QUANTICO MARINE BASE, Va. -- The Marine Corps is working on a contract with Lockheed Martin to extend the deployment of the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter to Afghanistan through 2014, industry officials said.
Marine Corps officials sent K-MAX to Afghanistan in November 2011 more or less as an experiment. Almost two years later, the K-MAX is still flying missions in Afghanistan.
Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace teamed up to develop K-MAX. The unmanned cargo aircraft can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo. In one day, the aircraft flew 30,000 pounds of cargo in the course of six missions.
Two K-MAX helicopters had been flying in Afghanistan, but a one crashed in June. The helicopter was not destroyed, but it is still waiting to be shipped back for repairs. The other K-MAX continues to fly missions, Terry Fogarty, a Kaman official, said here at the Modern Day Marine Exposition.
Marine officials have not released results of the investigation into the crash. However, Fogarty said the crash was not caused by mechanical problems.
The crash occurred as Marine units operating the K-MAX have introduced new technologies and expanded the operational envelope of the helicopter.
Marines and defense contractors operating the K-MAX have started loading and unloading the unmanned helicopter while the cargo UAS remains in a hover, Fogarty said in June at the Paris Air Show. This allows the Marines to fly more missions, but it also shows the confidence the Marines have in the aircraft.
Lockheed and Kaman have also introduced a beacon to the unmanned helicopter. When turned on, the K-MAX will fly directly to within three meters of the beacon, which is small enough for a Marine to carry on his pack. This could set up new possibilities for units to be resupplied on the move.
Questions remain whether the Marine Corps will have the funds to turn the K-MAX into a program of record and build more of these helicopters. Congress has shown their support for the program and even urged the Army to explore developing a similar unmanned cargo helicopter program.
In May, the House Armed Services Committee urged the Army to boost its efforts toward adding a cargo UAS program. Lawmakers want the Army to estimate the cost to buy, operate and sustain a cargo UAS program similar to K-MAX. The panel also wants details on how a cargo UAS program would fit into the Army’s larger logistical structure.
The Marine Corps is further along in its efforts to add the K-MAX to its permanent fleet. Navy and Marine Corps officials have discussed with Lockheed and Kaman how many K-MAX helicopters would be enough for a baseline start. The companies and services have discussed the purchase of 16 helicopters to start the program, said Dan Spoor, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, in June.
With plenty of budget certainty surrounding the Defense Department, even with Congress' support, it remains a challenge to establish a new program. Analysts and military leaders will watch closely to see if the Marine Corps can break down the barriers and build more K-MAX helicopters after their relatively clean track record in combat.