A new unmanned aircraft with a 16-foot wingspan that has taken to the skies over Marine Corps Base Hawaii performs a neat trick: It “lands” by catching a wingtip on a vertical guy wire, eliminating the need for a runway.
That’s important as the Marine Corps — and the rest of the service branches — focus on dispersing forces across the Indo-Pacific to sometimes austere locations to make them less vulnerable to Chinese and Russian missiles.
The RQ-21A Blackjack unmanned aerial system was launched for the first time from Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay on Monday.
Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3 — which used to fly the bigger RQ-7B Shadow — is in the process of receiving four Blackjack systems with five aircraft each, the Corps said.
The 20 Blackjacks, which weigh about 135 pounds each, will fly in Federal Aviation Administration airspace in the vicinity of the Kaneohe Bay air station and at Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii island, according to officials.
The Shadows, with a 20-foot wingspan and weighing about 460 pounds each, have been phased out of the Marine Corps, with the very last flight in the service flown on July 29 during a Rim of the Pacific amphibious landing at Pyramid Rock Beach.
“The Shadow provided real-time footage of the objective area for the Marine Air-Ground Task Force commander to guide his decisions,” Master Sgt. Madhur Sawhney, an air crew chief, said in a Marine Corps news release at the time. “Prior to any forces landing on the beach, we were up in the air gathering intelligence alongside our other air combat element aircraft.”
A detachment to support the Shadow mission included about 70 Marines, but with the Blackjack, it has dropped to 21, Sawhney said.
The demand for surveillance has skyrocketed, whether manned or unmanned aircraft, submarines, or satellites.
The Marine Corps identified a spares and sustainment shortfall in fiscal 2018 due to RQ-21 flight hours over Iraq and Syria exceeding budgeted flight hours by more than 300 percent, military website The War Zone reported.
Hawaii’s VMU-3, the Phantoms, is among three active-duty squadrons to transition to the Blackjack. The aircraft can carry electro-optical and infrared imagers, a laser rangefinder and infrared marker while flying higher than 19,500 feet at a cruise speed of about 70 miles per hour for up to 12 hours.
Blackjacks, which take to the air from a pneumatic launcher, have been deployed to Navy ships.
“The biggest benefit is it doesn’t require a flightline to be launched or recovered,” said 2nd Lt. Colin Kennard with Marine Aircraft Group 24 in Hawaii. “So we can take it to an austere environment, or, the biggest thing, we can put it on the back of a ship and launch it from anywhere in the world. So that’s the unique aspect here.”