Home » Air » Marines Work to Extend K-MAX in Afghanistan Through 2014

Marines Work to Extend K-MAX in Afghanistan Through 2014

by Mike Hoffman on September 25, 2013

Marines get 'hot hookup,' pioneer new techniqueQUANTICO MARINE BASE, Va. – The Marine Corps is working on a contract with Lockheed Martin to extend the deployment of the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter to Afghanistan through 2014, industry officials said.

Marine Corps officials sent K-MAX to Afghanistan in November 2011 more or less as an experiment. Almost two years later, the K-MAX is still flying missions in Afghanistan.

Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace teamed up to develop K-MAX. The unmanned cargo aircraft can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo. In one day, the aircraft flew 30,000 pounds of cargo in the course of six missions.

Two K-MAX helicopters had been flying in Afghanistan, but a one crashed in June. The helicopter was not destroyed, but it is still waiting to be shipped back for repairs. The other K-MAX continues to fly missions, Terry Fogarty, a Kaman official, said here at the Modern Day Marine Exposition.

Marine officials have not released results of the investigation into the crash. However, Fogarty said the crash was not caused by mechanical problems.

The crash occurred as Marine units operating the K-MAX have introduced new technologies and expanded the operational envelope of the helicopter.

Marines and defense contractors operating the K-MAX have started loading and unloading the unmanned helicopter while the cargo UAS remains in a hover, Fogarty said in June at the Paris Air Show. This allows the Marines to fly more missions, but it also shows the confidence the Marines have in the aircraft.

Lockheed and Kaman have also introduced a beacon to the unmanned helicopter. When turned on, the K-MAX will fly directly to within three meters of the beacon, which is small enough for a Marine to carry on his pack. This could set up new possibilities for units to be resupplied on the move.

Questions remain whether the Marine Corps will have the funds to turn the K-MAX into a program of record and build more of these helicopters. Congress has shown their support for the program and even urged the Army to explore developing a similar unmanned cargo helicopter program.

In May, the House Armed Services Committee urged the Army to boost its efforts toward adding a cargo UAS program. Lawmakers want the Army to estimate the cost to buy, operate and sustain a cargo UAS program similar to K-MAX. The panel also wants details on how a cargo UAS program would fit into the Army’s larger logistical structure.

The Marine Corps is further along in its efforts to add the K-MAX to its permanent fleet. Navy and Marine Corps officials have discussed with Lockheed and Kaman how many K-MAX helicopters would be enough for a baseline start. The companies and services have discussed the purchase of 16 helicopters to start the program, said Dan Spoor, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, in June.

With plenty of budget certainty surrounding the Defense Department, even with Congress’ support, it remains a challenge to establish a new program. Analysts and military leaders will watch closely to see if the Marine Corps can break down the barriers and build more K-MAX helicopters after their relatively clean track record in combat.


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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

PolicyWonk September 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Congress has shown their support for the program and even urged the Army to explore developing a similar unmanned cargo helicopter program.
Develop a *similar* one? Really? Is the army resupply mission really *that* different from the USMC? Enough to spend (waste?) billions of dollars of taxpayer money?


Bernard September 25, 2013 at 6:32 pm
Christopher Bloom September 25, 2013 at 7:50 pm

I think the Army is against using this from what I have heard.


LLORDL September 27, 2013 at 11:11 am



PolicyWonk September 28, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Perhaps simply because it makes too much sense to have a jointly used platform that suits the exact same purpose.

It just makes too much sense ;-P

majr0d September 25, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Maybe the K-MAX isn't suitable for use beyond 1600 acre secure facilities Camp Leatherneck provides?

Are Marines independently operating the K-MAX or are civilian contractors still doing the heavy lifting, planning and maintaining even after two years?

Not much has been said on the day to day operational requirements of the K-MAX.


notmyname September 25, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Perhaps the Army one needs to be built in a different congressional district.


jsallison September 25, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Paint it green and call it good.


majr0d September 25, 2013 at 7:53 pm

There have been several glowing articles here on the K-MAX. I find the lack of discussion of specifics very telling.

What kind of infrastructure does it take to operate the K-MAX? Camp Leatherneck is not an austere COP or even a limited FOB. Ship to shore ops aren't exactly austere either if you have all the time in the world to outfit a ship with the equipment required to operate the K-MAX.

Am I the only person that thinks it's very interesting that this potentially revolutionary resupply capability hasn't been pushed out to operate from a more austere base? How much of the operation of the K-MAX is being done by the Marines independently after two years? Why don't we know why the other K-MAX crashed two months ago?

I'm not surprised Congress is pushing the Army to look at the K-MAX without asking these questions. They tend to put the cart before the horse and buy snake oil by the gallon.


JCross September 26, 2013 at 5:53 am

I think it's mostly budgetary, they are used often in helilogging and aerial firefighting, operating from little more than dirt patches. The blades even have wooden cores, as they are easier to work on, austere capability is very important with the K-MAX. I have got reports of at least one delivery to a combat outpost. According to what I could dig up on the crash, the K-MAX went down while testing out new equipment and pushing the envelope. So in all, I'm pretty sure the only thing blocking more use is the lack of funding for it.


majr0d September 26, 2013 at 1:41 pm

What are the requirements to operate it remotely?

The airframe itself isn't the issue (though helicopter repair personnel at a really austere locations aren't common).

There's a reason Army predators are operated from pretty developed bases.


Curt September 26, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Well, since the supplies come from Camp leatherneck would not it make sense to operate the KMAX from there? It delivers cargo to the more austere bases. As for your other questions, just because you don't know the answers doesn't mean the services don't know the answer.


majr0d September 27, 2013 at 12:12 am

Curt – No. Other bases supply forward units also and they don't have the room for large helicopters like Camp Leatherneck does. Is the plan to always operate from one large base the enemy allows us to operate from? Are we not going to conduct offensive operations in the future where they K-MAX will have to operate from bases further forward, austere and mobile?

My point is that fielding the system might be a tad early since we don't know the answers to the questions I posed. How mobile is the system? What kind of infrastructure does it need? People seem to forget drones have a lot of overhead.

I'm sure the Marines have FOBs that aren't as large as Camp Leatherneck. Why isn't the K-Max operating from those bases to supply local patrols? This would support offensive operations in a future war when we don't have the luxury of a large base or we move away from the beach head. The Marines are supposed to be expeditionary right? How quickly can the K-MAX transition to being forward deployed or is it limited to HUGE bases?

Everyone's amazed by the K-MAX and it's a cool piece of kit but if you need a set piece base to operate from it really limits its versatility. Then consider that established bases can do things like provide security and deploy larger aircraft. Finally, the Marines have a space problem aboard ship. It's not a real "deal" to have robot helicopters that can only operate from a ship and sacrifice other aircraft that can execute multiple missions and operate away from the ship.


Curt September 27, 2013 at 1:17 pm

It is a demonstration. They are talking about extending the demonstration. They can learn everything they need to where they are as well as experiment with new modes, etc. While the USMC has had discussions with how many platforms would be required, there is no current requirement.
The neat thing about the KMAX is that with it's blades folded,(yes I know the current blades don't fold which I am sure is one of the reasons the USMC is asking how many it will take to make it worthwhile to make changes and reopen production lines) it has a deck multiple of something like .2, so it really doesn't take up any valuable real estate on a LHD. You can park 5 or 6 in the spot of a V-22.
Having said that, MSC tested the manned KMAX for VERTREP. And while it worked great in that role, vastly better than a MH-60, they passed on it because it didn't carry people or mail or other stuff that can't be slung. The UNREP ships only have a couple of aircraft, so all of them need to carry pax, a MEU has a plethora of other platforms for those missions, so it makes more sense. And of course, the KMAX is not exactly fast, so that is also a concern. So they are testing it to figure out what works before they decide to invest. Seems prudent to me.


majr0d September 27, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I'm all for testing. I'm against blindly buying all the hype. The questions I'm asking are quite valid and remain unanswered.

The manned KMAX was "vastly superior" to the Blackhawk? How? The Blackhawk can sling almost twice the load, has twice the range, 150% the speed and can seat 12 troops.

A troop carrying automated K-MAX? Uh, you ride it. While you are sitting in it consider how does a remote operator respond to enemy fire on the way to the LZ or on it? Better yet, in the case of trouble how does ONE automated pilot who's flying while looking through a straw at best find a spot to land and autorotate into it. A Blackhawk has four humans working that task in an emergency.

Finally 5-6 KMAX's for one V22 isn't a deal. The KMAX doesn't carry troops eliminating all missions involving moving troops. The V22 carries over three times the load at over three times the speed at three times the range of the KMAX. It can do what 5-6 KMAXs can do in less time, carry troops, take evasive action autonomously AND operate from ANY base without all the electronic infrastructure that is present at Camp Leatherneck. That's pretty important if you want to move away from the beachhead.

The KMAX may have a role. Maybe even a niche but there's a huge number of questions that haven't been answered and a shocking lack of curiosity by many of the posters.

LLORDL September 27, 2013 at 11:15 am

What was the cause of one K-Max crash; and why to this day has it not been sent to be repaired????


Cpt. J.B. September 26, 2013 at 4:04 am

??? I have my reservations, first of all what is wrong with the current operational resupply method??? Are we really wanting to move in the direction of having pilotless aircraft in combat. Yes it is true that we use Drones every day, But all of the service branches have a large inventory of piloted rotory wing aircraft and pilots that work fine. So why wast more money on something we really do not need???


Chuck Mock September 26, 2013 at 7:41 am

…the current resupply method puts pilots of a helicopter in a direct line of fire (makes them a sitting duck) while they are unloading cargo from the long line sling system. In other words, there is risk to people…


oblatt1 September 26, 2013 at 8:14 am

Wow risk to people?! not like there is a war going on or anything.

We are losing the war because our military would rather be safe and home in the US than victorious.


LB69 September 26, 2013 at 9:37 am

We are losing because of ridiculous ROE.
"Find the enemy, and shoot him down. Anything else is nonsense." ~ von Richthofen


blight_ September 26, 2013 at 11:09 am

The Red Baron didn't have to worry about shooting down targets hiding among civilians.

if Airplane in sky && not wearing Iron cross

PolicyWonk September 26, 2013 at 11:23 am

In a way, war-fighting was much easier back then. It took quite a while for news to travel, and the governments all had control of the press/media. This is no longer the case, as we've all seen, and witnessed with the many international incidents that have occurred because some idiot took a picture with his cellphone, and posted it on facebook (for example). Where it used to take days, weeks, or months previously, now within minutes a political crisis can develop in literally a matter of seconds.

The option of going to war is taken when diplomacy fails, and both are products of politics. With the advent of the internet – there is a lot of good and a lot of bad. And when it comes to fighting a war it makes things in many respects far more difficult, because no one person or entity can control the message.

Hence – the ROE are far more restrictive.

tiger September 27, 2013 at 1:24 am
Curt September 26, 2013 at 11:31 pm

There are numerous reasons to have a KMAX like resupply capability, especially for the Marines. First,space on a LHD is limited, a Fairly large number of KMAX could be added to a LHD without effecting other aircraft. So it allows the H-53s, V-22s, and UH-1s to do other things beside routines supply runs. Second, in a distributed operation, Helos are at a premium for mobility, so basic supply can be pushed to KMAX. Finally, KMAX is way cheaper than a manned Helo, both to procure, to operate, and to man (one operator who can practice on a simulator versus two pilots that need to really fly). So for routine missions, it makes all kinds of sense, especially if you aren't displacing manned Helos.


C-Low September 26, 2013 at 10:13 am

I think the Army is wanting to develop a kit/package that can be used with the MH-60. The Kmax was a civilian helo and I think the idea is making a control package that can be installed in the MH-60. It will cost more to develop (more complicated flight control) but the Army has plenty of frames to upgrade which if used in numbers will save money in the end.


brownie September 26, 2013 at 3:40 pm

No, The K-Max software and control system is being greatly improved.
However, my guess is with just ONE K-Max, the Marines are simply trying to keep the defense contractor AND Congressmen happy. They have no intention of funding this great concept!


USS ENTERPRISE September 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Hmm. Just wondering, but what will eventually replace this? Its already a great platform; will it turn into another Chinook and still be in service 50 years from now?


tiger September 27, 2013 at 1:14 am

If one crashed in June, Why is it still not shipped home in September?


Super Tex September 27, 2013 at 7:14 pm

This beats the hell out of the Marines Robot Dog……….


majr0d September 26, 2013 at 1:45 pm

No, the ROE is ridiculous because the powers that be either have unrealistic expectations of war (like they are bloodless) and there are General officers that will do anything to make the boss happy.


Curt October 2, 2013 at 3:06 pm

You should really read my post. Yes, the KMAX started as a manned helicopter for logging. It worked great for VERTREP (cargo transfer) because it didn't have a tail rotor so wind restrictions were much greater which is huge for VERTREP. Additionally, it has much better visibility which is also important in that role. So it could deliver cargo much faster and at dramatically lower cost However, it doesn't carry people or interior cargo so it was limited solely to VERTREP and MSC rejected it.


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