The moment that the helicopter touched the ground on a dusty airfield in southern Afghanistan, the game had changed. After a decade of sending vulnerable, manpower-intensive, fuel-sucking ground convoys to resupply troops at far-flung combat outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan—and seeing those convoys consistently ambushed, blown up or delayed—the U.S. Marine Corps had had enough. So on Dec. 17, the Corps not only took to the air to deliver supplies to its grunts, but it did so using the K-MAX remotely piloted helicopter.
And as of the end of January, the K-MAX has delivered over 100,000 lb. of cargo on more than 50 unmanned resupply missions, according to numbers provided by Lockheed Martin, which produces the K-MAX along with Kaman Aerospace.
On its maiden flight, the K-MAX was dispatched from Camp Dwyer to deliver supplies to Marines at Combat Outpost Payne in Helmand province, delivering 3,500 lb. of food and other supplies. One subsequent resupply mission saw the bird haul a 4,200-lb. generator in a single load, Lockheed’s Jeff Brown says.
During pre-deployment testing, the K-MAX was able to exceed the Navy and Marine Corps’ requirement to deliver 6,000 lb. of cargo per day over a five-day period, lugging a total of 33,400 lb. of cargo and topping out at about 3,500 lb. delivered in a single mission, the Marines have said. Plus, with its four-hook carousel, K-MAX can also supply multiple locations in one flight. The Marines say that they’ll continue to collect data on the K-MAX’s performance over the next six months, and once they analyze how effectively the aircraft performed they will make the decision whether or not to make it a program of record.
And you can bet the Army is keeping a close eye on the program. In August, the service awarded the Lockheed/Kaman team $47 million to continue work on the K-MAX program—testing was done this past fall at Ft. Benning—while wrapping up a larger study on a full range of unmanned cargo options.
The tests will help the service build a formal program of record for an unmanned vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) capability, a program which we already know Textron/AAI is very interested in. Steve Reid, the company’s senior VP and general manager for unmanned systems, says that the company has signed a license agreement with Carter Aviation for a manned, four-person rotary-wing asset that Textron is working on turning into an unmanned asset that “would do the cargo mission that’s being talked about” quite nicely. The Navy has also been busy with other unmanned options, including awarding Northrop Grumman a contract in September to supply 28 MQ-8C Fire Scout VTOL-UAS’s (based on Bell’s 407 helicopter airframe), which the company has touted for its cargo-lugging capabilities.