RQ-21 Takes First Australian Flight

By Cpl. Harrison Rakhshani

A U.S. Marine Corps RQ-21A Blackjack was flown for the first time in Australia as part of the annual Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) on Aug. 8.

Marine Unmanned Arial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 3, MRF-D’s Air Combat Element (ACE), launched the surveillance aircraft in support of bilateral training between the U.S. and Australian Defence Forces, marking a series of firsts for the Hawaii-based unit.

“This is the RQ-21A’s first deployment since we declared the squadron [fully operational], it’s very exciting for us,” said 1st Lt. Trevor Ellingson, an unmanned aircraft systems officer with VMU-3.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Douglas Bohr and Cpl. Dalton Kiser, with Air Combat Element, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin, conduct preflight checks on the RQ-21A Blackjack at Bradshaw Field Training Area, Northern Territory, Australia, on Aug. 9. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Harrison Rakhshani)

This historical milestone comes in the midst of an unusual year for MRF-D. In order to ensure health and safety of Australians and U.S. service members amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the rotation was delayed by two months, reduced from 2,500 Marines to just more than 1,000 and saw the ACE—which was originally composed of several squadrons of manned aircraft including MV-22 Ospreys—9ca7af to just 32 Marines.

However, the smaller footprint offered MRF-D an opportunity to exercise unmanned systems’ capacity to support expeditionary advance bases and positions following modernization initiatives led by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David H. Berger.

In line with these future operating concepts, Ellingson said that the unit, “didn’t bring a lot of manpower. We made our detachment as small as possible to get the mission accomplished. Out here, we’re training to be fast, agile, to be able to setup, get a bird in the sky as fast as we can and teardown quickly.”

1st Lt. Trevor Ellingson, unmanned aircraft systems operator, prepares to receive operational control of the RQ-21A Blackjack at a spoke site. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Harrison Rakhshani

In a real-world mission, Marine Air Ground Task Force elements would be swiftly and secretly deployed within striking distance of adversaries. These small teams would provide specific mission-tailored capabilities to shape the battlefield for follow on and larger naval forces.

The RQ-21 provides a very unique enabling capability within distributed operations. The aircraft can be rapidly deployed with a limited footprint and provide anything from route reconnaissance and target confirmation to intelligence collection for both unilateral and multilateral operations. These capabilities are amplified by the system’s ability to extend its flight distance using spoke sites as a way of extending the hub site’s reach.

“The spoke site, which enables UAS [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] operators to fly the aircraft conveniently from the rear of a Humvee, also extends the range of the aircraft from the hub,” said 1st Lt. Matthew Tatarka-Brown, a UAS officer.

During a timed training event, the Marines were challenged to deploy from the hub location and establish a spoke site. All the necessary equipment for the spoke fit snugly into two high-back Humvees.

“I lead a small group of Marines in detaching from the main body to setup the spoke site,” said Tatarka-Brown. “We got it up within an hour and 10 minutes, but we’re always aiming to get it up quicker.”

Marines recover the RQ-21A Blackjack following spoke operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Harrison Rakhshani)

Tatarka-Brown said the spoke site is extremely valuable because “it’s self-sufficient for a short period of time. It gives us the ability to have multiple aircraft doing separate missions simultaneously within the area of operations.”

To test this concept, the ACE also pushed live video from the spoke-operated RQ-21 to MRF-D’s Command Element—a first for the Marines to do so through a satellite communications system.

“We’re able to be that eye in the sky for long periods of time, providing battlefield situational awareness, pattern of life, whatever our joint force commander is looking for,” Ellingson said.

The ACE continued training with its Australian counterparts through October.    

Written by Cpl. Harrison Rakhshani with Marine Rotational Force-Darwin.