Marine Corps Testing Black Jack Drone

The Marine Corps is testing a new 135-pound, catapult-launched drone that can take off from an amphibious assault ship and climb to 15,000 feet with multi-intelligence sensors mounted onboard, service officials said.

The RQ-21A, or “Black Jack” UAS, can fly for up to 16 hours at ranges out to 100 miles. It is slated to reach initial operating capability by 2014, said Maj. Wayne Phelps, requirements officer, headquarters Marine Corps, aviation branch.

The Marine Corps plans to buy 160 RQ-21A air vehicles, making up a buy of 32 systems each with 5 air vehicles per system, Phelps said.

Unlike its smaller counterpart, the catapult-launched Scan Eagle UAS which does not have simultaneous multi-int sensor capability, the RQ-21A can use EO/IR in conjunction with other technologies such as communications-relay, Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR and Ground Moving Target Indicator, or GMTI, among others.

“It has a configurable payload that allows you to integrate new and unique payloads that are specific to the mission in addition to an EO/IR camera. You can have multi-mission ability. This allows you to do some type of unique cross-cueing types of mission,” Phelps said.

Also, unlike the Scan-Eagle, which is operated by contractors, the RQ-21A will be organic to the Corps, meaning it will be owned and operated by Marines. Both the Scan Eagle and RQ-21A are made by Insitu.

The RQ-21A is engineered to catapult launch from a LPD San Antonio-class amphibious assault ship which often transport Marine Expeditionary Units.  The “Black Jack” system is now going through land and ship-based operational test in preparation for its first deployment next year with the 24th MEU, Phelps said.

In fact some of the testing of the RQ-21A at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., has demonstrated a manned-unmanned airborne teaming capability. Marines flying in the back of an MV-22 Osprey helicopter were able to control the RQ-21A using a tablet-type computer screen, Phelps explained.

“They were able to slew the camera to see different points and control the sensor,” he said.

SAR technology provides a rendering or image of the terrain below using electromagnetic signals, allowing operators to see through bad weather.  GMTI provides indication of and location details for ground movements on the terrain below such as a convoy or moving vehicle.  The RQ-21A also has a change detection technology and a sensor capability called Wide Area Motion Imagery providing operators with a wide view over an area.

Since the RQ-21A’s standard EO/IR view of the terrain below could be analogous to a “soda-straw” view, this Wide Area Motion Imagery could, by contrast, be helpful in a possible humanitarian disaster situation, Phelps explained.

The communications  relay capability is significant in that it allows the RQ-21A UAS to function like a “node” in broader network and, for instance, connect the ship to shore, Phelps explained.

The RQ-21A can not only be catapult launched from the ship, but also transported to shore on an amphibious vehicle called a Landing Craft Air Cushion, or LCAC, Phelps said. He also indicated that the RQ-21A could travel on a HMMWV or sling-load beneath a CH-53 helicopter.  The RQ-21A also operates off of a heavy-fuel engine, meaning it can use the same fuel as a vehicle such as a HMMWV, Phelps said.

The Marine Corps RQ-21A acquisition is an integral part of a broader strategy to expand the corps UAS capabilities in light of the Pentagon’s shift or “rebalance” to the Pacific.

The Black Jack will take its place amidst a growing collection of UAS in the Corps’ inventory.  The Marines currently have 52 RQ-7 Shadow UAS, 439 small, hand-held Raven UAS and a handful of Puma and Wasp systems, Phelps said.

The Corps is also in the very early stages of sketching requirements and desired technologies for a new Marine Corps UAS which, among other things, is capable of electronic warfare.

The as of yet unnamed platform is being designed to have greater endurance, greater range and greater power capabilities, Phelps explained.

“We’re still defining what the requirements are for the Marine Corps for this. We’ve been experimenting through tactical demonstrations with our weapons and tactics instructor course on some of the capabilities we think need to be resident at the tactical edge of unmanned aircraft systems,” he said.





About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • EW3

    That is a lot of capability for a 135lb bird.
    If this is not a pipe dream, the USN should use them on the LCS. Never can have too many sensors out there.

    • Tad

      The thought that crossed my mind is that maybe the amphibs should be used to replace the LCS. After all, most missions these days seem to revolve around helicopters and drones of various types.

      • blight_

        LCS is just a Drone Mothership. A very expensive one.

    • Davis

      Too bad the US didn’t have Black Jack in WWII, could have saved many lives

      • blight_

        If we had JDAM in world war two, it would have ended the war.

        • wren

          F-35 would have helped as well. On second though, maybe not… P-51 was reliable and it had no code that would crash

          • freeamerica

            The F-35 v. P-51? That’s a JSF hater for ya.

        • Smith28

          If a JDAM could have ended WWII, imagine what a MOAB would have accomplish. lol.

  • Ben

    Northrop’s Bat seems to be a much better choice to me:…

  • oblatt2

    More Marine duplication. Scrap the marines and end half our procurement problems in a one step.

    • pat
      • oblatt2

        Sure Marines have the best PR that’s how the survive. On the ground they are pretty much second rate in every aspect.

    • Semper fi

      One marine supply clerk is the equivalent of ten army grunts. When they needed to clean out Felluja they sent the Army boys home and brought in the Marines, Pentagon new who could get the job done.

      • blight_

        That’s a strange way to remember it.

        82nd, followed by 101st had responsibility for the area, before things began to get worse. Follow with switchover to the Marines, and the death of the contractors. (The latter two events aren’t correlated…?)

        Operation Vigilant Resolve: Marines fail to take Fallujah. 1 MEF is insufficient to clear the city, though using Semper fi’s math, ~2,000 marines is 20,000 “army grunts”.

        Edit: Forgot about Najaf. Sadr was torn a new one, thanks to the combined army/Marine team.

        Operation Phantom Fury: An Army/Marine team (with the Army providing the bulk of the armor) is successful in securing Fallujah. This time 10k troops are brought in for the job, plus sufficient mechanized support.

        The lesson learned from OIF is clear: bring two mechanized battalions to MOUT, and not just amtraks and a token number of tanks.…

        What’s so sad is that the first chapter /must/ begin with a conversation about interservice rivalry. It’s that bad.

        Of course, if the Marines who are team players survive the bone-crushing up-or-out experience, then the services will be the better for it. Amusingly, the Marine experience with successful tank operations in “non-tank-country” areas may have motivated them to try and bring a unit of them to Afghanistan…though only after Leopards were brought to Afghanistan.

        It is probable interservice rivalry will simply continue as a dog-and-pony show for the lowest-ranked and the armchairs, since it is clear they are well on their way to being interoperable.

    • splat oblatt

      then there would be nobody to protect the army, navy, and air force.

  • Gene

    An Extra set of eyes would have helped us along the DMZ.
    Just think what the Marines of the 68′ time period would say….
    Bring it on!

    DMZ 68′[

    • Gene Miller

      You are 100% correct!
      Would have been great at ConThien, especially during the rains.

  • BlackOwl18E

    I think this would be a good item to sell to some allies in Southeast Asia.

  • hibeam

    Test them along the Southern border. Test about 500 of them spaced every 5 miles. Test them every day and every night. Forever.

    • oblatt2

      Its a non-starter the Marines cant go anywhere that hasnt been occupied by the army before hand.

      • 1387FURF

        really ignorant (if not Stupid) comment, child; guess you never heard of Guadalcanal?

        • Muttling

          Or Iwo Jima

          • AlD

            Or Korea & Iran (where the USMC was in the toughest areas).

          • oblatt2

            I always put it down to the quality of the personnel they attract. If your the sort of person that thinks frontal assaults onto a dug in enemy on useless bits of rock are a good idea you are probably attracted to the marines.

            Afghanistan proved that the Marines were all PR and spin.

          • Christopher Bloom

            You mean Iraq?

  • Lance

    Finally a new system that we need looks like a good small recon drone and Is very portable with long range. Hope the Army takes a look.

  • Tyler Totten

    Also, it’s supposed to be Blackjack, not two words. Look at the Insitu website.

  • ike

    Waste of taxpayer money.

    • Smith28

      What’s a waste of TP money is the unbelieveable number of camouflage uniforms we have. Some that make no sense what’s so ever, ex. the AF ABUs the only thing I can blend in with is the couch in the squadron bar.

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