The US Marine Corps, which has largely relied on small tactical and hand-launched unmanned air systems, announced recently it is in the market for a larger, long-endurance type.

Marine Aviation Plan 2015 is the first planning document to mention a requirement for a medium- to high-altitude, long-endurance UAS, which brings to mind the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper operated by the US Air Force.

The Marines have been the lone hold-out among US military services against operating General Atomics platforms, relying so far on hand-launched aircraft that are well suited to gathering airborne intelligence for small units in expeditionary environments.

Doug Hardison, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ strategic development manager for US Navy and Marine Corps programmes, says impending changes to the Marine’s shipboard aircraft fleet have put it in the market for a larger UAS.

Beginning in fiscal year 2016, the USMC will gradually retire its fleet of 20 Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft. The service intends to replace them with an operational concept called Marine Air-Ground Task Force Electronic Warfare (MAGTF-EW).

A key component of MAGTF-EW is to offload at least some of the electronic warfare mission to larger, longer-range unmanned air systems, Hardison says. The decision to pursue a programme of record was made during FY2014, according to Headquarters Marine Corps. The service then launched a capabilities assessment of MALE/HALE unmanned aircraft, which is ongoing.

Introduction of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, which allows Marines to operate at vastly greater distances than traditional rotorcraft, has created a need for unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems that can keep up with them, Hardison says.

“They envision a larger UAS that’s got the long endurance, long range, that is a truck where you can change out payloads quickly, where you can upgrade payloads quickly, and you are now in a position to support all the other new equipment in Marine aviation.”

The USMC is looking for systems that can take off from land and be controlled from a ship that can go wherever a Marine Expeditionary Unit's two dedicated Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules aircraft can go.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems plans to offer a UAS that can access any airfield on which a KC-130 can land and take off, generally a runway of between 3,000ft (914m) and 3,500ft in length, Hardison says. The company has already worked with the USAF to modify the MQ-9, including increasing engine power.

“The residual benefit of that is we have a capability that is more expeditionary,” he says.

The Marines already operate the Boeing-Insitu RQ-21 Integrator, which can be launched and recovered from a ship or on shore. The MQ-X is the “next logical step”, Hardison says.

“That’s why the Marine Corps is finally ending up in the direction that it’s headed with regards to introducing the MQ-X.”