For a U.S. Marine Corps bent on remaining as light, mobile and lethal as possible on land and at sea, good things do come in small packages.

The service has deployed an early version of its newest unmanned aerial system (UAS), the small, rail-launched Block 1 RQ-21 Blackjack to begin early operations in Afghanistan in April in response to a Central Command urgent need for signals-intelligence collection there. The plan is to begin operations of the Marine Corps’ first full-up RQ-21As—different from their predecessors in that they are capable of shipboard operations—this fall.

Though the U.S. plans to sharply reduce the number of soldiers in Afghanistan by year-end, the Marine Corps expects to deploy on land in the future to support contingencies such as operations in the Horn of Africa. But as the Pentagon shifts its focus to the Pacific theater, the corps is also eager to reconnect with its roots as a premier amphibious force. The Blackjack will be used to support both goals.

With a wingspan of just 16 ft., the Blackjack is a derivative of the Integrator small tactical UAS built by Boeing subsidiary Insitu. The design, with a 39-lb. maximum payload, beat out three competitors in July 2010: Raytheon’s Killer Bee-4, AAI Corp.’s Aerosonde Mk. 4.7 and General Dynamics/Elbit Systems’ Storm. The Blackjack is optimized to give Marines a look ahead, whether they are landing on a beach or conducting patrols in urban terrain.

While the Marines are leading this high-profile buy—Boeing Defense, Space and Security CEO Chris Chadwick called it a “huge” win strategically—demand for such a system is global. For example, an unidentified Middle Eastern customer has purchased six Integrator systems, a company official says. A second foreign buy is in the works, says Juan Gomez, director of international business development for Insitu. International interest is expected to expand once the Blackjack becomes operational in the U.S. arsenal this fall.

Competition, however, is also increasing. At this week’s Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International symposium in Orlando, Florida, L-3 Communications is unveiling a competitor to the Blackjack: the Airborne Pursuit and Exploitation (APEX) unmanned aircraft, an all-electric system that is between the size of Scan Eagle and Integrator (see page 42).

Insitu demonstrated Scan Eagle during a three-day trial with the Brazilian navy off the country’s coast in February amid rolling seas with 15-ft. waves, Gomez says. “We were able to perform flawlessly for three days,” he told reporters at the Fidae air show in Chile in March. Brazil is expected to issue a request for proposals for a system by early next year. A similar demonstration in 2012 with Chile did not materialize into a sale; Santiago is still assessing its requirements.

The commercial Integrator is a larger, more capable platform than Insitu’s well-known Scan Eagle, which began as a commercial product fishermen used to track schools of tuna and maximize their time at sea. Scan Eagle was pressed into service for U.S. military forces in Iraq. 

The Marine Corps is slated to buy 32 Blackjacks and the Navy 25; each system consists of five aircraft and two ground systems, says Col. James Rector, program manager for small, tactical UAS for the Navy and Marine Corps. The military originally planned to buy five systems annually, but budget pressure has driven that down to three. This leaves excess capacity at Insitu for foreign sales, Rector says.

The Scan Eagle and Blackjack are tailored for shipboard operations by employing a rail-launched takeoff and “skyhook” recovery system. The latter is a vertical wire on which the aircraft must hook its wing for recovery. The takeoff and recovery systems are towable by ground vehicles when employed at a land base.

Developmental testing of the objective RQ-21A has resumed this month onboard the USS New York, a San Antonio-class amphibious dock. The goal of these final developmental trials is to demonstrate the shipboard recovery system and test its performance at different wind speeds and directions. The bulk of developmental testing was done on land.

Operational testing on the USS New York is scheduled for July off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., Rector says.

Meanwhile, the UAS deployed in the field are dubbed “early operational capability” (EOC) aircraft. They lack the shipboard software and testing but are suitable for land operations. By developing and testing the EOC aircraft slightly ahead of the objective Blackjacks, Rector says the Marines and Insitu worked through bugs early, easing the developmental and operational test process. 

For instance, a wing-root issue on heavyweight takeoffs and a fuel leak were found on an early model. Rector says that had these issues not been caught early, they could have added up to six months of work to the project. “They paid for themselves,” he says.

RQ-21A Blackjack
Wingspan 16 ft. 
Length 8.2 ft.
Max. takeoff weight 135 lb.
Max. payload weight 39 lb. 
Range 50 nm
Endurance 16 hr.
Ceiling 19,500 ft. 
Cruise Speed 60 kt.
Standard Payloads:  
Electro-optical imager/video  
Mid-wave infrared imager/video  
Infrared marker  
Laser range-finder  
Communications relay  
Automatic Identification System receivers
for shipping traffic data
U.S. Procurement Plan:  
Marine Corps: 32 systems  
Navy: 25 systems  
Sources: Naval Air Systems Command and Boeing Insitu

Full-rate production is slated for this fall after the Marine Corps declares initial operational capability, according to Rector.

In parallel with this work, the Marine Corps and Insitu are exploring a fuselage capable of carrying more payload as well as various payload options. The idea is that the Blackjack will be the platform on which a variety of sensors can fly well into the future. “We want to pace the threat with buying sensors and technology,” Rector says.

Insitu is studying the design for a “high-growth-weight” fuselage that would expand the maximum takeoff weight to 145 lb from 135 lb. With a larger fuselage, the UAS can extend its maximum endurance to a full day of operations from 16 hr. The intent is to begin building vehicles with the new fuselage later this year, when the Pentagon declares initial operational capability for the system.

Rector says his office is looking into what would be the best of more than 100 payload options to add to Blackjack. The day/night camera is already operating better than expected. Designed to achieve a National Image Interpretation Rating Scale (Niirs) score of 7 at 3,000 ft. altitude, the Hood Tech Vision imager is capable of achieving the same resolution at 8,000 ft., Rector says.

Among the other options being explored are new turrets for the Blackjack as well as a synthetic aperture radar capable of tracking ground targets. Also under review is a laser designator that would enable a Blackjack operator to direct laser-guided weapons to targets. Foreign customers in lush environments and special operations forces are also eyeing foliage-penetration options.

Marine officials are exploring a beyond-line-of-sight capability as well, to extend the Blackjack’s range or allow a single vehicle to act as a hub for communicating with others.

In parallel with work on Blackjack, the Marine Corps is developing the software reprogrammable payload (SRP), a system designed to help digitally connect systems that now operate separately because they use different radios and waveforms. Though it is still in development, the Marines hope to eventually put the SRP onto the Integrator to link a variety of operators on the battlefield— from ground-based soldiers to those in aircraft such as the Bell Boeing V-22 or Sikorsky CH-53K.