SAN DIEGO — The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed in late February with the ScanEagle unmanned aircraft, marking the first time any MEU has taken the combat-proven drone out to sea for an operational assignment, officials said.
The lightweight ScanEagle is based aboard the dock landing ship Comstock, part of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group, and will support both the MEU, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the Navy strike group it’s partnered with, said Navy Capt. Curtis Shaub, commodore and commander of Amphibious Squadron 1.
The deployment is expected to take Marines and sailors to the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf regions.
Developed by Insitu, Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing Co., ScanEagle has been used extensively since 2004 to support ground combat operations and other missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. At roughly 40 pounds, depending on its payload, it can operate at high or low altitudes for almost 24 hours per flight.
The aircraft must be launched from a large catapult. Marines and sailors can recover it on a ship’s flight deck by catching a hook affixed to the wing. When airborne, ScanEagle’s onboard sensors and electro-optic or infrared camera system can take and relay imagery to ships, other aircraft and ground stations.
Navy units have operated the ScanEagle from ships before. The 13th MEU took it to sea as part of an ongoing experiment to determine whether the drone should be incorporated into the Marine air-ground task force’s regular inventory. Some see it as another potential arrow in the quiver, so to speak, that would expand capabilities when MEUs and their air combat elements and battalion landing teams train and operate from amphibious ships at sea.
“That’s been a gap for the forward-deployed MEUs,” said Col. David Coffman, who commands the 13th MEU and was recently nominated for promotion to brigadier general.
Coffman noted that his peers — colonels who command infantry and artillery regiments or Marine air groups — already have the option of using ScanEagle to broaden their unit’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Within MEUs, the drone will be useful during maritime raids and other missions by providing “eyes in the sky” and relaying real-time information and imagery to commanders, he said.
“An organic (unmanned aerial system) would allow us to gain or maintain contact,” Coffman said, speaking by telephone from the ARG’s flagship, the amphibious assault ship Boxer, an amphibious assault ship. The capability, he said, would “get MEUs in the game,” giving MEU commanders and their subordinate units a proven intel-gathering tool.
Coffman expects that eventually MEUs will be equipped with next-generation unmanned systems. However, there are some kinks that will need to be worked out. Marines deployed aboard the Comstock, for instance, don’t yet have the means to take and operate ScanEagle ashore.
“It’s a suboptimal solution,” Coffman said, but during the MEU’s deployment “we are going to demonstrate the good of a sea-based UAS.”
Marines operated ScanEagle during several at-sea predeployment training exercises late last year, although the 13th MEU missed out on an additional week to train at sea in January when the Comstock remained at San Diego Naval Base for some maintenance work.
“We are going to do training and will work on it all the way across the Pacific,” Coffman said.
A UAS technical team is aboard the ship to assess and work with the Marines as they operate ScanEagle.
“We are working through how to fly it,” Coffman added. “It’s a pretty good step.”