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K-MAX cargo UAS exceeds expectations in Afghanistan test

by Mike Hoffman on July 26, 2012

Marine Corps and Navy aviation leaders have fallen over themselves praising Lockheed Martin’s cargo resupply unmanned aerial vehicle (CRUAS) in its first test deployment to Afghanistan that ended this summer.

Naval Air Systems Command shipped two of Lockheed’s Kaman K-MAX helicopters to southern Afghanistan in December 2011. It deployed with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 1 from December to May 2012 with a team of Lockheed contractors to help fly and maintain the unmanned helicopter. The K-MAX remains in Afghanistan where VMU-2 is now operating it with Lockheed’s help.

NAVAIR Commander Vice Adm. David Architzel had plenty of good things to say about the helicopter upon its return from theater.

“This is a great example of integration while fulfilling the ‘urgent needs’ of the warfighter,” Architzel said at a post-deployment debrief July 10. “Every time you can eliminate even a portion of a convoy, you eliminate the possibility of someone losing their life from an [improvised explosive device] on the roads.”

The K-MAX flew 485 sorties and a total of 525 flight hours over its six month deployment with VMU-1. Marines raved about the unmanned helicopter’s reliability. K-MAX was fully mission capable 90 percent of the time with weather and maintenance issues accounting for the other 10 percent, said Maj. Kyle O’Connor, officer in charge, VMU-1 Cargo Detachment.

The unmanned helicopter only required two hours of maintenance per flight hour. O’Connor also said the Marines flew the K-MAX in weather they wouldn’t typically risk with a manned aircraft.

“Since it was an unmanned system, we were able to conduct flights during inclement weather when other helicopters couldn’t fly,” he said. “We flew during the night, in the rain, dust and some wind.”

VMU-1 flew about six K-MAX sorties per night with missions lasting about one hour each.  Capt. Caleb Joiner, CRUAS mission commander, said the Marines could have flown more. He said the Marines wanted to keep the missions simple for future use when Marines not specifically trained to fly UAVs could possibly fly it. O’Connor agreed.

“The challenge was that we had a simplified system with highly trained operators who could have handled a lot more control of the UAS,” O’Connor said. “However, we made a conscious decision to stick with the simplified system because we wanted to validate the concept as written.”

So, the questions remains what happens next. The K-MAX remains in Afghanistan as Marine and Navy officials consider a permanent buy back in the U.S.

“The CRUAS IPT and the Marine Corps will review and analyze the after-action reports, feedback, data and theses from the Naval Post Graduate School as well as quantify the costs before making any recommendations,” said Capt. Patrick Smith, Navy and Marine Corps Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air Systems program manager.

Questions also surround what the Army will do as they have also expressed interested in a CRUAS.

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