Concepts & Programs HomeProgramsFocus Area 4: Modernization & TechnologyPart 5: AviationUAS

MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Sept. 26, 2017) – Marines attached to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s (MEU) Unmanned Aerial Surveillance unit, launch an RQ-21A Blackjack aboard the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego (LPD 22), Sept. 26, 2017. Marines perform training flights to maintain proficiency in preparation for possible missions. San Diego is deployed with the America Amphibious Ready Group and 15th MEU to support maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations.(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jeremy Laboy/Released)


The Marine Corps’ family of unmanned aircraft systems (FoUAS) provides support to any sized MAGTF for battlespace awareness, offensive air support, target acquisition, and force protection. Marine Corps UAS employment will continue to enhance and extend the lethal and non-lethal capabilities of MAGTF and joint force commanders, facilitating advancements in observation, understanding, and influence on the battlefield. The FoUAS will play a key role in all USMC missions across the range of military operations to include forward presence, security cooperation, counterterrorism, crisis response, forcible entry, prolonged operations, and counterinsurgency.

Three active and one reserve component Marine Corps units were established under the Aviation Combat Element for the sole purpose of operating and employing UAS. These units are the Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (VMU) squadrons. The mission of the VMU squadrons is to “support the MAGTF commander by conducting multi-sensor reconnaissance and surveillance, and facilitating the destruction of targets, from unmanned aerial platforms, during expeditionary, joint, and combined operations.

RQ-21A Blackjack

The RQ-21A Blackjack UAS is a runway independent system consisting of five aircraft with a combat radius of 50 nautical miles (control envelope). It has an extended operational range reaching out to 150 nautical miles (employing a “hub and spoke”), and an advertised flight endurance of up to 12 hours. The airborne plug-and-play payload configuration options are tailorable to the mission and include communications relay and SIGINT variants.

A 2006 decision by the Assistant Secretary of Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition (ASN RDA) directed the overall management of all UAS programs (both Navy and Marine Corps) to be conducted by Naval Air Systems Command. In 2007, in conjunction with the previous ASN RDA guidance, the Commandant assigned the Deputy Commandant of Aviation as the advocate for all UAS, to include Small UAS.

Marines with 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, tested an Unmanned Aerial System, also known as the RQ-20 Puma, during part of the Battalion’s Marine Combat Corps' Readiness Evaluation at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Mar. 13, 2017. The Puma provides land-based and maritime intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. (Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Mike Hernandez)   

Small Unit Remote Scouting System

The aim of USMC Small Unit Remote Scouting System (SURSS) Family of small UAS (FoS UAS) is to equip the regiment, battalion, and below with an organic, airborne battlespace awareness capability. SURSS are man-portable, ruggedized, and simple to operate, and give small unit leaders the direct means to build and enhance decision speed and space before the pivot point.

The current SURSS FoS UAS consists of three UAS platforms all using a common ground control station, or GCS: RQ-20B Puma, RQ-11B Raven, and RQ- 12A Wasp. VTOL and nano-VTOL SURSS, also referred to as “Quads-for-Squads,” will complement the capabilities of the current FoS UAS in areas where vertical obstructions or confined operations create unique challenges. These Quads-for-Squads include the Aeryon Sky Ranger, PSI Instant Eye, PD- 100 Black Hornet, and other COTS systems, fielded in response to an Urgent Universal Needs Statement.       

The RQ-20B Puma has a combat radius of 10 nautical miles and an advertised endurance of 180 minutes. The RQ-11B Raven has a combat radius of 5 nautical miles and an advertised endurance of

90 minutes. The RQ-12A Wasp has a combat radius of 3 nautical miles and an advertised endurance of 50 minutes. All of these platforms can be controlled while on the move, from a tactical wheeled vehicle, or as the mission requires. Compared to their fixed-wing counterparts, the Quads-for-Squads platforms can deploy more rapidly and have a smaller operational footprint. Combat radius for quads ranges from one to five kilometers, with an endurance from 25 to 50 minutes, depending on the system.

MAGTF UAS Expeditionary (MUX)

Additionally, Marine Corps aviation is aggressively pursuing a JROC-approved Group 5 requirement that will offer an amphibious and persistent UAS that will be network-enabled, digitally interoperable, and provide lethal and non-lethal fires. MAGTF Unmanned Aircraft System Expeditionary (MUX) will transform the way the Marine Corps fights as a MAGTF both on and off-shore. Recognizing our current recapitalization toward a more diverse, lethal, amphibious and middleweight expeditionary force, the Marine Corps requires a UAS that is network enabled, digitally interoperable, and built to execute responsive, persistent, lethal, and adaptive full spectrum operations. MUX will be multi-sensor and will provide electronic warfare, a C4 bridge, ISR, logistics transport and strike capability at ranges complementary to those of MV-22 and F-35, giving MAGTF commanders flexible, persistent, and lethal reach. It will provide scalable MAGTF support deploying as detachments or squadrons supporting commanders at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.

Unmanned Logistics Systems-Air (ULS-A) is an HQMC I&L-led effort to develop Group 3-sized UAS that can transport loads between 50 and 500 pounds organically, in support of LCE and GCE operations. The Marine Corps has teamed with ONR, ARL and the Army in developing autonomous distribution. Experimentation and systems development is occurring with ARL’s TRV-50 and TRV-300 systems.

Led by MAWTS-1 and VMX-1, and in close coordination with MAGTF-TC, MCTOG, MCLOG, MCWL, MARSOC, national laboratories, and industry, Aviation will continue tactical demonstrations to validate innovative uses for emerging UAS technologies. The lessons learned from this experimentation will inform programmatic and employment decisions across Marine aviation’s FoUAS.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ryan Skinner, assistant patrol leader, with Company Bravo, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment prepares to fly the Mark-2 Instant Eye during the Infantry Platoon Battle Course as part of a Deployment for Training (DFT) on Fort Pickett, VA., August 15, 2017. The Instant Eye is a small unmanned aerial system used to be deployed at the squad level for quick and local surveillance and reconnaissance. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Michaela R. Gregory)

Operational Impact

The RQ-21A Blackjack enhances the capabilities of MEU and regimental-sized units by providing a long endurance, expeditionary, multi-mission platform that is shipboard capable. RQ-21A is also able to operate from land-based forward operating bases. Characterized by its runway independence, multi-sensor, and ES capability, the RQ-21A will enhance the MAGTF commander’s battlespace awareness. With its multiple payload capacity, the RQ-21A will continue to evolve to meet the shifting priorities of the MAGTF commander.           

A key enabler for realizing the full capability of the RQ-21A is its L-class amphibious carrier shipboard capability. Currently, ship installs are complete for LPD-17 through 25 class ships with LPD 26 and 27 planned for late FY18. Marine aviation is pursuing RQ-21A compatibility for all ARG shipping in order to provide maximum employment flexibility for the MAGTF commander both afloat and ashore. Marine Corps UAS is paving an uncharted path in the world of naval UAS with a ship-board capable Group 3 program of record in direct support of the MEUs for the first time. The RQ-21 has a number of planned upgrades that will bolster its current capability and establish itself as a vital component of the MAGTF.

SURSS (includes “Quads-for-Squads”) are complementing and exponentially increasing the organic sensing and targeting capabilities of combat maneuver elements to build battlespace awareness and improve the effectiveness of fires. Use of SURSS is vital in confirming enemy analysis and assumptions prior to actions on the objective, and proved instrumental as observation platforms to assess enemy reaction to implemented deception plans. The successful employment of SURSS by the Marine Corps and Navy in support of combat operations, and real-world applications (on land and at sea) continues driving the demand for more agile acquisitions strategies; and promotes the development of service-level initiatives focused on SUAS training standardization, and capturing and codifying emerging tactics, techniques, and procedures.

An IV-solution bag attached by a metal plate is carried by a Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle (JTARV) for transport from a simulated forward operating base to a Marine Special Operations Company in the field aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., July 7, 2017. The JTARV, which is in the developmental phase, is a lightweight autonomous vehicle that provides an aerial resupply capability for immediate support to operational units. It was being tested as a resupply platform for machine-gun sustainment training with a cargo unmanned logistics system (C-ULS) during a tactical readiness exercise (TRX).

Program Status

Currently, the VMU squadrons are executing a Group 3 UAS program of record transition from the RQ- 7B Shadow to the RQ-21A Blackjack. VMU-1 and VMU-2 have completed the full transition. In 2018, VMU-3 will conduct limited RQ-7B operations and VMU-4 will begin transition out of RQ-7B near the end of the fiscal year. Current inventory of the RQ- 21A Blackjack consist of 16 systems, consisting of 5 air vehicles per system. MSD is expected to occur in late FY18 with full fielding in the 2nd quarter of FY19. Active and reserve component VMU squadron FOC is expected at the end of FY 20.

As advancements in SURSS and SUAS technology begin to outpace procurement and fielding of the most up-to-date, and relevant systems, HQMC Aviation, working with CD&I, FAA, Marine Corps installations, MARSOC, and PMA-263, will focus on identifying innovative DOTMLPF-C approaches to eliminate friction points and streamline policy and training initiatives to meet burgeoning requirements.    

The JROC-approved MUX ICD, signed October 2016, informs a system that provides the MEF/ MEB-sized MAGTF with an advanced multi-mission platform. MUX is envisioned as a USMC and USN program of record based on leveraging technology maturation of programs and industry prototypes. Marine aviation will continue to pursue opportunities to inform programmatic decisions, such as field users’ evaluations, science & technology (S&T) projects, and tactical demonstrations (TACDEMOS) in conjunction with large force exercises (LFE). The DARPA Tern and ARES demonstrator systems are planned to make first flight in FY-18, as are several of the industry prototypes. In addition, the Marine Corps owns two Kaman KMAX CQ-24 UAS - currently assigned to VMX-1 - to expand the cargo UAS envelope, refine MUX experimentation, and reduce risk.          


Procurement Profile: FY18 FY19

Group 3 UAS

RQ-21A Blackjack (Qty): 16 +4

RQ-7B Shadow: 5 -5

SURSS (Fixed-Wing [FW])

RQ-20B Puma: 95 +56

RQ-11B Raven: 178 0

RQ-12A Wasp IV: 143 0

SURSS (Quads-for-Squads)

SkyRanger/Raider: 26 +36

InstantEye: 104 +142

PD-100 Black Hornet: 52 +71

COTS: 66 +142


Group 3 UAS

RQ-21A: Insitu, Bingen, WA

RQ-7B: Textron/AAI, Hunt Valley, MD


All FW systems: AeroVironment, Monrovia, CA

SURSS (Quads-for-Squads)

SkyRanger/Raider, Aeryon Labs,

Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Instant Eye, Physical Sciences Inc., Andover, MA

PD-100 Black Hornet, FLIR UAS, Hvalstad, Norway