Marines have ditched their plan to field a very large drone on amphibious ships, instead breaking the MUX program into a family of systems that will include a very large land-based unmanned aerial vehicle and a medium-sized one for shipboard operations.
MUX was to be a key aviation component to ensure persistent, responsive, lethal, and adaptive full-spectrum operations by the MAGTF.
MUX program was planning to develop a network-enabled, digitally interoperable platform to complement the capabilities of MV-22B, F-35B/C, and the FVL platform.
As a multi-sensor, shipboard capable, expeditionary platform, MUX would have filled capability gaps in early warning, ISR, electronic warfare, communications relay, offensive air support, and possibly others such as self-escort and cargo.
The MUX program planned to develop a state-of-the-art unmanned system to complement the reach of the MAGTF with a digitally interoperable network node, capable of fires and tactical logistics.
The Group 5 MUX was to provide the MAGTF commander with robust, organic, all-weather, sea-based capabilities, to include an expeditionary multi-mission UAS capability with persistence at extensive operational radius (>350 nautical miles), as well as an aerial tactical distribution capability for the logistics combat element with improved C4 and situational awareness.
MUX’s range and persistence was going to complement the long-range capabilities of the F-35B/C, CH-53K, MV-22, and future vertical lift (FVL). MUX would have provided persistent battlespace awareness, electronic warfare, C4, logistics, and fires to all elements of the MAGTF.
The Marine Corps is researching and developing ULS-A. This medium-sized UAS will provide organic, responsive tactical logistics delivery tools to the logistics combat and ground combat elements. This capability will transform tactical logistics, enabling more assured logistics support with greater tempo in distributed operations.
The ULS-A is the airborne component to future distributed logistics concepts in development by HQMC Installations and Logistics
These emerging ULS-A capabilities will be highly automated and leverage autonomy developed as part of the Office of Naval Research’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility (AACUS) project.
The AACUS project enables an aerial platform to receive minimal guidance and navigate to a destination, then choose the optimal landing path to the requested landing site.
The emerging concept of unmanned logistics calls for a range of systems sized to support both squad-level and platoon-sized elements.
The air delivery specialist community is envisioned to provide oversight, training, and management of these emerging tools. Early prototype systems will be utilized for experimentation during ITX 3-18 in order to more fully refine the concept.
Marines have gained valuable lessons learned for the medium-sized UAS community. Those lessons are being incorporated by the VMU-1 Watchdogs as they complete their transition to the RQ-21A and begin support to MARFORPAC MEUs.
Simultaneously, the VMU-3 Phantoms continue to support contingency operations with the RQ-7B and will transition to the RQ-21A within the next year. The Reserve Marines of VMU-4 will also transition from the RQ-7B to the RQ-21A over this year, fulfilling a complete transition of the VMU squadrons to the shipboard capability and modular payload architecture the RQ-21A brings to the fight.
That modular payload capability is one of the significant improvements of the RQ-21A over the RQ-7B. Multiple payloads are being researched, developed, and fielded to leverage this capability to configure mission packages which best support the MAGTF.
These payloads will enhance battlefield awareness of the MAGTF with technologies such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and ground moving target indicator (GMTI) sensors, which can detect objects through clouds and vegetation.
Research is also ongoing in the study of hyperspectral payloads to detect explosives, as well as payloads in development to monitor and operate in a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The standard capabilities of the RQ-21A are also being enhanced with improved EO and IR sensors and a laser designator.
Industry research continues to progress toward a BLOS capability for the RQ-21A, which could allow the MAGTF to extend these sensing capabilities to far greater ranges.
Advanced sensors and aircraft are a significant benefit to the MAGTF, but the ability to process and share the data generated by these sensors is critical to realizing the full capabilities of these systems.
The Tactical ISR Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination System (TIPS) Block 3 is the key enabler in the RQ-21A system which allows the MAGTF to leverage this data.
TIPS Block 3 allows the fusion of data collected by the RQ-21A with data from off-board sensors. This digitally interoperable system enables the data collected by RQ-21A to be integrated into networks of higher classification, while also integrating with Link-16, full motion video, Simplified Electronic Warfare System Interface, and other software applications.
TIPS Block 3 will act as a hub for the collection, cataloguing, and storage of full motion video, multi-intelligence sensor data, and target information.
This system determines optimal means to disseminate intelligence products. Future iterations of TIPS will use advanced algorithms to analyze data as it is collected and autonomously cue operators to pre-defined areas of interest.
As the RQ-21A Blackjack continues to pass program milestones and advance toward maturity, a process of continuous reliability improvements through lessons learned, training, and engineering is improving the availability of these capabilities to the MAGTF.
Marines are the key component of any weapons system, and the initial operational capability (IOC) of the RQ-21A Fleet Replacement Detachment aboard MCAS Cherry Point will ensure that the maintenance and operations personnel of the VMUs are trained to employ their weapons system for maximum advantage to the MAGTF.