNI News. “And therefore, in the fight of the future, we are going to be tied to the carrier strike group.”

In its airborne early warning configuration, the Marines want MUX to be able to be able to loiter autonomously in a designated orbit approximately 100 miles from the deck of an amphibious ship and stay on station for at least 12 hours. The drone's primary sensor would be a radar capable of spotting and tracking aerial threats and an electro-optical sensor coupled with a data link to send that information to the ship in near-real time.

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A briefing slide showing a notional "typical" mission profile for a MUX in the airborne early warning configuration.

In addition to looking out for conventional aircraft, the industry day briefing said the goal was for the system to be able to spot drones as big as what the U.S. military calls Group 3, a category that includes the RQ-7 Shadow and RQ-21 Blackjack, as well as supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. These are threats that many countries, and even non-state actors, are exploring and which could pose an increasingly serious danger to U.S. amphibious ships and other surface vessels in the future.

Being able to extend the sensor range of the ARG or ESG and allow its components to operate across a broader area more detached from other surface task forces would be especially valuable for operations in constrained environments, where enemies might quickly appear and disappear, as well as distributed operations across a wider front. Low flying threats in particular, like cruise missiles and drones, can materialize with reduced warning as ship-based sensors are limited by line-of-sight to the horizon. A flying airborne early warning node overcomes this limitation.

DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency produced this concept art of a vertical take-off and landing capable maritime drone system as part of its earlier  Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program.

In the Pacific region especially, Marines afloat might be faced with the prospect of operations where they could often be physically separated from other supporting assets. In addition, the Navy’s has been suffering from increasing difficulties in generating manpower and even ships for deployments, which might limit the resources available to begin with, especially when it comes to carriers.

As such, the early warning MUX drone would also have a secondary electro-optical and infrared camera suite to monitor and investigate potential surface threats. A signals intelligence and electronic support measures package would give it the additional ability to locate and classify potential enemy threats based on their electromagnetic emissions.

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A briefing slide that gives a snapshot of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group's (ARG) activities in August 2017, showing how far flung its components can be just during limited operations. At that time, the ARG included the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (BAT), the landing platform dock USS Mesa Verde (MVD), and the landing ship dock USS Carter Hall (CTH), as well as the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Its onboard data link would also be able to share that information with other platforms to provide them with a better overall picture of the battlefield. Eventually, through the Navy’s plans for an overarching Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) network that links all of its ships and aircraft together, the goal is for the drone to be able to cue air-launched air-to-air missiles and ship-based surface-to-air missiles to take-down hostile targets.

Tucked away in the finer points, the Marines have also suggested this version of the unmanned aircraft could carry AIM-9X Sidewinder short-range, infrared-homing air-to-air missiles to try and shoot down threats on its own. Later portions of the industry day briefing describe this as “desired” future weapons capability, as is integrating the radar-guided AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM).

The video below provides an overview of the Navy's Cooperative Engagement Capability concept.

There is clear potential for the drones to serve as sensor nodes for more offensive strikes, even in this configuration. Using the CEC, the MUX drones could conceivably locate targets and relay that information to other platforms equipped with stand-off anti-ship or land-attack weapons. Even without the direct network connectivity, the unmanned aircraft could still allow elements of an ESG to search a larger area faster for potential threats.

And the Marines have already test fired the truck-mounted High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from the deck of an amphibious ship and have expressed an interest in adding either anti-sip capabilities to that system or the ships themselves. Coupled with MUX, this could give the ARG or ESG as a whole an even greater ability to engage hostile surface targets at sea and on land.

The Marines are also considering giving the early warning MUX its own ability to deploy expendable drones, which could extend the range of its own sensor capabilities, and let it act as a distributed relay to feed all of that information back to the ship. The Navy is already working with Northrop Grumman on an experimental unmanned aircraft that fits inside a modified cluster munitions dispenser and the U.S. military has previously explored even smaller types that aircraft can fire from their flare dispensers.

Northrop Grumman

A mockup of Northrop Grumman's concept for a small drone inside a modified cluster munitions dispenser.

Brigadier General Adams said that the ability of the MUX to share targeting data with other air and surface platforms through the CEC network might lead the drone to be unarmed in all of its configurations. “So in some respects, it has an unlimited magazine because it’s the cue-er of other people’s weapons, whether it’s an SM-6 (Standard Missile) coming off a ship, or a [Small Diameter Bomb] coming off an F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] – it can provide [offensive air support] cueing in the networked fight of the future,” he said, according to USNI News.

The other Tier 1 MUX types all seem to focus mainly on expanding on one or more of the capabilities in the early warning configuration. The air reconnaissance variant, which the Marines say would never be armed, would replace the air search radar with a wide-area persistent surveillance camera suite and laser imaging system, but keep the other sensors and data link.

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Details regarding a notional mission using the MUX in the air reconnaissance configuration.

A standard mission profile could see the drone performing persistent surveillance over one target area up to 350 miles away for four hours before moving on to search a zone up to 400 square miles in size for threats and other objects of interest for another four hours. In the latter case, the unmanned aircraft could be scanning beachheads and landing zones for danger ahead of an amphibious assault or scouring planned overland routes for ambushes.

The electronic warfare version would have a much more powerful electronic support and electronic attack system and a wide-area search radar, which could potentially include a ground moving target indicator functionality to monitor hostile movements, along with the electro-optical and infrared cameras. A key mission for this variant would be jamming enemy integrated air defenses in order to better allow F-35B Joint Strike Fighters to neutralize them. It could also help supply targeting information directly to those aircraft or elements of the ESG offshore and do so at least semi-autonomously.

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A possible electronic warfare mission profile for the MUX.

There's no reason why MUX couldn't provide valuable electronic warfare support to the more vulnerable elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit's air combat element, such as the Ospreys or its various helicopters. And in the same way that the drones make up for amphibious ships being unable to host the E-2 Hawkeye, this configuration helps makes up for the gap left by the Marine Corps' decision not to buy the EA-18G Growler. Those aircraft would not be able to operate from the deck of an amphibious assault ship anyways.

The Marines also say that Hellfire missiles and the aforementioned expandable drone capability will be threshold requirements for this type. The idea is that this would allow it to perform precision strikes against high value, time-sensitive targets by itself. One scenario the industry day briefing specifically describes is striking at militants or terrorists attempting to flee a site in a vehicle traveling at 80 miles per hour.

And despite its description as a communications relay, the Marines seem to envision the last Tier type as a much more multi-purpose configuration with virtually the same systems as the air reconnaissance type and the ability to launch Hellfire missiles. Firing smaller and more cost-effective Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) laser-guided rockets is also a “desired” capability for this type.

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A concept of operations for the MUX operating in the communications relay role.

Still, the primary goal for drones acting in this role would be to fly in a wide orbit for up to 48 hours at a time while sharing video, signals intelligence, and other data back and forth between different platforms, potentially across different waveforms. It’s not clear in this case whether a single MUX aircraft would be airborne for this entire two-day period or if the full system would perform this role, with multiple drones taking shorter shifts. With a mid-air refueling capability, a single relay aircraft could potentially stay aloft indefinitely.

The Tier 2 offensive air support MUX type actually sounds very similar to this version even though it is clearly expected to be more of an actual unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) configuration. The main difference would be the mission profile, where it would work directly with MV-22s carrying Marines ashore, sharing information with those aircraft en route, and then loitering over the battlefield for the next six to eight hours providing close air support. There is the possibility the Marines could add the ability to employ Small Diameter Bombs to this variant.

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A notional mission plan for the Tier 2 MUX.

The commonality between the types is entirely by design. The Marines make it clear they’re looking for plug-and-play sensors they can rapidly swap out in the field to get MUX drones back in the air performing different missions relatively quickly. The goal is also for the unmanned aircraft’s onboard mission computers and the ship-based control equipment to readily allow for updates and improvements and have at least some features in common with other existing and planned unmanned aircraft, including the RQ-21 and the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-launched drone.

Where things get more complicated is in the third tier, which includes missions the Marines suggest might require a larger or different platform from the one they have in mind for the initial MUX types. Separately, in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, the service is experimenting with modified, unmanned UH-1 Huey helicopter that can fly autonomous resupply missions. The Corps has also been looking into other, much smaller unmanned systems for logistical purposes.

And the Marines had originally envisioned the escort variant as something potentially as large as a pilotless Osprey and might even land and take-off like a conventional aircraft. This type could carry a much more substantial payload out to much greater ranges.

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The MUX may not even up fulfilling this notional Tier 3 scout mission.

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The same goes for the cargo-carrying role.

There is a distinct possibility that the Marines might end up looking to the joint-service Future Vertical Lift program to fill those roles. This program is looking to develop replacements for a host of different transport and gunship helicopters across the U.S. military and could include pilot-optional configurations of those aircraft.

Whether it's for the initial MUX types or the last tier versions, The Marines could also leverage other development programs for larger, autonomous or semi-autonomous unmanned aircraft to perform those tasks. In cooperation with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Lockheed Martin developed an unmanned, verticle take-off and landing capable resupply drone concept called the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES). 

Bell is also working on a pilotless companion to its new V-280 Valor tilt-rotor, called the V-247 Vigilant, which it has pitched as a multi-purpose platform. There's also DARPA's Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program, which involves a Northrop Grumman air vehicle that could be suitable for the Marines' purposes. 

The Marine Corps has said it is looking specifically at ARES, the V-247, and TERN for its MUX project. It's very likely that this list will grow, though.

Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works is still developing a low-observable, multi-purpose drone called the Vertical Takeoff and Landing VTOL Advanced Reconnaissance Insertion Organic Unmanned System (VARIOUS). And while DARPA canceled its program based around Aurora Flight Sciences XV-24A LightningStrike electrically-powered drone in April 2018, it's not hard to see some of that technology possibly making its way into the Marines' MUX effort.

But these third tier concepts could be a long way off. Cost factors already forced the Marine Corps to scale down their plans and could be an issue even for the Tier 1 MUX concepts.

Aurora Flight Sciecnes

An actual artist's concept showing the XV-24A escorting V-22s, one of the Tier 3 MUX missions.

Originally, “we wanted something that was going to be big, expensive, and probably beyond the reach of the Marine Corps,” Brigadier General Adams said during the industry day, according to Military.com. “[Something that could carry] thousands of pounds of cargo and fire long-range missiles.”

 The Marines say they are aiming for a unit price for each one of the drones of around $25 million. This would be similar to the price of an MQ-9 Reaper, which is approximately $22 million depending on the exact configuration.

“The Navy can afford Triton,” Adams said, referring to that service’s new MQ-4C, a derivative of the U.S. Air Force’s high-flying, long-range RQ-4A Global Hawk, the first of which cost more than $100 million apiece. “We can't afford something like that.”

There is a definite potential for other services to become involved in MUX or leverage its technology, as well. The drone system could easily operate from the Navy’s carriers, especially if it uses the same control interface that service has already been developing for the MQ-25.

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A US Navy MQ-4C Triton.

A vertical take-off and landing system would also be ideally suited to land-based operations in remote locations without the benefit of even unimproved runways.  MUX’s Tier 1 configurations would all be applicable in conventional and special operations further inland.

In addition, the airborne early warning and communication relay configurations could be useful to the Air Force as it considers options for replacing the aging E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) battlefield management and control aircraft. A radar-carrying variant of the MUX or one with a robust data link setup could serve as one or more parts of that service’s proposed "system-of-systems" to replace the larger JSTARS planes.

Regardless, there is a clear desire within the Marine Corps for a larger, multi-purpose drone system, though. The service, through the Navy, is looking into hiring contractors to fly unarmed Reapers in support of its operations in Afghanistan. There is also the possibility that it might acquire some of the MQ-1 Predators that the Air Force recently retired. These types would not be suitable for operations from the Navy’s amphibious ships, though.

But more importantly, this is the latest part in a much more long-standing push by the Marine Corps to make the so-called "Gator Navy" of amphibious ships more of an independent force capable of complex, high-end operations. Our own Tyler Rogoway, then writing for Foxtrot Alpha, wrote extensively about what this concept could ultimately look like back in 2014.

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Northrop Grumman's concept for DARPA's TERN program, which is reportedly now a possible contender for the Marines' MUX project.

For this to truly be viable, the Marines desperately need an organic airborne early warning aircraft. But they also need platforms for lower-end strike missions and the communication relay capability that MUX could offer, as well as an escort for the MV-22. In the latter case, this may become even more important if those aircraft take on mid-air refueling or other roles in addition to their air assault and cargo-carrying duties.

Taken together, a Marine Expeditionary Unit's air combat element might not have anywhere near the combat capability of a full Carrier Air Wing, but it could be more than enough to conduct sustained, distributed operations independently of those larger surface task forces. It could also help mitigate the expenses associated with operating even a limited number of F-35Bs from an ESG. In this light, MUX might offer an alternative way to get the added capacity offered by the "Lightning Carrier" or other light aircraft carrier concepts, but without the cost. 

The Marines are looking to see an early operational capability with MUX, essentially a more advanced prototype capable of operations during experimental exercises, by 2025. The goal is to reach initial operational capability with the system in 2028. Full operational capability across the service would come in 2034, according to the present schedule.

But with the Corps having now better ironed out its basic requirements, we may start seeing more definitive concepts for what the future drones might look like very soon.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com