The Marines Are Already Ditching Their Young RQ-21 Blackjack Drones

The Marine Corps is looking at other drones, including the MQ-9 Reaper and the small and more unusual V-Bat, to meet its unmanned aircraft needs.

Marines recover an RQ-21 Blackjack drone after a sortie.
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The U.S. Marine Corps says it has begun the process of retiring all of its RQ-21 Blackjack drones as it shifts its attention to other unmanned platforms, including the MQ-9 Reaper and the V-Bat. This decision, which is part of a radical, service-wide force structure redesign initiative, comes despite the RQ-21s being relatively young and programs ongoing right now to expand their sensor capabilities.

The Marines announced earlier this week that they had "initiated the divestment of all RQ-21 aircraft" in the first annual update on the service's progress with the Force Design 2030 effort, which was publicly unveiled last year and you can read more about here. The restructuring plan includes scaling back or outright getting rid of a number of traditional capabilities, such as the elimination of all M1 tank-equipped units, in favor of a remodeled, lighter force with a renewed emphasis on expeditionary and distributed operations. The acquisition of new weapons and other equipment more tailored to these new concepts of operation, such as more capable drones and various longer-range ground-based missiles, is a key component of this initiative. 

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A Marine prepares an RQ-21 Blackjack drone for launch.

At present, the Marines have around 21 complete RQ-21 "systems," which typically consist of five drones, as well as various supporting equipment on the ground. These are primarily spread across three active-duty squadrons and one in the Marine Corps Reserve, with a smaller number also assigned to various training and test and evaluation units. The single-engine drone's primary mission is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, with a sensor turret containing electro-optical and infrared video cameras mounted underneath the nose. 

The Blackjacks are launched using a trailer-mounted catapult and recovered using another trailer-mounted system with a tethered hook that literally snatches them out of the air. They can remain airborne for up to 16 hours and have a maximum range of approximately 50 miles, depending on the exact configuration and flight profile. 

Insitu, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing, conducted the first flight what was originally known as the Integrator, in 2012, and the Marines reached what was described as an "early operational capability" in 2014 when they sent two of the drones to Afghanistan. That deployment, however, highlighted various issues, including quality control problems, which persisted for some time afterward. The Marines only finally phased out the last of their older RQ-7Bv2s, transitioning completely to RQ-21, as had long been planned, in 2018. The service declared a full operational capability with the Blackjacks the following year.

Since then, though, official reports had shown a high demand for these drones, especially in support of operations in Iraq and Syria. In addition, the Marines have been working to expand the capabilities of the RQ-21 with new sensor payloads and other systems. This has included work on the AN/PDY-2 Split Aces, a small radar with imaging and ground moving target indicator (GMTI) functionality, as well as the AN/DSY-4 Spectral Bat signals intelligence suite. There had also been discussion about developing a version of the Intrepid Tiger electronic warfare system that could fit inside one of these drones, as well as the potential to install communications relay systems and beyond-line-of-sight control and data links.

Just last week, Logos Technologies announced that the Navy, in support of the Marines, had successfully conducted a flight test of an RQ-21 carrying the company's Cardcounter ultra-light infrared wide-area motion imagery (WAMI) sensor. This 26-pound system, based on Logos' BlackKite sensor, has been in development since 2019 in order to give the Blackjack a very powerful wide-area surveillance capability for its size.

"BlackKite can detect and track in real time every significant target moving within a city-sized area," according to a press release from Logos Technologies. "In addition, thanks to the WAMI system’s multi-modal edge processor—which can store six or more hours of mission data—users on the ground can also access recorded imagery for on-the-fly forensic analysis."

“No military in the world has anything like the Logos WAMI sensor on their tactical unmanned aircraft,” Doug Rombough, the company's Vice President for Business Development, said in a statement. “This WAMI system views and records the entire area and can stream multiple real-time and recorded video ‘chip-outs’ down to handheld devices.”

Especially with all this in mind, until this week, it had been unclear what the Marine Corps plans for the RQ-21s might be under the Force Design 2030 plan. There had certainly been some indications that this divestiture was coming, though.

"Similarly – and understandably, in a force that was designed with different assumptions regarding threat and environment – there are some capabilities that I assess we are over-invested in," General David Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, wrote in an overview of Force Design 2030 that was publicly released in March 2020. "A partial list includes heavily armored ground combat systems (tanks), towed cannon artillery, and short-range, low endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS) incapable of employing lethal effects."

The Marines RQ-21s are not configured to carry weapons of any kind. Of course, various types of very small precision-guided munitions do exist and have been demonstrated on similarly-sized unmanned aircraft, such as the MQ-5 Hunter and the RQ-7 Shadow.

"We need to transition from our current UAS platforms to capabilities that can operate from ship, from shore, and able to employ both collection and lethal payloads," Berger had added in the Force Design 2030 document last year. "These future capabilities must be expeditionary and fully compatible with Navy platforms and command and control networks."

The Marines had conducted a first-of-its-kind exercise last year in which MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors moved RQ-21s, launch and recovery systems, and other associated equipment from a ship to shore. This was clearly meant to demonstrate how the system could be employed in an expeditionary context. It's very possible that the outcome of that event helped inform the final decision to get rid of the Blackjacks.

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A Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor carries a trailer-mounted catapult used to launch the RQ-21 drone during an exercise in 2020.

Even before the debut of the Force Design 2030 plan, the service had been looking to reduce the operational footprint of the Blackjacks and improve their utility during expeditionary operations through the development of a kit that would give them vertical takeoff and landing capability. No such kit has been fielded to date.

The Marines had already begun exploring more robust drone capabilities, including incorporating contractor-owned and operated MQ-9s into operations in Afghanistan, followed by the service starting to acquire its own small Reaper fleet. There was also an effort to develop a similarly-sized, but far more capable drone under the Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System Expeditionary program, or MUX, an effort that has since stalled out. 

However, the MQ-9 requires more infrastructure than the RQ-21, as did the notional MUX designs. MartinUAV's V-Bat drone, which the Marines been testing and evaluating since at least 2017, would seem to be a more direct contender, both in size and capabilities, for a platform to take the place of the Blackjacks. The V-Bat is an unusual-looking design that lands and takes off vertically and sits upright on its tail while on the ground. 

This allows it to operate from extremely confined areas—MartinUAV has demonstrated the ability of the drone to operate from the bed of a pickup truck, for instance—without the need for special launch and recovery equipment. 

It also boasts the same maximum range as the RQ-21 and has a modular payload bay that can accommodate various sensors and other systems, such as electronic warfare packages and communications relays, in addition to its nose-mounted turret with electro-optical and infrared video cameras. It's very possible that the V-Bat could leverage work the Marines have already done on new sensor payloads for the RQ-21s.

It's also worth noting that contractor-owned and operated V-Bats have already supported U.S. Navy counter-drug operations since at least 2016 and, in 2019, the U.S. Army picked it as one of two types to test as a possible replacement for its RQ-7s, too. V-Bat is still in the running against three other designs to supplant the Army's Shadows as part of the current Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (FTUAS) program. It seems plausible, if not probable that the Marines are exploring multiple options for an RQ-21 replacement, as well.

Whatever shape the Marine Corps' unmanned aircraft fleets take on in the near future, the RQ-21's career with the service looks set to be relatively short in the end.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com