U.S. Marines Deploy Blackjack UAS to Afghanistan

 - June 4, 2014, 10:36 AM
U.S. Marines at Cherry Point, N.C., prepare to launch the RQ-21A. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

The U.S. Marine Corps has deployed the new RQ-21A Blackjack unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to Afghanistan through an early operational capability. The 135-pound-mtow aircraft is undergoing initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E), a phase the service expects to complete this year.

Last month, Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 (VMU-2) conducted the “first early operational capability flight” of the RQ-21A “in a combat area of responsibility,” according to the Naval Air Systems Command (Navair). VMU-2 will use one Blackjack system, comprising five air vehicles, two ground control systems and launch and recovery support equipment, for intelligence, surveillance and reconaissance (ISR) missions. The Blackjack “will provide the Navy and Marine Corps warfighter with immediate situational awareness via visual, voice communication and other multi-intelligence data collection capabilities,” Navair said.

At the Unmanned Systems conference in mid-May, Ryan Hartman, senior vice president with manufacturer Insitu, said the Marines had recently deployed with the Blackjack to Afghanistan and expected to fly it within days. The system’s IOT&E phase, which started in January, is slated to end later this year, he said. Insitu calls the Blackjack “the first organic and dedicated multi-intelligence” UAS for Navy and Marine tactical commanders.

As the contracting authority, Navair selected the Insitu Integrator-based RQ-21A for the services’ small tactical UAS program in July 2010. The Marines Corps requirement is for 32 RQ-21A systems; the Navy seeks 25 systems. The RQ-21A has a maximum payload of 39 pounds and is capable of a variety of payloads. A standard payload configuration includes electro-optic camera, mid-wave infrared imager, laser rangefinder, IR marker, communications relay package and Automatic Identification System receivers.

VMU-2, based at Cherry Point, N.C., is the service’s first Blackjack squadron. In March, VMU-2 announced that it flew a pair of RQ-21As for the first time from Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic along the North Carolina coast. The squadron’s mission is to provide aerial ISR for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and II Marine Expeditionary Force.