Embrace UAS ‘Guardian Angels’ Immediately: Our Corps is 15 Years Behind

  by Capt Cory Radcliffe the Marine Corps Gazette 2016 Chase Essay Contest FIRST PLACE WINNER

Bottom-line: our aviation combat element (ACE) cannot provide air superiority or the persistent close air support (CAS) that our ground combat element (GCE) deserves, at any point across the range of military operations (ROMO). Immediately embracing medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAS is the fastest and most cost effective way to fix this problem.

As each day passes, our Corps’ non-existent MALE UAS capability status and projected path forward leave our MAGTFs increasingly, if not exponentially, behind our present and forecasted adversaries, as well as the rest of the DoD, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), NASA, and our closest allies.  The consequences of these organic MAGTF deficiencies are severe. In the case of persistent, long range, armed, multi-sensor, C2 extending, and digitally interoperable MALE UAS capabilities, over the past 12 years numerous urgent and deliberate universal needs statements (UUNS)/DUNSs)[i], deployment and exercise after action reports[ii], GCE leadership feedback forums[iii], UAS Transition Task Forces (TTFs), etc. have all clearly identified our Corps’ gaps. Further, Marines have also identified the assets that best supported them in combat. As just one example, a 2/8 forward air controller, who fought in and around Marjah, stated the following about the best CAS platform:

“The deadliest asset was the UK Reaper. This was due to extended time-on-station, diverse precision-guided munition load-out, high fidelity sensor, video downlink capability, reliable communications, imagery analyst part of the flight crew, and stable and reliable terminal guidance operations.”[iv]  

Regardless of all this input, as well as the revolution in UAS occurring seemingly everywhere except in our Corps, when the senior ranking member of the January 2016 UAS TTF began the conference with “there will be no talk about Group IV/V UAS (often synonymous with MALE UAS),[v]” one can only conclude that our leadership is reluctant to face the hard truth that dramatic changes to the current Marine Aviation Plan (AVPLAN) are required – effective immediately.

Figure 1. MQ-9 supporting TALON REACH VII


Lessons Re-Learned

Despite the continued reluctance from some in our Corps to embrace MALE UAS, the critical roles that these assets can fill for our MAGTF were recently demonstrated – again - during TALON REACH VII, an Infantry Officer Course (IOC) training exercise conducted between Yuma and 29 Palms. In this case, due to good fortune in training schedules aligning, the California Air National Guard 163d Operation Group supported the exercise with one of its MQ-9 Reapers, as per Figure 1. Our VMU squadrons were not capable of supporting the exercise due to the RQ-7’s shortfalls in range, communications, sensor capabilities, time on-station, and inability to carry ordnance; the MQ-21 has the same limitations, as well as no ability to laser designate. The MQ-9 found, fixed, targeted, tracked, engaged, and assessed a variety of targets in support of TALON REACH and served in a multitude of aviation roles. I observed this all first-hand, as the Marine Corps’ liaison officer (LNO) to the 163d. In this capacity, I was co-located with the MQ-9 ground control station (GCS) in March Air Reserve Base and in constant communication with the IOC Marines executing the mission. What I observed during this mission was remarkable and solidified the idea that the Corps should make fielding each MEF at least one MQ-9 squadron a top priority. To reinforce this point, the below comments and images seek to summarize how the MQ-9 supported the MAGTF during TALON REACH:

- As per Figures 2 and 3, in support of urban reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) tasking, found enemy small UAS (sUAS) and multiple enemy sUAS operators who were targeting Marine rifle squads;

  Figure 2. Enemy sUAS observed from 17,000+ feet

  Figure 3. sUAS operations center viewed from the MQ-9

- Located a simulated downed pilot in support of a TRAP mission and then as per Figure 4, with the TRAP force embarked on two CH-53s, provided enhanced in route situational awareness about the pilot’s condition, location, and terrain;

  Figure 4. MQ-9 sensor information viewed in KILSWITCH in a CH-53

- Provided over-watch, on-call CAS, and enhanced situational awareness for company landing team (CLT) reinforcements, to include, as per Figure 5, supporting aircraft flying into a chaotic urban battlespace;

  Figure 5. MQ-9 sensor information showing a hostile crowd in KILSWITCH on an AH-1Z’s pilot’s commercial off the shelf (COTs) tablet

- As per Figure 6, demonstrated manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) through target and full motion video (FMV) sharing enabling H-1s to employ ordnance without exposing themselves to a MANPADS threat;

  Figure 6: MUM-T in action; MQ-9 buddy-LASE for an AH-1Z AGM-114 Hellfire

- Served as the primary CAS integration platform, for both simulated and live, air-to-surface attacks, employing four GBU-12s and buddy-lased for three AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, successfully killing 15 enemy personnel, two MANPADS threats, three enemy tanks (Figure 7), and a sUAS operations center;

  Figure 7: MQ-9 GBU-12 strike on enemy high value individual (HVI) coordinating reinforcement mission

- as per Figure 8, enabled advanced digital interoperability across a distributed MAGTF which ensured unprecedented levels of situational awareness between the Marines on the ground, pilots, and sensor operators in the GCS;

  Figure 8: Company level intelligence cell Marines collaborating with pilot and sensor operator in GCS while simultaneously viewing MQ-9 FMV and friendly force locations

- as per Figure 9, extended the UHF tactical air direction communication net more than 3000 miles to Marines located in Virginia, who simultaneously viewed and listened to exchanges between the forward air controller (FAC), MQ-9, and H-1s during the networked fire support team (FST) drills.

  Figure 9: a Marine in Virginia showing his smartphone as he listens and observes from multiple vantage points networked FST drills 3000 miles away in 29 Palms

Beyond these and other TALON REACH successes, the MQ-9 validated a MALE UAS’s ability to support five of the six functions of Marine Aviation: Offensive Air Support, Assault Support, Anti-Air Warfare, Electronic Warfare and Air Reconnaissance. Specific to Control of Aircraft and Missiles, the MQ-9 was more than capable of assuming the role of on-scene commander during the TRAP mission and is also an ideal candidate to act as the strike coordination and reconnaissance coordinator.  

Repeatedly throughout Talon Reach VII, the words “situational awareness” were mentioned either in the context of adding situational awareness for the GCE or the amount of situational awareness in the MQ-9 cockpit.  From the Marine in the fight at the tip of the spear to the mission commander, the MQ-9’s video, moving target indications data, digital target plots, and communications extension capabilities were readily available, unlike any other aviation asset in the Marine Corps’ inventory.  Further, from helping determine quick reaction force (QRF) insert criteria, to enemy sUAS and their operators, to serving as a critical enabler of information warfare to the tactical edge, the asymmetric advantages provided by the MQ-9 enabled the Marines to make much better and more rapid decisions. In short, during TALON REACH, the MQ-9 proved to be the perfect ‘Guardian Angel.’[vi]  

What’s equally promising about the MQ-9 is that it brings all of these capabilities at a cost per aircraft that is at least half of what any other current and projected Marine rotary-wing, tilt-rotor, or fixed wing aircraft costs and for a cost per flight hour that is also cheaper than any other aircraft in the Marine inventory today, in the case of the F-35, by more than $30,000 per hour.  Beyond cost considerations, the MQ-9 is also one of the most reliable aircraft in the entire U.S. inventory today, consistently maintaining readiness rates in excess of 90 percent while heavily engaged in combat operations overseas and training exercises in the U.S.

Looking MALE UAS Head On

When asked why our MAGTF does not have MALE UAS capabilities still 15 years after our nation first successfully employed a Predator UAS strike to eliminate Mullah Omar’s bodyguards in Afghanistan[vii] and shortly thereafter to provide CAS in support of outnumbered troops on the top of the Takur Ghar Mountain during Operation ANACONDA[viii], some key members in our aviation community argue that MALE UAS do not meet expeditionary deployment and forward basing requirements.  While rarely employed via cargo aircraft due to its multi-thousand mile self-deploy range, the MQ-9 has demonstrated significant expeditionary capabilities, in line with MAGTF concept of operations (CONOPS) as detailed in the 2016 Aviation Plan[ix] for fixed-wing TACAIR platforms, such as F-35B and the KC-130J. As an example, in February of 2016, SOCOM flew two MQ-9s and a GCS via two C-17s into an expeditionary exercise in Florida, where the MQ-9s, less than six hours after landing, supported forces operating on the ground for a week straight, including employing kinetic ordnance

  Figure 10: Expeditionary MQ-9 employment at SOCOM exercise in February 2016.

daily.  Our Corps employed a similar employment concept when rapidly responding to the humanitarian disaster in Nepal in May 2015; the UH-1Y illustrated in LtGen Jon M. Davis’ “Fight Tonight, Fight Tomorrow” article in the May 2016 Marine Corps Gazette arrived in Nepal via C-17.[x]  

Separate from expeditionary C-17 employment, going back nine years, as per Figure 11, the DHS proved the MQ-9’s expeditionary deployment characteristics via C-130.  Specific to our Corps, with the KC-130J’s

  Figure 11: DHS MQ-9 deployed via a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 in 2007

3,250nm range, wherever this aircraft can go so can an MQ-9 self-deploy, to include from “cluster bases” as described in the 2015 Aviation Plan[xi].  Operating from such “cluster bases,” the MQ-9 can, for example, execute missions with sophisticated maritime sensing, electronic jamming and decoy capabilities at ranges out to 1,000 nautical miles while remaining on-station for 10 hours.  Additionally, as mobile forward aerial re-fueling and re-arming points (M-FARPS) are established for our TACAIR platforms, as per the aforementioned AVPLAN TACAIR CONOPS, the MQ-9 can operate rapid launch and recovery element operations from these locations. Such operations would enable persistent counter UAS protection for personnel and aircraft at M-FARPs, who, given the production of tens of thousands of cheap small UAS in East Asia on a monthly basis, will all but guaranteed be under surveillance and potentially even kamikaze UAS attack.[xii]

If our Corps is executing more deliberate, sustained operations ashore, similar to the ongoing fight in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, where MV-22s, KC-130Js, F/A-18s, and AV-8Bs are operating from fixed airfields in Kuwait and Bahrain, a USMC MALE UAS can support the MAGTF from these same locations.

Separate from these employment options, a more traditional employment construct would be that which our MEUs have executed for decades now with our land-based C-130s.  In this case, MQ-9s, either self-deploying alongside the MEU’s KC-130Js or embarked inside, would be strategically located to support the MEU commander, right next to his KC-130Js.  Instead of providing the MEU commander critical and often in short supply air-to-air refueling and logistics lift capabilities though, the MQ-9 would serve simultaneously as his primary digital interoperability gateway, line-of-sight (LOS) and beyond LOS reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition (RSTA) and electronic warfare platform, and if and when required, kinetic strike delivery system. This same employment paradigm is, of course, directly applicable to both SPMAGTF-CR forces, which operate strictly from land bases and whose Marines have already described in multiple venues, to include in the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette[xiii], many of their concerns are due to lack of organic, long-range and persistent C2, kinetic and non-kinetic fires, RSTA, etc.

Adapt, Innovate, and Win

    Our Corps’ 36th and 37th Commandants, in their Commandant’s Planning Guidance[xiv] and FRAGO 01/2016: Advance to Contact[xv], respectively, emphasized the critical need for our service to change given current and forecast threats.  Our 37th Commandant stated:

As we have remained engaged in the current fight and operationally committed, our enemies and potential adversaries have not stood idle.  During these years, they have developed new capabilities which now equal or exceed our own.[xvi]

In the case of MALE UAS, potential adversaries ranging from China to Russia to Iran all have capabilities that greatly exceed our own.[xvii]  Countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia all have armed MALE UAS as well.[xviii]  Beyond these countries, what the Israelis have done with MALE UAS – which now fly approximately 65 percent of their daily combat sorties – is incredibly impressive, to include how they have closely integrated with their forces on the ground[xix]. Within the U.S. Department of Defense, every service, as well as SOCOM, employs daily long-range and long-endurance UAS. Specific to the U.S. Army alone, a company of MALE UAS (12 aircraft) is permanently assigned as an essential warfighting component in each of the organization’s 10 divisions. These aircraft provide RSTA, C2 extension, electronic warfare, and kinetic strike capabilities in support of the divisions’ soldiers on the ground, as well as their attack and assault support aircraft.  

    In contrast, our Corps’ way forward on UAS has already been assessed – repeatedly - as missing the mark by the very ground community that the ACE exists to support.  For example, from the fall 2015 Infantry Operational Advisory Group (IOAG) out-brief:

“The current MQ-21 capabilities do not meet the infantry community’s current operational requirements… recommend expanding the UAS family to include the capabilities of munitions, air-launch-able cargo/delivery and multiple intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) payloads, all with ranges and on-station times that support the operational capabilities of the MV-22.”[xx]

Further, any discussion about a sea-based MALE UAS, which sometimes is the counter when Marines express a desire for expeditionary land-based MALE UAS, should start with the following factual statement: A sea-based MALE UAS that meets the MAGTF’s current, much less future requirements, does not exist anywhere in the world and will not exist for at least another decade and most likely for at least 15 to 20 years. Making such a capability a reality will cost billions of dollars as well.  Moreover, even if such a capability does become available in the distant future, it will have to compete with already precious embark space on our limited number of amphibious ships.  Beyond this statement, it’s also true that any discussions about the MQ-8C Fire Scout (Rotary Wing UAS) filling MAGTF capability shortfalls are simply that, discussions. The truth is that the MQ-8C does not meet any of the MAGTF’s UAS capability shortfalls and attempts to prove that it does will – despite the facts clearly presented in the platform’s Naval Air Training and Operations Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) manual[xxi] – end up a waste of time and resources – and ultimately further delay filling what are now 12-year-old MAGTF UAS capability gaps.            

    Beyond talks of non-existing sea-based UAS filling the MAGTF’s capability gaps, purchasing Harvest HAWK kits for all 79 of our KC-130Js and turning MV-22s into ‘Osprey Hawks,’ with enhanced sensors, laser designation ability, jamming pods, and laser-guided munitions are also being discussed as alternatives to embracing organic MALE UAS.[xxii] On the surface, both possibilities might seem logical.  With a little analysis though, the myriad of challenges involved in both options jump out. First is money. The Harvest HAWK kits for the KC-130Js alone are nearly $600 million; adding wideband beyond line of sight (BLOS) communications for each aircraft, another approximately $100 million. Weaponizing the MV-22 with laser-guided munitions also comes with an approximately $500 million cost; potential wideband BLOS communications, sensors, and jamming pods will add another $500 million, at a minimum. Even if Congress funded the program at a time when Marine aviation has largely blamed this same Congress[xxiii] for its readiness woes due to a lack of funding, both assault support communities have consistently reinforced the many challenges that they are experiencing having to be “trained specifically to employ Harvest HAWK (which) resulting in aircrew that are not able to focus on the other essential KC-130 missions.  Specific to the MV-22, one of our Corps’ most accomplished Osprey pilots, who recently returned from serving as a squadron commanding officer in support of our crisis response SPMAGTF in CENTCOM, wrote in the April Marine Corps Gazette, “The MV-22 suffers from a similar lack of focus. It is hampered from being most effective at its primary assault support mission because of an endless list of distracting quasi-missions, a misguided training manual, and debilitating readiness.”[xxiv] Even if cost and training issues were not major challenges, what missions would have priority for our MAGTF’s already too few and in great demand KC-130Js and MV-22s: transporting Marines and equipment, air-to-air refueling or persistent RSTA, CAS, C2 extension, counter UAS, etc.? Further, if we prioritized these latter missions over the former, would our Corps really employ large visual and noise signature KC-130Js and MV-22s over objective areas for extended periods, to include during broad daylight? When considering this question, the tragedies above Mogadishu in 1993[xxv] and “Blood Over Bor”[xxvi] in 2013 immediately come to mind. Ultimately, all of these factors led a KC-130 pilot, who considered the Harvest HAWK’s post-Operation ENDURING FREEDOM applicability for our MAGTF to conclude: “the MQ-9 Reaper is clearly the superior machine that should be funded over future Harvest HAWK implementation.”[xxvii]          

    In summary, having served in a VMU over the past three years, to include participating in nine integrated training exercises, four Weapons and Tactics Instructor courses, one BLACK DART exercise, and the initial 15th MEU work-up before the MQ-21 deployment was cancelled, the MQ-9’s support during TALON REACH VII further opened my eyes on how MALE UAS can fundamentally transform our MAGTF in very short order. In doing so, the MQ-9 will also specifically address the most recent I MEF and MARFORPAC UNS request for Group V UAS. In this 20 November 2015 UNS’s cover letter, the I MEF Commanding General made very clear the consequences of continuing on our Corps’ current path:

“Failure to provide appropriate UAS based ISR, C2, EW, IO, and fires will reduce the relevance of the Marine Corps as the force of choice or force for high risk operations to be undertaken when unforeseen factors call for an immediate response where ISR is limited or unavailable.”

It’s long past time for our Corps to ‘Advance to Contact’ on MALE UAS ‘Guardian Angels.’

[i] The first UUNS for MALE UAS was submitted by I MEF after Operation PHANTOM FURY in 2004.  Subsequent UUNS/DUNSs for MALE UAS have been submitted consistently since this point, to include in support of Marines in Helmand Province in 2009, as well as for MEUs.  I MEF submitted another DUNS for MALE UAS (titled “I MEF BLOS Group V UAS”) in November 2015.  

[ii] The Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL) website includes numerous documents on this subject, from combat operations’ AARs to SPMAGTF and MEU lessons learned to consistent ITX AARs, etc.  

[iii] As just one example, direct input from the 2-15 Ground Board out-brief: “The requirement for UAS capabilities to support the GCE must be developed across the spectrum of FoUAS, to include persistent and armed UAS capabilities.”

[iv] This quote is from Capt Scott Jones, one of 2/8’s forward air controllers in Helmand Province.  He provided these comments in an interview with Capt Adam Weathers for his Expeditionary Warfare School paper titled, “UAVs and the Appropriate Balance with Manned Aircraft.”  This paper was accessed at


[v] This comment was made at the January 2016 UAS TTF.

[vi] From then LtGen James M. Mattis’ 10 Oct 2006 “I MEF Rules for Force Protection” a “Guardian Angel” is “hidden, watching over his unit’s security in an ambush mentality….Security is the first priority of work.  Guardian Angel placement is the first priority of security” accessed at http://www.imef.marines.mil/Portals/68/Docs/IMEF/G-1/policy_letters/04-06.pdf.

[vii] For more on this mission, see Chris Woods’ “The Story of America’s Very First Drone Strike” accessed at


[viii] See Matt J. Martin with Charles W. Sasser, Predator: The Remote-Control Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan, (Minneapolis, MN, Zenith Press, 2010), 21.

[ix] Headquarters Marine Corps, 2016 Marine Aviation Plan, (Washington DC, Department of Aviation, February 2016) accessed at https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com/programs/equipment-modernization/aviation.

[x] For more on our Corps response in Nepal in May 2015, see “U.S. Troops Complete Mission in Nepal” accessed at http://www.defense.gov/Media/Collection-View/CollectionID/13001 and Jeff Schogol’s “U.S. Sending Ospreys, Hueys, and Other Aircraft to Nepal” accessed at http://www.airforcetimes.com/story/military/2015/05/02/more-aircraft-headed-to-nepal/26793587/.

[xi] Headquarters Marine Corps, 2015 Marine Aviation Plan, (Washington DC, Department of Aviation, October 2015) accessed at http://www.aviation.marines.mil/.

[xii] For more on small UAS production and sales, see “Flying Robotics Blog Network” accessed at http://blog.helidirect.com/flying/charts-show-gopro-has-a-shot-at-dominating-the-drone-market/.  For more on how such drones are already being used for surveillance and attacks, see Clay Dillow, “Islamic State Ups the Size and Sophistication of its Drone Fleet,” Fortune, 18 April 2016 accessed at http://fortune.com/2016/04/18/islamic-state-ups-its-drone-fleet/ and Azad Garibov “The New Eurasian Drone Wars, The National Interest, 12 May 2016 accessed at


[xiii] For a few examples, see in the September Marine Corps Gazette, LtCol Joel Schmidt and Maj Stephen Detrinis, “SPMAGTF-CR-AF,” Capt Tina Terry, “Arming the Osprey for Self-Escort,” LT Brian T. Reynolds, “Casualty Evacuation Capabilities,” and Captains’ William T. Kerrigan, Justin Gates, and 1stLt Eric Todorski, “TRAP/PR in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.”

[xiv] Gen Joseph F. Dunford, 36th Commandant’s Planning Guidance, (Washington, DC: HQMC 2015).

[xv] Gen Robert B. Neller, FRAGO 01/2016: Advance to Contact, (Washington, DC: HQMC 2016).

[xvi] Ibid, 2.

[xvii] For further details on the expansion of armed UAS, see Adam Rawnsley, “Meet China’s Killer Drones” accessed at http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/14/meet-chinas-killer-drones/.

[xviii] For more on the proliferation of armed MALE UAS, see Faseeh Mangi and Natalie Obiko Pearson’s “Pakistan Joins Exclusive Drone Club, With Nod to China” accessed at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-10/pakistan-joins-exclusive-drone-warfare-club-with-nod-to-china and Clay Dillow’s “All of These Countries Now Have Armed Drones” accessed at http://fortune.com/2016/02/12/these-countries-have-armed-drones/.

[xix] For more on how the Israelis are aggressively employing MALE UAS, see Gwen Ackerman’s “Israel Arms With iPads to Face Increasingly Complex Battlefield” accessed at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-08-12/israel-arms-with-ipads-to-face-increasingly-complex-battlefield and David Blair’s “Israeli Drone Commander: The Life and Death Decisions I Took in Gaza” accessed at


[xx] Information taken directly from the October 2015 IOAG outbrief.

[xxi] Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) Flight Manual, Navy Model MQ-8C Unmanned Aircraft System, October 2015.

[xxii] Megan Eckstein, “Marines to Add ‘Harvest HAWK’ Weapons Kit to Entire C-130J, V-22 Fleets,” USNI News, 12 May 2016  accessed at https://news.usni.org/2016/05/11/marines-to-add-harvest-hawk-weapons-package-to-entire-c-130j-v-22-fleets.

[xxiii] Leo Shane, “Congressional Failures Just Forced the Marines to Raid a Museum for Aircraft Parts,” Military Times, 30 March 2016 accessed at http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2016/03/30/marine-corps-broke-plane-parts-museum-raid-aviation-thornberry/82416918/ and David Axe, “The Marines are Running Out of Fighter Jets,” The Daily Beast, 3 May 2016 accessed at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/05/03/the-marines-are-running-out-of-fighter-jets.html.

[xxiv] LtCol Ryan Sheehy, “MV-22: Every Capability Except Critical Thinking,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: April 2016), 61-64.

[xxv] Mark Bowden, Blackhawk Down, (New York, NY, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999), 69-103.

[xxvi] Aaron M. U. Church, “Blood Over Bor,” Air Force Magazine, October 2015 accessed at http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2015/October%202015/Blood-Over-Bor.aspx.  

[xxvii] Capt Irvan, “Harvest HAWK: Short-term Weapons System.”

Rachel reviews The Witch of Stalingrad by Justine Saracen

Rachel reviews The Witch of Stalingrad by Justine Saracen

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  Justine Saracen has written many historical novels featuring homosexual and transsexual protagonists. The Witch of Stalingrad is a lesbian adventure/romance novel set in the last years of World War II. It’s 1941, and the Russians are trying to push back the German soldiers from their country. Marina Raskova, a respected pilot, starts three different aviation units that include women. The most…

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