WASHINGTON — Kaman is unveiling this week a medium-lift unmanned quadcopter meant to solve the biggest challenge to the Marine Corps’ expeditionary advanced base operations concept: resupplying small units of Marines scattered around island chains.
Kaman’s KARGO unmanned aerial vehicle has been designed from scratch over the past nine months to meet the Marines’ needs for an Unmanned Logistics Systems-Air (ULS-A) medium-lift vehicle for the distributed laydown the Marines expect will be the hallmark of their operations in the future in places like the Pacific, the Baltic Sea or other contested areas.
Ian Walsh, president and chief executive of Kaman, told Defense News on Sept. 17 the vehicle will be able to balance range and payload capacity — up to 500 nautical miles and as much as 1,000 pounds of cargo — to help the Marine Corps move “beans, bullets and Band-Aids,” or even potable water, fuel and spare parts, to small units in remote locations.
Kaman is the company behind the K-MAX heavy-lift UAV that saw operations in Afghanistan in 2011.
“The Marine Corps was very progressive, as they’ve always been, leveraging technologies. It was in theater, did a whole bunch of missions, tons of hours, basically taking young Marines off the road” to move supplies around theater in the air instead of in ground convoys susceptible to being shot at or hitting roadside bombs, Walsh said.
“After that war ended, [the Marine Corps] mothballed both those helicopters because nothing really was going on, and then here we are 10 years later with this emerging threat in the Pacific Rim,” he said, adding that the threat of conflict with China creates urgency for the Marine Corps and the joint force to figure out how it would sustain forces in a fight across such a large swath of sea space.
Romin Dasmalchi, the company’s senior director of business development, said during the interview KARGO is meant to hide in plain sight: the air vehicle and all the tools to maintain it are housed in a standard cargo container, which could be moved into theater on commercial shipping or aircraft, via military airlift or sealift, or even on a Navy warship. They could be prepositioned in strategic forward locations, with just two Marines needed to get the UAV out of the container and in the air in minutes.
If Marines were fighting from small expeditionary bases throughout the South China Sea, for example, the KARGO UAVs could be prepositioned in Okinawa, Japan; quickly assembled by Marines and launched south towards Military Sealift Command supply ships outside the South China Sea; loaded up with supplies from the ship; and then sent on their way to drop off supplies at multiple locations each, Dasmalchi said.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger outlined his vision for future Marine Corps operations almost immediately upon taking command, in his July 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance. In it, he said “we must re-imagine our amphibious ship capabilities, prepositioning, and expeditionary logistics so they are more survivable, at less risk of catastrophic loss, and agile in their employment.”
Since then, he’s embarked on a Force Design 2030 effort to reshape the force to be lighter and more suited for these kinds of small-unit distributed operations — but Berger and other leaders have acknowledged that their ability to resupply these units could be the Achilles’ heel to their expeditionary advanced base operations plans.
Berger and his leadership team have proposed relying on unmanned systems — in the air, and also on the ocean’s surface and undersea — to help move goods around without using large MSC supply ships that attract enemy attention and are more easily targeted. The Navy is investing in a fleet of smaller, next-generation logistics ships, so they can have a larger number of smaller resupply vessels that can more easily blend in with commercial traffic, but for Marines scattered throughout the theater, the final mile of delivery is likely to come via unmanned platforms.
Walsh said that, because there isn’t a program of record with formal requirements yet, there’s no official timeline — but there is a well understood urgency.
Kaman has already completed demonstrations with a half-scale model that focused on the drivetrain and air vehicle design, and Dasmalchi said several lessons came out of that that informed alterations to the full-scale vehicle. The autonomy package the UAV uses, under developent by Near Earth Autonomy, is being tested separately on surrogate aircraft now. Command-and-control systems for various delivery options, such as conformal pods, sling loads or even air drops are being developed by DreamHammer.
By the end of this calendar year, he said, the full-sized demonstrator will be going through ground-based testing. Flight tests of that air vehicle will begin early next year, and after an integration effort with the autonomy package and mission systems, a complete system in-air test should occur by late 2022. All of this is being done with internal research and development funds, Dasmalchi said, because the company is convinced its product is the only one that exists to meets the Marines’ needs.
“The three top things that we’re really trying to attack is the reliability, the maintainability and affordability. Those are the three premier values that we know our customers is eager to get, and Gen. Berger has been very clear about speed to market, bringing new capabilities out there,” Walsh said.
Everything about the design is tailored to those principles: all four rotors are interchangeable, and all the blades within the rotors are interchangeable, for example, reducing the need to keep many spare parts on hand. The engine is fuel-efficient, and available today — Walsh said the hope is to eventually upgrade to an electric or hybrid power system to reduce or eliminate its dependence on jet fuel, but that technology isn’t mature enough yet. A gas-powered engine lets Kaman field this product in a year or two without waiting on any major technology development.
“Our timeline is, we’re working demonstration right now, from design to flying concept in less than six months this year. Next year we will be flying a full-scale demo … and if the Marine Corps feels this is where they want to go, we can be in production in short order,” Walsh said. “Fundamentally, in a five-year window, we’d love to be at full-rate production.”
Kaman had hoped to unveil its full-sized model this week at the Modern Day Marine exposition at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, but the event was canceled last month due to growing COVID-19 concerns.
Instead, Kaman will bring the model to the AUSA exposition with Army leadership in October, in the hopes of attracting other potential customers, including the Navy and MSC, the Coast Guard and foreign militaries.
The Marines’ Unmanned Logistics System-Air technology demonstration effort has small-, medium- and heavy-lift components within the family of systems. Walsh and Dasmalchi said Kaman wanted to go after the medium-lift UAV first because their conversations with the Marines revealed the most urgency around this need. But the company is also eyeing the heavy-lift variant, which would be similar to the K-MAX optionally manned helicopter. Walsh said Kaman and the Marine Corps are working to find funding to fix up the two mothballed aircraft and upgrade them with a modern autonomy package.
“At that size of helicopter, with that size of capability, it’s truly unique. It’s a niche product, so that’s why they initially wanted it, and that’s why they’re interested again in it,” Walsh said, adding that Kaman renamed this revamped K-MAX effort Titan.
But, there’s a cost that comes with that large capability, which includes flight safety features for optional manned operations.
Though the company did not discuss the cost of KARGO, Kaman calls it an “attritable” aircraft, which the military has increasingly used to refer to unmanned systems cheap enough that it’s not a big deal if one gets destroyed or lost in operations.
The way Kaman believes the Marines intend to operate these UAVs, Walsh said, “even if one of these things get shot down, guess what, one’s coming right behind it. And that’s the beauty of it at a price point you’re not with manned aircraft.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.