Marines Fly Big, New Surveillance Drone in Australia as They Test Unmanned Recon Missions

U.S. Marines with Air Combat Element, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin recover the RQ-21A Blackjack following spoke operations in Australia.
U.S. Marines with Air Combat Element, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin recover the RQ-21A Blackjack following spoke operations in Bradshaw Field Training Area, Northern Territory, Australia, Aug. 9, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Harrison Rakhshani)

The Marine Corps is using its smaller-than-normal Australia rotation to test how it might dispatch tiny teams armed with unmanned tools to collect intel during future operations.

A Marine RQ-21A Blackjack surveillance drone made its first flight Down Under this month. The Marines are deployed to Australia's Northern Territory as part of Marine Rotational Force-Darwin.

It marked the first time the Hawaii-based Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3 has deployed with the new Blackjack drone.

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During the exercise, the Marines were timed as they packed into two Humvees to reach a launch point. First Lt. Trevor Ellingson, an unmanned aircraft system officer, described the exercise in a Marine Corps news release about the flight.

"We made our detachment as small as possible to get the mission accomplished," Ellingson said. "Out here, we're training to be fast, agile -- to be able to set up, get a bird in the sky as fast as we can, and tear down quickly."

The drone was in the air within 70 minutes, 1st Lt. Matthew Tatarka-Brown, another unmanned aircraft system officer, said in the news release, adding that they're always aiming to be quicker.

By setting up a remote "spoke site," Marines can launch and operate the Blackjack from the back of a Humvee. The site also extends the aircraft's range by another 150 nautical miles from its hub, Tatarka-Brown said.

Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger's planning guidance, released to the force last summer, said the Corps will use unmanned systems to "reduce exposure of our most expensive platforms and reduce exposure of Marines wherever possible."

The Blackjack has a line-of-sight range of 55 nautical miles, according to Boeing.

It's a valuable source of accurate, real-time intel to the U.S. and its allies, the Marine news release states.

"We're able to be that eye in the sky for long periods of time, providing battlefield situational awareness, pattern of life, whatever our joint force commander is looking for," Ellingson said.

Marine Rotational Force-Darwin will be in Australia until October. The normally six-month rotation was delayed by two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. The size of the rotation was cut back to about 1,000 Marines.

The Marine Corps for the first time last year deployed 2,500 people Down Under as part of a years-long buildup of forces there. The rotations began in 2012 to counter China's rising influence in the region.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: There Are Now 2,500 US Marines in Australia After Years of Buildup

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