Airbus will demonstrate an uncrewed version of its UH-72 utility rotorcraft for the US Marine Corps (USMC).

The US-based subsidiary of the European airframer says it was selected under the USMC’s Aerial Logistics Connector programme to develop a flight-capable prototype that will participate in a series of “operational experiments”.

US Naval Air Systems Command, which manages aircraft procurement for the USMC and US Navy (USN), awarded Airbus US an unspecified amount of funding to support rapid prototyping of an uncrewed UH-72B. The conventionally piloted version of the type is currently in service with the US Army under the designation UH-72 Lakota and also used by the USN. 

The UH-72 is derived from the Airbus H145 line of helicopters, which currently offers both civil and military configurations.

Airbus says the forthcoming Unmanned Logistics Connector variant of the UH-72 will be oriented toward providing logistical support to expeditionary operations within contested environments – a major focus for the USMC.

“Our unmanned UH-72 logistics connector leverages nearly two decades of US military capability and offers marines a versatile, affordable and enduring solution to address logistics missions around the globe,” says Rob Geckle, chief executive of Airbus US Space & Defense.

Contested logistics, as the concept is known, has become a concern for the USMC in recent years. Following two decades of ground wars in the Middle East, the service has sought to develop a niche as Washington’s go-to force for expeditionary operations in the Indo-Pacific region.

That effort has involved development of new strategies based around small units of shore-based combat troops supported by ships far out to sea – where vessels can remain safe from enemy precision munitions.

Such tactics require the ability to deliver fresh ammunition and supplies to shore, potentially through dangerous airspace. As an answer to that hazard, the USMC is exploring a range of options, including everything from autonomous quadcopter drones to piloted wing-in-ground effect “seagliders” that would skim above the ocean’s surface at high speed.

UH-72A Lakota - US Army

Source: Airbus US

The UH-72 is currently in service with the US Army in a light utility role, supporting disaster response and medical evacuation

The Aerial Logistics Connector programme, which appears to be targeting the larger end of the UAV spectrum, aims to deliver operational aircraft by the end of this decade.

Should the Airbus bid prove successful, it would mark a major expansion of the company’s defence business within the USA. Currently the UH-72 serves as a training helicopter for the USN and a light utility platform for Army National Guard, primarily supporting disaster relief and medical evacuation.

The army UH-72 fleet numbers 478 aircraft, while navy operates just five examples, according to Cirium data.

New orders from the USMC could also help offset the loss of business from the US Coast Guard, which plans to retire its fleet of 98 Airbus Helicopters MH-65 Dolphin search and rescue rotorcraft.

The service wants to transition to a fleet composed entirely of longer-range Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawks – a derivative of the venerable UH-60 Black Hawk.

That plan has attracted criticism from government auditors, who cite the MH-65’s ability to operate from Coast Guard cutter ships as a unique capability.