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Marine Special Operators Fly New Surveillance Drone in Iraq

Marines load an RQ-21A Blackjack drone onto a launcher for its first shipboard operational flight July 5, on board the USS San Antonio (LPD 17), an amphibious transport dock ship. (US Marine Corps photo)
Marines load an RQ-21A Blackjack drone onto a launcher for its first shipboard operational flight July 5, on board the USS San Antonio (LPD 17), an amphibious transport dock ship. (US Marine Corps photo)

Earlier this summer, at least one team of Raiders from Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command deployed to Iraq with a new drone that will give them a broader picture of what's happening on the battlefield.

The RQ-21A Blackjack, which reached initial operational capability for the Marine Corps in January, is deployed with MARSOC as part of a wide-ranging experimental effort to get new equipment and technology into the hands of Marines more rapidly.

Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said the drone's deployment was one element of a strategy to incorporate MARSOC into these broader Marine Corps efforts.

"We can benefit from what [U.S. Special Operations Command] does, from what we're doing, bring that back and go, 'OK, this is what we need to do with equipping the RQ-21,' or concepts of employment that they will use in real-world operations, and not just training," Walsh told Military.com in a September interview. "We'll be able to get them out there with their [Marine Special Operations Teams] in Iraq, operating with Iraqis as part of their special ops forces."

The Blackjack, made by Boeing subsidiary Insitu, weighs about 80 pounds unloaded and has a range of about 50 nautical miles, with the ability to fly for 16 hours at a stretch. Uniquely, the Blackjack uses a tail hook recovery system that makes it capable of operating from a ship -- a key capability for the Marine Corps.

A spokesman for MARSOC, Maj. Nicholas Mannweiler, could not speak about how the drone was being used in Iraq or how many systems were deployed, but said the command planned to assess its usefulness and share findings after the operators returned home.

"At the end of every deployment, there is a pretty comprehensive after-action and lessons learned series," he said.

The Blackjack is already testing its operational sea legs elsewhere: The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed to waters around Europe and the Middle East in late June with one of the systems, which includes five aerial vehicles.

The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, the lead ship of the amphibious ready group carrying the MEU, has been a launching platform for airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Libya since early August.

WIth fleet Marines and MARSOC both employing the drone, Walsh said the Corps had the opportunity to test various payloads, including some developed for SOCOM, to determine the best fit for the platform and the mission.

While officials are saying little publicly about the payloads that MARSOC may use with its Blackjacks, Walsh said the MEU was employing a package that could view signals on the electromagnetic spectrum, both to seek out the enemy and to assess friendly visibility.

"If you're not watching your signature, you're going to quickly be getting precision fires coming in against you with higher tech, higher-end capabilities, that a peer or near-peer competitor would have," he said.

This is not the first operational outing for the Blackjack, which deployed with Marines on a limited evaluation basis to Afghanistan in 2014. The Marines' requirement for the drone is relatively small, with some 100 systems planned for purchase by the end of this fiscal year. But using MARSOC as a test force, Walsh said, allows the Corps to leverage the resources and insights of SOCOM for the benefit of Marines.

"We're working with them, partnering with MARSOC. Give them the platform, RQ-21, now they can put their own stuff on there," he said. "We can learn from that, we can buy off their contract, we can learn from it, develop our own. There's a lot of opportunities here from working with SOCOM in that area."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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