Congress has ordered the Army to reconsider its initial refusal to stand up a cargo drone program despite the success the Marine Corps has had flying Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter in Afghanistan.
The House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee commended the Marine Corps for the performance of the K-MAX cargo helicopters that have flown missions in Afghanistan since November 2011.
The K-MAX has transported a range of supplies from mine-roller equipment to generators to ammunition to medical supplies and even mail, said Navy Capt. Patrick Smith, program manager for the Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air Systems. The record haul for the K-MAX was 30,000 pounds over six mission for one day, officials have said.
Despite the perceived success of the program and the similar need facing the Army, Army leaders have consistently said they have no plans to start their own cargo UAS program and have only observed the Marine Corps’ program from afar. Subcommittee members can’t understand why.
“The committee is concerned that the Army, despite having very similar logistical challenges, does not have a cargo UAS program. Therefore, the committee directs the Secretary of the Army to submit a report to the congressional defense committees, by February 15, 2014, assessing the potential utility of an Army cargo UAS,” the subcommittee wrote into their mark of the 2014 defense budget.
Lawmakers want the Army to estimate the cost to buy, operate and sustain a cargo UAS program similar to Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX. The subcommittee also wants details on how a cargo UAS program would fit into the Army’s larger logistical structure.
Marine Corps leaders have said the unmanned K-MAX has allowed ground commanders to order more supply missions to distant combat outposts in Afghanistan when poor weather or fire fighters would have restricted manned helicopter missions.
The Corps initially sent the K-MAX to Afghanistan as a test program. However, in April, Corps leaders indefinitely extended its stay in the combat zone.
After the K-MAX’s first deployment to Afghanistan, Naval and Marine Corps aviation leaders heaped praise upon the program. NAVAIR Commander Vice Adm. David Architzel highlighted how the K-MAX kept other convoys off the road and away from improvised explosive devices.
“This is a great example of integration while fulfilling the ‘urgent needs’ of the warfighter,” Architzel said at a post-deployment debrief July 10, 2012. “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.”