The Marine Corps is testing a new 135-pound, catapult-launched drone that can take off from an amphibious assault ship and climb to 15,000 feet with multi-intelligence sensors mounted onboard, service officials said.
The RQ-21A, or “Black Jack” UAS, can fly for up to 16 hours at ranges out to 100 miles. It is slated to reach initial operating capability by 2014, said Maj. Wayne Phelps, requirements officer, headquarters Marine Corps, aviation branch.
The Marine Corps plans to buy 160 RQ-21A air vehicles, making up a buy of 32 systems each with 5 air vehicles per system, Phelps said.
Unlike its smaller counterpart, the catapult-launched Scan Eagle UAS which does not have simultaneous multi-int sensor capability, the RQ-21A can use EO/IR in conjunction with other technologies such as communications-relay, Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR and Ground Moving Target Indicator, or GMTI, among others.
“It has a configurable payload that allows you to integrate new and unique payloads that are specific to the mission in addition to an EO/IR camera. You can have multi-mission ability. This allows you to do some type of unique cross-cueing types of mission,” Phelps said.
Also, unlike the Scan-Eagle, which is operated by contractors, the RQ-21A will be organic to the Corps, meaning it will be owned and operated by Marines. Both the Scan Eagle and RQ-21A are made by Insitu.
The RQ-21A is engineered to catapult launch from a LPD San Antonio-class amphibious assault ship which often transport Marine Expeditionary Units. The “Black Jack” system is now going through land and ship-based operational test in preparation for its first deployment next year with the 24th MEU, Phelps said.
In fact some of the testing of the RQ-21A at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., has demonstrated a manned-unmanned airborne teaming capability. Marines flying in the back of an MV-22 Osprey helicopter were able to control the RQ-21A using a tablet-type computer screen, Phelps explained.
“They were able to slew the camera to see different points and control the sensor,” he said.
SAR technology provides a rendering or image of the terrain below using electromagnetic signals, allowing operators to see through bad weather. GMTI provides indication of and location details for ground movements on the terrain below such as a convoy or moving vehicle. The RQ-21A also has a change detection technology and a sensor capability called Wide Area Motion Imagery providing operators with a wide view over an area.
Since the RQ-21A’s standard EO/IR view of the terrain below could be analogous to a “soda-straw” view, this Wide Area Motion Imagery could, by contrast, be helpful in a possible humanitarian disaster situation, Phelps explained.
The communications relay capability is significant in that it allows the RQ-21A UAS to function like a “node” in broader network and, for instance, connect the ship to shore, Phelps explained.
The RQ-21A can not only be catapult launched from the ship, but also transported to shore on an amphibious vehicle called a Landing Craft Air Cushion, or LCAC, Phelps said. He also indicated that the RQ-21A could travel on a HMMWV or sling-load beneath a CH-53 helicopter. The RQ-21A also operates off of a heavy-fuel engine, meaning it can use the same fuel as a vehicle such as a HMMWV, Phelps said.
The Marine Corps RQ-21A acquisition is an integral part of a broader strategy to expand the corps UAS capabilities in light of the Pentagon’s shift or “rebalance” to the Pacific.
The Black Jack will take its place amidst a growing collection of UAS in the Corps’ inventory. The Marines currently have 52 RQ-7 Shadow UAS, 439 small, hand-held Raven UAS and a handful of Puma and Wasp systems, Phelps said.
The Corps is also in the very early stages of sketching requirements and desired technologies for a new Marine Corps UAS which, among other things, is capable of electronic warfare.
The as of yet unnamed platform is being designed to have greater endurance, greater range and greater power capabilities, Phelps explained.
“We’re still defining what the requirements are for the Marine Corps for this. We’ve been experimenting through tactical demonstrations with our weapons and tactics instructor course on some of the capabilities we think need to be resident at the tactical edge of unmanned aircraft systems,” he said.