FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Currently the only U.S. military service without a high-end unmanned aircraft, the U.S. Marine Corps is in the market for a high-altitude long-endurance drone that can launch from a ship, perform reconnaissance and relay communication to deployed ground forces for about $20 million per copy.

Other missions for what the Marine Corps calls MUX – a mercifully short acronym for Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Experimental – will include airborne early warning and electronic warfare. Offensive air support has been pushed to a secondary mission profile as the service begins to solidify its requirements for what will likely be a short or vertical-vertical-takeoff-and-landing UAS in the same class as an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper.

Artist's rendering of Bell Helicopter's V-247 Group 5 UAV. Photo: Bell Helicopter.
Artist’s rendering of Bell Helicopter’s V-247 Group 5 UAV. Photo: Bell Helicopter.

“We are at that stage now to start looking at committing some serious resources in this direction,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, chief of Marine Corps Combat Development command and deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said June 6. “This is going to shape us. We think we are at the right point in time to move forward with this program.”

In fiscal 2019, the Marine Corps sought to set aside $25 million, but the House Armed Services Committee in its mark of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act slashed that allocation to just $10 million. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the same bill authorizes $100 million for the same program, so the ultimate figure for fiscal 2019 should land somewhere in that wide delta. Either way, the Marine Corps is “serious” about ramping up investment in the program, Walsh said at a MUX industry day here.

Meeting with industry will “help get this tighter and then we can get our rear-ends up to the Hill and start explaining what we’re doing,” Walsh said. Instead of dictating requirements and spending years developing an ideal solution, the Marine Corps is asking drone manufacturers and systems engineers to demonstrate what is possible with existing technology so that it can shape a set of realistic, achievable criteria at a reasonable price, he said.

Group 5 UAS, which the military classifies as weighing more than 1,320 pounds with an operating altitude of more than 18,000 feet, are operated by the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy. What will make MUX stand out is its expeditionary footprint. It will operate independent of the runways that tether those other platforms to lengthy runways, Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, deputy commandant for aviation, said at the industry day.

“There’s no question in our mind … that unmanned systems at this level off amphibious shipping is the future,” Rudder said. “Now the question is how do we make it happen?”

“We believe the technology exists to do it,” he added. “We believe now is the right time to begin this journey of this program to be able to provide the United States Marine Corps, the Navy, the Army, the joint force a capability that is expeditionary.”

It must operate from the decks of amphibious ships and ashore from a 150-foot-square landing zone. It should fit inside the hangar of a Navy DDG-51destroyer, which in turn ensures it will fit on larger vessels.

Fast is the name of the game for development and procurement and the Marine Corps is prepared to move as fast as technology will allow, Rudder said. After an acquisition decision planned for fiscal 2020, the service wants a land-based early operational capability within five years and a land-based initial operational capability two years later with a sea-based IOC to follow.

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