The Marine Corps Works the Next Phase of their Use of UAVs: The Perspective from MAWTS-1


By Robbin Laird

I wrote a chapter in the 2018 book entitled, One Nation Under Drones, which focused on the experience of the USMC with UAVs to date. I wrote this piece as the Marines were shifting from the primary focus on the land wars and to an enhanced focus on amphibious operations. During operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines joined in with the U.S. Army and used the Shadow unmanned aerial system, for similar operations as the U.S. Army was engaged in the land wars.

But concurrently with the introduction of Shadow into the Corps, the ScanEagle was also introduced.  And this system would fit the trajectory of the evolution of the Corps as it moved from a primary occupation with the land wars to a “return to the sea” and the joining of unmanned systems to the significant evolution of the Amphibious-Read Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit pairing into a flexible amphibious ready task force, a change driven initially by the introduction of the Osprey but being reshaped as other manned aircraft systems come to the force and unmanned systems woven into the overall force insertion capability of the amphibious task force.

The Scan Eagle-Blackjack transition was part of the shift in focus from the land wars to amphibious at sea operations. When I wrote the essay the focus was upon shaping capabilities to be launched from a ship to support the ground maneuver element. At the time, the Marine Corps leadership was focused on a program called MUX (MAGTF Unmanned eXpeditionary UAS) which the aviation plan at the time projected initial operations in the 2025 time frame.

But as the then Deputy Commandant of Aviation, LtGen Rudder noted in 2020, that the MUX was being shelved in favor of a different approach.

“I think what we discovered with the MUX program is that it’s going to require a family of systems. The initial requirement had a long list of very critical requirements, but when we did the analysis and tried to fit it inside one air vehicle,” they realized they had competing needs, Rudder said.

“With a family of systems approach, my sense is we’re going to have an air vehicle that can do some of the requirements, some of the higher-end requirements, potentially from a land-based high-endurance vehicle, but we’re still going to maintain a shipboard capability, it just may not be as big as we originally configured.”

“The MUX program – formally the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Expeditionary – was meant to be a Group 5 UAS, the largest of the categories with highest altitude and greatest endurance. It would cover seven missions: command, control and communication; early warning; persistent fires; escort; electronic warfare; reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition (RISTA); and tactical distribution…

“Program officials realized they had a huge task ahead of them with so many separate missions, though, and early industry talks showed it may become cost-prohibitive. The seven missions were later sorted into two tiers of priority.

“Still, as Rudder said, it became clear that those higher priority missions were incompatible with shipboard launch and recovery.

“Power output and weight capacity, obviously you get more weight and power output with a ground-based system with a longer runway, expeditionary runway, than you can coming vertically off the back of a ship. Shipboard compatibility continues to be a challenge for all our air vehicles,” Rudder said.”

What has happened since that time is the USMC is buying into the Reaper program and relying on a land based remotely piloted vehicle to provide the support Marines would require for their at sea and from the sea operations. The Marines leased two Reapers from General Atomics since 2018 but then moved from leasing to buying the aircraft in 2021.

When I visited MAWTS-1 in November 2023, I learned how the force was practically moving ahead. MAWTS-1 is a place focused on training an integrated USMC force, not pursing systems that are simply “fairy dust” as one Marine put it to me. It is about how to make the force ready to fight tonight and to do so more effectively.

I discussed the integration of the Reaper into USMC operations with the LtCol Edgardo Cardona, the Executive Officer at MAWTS-1, who is a former DASC officer and current MQ-9A Reaper pilot. LtCol Edgardo Cardona is one of the pilots where the Marines have created a new MOS, which is the 7318 MOS. The Marine Corps Reaper unlike its Predator brethren is not armed so there is not a competition between remotely piloted or manned systems in terms of being trigger pullers.

It is about enhancing the relevant ISR to provide for more effective insertion of force and enabling that force in terms of their operations. This is notably one the most significant changes since I last came to MAWTS-1 in 2020.

The career of the XO has paralleled that of the evolution of USMC experience in UAVs so that he is both a core officer in the evolution of USMC capabilities but has also embodied the transition from the Middle East and the Marines use of Shadow, Scan Eagle, Blackjack and K-MAX.  He has been on the ground floor for the introduction of the Reaper to the Marine Corps.

The XO pointed out that his earlier experience at MAWTS-1 with UAVs, the focus was on deconfliction of the UAVs designed to provide ISR for the ground combat element. Now the focus is upon integration with the air element for the overall integrated operations.

The Reaper is working with the combat air elements in sharing a common operational picture and to enable those aircraft to have a view of the objective area prior to reaching it and to in turn to be able to enhance their ability to support the overall Marine Corps force being inserted into that objective area.

The XO underscored that MAWTS-1 was working closely with the USAF on Reaper operations and sharing experience and understanding their different operational requirements as well.

He underscored: “Our goal with Reaper operations is to create a common operational picture enabling ground force commanders or maritime component commanders to make real time decisions based on a plethora of information that we’re providing. And we’re also focused on fusing different data links that are coming down from different services together to create that operational picture.”

He went to note that “we see the MQ-9 as a good F-150 or a good reliable truck that can operate at long range and is reliable. But it is the payloads that are crucial to us and are ability to take the data generated by the payloads and use our digitally interoperable systems to distribute the data throughout the MAGTF.”

When he came to MAWTS-1 in 2020, he underscored: “We needed to figure out how to shape an MQ-9 program within the WTI focus of MAWTS-1. Training is a key piece in standing up a new capability and at MAWTS-1, it is about integrated MAGTF capability. We are not training a stand-alone force.”

The XO noted that they reached out to the Air Force to help validate their initial MQ-9 training approach, and now they share lessons learned and share training slots when appropriate. “We are working with the ACC and Headquarters USMC to set up an exchange program to foster the expertise required.”

“Any time I have excess capacity, I will take an Air Force student and make them a WTI. And then they will return to the Air Force community. We have a Marine currently in the Air Force 26 Weapons School training program who will graduate in December. So now we have a WTIs in the Air Force, and we’re going to have USAF weapons school graduates in the Marine Corps who are Marines. And it fosters a lot of TTP development, a lot of great relationships with the Air Force.”

He noted as well that they are tied in with the operational test community via VMX-1. They want to do integrated testing on new sensor suites and to be able to provide user input prior to the decision of what exactly gets produced and acquired.

Personally, I believe that the Marines will need to become major players in autonomous systems – airborne, and surface and below surface systems—but the Reaper is beginning the process. But certainly, the unique integrated mission sets the Marines work through a MAGTF will drive innovation which the joint force needs to note.

Featured Photo: U.S. Marines, assigned to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and U.S. Air Force Airmen, assigned to the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, pose in front of an MQ-9 Reaper at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, August 23, 2023. The agile combat employment (ACE) exercise known as Agile Hunter saw an Air Force MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft land on Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base, for the first time ever. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ariel O’Shea.