The US Marine Corps envisions teaming the medium-lift future vertical lift aircraft up with its own expeditionary group 5 UAV, though service officials say they will not force the pairing if timelines do not meet up.

The Marine Air Ground Task Force – Unmanned Expeditionary Capabilities, also known as MUX, would work with the FVL-medium lift aircraft on capability set 3, which will perform assault, maritime interdiction, medical evacuation, tactical resupply and combat search and rescue operations. The Marines are designing MUX to end the service’s reliance on the US Air Force’s fleet of MQ-9 Reapers and MQ-1 Predators for expeditionary missions. Initial concepts sketch out a multi-sensor, electronic warfare, C4 and strike platform that would complement the Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor and Lockheed Martin F-35B.

During an FVL panel at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Col John Barranco, the US Marine Corps’ Aviation Weapons Systems aviation requirements branch head laid out his vision for the MUX and FVL team. Barranco admits that the Marines are behind in manned and unmanned teaming, which the US Army has pursued with the AH-64E Apache and RQ-7 Shadow.

“We have not taken it to the degree that army has, it’s one of our goals in the future,” Barranco says. “The Marine Corps is developing group 5 shipboard VTOL UAS that we envision being partnered with FVL [capability] set 3, so we look at them working very closely in tandem in parallel.”

The Marines are targeting a similar range and speed between the MUX and FVL platforms so the service could have the option to buy from the same equipment manufacturer, Barranco says. But while the Marines want as much commonality and sustainability savings as possible, the service will not force a single source buy for the two platforms, he adds.

MUX’s accelerated timeline could split that vision of a married acquisition. The Marine Corps has set an aggressive schedule for the UAV, pushing for a technology demonstration effort in 2018 and initial operational capability in 2026. FVL would not see its Navy fleet debut until about 2033, though the service could accelerate that timeline with additional funding, Barranco says.

The Marines could further accelerate MUX’s fielding time by leveraging some of the technology being developed under the FVL programme, he says. The unmanned nature of the MUX also puts a lower premium on the aircraft’s survivability. A large part of US Naval Air Systems Command’s certification process involves examining aircrew life support systems and aircrew survivability, which would not be included on an unmanned system, Barranco says.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps will determine the look of the MUX in its upcoming analysis of alternatives. The service must fill at least six capability gaps with the MUX, but the Marines have also identified unmanned cargo logistics as a seventh and critical capability. Though industry has developed solutions for the first six gaps, the seventh capability would allow the service to take cargo trucks off the road and away from IEDs, Barranco says.

“Particularly if you look at our Marine logistics groups to our folks on the ground, we lost a lot of people on the road in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot, and we want to get the trucks off the road,” he says. “If you look at some of our patrol bases in austere environments that have to be resupplied by air, an unmanned system doesn’t care that the visibility is zero because of blowing dust storms.”

If the Marines drive requirements that call for expeditionary, strike and unmanned cargo missions though, that could drive the service to buy two separate platforms for MUX.

“I don’t think we have the manpower for that, and that kind of drags us back to one material solution,” he says. “I don’t know that we’re going to have the extra bodies to carve two different kinds of squadrons to cover all seven missions. If I can do it with one, that’s really what I want to do.”