After almost three years in Afghanistan, 2,150 flight hours and more than 1,950 sorties, the Marine Corps’ two K-MAX unmanned helicopters are being put out to pasture in central New York State.
The unmanned rotary wing aircraft—which hauled a total of 4.5 million lbs. of cargo across southern Afghanistan since December 2011 for Marines operating out of Camp Dwyer and Camp Leatherneck in volatile Helmand province—had already far outlived the six-month “assessment” deployment which which it was originally tasked.
But now it looks like the experiment is finally over, and no one quite knows what to do next.
Originally manufactured by Kaman Aerospace, Lockheed Martin took the existing airframe and outfitted the utility helicopter with mission packages to allowed it to sling load up to 6,000 lbs. of cargo at a time, while flying mostly at night to avoid ground fire from Taliban gunners.
By all accounts a wildly successful deployment even after one of the birds crashed in June 2013 under circumstances that were never explained, the Marines on the ground requested several times that the original deployment be extended since resupplying small outposts by unmanned aircraft allowed them to keep grunts off the IED-leaden roads.
On a call with reporters on Thursday, Navy Capt. Patrick Smith, program manager for Navy and Marine Corps Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air Systems said now that both helos are back in the States, the Corps and Lockheed will store them while they work to “continue demonstrations looking for opportunities in fiscal year 2015” for demonstrations with Marine and Army leadership on cargo lift missions, while continuing the development of concepts of operations for the future.
The Marines have talked about making the K-MAX a program of record and funding it in its base budget, but that has yet to materialize. Currently, “that’s in the planning phases only” Smith said. Lockheed officials said last year said that a buy of about 16 helicopters would probably be needed to make it a program of record.
For its part, the Army showed some early interest in the platform only to abandon it despite the Marines’ successes in Afghanistan. But Smith added that the service is still interested in the beacon technology that the Corps added to the bird while on its deployment. The beacon, which is small enough for a Marine to carry on his back, allows the K-MAX to fly to within three meters of the beacon.
But the Army continues to take a wait and see approach with unmanned cargo lift.
Until then, the K-MAX will be sitting, waiting.