Marines take lead on unmanned cargo

The Marine haven’t waited for the Army or Air Force to take the lead on unmanned aerial drones or unmanned trucks when it comes to delivering cargo.

The Corps announced the completion of their first test of multiple unmanned trucks simulating a cargo convoy using Oshkosh trucks. The test took place at Fort Pickett, Va., from July 24 to Aug. 5. Marine Corps leaders said the next step is an operational test in Afghanistan.

Marines and Lockheed Martin contractors are already flying an unmanned cargo helicopter in Afghanistan where it has exceeded expectations. The K-MAX has flown over 4,500 pounds of cargo and at least 500 sorties since the Marines deployed the cargo helicopter in December 2011. Marine leaders recently chose to extend the K-MAX’s deployment for the third time out to March 2013.

Seven Marines spent three days training on the Oshkosh trucks outfitted with unmanned ground vehicle technology before the test. Oshkosh lauded the short training period as proof of the ease of use Marine Corps leaders are seeking.

Oshkosh’s unmanned ground kit can be installed into new and old vehicles, even models other than Oshkosh’s. Pentagon officials have not set a timeline for deployment of the unmanned trucks to Afghanistan.

Ground commanders have long sought the ability to send ground convoys without human crews as some of the highest casualty rates during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came from Army and Marine convoys getting hit by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Soldiers and Marines have often questioned why the military couldn’t build unmanned trucks when it was flooding Iraq and Afghanistan with unmanned aerial vehicles.

Much like with the K-MAX, the Army has chosen to sit on the sidelines and wait to see what the Marines can produce with their unmanned trucks. Similarly, the Air Force has focused primarily on strike and  intelligence, surveillance and surveillance drones rather than ones that can carry cargo.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to He can be reached at
  • Matrix_3692

    OK, so does this mean they’re planing to sent a whole convoy of UGVs or they’re just freeing up man-power in a bigger convoy (with manned vehicles leading and armed and manned escorts).

    either way, there’s always benefits form this system here it puts the precious life of soldiers in the field out of harms way, and not to mention the man-power it could free.

    i also see good potentials where it could be used as an decoy to trip off enemy ambushes or checking out the path for a much larger convoy.

    • tmb2

      It could take a number of drivers off the road, though you could never have a fully unmanned convoy since you’d need escorts and someone either remotely controlling the truck or just keep an eye on it in case of attack, break down, or looting. Stick a couple manequins in the cab and the locals might not know the difference.

    • Chris Smith

      Unless the vehicle/convoy is monitored in such a way that no insurgent could place explosives, trojan horse, on the vehicle/convoy in route by removing personel from the driving position we are endangering the lives of those who would be on the rcving end of the vehicle.

    • Raraavis

      You could have manned Armored Personnel Carriers escort a convoy of unarmored unmanned trucks. If the enemy wanted to cause human casualties they would have to attack the heavily armored and heavily armed APCs.

      • blight_

        You’re still putting people in harm’s way just to pick a fight. At some point, we will run out of trucks, and then attrition will be money based instead of people based.

        Alternatively, we are lulled into a false sense of security, and then they start double-stacking anti-tank mines and waiting for Bradleys escorting unmanned convoy vehicles to hit them.

        • tmb2

          You’ll have to have people in harm’s way, there’s no way to avoid it. A fully unmanned convoy would be subject to too many environmental dangers to risk not having someone keep an eye on it. Vehicles will get flat tires, get into accidents, or hit debris nobody saw and you’ll need soldiers to intervene.

  • Jeff

    I’m glad the AirForce and Army are sitting this out. If they were involved it’d likely just impose undue requirements that would slow the maturation of this technology.

    • blight_

      The Army was covering its ears in the 2000’s and swearing Humvees are just fine, there aren’t that many IEDs…

      • majr0d

        And another page with a list of 8 demos all funded by the Army since ‘04…… TWO were hosted on Marine vehicles.

        The Army was spearheading this type of capability back in ’03 with FCS and never stopped (google Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS) . Their publicity obviously isn’t as good and there are those that believe everything they read.

        • blight_

          Their publicity isn’t as good…and the army has so many vehicles and the majority of the logistical responsibilities that R&D money isn’t available to them.

          Alternatively, it may be a culture of field-it-right-the-first-time versus alpha/beta-testing on troops. Both options have their pros and cons.

          • majr0d

            The Marines decide where to put their funds. If one is short funds it behooves you to partner with those with deep pockets (which is what AMAS is).

            There are plenty of examples of alpha – beta testing in the Marines. Notice the way the M4 and M27 were issued (along with the K-max for that matter). Just admit you bought into the hype? :) Heck, until I shared those links you though the Army was only HMMWV focused!

          • blight_

            The public focus of the Army in the 2000’s was to deliver solutions to the IED threat. That said, the Marines do have a better PR machine.

            If the Army had been trumpeting unmanned vehicles instead of their push to move armor kits and uparmored vehicles to Iraq it would not have looked so good. “Army focuses on research while troops die” would be trumpeted from all corners (and I think it was, actually….)

            Edit: If you had asked me back in the 2000’s what the Marines were focused on, I would’ve said EFV and Osprey.

          • majr0d

            Blight –Confusing? What’s your point? I’m trying to help you realize the story is misleading.

            You were the one taking potshots at the Army. “The Army was covering its ears in the 2000’s and swearing Humvees are just fine, there aren’t that many IEDs… “ Now you’re admitting IEDs WERE the primary threat in the 2000’s. (Good!) BTW, the Marines leveraged Army efforts at armoring HMMWVs.

            The uncomfortable fact is you DO go to war with what you have vs. what you want. The Army never made excuses for not having enough uparmored HMMWVs. Rumsfeld tried to explain and got savaged for it. NO ONE had a premonition that ALL utility vehicles needed to be uparmored just like NO ONE thought EVERY soldier needed body armor when money was being allocated and voted against by a certain party.

            Politicians and the ignorant public often buy into the media narrative that attempts to sensationalize all military decisions with highly suggestive commentary (like quagmire when we stopped to resupply on the way to Baghdad) and 20/20 hindisght.

            This is similar to this report that Marines are taking point in sustainment robotics and those here swallowing it hook, line & sinker.

            BTW, I think the Marines took point with MRAPs in the 2000s.

  • Arby

    “The K-MAX has flown over 4,500 pounds of cargo and at least 500 sorties since the Marines deployed the cargo helicopter in December 2011.” 4500 lbs divided by 500 sorties is 9 lbs per sortie. You sure about that?

    • Andrew

      That does seem low, but a lot of the early sorties might have just been in-theater flight testing and route checking, etc. Afghanistan is a pretty rough place to fly even for manned helos.

    • tmb2

      The KMAX article from a couple days ago quotes 4,500 pounds PER MISSION. Typo on this article.

    • Kilo

      I’m sorry but this is a waste. The vehicles, contractors, parts ant training will be way to damn much. Just like the osprey and the efv. This war is under a massive reduction and so are the services all under the threat of more budget cuts. What happens when it is too dusty and the sensors run it into a canal or it runs over some afghan kids? Let’s stick with the KMax

      • jeff m

        I think it might be even better at not running over kids than a driver, if it has radar.

  • Mark

    I believe it was to mean carried loads over 4500 pounds and had completed at least 500 sorties.

    • MGC

      right Mark LM issued a release stating K-MAX has hauled in excess of 1.6 million pounds total.

  • TonyC

    Unmanned convoys would make it harder for the Taliban to pick targets, especially,
    if the unmanned trucks have remotely operated 50 cal machine guns. Then they
    could fire in all directions without the worry of friendly fire incidents!

    • blight_

      Up to a point. If you damage a vehicle, whatever cargo it carries is captured. Unless you just like trolling for contact with million dollar UGVs that get chewed up by cheap bombs made from leftover Soviet artillery shells and a washing machine timer…

      • Johnny Ranger

        We could turn the tables on the bad guys, rig all the unmanned trucks with explosives, and command detonate any disabled trucks once the eye in the sky confirms that there are bad guys crawling all over it…

        • blight_

          Then they’ll just use children as their sappers, and remember to recover the guns, salvage cargo and leave the dead kids behind.

          That’s what I would do, if I had a madrassa of martyrs in waiting…

        • tmb2

          So we would be in the business of setting off car bombs? Quick lesson in physics – if a bomb is big enough to kill everyone standing on it, it’s big enough to kill everyone standing next to it, and across the street from it. And you really think a 6-figure priced truck is a cost effective bomb?

          • blight_

            It would be cheaper to use shrapnel launchers as close-in defense. That or flashbangs, smoke and CS.

          • Johnny Ranger

            The thread was discussing what happens if a truck becomes disabled. So, YES, I would much rather have an otherwise useless 6-figure hulk – and more importantly, the military cargo it’s hauling – destroyed (along with as many terrorists as possible) than to simply cede the military cargo (as well as any salvageable parts from the truck itself) to the people who are trying to kill our troops.

            As for the physics lesson – allow me to counter with a military tactics lesson: convoys, particularly in a place like Afghanistan, spend the vast majority of their time BETWEEN built-up areas. So what collateral damage, exactly, are you worried about, especially if the vehicle is being COMMAND-detonated?

          • blight_

            Then it just means they will continue to use a dual strategy, one of statically emplaced IEDs for remote areas (where any human presence may well be suspicious) and a close assault strategy for built-up areas, where built up may well be a mere village or hamlet.

          • tmb2

            Southern Afghanistan where I fought was almost entirely urban. Even the “rural” areas had people living right along the MSRs. Manned escorts would drastically reduce the chance of the unmanned truck being overrun and would be necessary regardless just to keep the truck from falling in a canal or being abandoned due to a mechanical breakdown.

          • blight_

            On a tangent, what is the mechanical breakdown rate in Afghanistan? Teleoperated trucks cannot self-recover, and sending a recovery vehicle with each convoy on the half chance that an umanned vehicle may break down and need people and a recovery vehicle to get it going again…

          • tmb2

            That is probably impossible to compute since it’s such a small-unit random occurence, but it happens often enough to be a planning factor every time you go outside the wire (flat tire, over heating, hitting a big rock, suspension damage, etc). Most military trucks can recover each other to a certain extent without a wrecker, but whether its tow straps or an actual recovery vehicle, you need warm bodies to do it.

  • blight_

    What it really means is that you can drop the trucker contractors. You know, the ones that got shot up all the time in Iraq in the 2000’s. A few got captured and a few more were killed, and even more were wounded.

    You can abandon a convoy of water trucks if you don’t have to try to extract drivers. Alternatively, if the 507th had unmanned trucks and concentrated their personnel into a few vehicles, more people per truck usually translates into guns ready to fire versus drivers who must drive.

    • ghostwhowalks

      Even better , the insurgents just clamber on board and get a free ride to the supply dump. Much more efficient to attack the dump rather than a truck or two ?

      • blight_

        If that were true, they would’ve succeeded already. Boarding a vehicle requires a serious failure of situational awareness, and I imagine the handicaps of teleoperated vehicles can’t be that much worse than an undermanned vehicle that might not even have a gunner.

      • kim

        Unless the operator (sitting safely and in air conditioned comfort elsewhere) pushes the self-destruct button or activates the tear gas realease system. Or plays Twisted Sister at full volume.

    • Kilos

      Is this war cost effective?

      • blight_

        Are you measuring war cost in dollars or bodies?

  • Lance

    The only down side is less reaction time for accidents or combat for a unmanned truck who will defend the convoy if its completely unmanned??

    For some mission this would be a awesome way to do it though.

    • Raraavis

      The computers react faster than people. These trucks will be autonomous the will be supervised most likely by a person at a remote site but they drive without human interaction.

  • John

    Allows more Marines to use that Infantry training they get instead of being POG truck drivers… “But sir, I signed up to drive trucks, not being assigned to an Infantry Squad.”

  • John Larsen

    Hey Major, Maybe the public would rather hear the Marine’s doing these operation’s than the army because the Marine’s are more successful at what they do, ya think ?

    • majr0d


    • blight_

      Suddenly I’m thinking of the Mayaguez Incident…

  • Put remote control Artillery/ mortars on the trucks; heavy machine guns on the KMax and predators with their missiles and you have a real strike force…..

  • Lean manning of convoys might put fewer people in immediate danger, but reduced manpower increases the risk that you’ll be unable to deal with all contingencies.

    Drivers and vehicle commanders don’t just sit there looking pretty either, they also provide situational awareness, and deal with the relatively minor problems that would otherwise stop a robot truck in its tracks – a damaged tyre, a blocked air filter, etc. The truck’s crew is also usualy involved in loading, securing, checking and unloading the truck’s cargo – in future, will there be just one very busy logistician responsible for the loads carried on a dozen trucks?

  • Raraavis

    Who gets out to push when one of the trucks get stuck.

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