K-MAX cargo UAS exceeds expectations in Afghanistan test

Marine Corps and Navy aviation leaders have fallen over themselves praising Lockheed Martin’s cargo resupply unmanned aerial vehicle (CRUAS) in its first test deployment to Afghanistan that ended this summer.

Naval Air Systems Command shipped two of Lockheed’s Kaman K-MAX helicopters to southern Afghanistan in December 2011. It deployed with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 1 from December to May 2012 with a team of Lockheed contractors to help fly and maintain the unmanned helicopter. The K-MAX remains in Afghanistan where VMU-2 is now operating it with Lockheed’s help.

NAVAIR Commander Vice Adm. David Architzel had plenty of good things to say about the helicopter upon its return from theater.

“This is a great example of integration while fulfilling the ‘urgent needs’ of the warfighter,” Architzel said at a post-deployment debrief July 10. “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.”

The K-MAX flew 485 sorties and a total of 525 flight hours over its six month deployment with VMU-1. Marines raved about the unmanned helicopter’s reliability. K-MAX was fully mission capable 90 percent of the time with weather and maintenance issues accounting for the other 10 percent, said Maj. Kyle O’Connor, officer in charge, VMU-1 Cargo Detachment.

The unmanned helicopter only required two hours of maintenance per flight hour. O’Connor also said the Marines flew the K-MAX in weather they wouldn’t typically risk with a manned aircraft.

“Since it was an unmanned system, we were able to conduct flights during inclement weather when other helicopters couldn’t fly,” he said. “We flew during the night, in the rain, dust and some wind.”

VMU-1 flew about six K-MAX sorties per night with missions lasting about one hour each.  Capt. Caleb Joiner, CRUAS mission commander, said the Marines could have flown more. He said the Marines wanted to keep the missions simple for future use when Marines not specifically trained to fly UAVs could possibly fly it. O’Connor agreed.

“The challenge was that we had a simplified system with highly trained operators who could have handled a lot more control of the UAS,” O’Connor said. “However, we made a conscious decision to stick with the simplified system because we wanted to validate the concept as written.”

So, the questions remains what happens next. The K-MAX remains in Afghanistan as Marine and Navy officials consider a permanent buy back in the U.S.

“The CRUAS IPT and the Marine Corps will review and analyze the after-action reports, feedback, data and theses from the Naval Post Graduate School as well as quantify the costs before making any recommendations,” said Capt. Patrick Smith, Navy and Marine Corps Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air Systems program manager.

Questions also surround what the Army will do as they have also expressed interested in a CRUAS.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • Tiger

    On the other hand, it does not make up for the miles of trucks stacked up in Pakistan due to our actions & poor relations.

    • tmb2

      It’s not meant to.

    • blight_

      As a corollary:

      What happens when Pakistan stops us from using airspace as well as road resupply?

      • Tiger

        They have to take the Northern route through Russia & that airbase at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Which thus explains why we kiss Vladimir Puttin’s butt over issues like ABM defense & Syria. Hillary’s apology trip has the trucks moving, but at highway robbery fees per truck.

        • blight_

          Realistically, the last alternative is the People’s Republic of China, which has a tiny common border through the most mountainous, poorly developed parts of Afghanistan.

          So Iran, Russia, China Pakistan. Surrounded by non-friends of the United States…

          • tiger

            Like they said about Korea in 1950,”Wrong war in the wrong place.” When the history books are written about this war I hope they save a chapter for the logistics folks? 10 years of unsung hard work.

  • blight_

    Re army: group buy with Marines. Both services shared the Cobra for a few years. It can’t be that bad…

    • majr0d

      Premature. As of April the contractors flew most of the missions and did the maintenance.

      • majr0d

        There’s a difference between conducting strategic and tactical logistics. REALLY not comfortable having civilians responsible for this. Combat outposts shouldn’t be relying on civilians for ammo or critical barrier material while a COP is being established.

        This will work itself out. In the meantime let’s see what it trkes to train a military operator and maintenance crew.

        • Tiger

          Budgets need to be cut. Combat support people are a prime cutting place. The contractors have got the job done so far. Without the long term cost of uniformed people. Freeing them for other duty.

  • Musson

    Surprisingly - the blade is a wooden spar with some fiberglass on the trailing surfaces.

    • ghostwhowalks

      Karmans point of difference with other helicopters - apart from the unique intermeshing rotors- is they have a small ‘elevon’ ( not sure I got the right description) towards the end of the spar and its this that is used to change to angle of incidence of the blades as they advance and retreat. Other choppers twist the blade at the hub.

  • leesea

    Key thing to remember this system is for the troops at the pointy end of the spear, besides being a new link in a logistic system which is constrained in-country

  • Anonymous

    “you eliminate the possibility of someone losing their life”

    I know how to completely stop the loss of life in Afghanistan. But that’s not as much fun as war, now is it?

    • hellbound1339

      What in the name of all that is good and holy is that supposed to mean? Seriously, you should praise Lockheed’s ingenuity… because of them, fewer pilots will be in danger due to enemy AAA and SAMs. Shows the intelligence of today’s people.

      • tiger

        He means bring the troops home & then you don’t need a K-MAX. It’s valid view by some. Ease off a bit.

      • blight_

        Pretty sure the loss rates are still in favor of accidents over shootdowns. Sure, Operation Red Wings and Roberts Ridge, but…

    • ghostwhowalks

      I think they meant ‘losing their life’ in a resupply convoy.

      The deeper issue is that when you have effectively lost control of the countryside the helicopters allow you to continue the war after its been lost.

  • Marcellus Hambrick

    Now if they could deploy a unmanned attack helicopter.

    • Ben

      That’s a whole new can of worms..

      Besides, I’m not sure I’d want my close air support being delivered by a guy sitting in a chair on the other side of the world. Rings of bad customer service.

      • EW3

        Actually not all that big a leap.

        Most of what’s needed is already available and in use on other platforms.

        What infantry company, in a combat situation, wouldn’t like to have local control over it’s own UAV attack helicopter.

        • Infidel4LIFE


    • blight_

      Where’s the ground controller? A trailer fifty miles away?

      Hopefully not at Creech.

  • cameron easpagetioli


  • http://www.PrometheusGoneWild.com PrometheusGoneWild

    I was in the Navy when (1997?) they tried out the manned version for ship to ship carrier resupply.
    It was much, much smaller than the existing H-47’s they were using. When you are operating from a supply deck and hanger the size of a basketball court these things matter.
    It seemed a perfect fit.
    Why did it not get picked up? First we are talking about the Navy:)
    But mostly I think it was politics. Do I really know that? Not really, just conjecture.
    But I live here in Ct where Sikorsky and Kammand helicopters both reside and our Federal politicians seem to fall all over themselves for Sikorsky. Kammand never seems to get a mention…..
    Even if the Marines are really hot on it, they still may not get to buy it……

    • blight_

      Kaman can’t pay big enough bribes, compared to Sikorsky.

      Perhaps if they move to some Congressman’s district…whoever’s on the ASC at the moment?

  • Sasquatch

    Main advantage of intermeshing twin main rotors is increased “hot day” lift because no power is lost driving a tail rotor. Also K-Max operation is quieter than any other helo and narrow cross section is harder to hit.

  • Pappa51

    Again I am getting in on the conversation a little late. . . I can see a lot of uses for a system like these. how about brush fires, and wild fires as so call them now. I could see one careering a spray nozzle linked to another with a large tank of water. The controller could direct the water right where it was needed most. Or they could work with a tanker on the ground. the uses could be endless.
    think about them.

  • SeaDaddy46

    As an ‘old-timer’ (circa mid-late 1950’s) I can attest to the reliability of the Kaman aircraft designs and dependability of their implementation. I was a crewmember on their HH-43B rescue helos. It was the last all-mechanical flight control system in the military helo community. When we autorotated, It was a real no-power descent, and was very reliable. I hope the Navy goes ahead with the purchase; they would be getting a dependable, reliable tool.