The Marine Corps’ first unmanned cargo helicopter is headed to Afghanistan, where it will resupply front-line troops and keep convoys off the road.
The decision to field two Lockheed Martin K-MAX helicopters for battlefield trials follows successful testing at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., in August, said Eric Pratson, the integrated project team lead for unmanned helicopters at Naval Air Systems Command, out of Patuxent River, Md. They will arrive in theater in November.
K-MAX, which employs a unique counter-rotating, dual-rotor design that eliminates the need for a tail rotor, is capable of lifting 6,000 pounds, or nearly its own weight. Originally designed as a manned civilian craft, K-MAX has been modified by Lockheed to operate with or without a pilot onboard.
Fielding of an unmanned helicopter was fast-tracked after Commandant Gen. Jim Amos stressed the need to reduce the number of convoys in Afghanistan. With improvised explosive devices a leading cause of casualties, convoys to transport everything from water to ammunition are prime insurgent targets.
K-MAX’s first deployment, which will span six months, comes about two years after the first developmental contract was awarded.
Citing operational-security concerns, NAVAIR officials declined to specify where the helicopter will deploy. But at least one of them likely will work with Marine units in Helmand province.
The helicopter was required to lift at least 6,000 pounds per day for five days, and it surpassed that goal, Pratson said.
“The net result was 33,400 pounds over those five days,” he said.
Pratson has said a single K-MAX helicopter could reduce reliance on convoys to resupply forward operating bases in Afghanistan by 6 percent. At that volume, a fleet of 16 to 20 aircraft theoretically could handle 100 percent of the resupply mission in Afghanistan, although that isn’t the plan for now.
During mock missions, the helicopter lifted loads from a resupply base and dropped them at mock FOBs. The missions were designed to mimic those the helicopter would fly in Afghanistan.
Civilian contractors with Lockheed piloted the craft from the ground. A detachment from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 was giving the orders. Marines taking part in the tests included three officers and five enlisted personnel, Pratson said. The officers planned and advised the execution of missions while enlisted Marines at the mock forward operating bases served as forward controllers to call in final approval for the cargo drops. The helicopters will operate under the same model downrange with civilians at the stick. If K-MAX clears testing and becomes a standard Marine Corps aircraft, it eventually will be flown by Marines.
After testing in Yuma, a deployment readiness review was conducted in September. The results were put before Rear Adm. Bill Shannon, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, and Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas, the assistant deputy commandant for aviation, who approved the aircraft for deployment.
The A160T Hummingbird by Boeing, K-MAX’s competition, could eventually undergo field testing and a possible deployment, but its development hit snags, Pratson said, which caused it to fall behind schedule.