Story by Cpl. Johnny Merkley
FORWARD OPERATING BASE GERONIMO, Afghanistan – The Marine Corps makes improvements to operational capabilities and equipment with one goal in mind – supporting the Marine on the ground.
One of the Corps’ most recent upgrades is an unmanned aircraft known as a Kaman K-1200, or “K-MAX”, which transported cargo to a Marine patrol base for the first time here, March 15.
“That was the first time this aircraft was used to transport cargo out to a Marine combat outpost,” said Sgt. Trevor M. Scarberry, a cargo unmanned aerial system external operator with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment and native of Choctaw, Okla. “What these aircraft do is keep convoys off the road and out of reach of IED’s (improved explosive device), it also allows us to deliver loads to Marines anywhere at anytime they need them.”
The unmanned helicopter is controlled by a Marine on the ground who manually operates and lands the aircraft using a controller modeled after those from the PlayStation 3 gaming system. This controller was selected by the defense contracting company and aircraft designer, Lockheed Martin.
“I’m not sure why they used a PS3 controller,” said Scarberry. “My guess is because it compliments the generation’s already advanced video gaming abilities.”
Working alongside the 2/6 Marines to oversee and maintain aircraft capability is Lockheed Martin senior engineer James Ledford. The retired Marine lieutenant colonel and former helicopter pilot explained what the future holds for unmanned aircraft in a combat zone.
“This is not a program of record right now, we’re out here as a demonstration of validation of the concept,” said Ledford. “We spent five months in Yuma, Arizona sorting out the airplane and passing all initial tests, this operation proved its capabilities.”
During the operation, the K-Max landed inside the FOB Geronimo landing zone to pick up a load of fuel for delivery to Patrol Base Delmar, one of the smaller position in the 2/6 area of operations. While fuel was the cargo transported during this operation – another first for the K-Max – generators, Meals Ready to Eat boxes and other types of supply used by Marines in the field could moved by the unmanned aircraft.
“It’s used to carry any type of cargo that’s hard to fit inside other aircraft,” said Ledford. “Unmanned aircraft also make the drop and pick up process a lot faster and easier.”
While transporting cargo in an efficient manner is important, there are other reasons why the Marine Corps has become increasingly interested in using unmanned aircraft to transport cargo.
“This program started about three years ago when we started thinking about how we could deliver cargo without exposing people to IED’s and small arms fire,” said Ledford. “Also if you’re flying an unmanned helicopter you don’t have to fly escort helicopters with it, opening up those helicopters to other more important missions.”
It remains to be seen whether or not this project will propel the K-Max into a more prominent role for cargo transportation in the future. For now this unmanned aircraft is helping keep Marines off the roads in southern Helmand, meaning fewer are put in harm’s way.
Editor’s note: Second Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 1st Marine Division (Forward), which works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance