Marines Work to Extend K-MAX in Afghanistan Through 2014

QUANTICO MARINE BASE, Va. — The Marine Corps is working on a contract with Lockheed Martin to extend the deployment of the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter to Afghanistan through 2014, industry officials said.

Marine Corps officials sent K-MAX to Afghanistan in November 2011 more or less as an experiment. Almost two years later, the K-MAX is still flying missions in Afghanistan.

Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace teamed up to develop K-MAX. The unmanned cargo aircraft can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo. In one day, the aircraft flew 30,000 pounds of cargo in the course of six missions.

Two K-MAX helicopters had been flying in Afghanistan, but a one crashed in June. The helicopter was not destroyed, but it is still waiting to be shipped back for repairs. The other K-MAX continues to fly missions, Terry Fogarty, a Kaman official, said here at the Modern Day Marine Exposition.

Marine officials have not released results of the investigation into the crash. However, Fogarty said the crash was not caused by mechanical problems.

The crash occurred as Marine units operating the K-MAX have introduced new technologies and expanded the operational envelope of the helicopter.

Marines and defense contractors operating the K-MAX have started loading and unloading the unmanned helicopter while the cargo UAS remains in a hover, Fogarty said in June at the Paris Air Show. This allows the Marines to fly more missions, but it also shows the confidence the Marines have in the aircraft.

Lockheed and Kaman have also introduced a beacon to the unmanned helicopter. When turned on, the K-MAX will fly directly to within three meters of the beacon, which is small enough for a Marine to carry on his pack. This could set up new possibilities for units to be resupplied on the move.

Questions remain whether the Marine Corps will have the funds to turn the K-MAX into a program of record and build more of these helicopters. Congress has shown their support for the program and even urged the Army to explore developing a similar unmanned cargo helicopter program.

In May, the House Armed Services Committee urged the Army to boost its efforts toward adding a cargo UAS program. Lawmakers want the Army to estimate the cost to buy, operate and sustain a cargo UAS program similar to K-MAX. The panel also wants details on how a cargo UAS program would fit into the Army’s larger logistical structure.

The Marine Corps is further along in its efforts to add the K-MAX to its permanent fleet. Navy and Marine Corps officials have discussed with Lockheed and Kaman how many K-MAX helicopters would be enough for a baseline start. The companies and services have discussed the purchase of 16 helicopters to start the program, said Dan Spoor, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, in June.

With plenty of budget certainty surrounding the Defense Department, even with Congress’ support, it remains a challenge to establish a new program. Analysts and military leaders will watch closely to see if the Marine Corps can break down the barriers and build more K-MAX helicopters after their relatively clean track record in combat.


About the Author

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

    Congress has shown their support for the program and even urged the Army to explore developing a similar unmanned cargo helicopter program.
    Develop a *similar* one? Really? Is the army resupply mission really *that* different from the USMC? Enough to spend (waste?) billions of dollars of taxpayer money?

  • jsallison

    Paint it green and call it good.

  • majr0d

    There have been several glowing articles here on the K-MAX. I find the lack of discussion of specifics very telling.

    What kind of infrastructure does it take to operate the K-MAX? Camp Leatherneck is not an austere COP or even a limited FOB. Ship to shore ops aren’t exactly austere either if you have all the time in the world to outfit a ship with the equipment required to operate the K-MAX.

    Am I the only person that thinks it’s very interesting that this potentially revolutionary resupply capability hasn’t been pushed out to operate from a more austere base? How much of the operation of the K-MAX is being done by the Marines independently after two years? Why don’t we know why the other K-MAX crashed two months ago?

    I’m not surprised Congress is pushing the Army to look at the K-MAX without asking these questions. They tend to put the cart before the horse and buy snake oil by the gallon.

  • Cpt. J.B.

    ??? I have my reservations, first of all what is wrong with the current operational resupply method??? Are we really wanting to move in the direction of having pilotless aircraft in combat. Yes it is true that we use Drones every day, But all of the service branches have a large inventory of piloted rotory wing aircraft and pilots that work fine. So why wast more money on something we really do not need???

    • Chuck Mock

      …the current resupply method puts pilots of a helicopter in a direct line of fire (makes them a sitting duck) while they are unloading cargo from the long line sling system. In other words, there is risk to people…

    • Curt

      There are numerous reasons to have a KMAX like resupply capability, especially for the Marines. First,space on a LHD is limited, a Fairly large number of KMAX could be added to a LHD without effecting other aircraft. So it allows the H-53s, V-22s, and UH-1s to do other things beside routines supply runs. Second, in a distributed operation, Helos are at a premium for mobility, so basic supply can be pushed to KMAX. Finally, KMAX is way cheaper than a manned Helo, both to procure, to operate, and to man (one operator who can practice on a simulator versus two pilots that need to really fly). So for routine missions, it makes all kinds of sense, especially if you aren’t displacing manned Helos.

  • C-Low

    I think the Army is wanting to develop a kit/package that can be used with the MH-60. The Kmax was a civilian helo and I think the idea is making a control package that can be installed in the MH-60. It will cost more to develop (more complicated flight control) but the Army has plenty of frames to upgrade which if used in numbers will save money in the end.

  • brownie

    No, The K-Max software and control system is being greatly improved.
    However, my guess is with just ONE K-Max, the Marines are simply trying to keep the defense contractor AND Congressmen happy. They have no intention of funding this great concept!


    Hmm. Just wondering, but what will eventually replace this? Its already a great platform; will it turn into another Chinook and still be in service 50 years from now?

  • tiger

    If one crashed in June, Why is it still not shipped home in September?

  • Super Tex

    This beats the hell out of the Marines Robot Dog……….