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Marines Prepare to Do 'Impossible' With Ship-Launched Combat Drone

SALON DU BOURGET, France -- The Marine Corps wants a jumbo-sized drone that can take off and land on amphibious ships, and the list of requirements for the aircraft is daunting.

It needs to escort the MV-22 Osprey and have comparable flight range, carry the same weapons as an F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, and execute missions ranging from electronic warfare, command and control, airborne early warning, and airstrikes -- just for starters.

Too much to ask?

No way, said Lt. Gen. Jon "Dog" Davis, deputy commandant of Marine Corps Aviation. Davis, who is set to retire next month, sat down with this week at the Paris Air Show.

While the planned mega-drone, which the Corps is calling MUX, is the first of its kind for the service, Davis said officials are not backing off their long list of requirements. And it won't be the first time, he added that a new Marine Corps aircraft has stretched the boundaries of imagination.

"V-22, impossible? Nope. F-35B, impossible? Nope. Very possible, very doable, very good," he said. "Bottom line, the engineering -- this is not a pie in the sky. This is very doable."

The Corps maintains that the MUX, which will be a Group 5 drone, the largest class of military unmanned aerial systems, needs to be able to take off and land vertically from a ship. Davis said it will be able to fight and attack, as well as act as a V-22 escort aircraft or electronic warfare asset.

"So we've asked for an open architecture airplane, a truck that we can put those kind of systems on there that we can integrate, that has an autonomous take-off/land transit capability," he said. "Then the weapons operations, sensor operations would be done by a human being."

While the Corps has run into challenges before in search of first-of-its-kind technologies -- think of the years the service spent pursuing a high-speed amphibious fighting vehicle before having to settle for a phased approach as technology matured -- Davis said the companies lining up to compete for the MUX program proved it is achievable today.

Right now, he said, there are four in the running: Boeing, which has a tail-launched offering; Northrop Grumman, with another tail-sitting aircraft it calls the Tern; Bell Helicopter, with a tiltrotor drone, the V-247 Vigilant; and Karem Aircraft, which also has a tiltrotor design on offer.

Davis said he's expecting the Marines' do-it-all fighting drone to be fielded by 2026, but the first demonstration flights will come later this year. Northrop Grumman is planning to fly its Tern in the fourth quarter of 2017, and Bell will fly its V-280 Valor, a revolutionary new tiltrotor aircraft that Davis said is a bigger variant of what the Corps wants in MUX.

"We'll see the impossible happen in fourth quarter 2017. How about that?" he said.

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