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.

  • blight_

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

  • 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?

  • Marcellus Hambrick

    Now if they could deploy a unmanned attack helicopter.

  • cameron easpagetioli
  • 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.