As a new rotation of Marines begins advisory work in the Taliban hotbed of Helmand province, Afghanistan, service leaders are working to get them better dedicated eyes in the sky to locate and eliminate enemy fighters.
Naval Air Systems Command is moving forward with plans to lease an MQ-9 Reaper drone from General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems for up to 12 months to support the Corps' Task Force Southwest in Helmand, according to a presolicitation notice issued earlier in January.
Such an asset would allow the Marines to conduct more persistent overwatch within Helmand without having to coordinate with other services, such as the Air Force, to secure the required platform.
In a statement provided to Military.com, Task Force Southwest Commanding Officer Brig. Gen. Benjamin Watson confirmed the unit needs and is pursuing the capability.
"Task Force Southwest currently uses Group 5 [Unmanned Aerial Systems] extensively when they are provided from available assets in theater," Watson said, using the military's formal term for the largest category of drone. "An organic Group 5 UAS capability will give us more capacity to assist our Afghan partners as they conduct continuous offensive operations against the enemy in Helmand province."
The Drive first reported on the contract solicitation earlier this month.
During a brief visit to Task Force Southwest in December, Military.com spent time inside the operations center the unit uses to monitor potential hostile actors and coordinate strikes. Much of the footage displayed on nearly a dozen screens came from smaller ScanEagle drones, which weigh less than 50 pounds and are used in commercial and military settings.
One screen displayed footage from a ScanEagle that was owned and operated by local Afghan National Army forces, who wage the brunt of the ground fight against the Taliban.
Over the course of several hours during that visit, Task Force Southwest officials on several occasions identified a target using the drone and then coordinated with local Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons to conduct a precision strike. Officials say they also coordinate strikes with Afghan A-29 Super Tucanos when possible.
While the Marines' mission in Afghanistan centers on advising, providing security for Afghan troops to operate has proved a prerequisite.
"This is what we do on a daily basis, is provide overwatch," Capt. Brian Hubert, battle captain for Task Force Southwest, told Military.com in December. "And then also, there's a little bit of advising, because we will call them and say, 'Hey, think about doing this, or we see you doing this, that looks good, you should go here.' We're trying to get them to the point where eventually, with their Afghan Air Force, they can do all themselves."
Unlike ScanEagle, the MQ-9 reaper can carry and deploy ordnance, meaning it could be used to conduct strikes as well as to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It's not clear, however, that it would be used in a capacity beyond ISR.
According to the solicitation, the drone sought would be contractor operated and capable of operating over the area of operations 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with a surge capacity of a full 24-hour day. Only an MQ-9 would be able to integrate seamlessly with ongoing operations and existing communications systems and have the Defense Department clearances to operate downrange.
The Marine Corps wants the drone in-country by March, according to the document.
Watson, the task force commander, said it is especially important for the unit to control a dedicated Group 5 drone now, as the task force expands its efforts, embedding advisers down at lower unit levels, including brigades and kandaks, or battalions.
"Group 5 UAS is another tool we can use very effectively in assisting our [Afghan National Defense Security Force] partners to maintain the initiative and pressure the enemy to surrender, reconcile, or die," he said.
The effort may also help Marines gain crucial experience in the operation of a major drone platform before they receive one of their own.
The Corps is currently pursuing MUX, a ship-launched Group 4 or 5 UAS concept that can fly to 30,000 feet, escort manned MV-22 Ospreys, and conduct surveillance at sea with a range of 600 nautical miles.
According to Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the former head of Marine Corps aviation, the service would like to see such a platform achieve initial operational capability by the mid-2020s.