Marines Extend K-Max Deployment in Afghanistan

 - August 3, 2012, 11:58 AM
The U.S. Marine Corps has operated two unmanned K-Max helicopters in Afghanistan exclusively at night. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The U.S. Marine Corps has extended the deployment of two K-Max unmanned helicopters used for cargo resupply missions in Afghanistan by six months, through March next year. The extension, announced on July 31, is the second this year and includes an option to extend the deployment through September next year.

“The K-Max has proved its value as a reliable cargo resupply aircraft and an asset that saves lives,” by reducing the exposure of ground troops to improvised explosive devices, said Vice Adm. David Architzel, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command (Navair), which is managing the program for the Marines.

Before the latest extension, the officer in charge of the Marines’ VMU-1 cargo detachment described the unmanned cargo mission as a “viable capability,” according to Navair. Maj. Kyle O’Connor said the K-Max is fully mission-capable 90 percent of the time, with inclement weather responsible for 5 percent of the down time. The aircraft requires “less than two hours” of maintenance per flight hour.

O’Connor listed several deployment challenges, among them safety zone restrictions associated with a UAS, the size and weight of system containers and the lack of a remote “kill switch” to shut down the helicopter, Navair said.

The cargo resupply unmanned aircraft system (Cruas), based on the piloted Kaman K-Max intermeshing-rotor utility helicopter, was developed by Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace in response to a joint urgent operational need statement by the Marine Corps in 2010. Navair awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin to deliver the aircraft late last year. The K-Max carried its first external sling load in Afghanistan on December 17 last year.

As of July, the two K-Max helicopters had logged 485 sorties over 525 flight hours–all at night–and lifted 1.6 million pounds of cargo. “Most missions lasted about one hour and included a 20-minute turnaround time during which a pilot [would climb] into the helicopter to shut it down, refuel it, hook up the cargo and then start it back up,” Navair said. The K-Max now regularly carries cargo on the return flight from a forward operating base, Lockheed Martin said.

At Fort Pickett, Virginia, the company recently completed testing of a beacon capability that enables the K-Max to deliver cargo within 10 feet of a drop point. Jim Naylor, Lockheed Martin’s K-Max business development director, said the beacon will eventually be fielded by the Marines in Afghanistan and is among new capabilities being developed under a contract from the Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis, Virginia, to enhance the cargo UAS mission.