The Blackjack fills the Marines’ need for a larger,
more capable UAS that is truly expeditionary and can
operate from amphibious ships or from a crude land
base without a runway, which the Shadow requires.
Launched by a mobile hydraulic catapult, the 150-
pound maximum weight MQ-21A can be arrested by a
wing-tip hook snagging a dangling cable held up by a
collapsible pole, or it can land on its belly on soft dirt.
The Marines conducted an operational capability test
with an early MQ-21A system in Afghanistan from April
to September 2014, supporting ISR missions with a
multi-sensor payload, infrared marker, laser range finder, communications relay package and automatic identification systems. The five air vehicles flew nearly 1,000
hours in the tests.
Like the Shadow, the Blackjack will be operated by
Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadrons (VMUs)
that are part of a Marine Air Group (MAG) in each of
the three active-duty and one Reserve Marine Air
Wings located at Marine Corps Air Stations (MCAS).
They will support deployed Marine Air-Ground Task
Forces (MAGTF) at all levels.
Under the revised fielding schedule, Greenberg said,
VMU- 1, in MAG- 31 at MCAS Yuma, Ariz., should receive the first three MQ-21As in fiscal 2016 and by
2017 would have three Blackjack systems. Each system
has five aircraft and two ground
VMU- 2, MAG 14 at Cherry Point,
N.C., received its first Blackjacks in
2014 and is scheduled to have five
systems by January 2017.
VMU- 3, MAG- 24 at Kaneohe
Bay, Hawaii, should have three
MQ-21A systems by 2017.
The plan for the Reserve VMU- 4,
MAG- 41 at MCAS Pendleton, Calif.,
currently is under review, Greenberg
VMU- 5 is scheduled to be activated in fiscal 2023 at an undetermined location, and a VMU training
squadron is to be established at
Cherry Point in fiscal 2016.
One MQ-21A system will go in
2017 to VMX- 22, which recently
moved to Yuma to become the integrated operational development
and testing unit for all of Marine
The Marine Corps’ program of
record for MQ-21A includes 33 systems — 165 aircraft, Greenberg said.
“As the Marine Corps fields the
MQ-21A to the operational VMU squadrons, we will
transition from our current fleet of RQ-7Bs in order to
effectively posture the squadrons to provide an effective,
expeditionary Group 3 UAS capability” to the MAGTFs,
As the MQ-21A replaces the Shadow, the Corps will
retain most of its current family of small UAS, hand-
launched Group 1 vehicles that the air plan says “pro-
vide a capable, responsive, and cost-effective organic
airborne intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance
(AISR)/kinetic capability to the operating force maneu-
ver units at the team/company/battalion level.”
The small UAS family includes the RQ-11B Raven, a
“rucksack-packable” 5-pound vehicle, the RQ-12A
Wasp and the RQ-20A Puma, both slightly larger than
the Raven. All three, produced by AeroVironment, are
battery powered and carry day and night video sensors
that transmit imagery to a hand-held controller.
Small UAS operators, who serve in infantry units,
are trained and the vehicles maintained by Training
and Logistics Support Activities at Camp Pendleton,
Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Training for operators of the more complex Shadows
and Blackjacks currently is done by contractor-supported
Mobile Training Teams, which the aviation plan says “are
prohibitively expensive in the long term.”
An Insitu Integrator Block 2 unmanned aerial vehicle is retrieved by a Sky
Hook recovery system during a Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2
(VMU- 2) flight test at Atlantic Field, N.C., April 1, 2014. Integrator is providing
the aerial platform for the Marine Corps’ RQ-21A Blackjack small tactical
unmanned aerial system. VMU- 2 conducted an early capability flight to train
Marines with the new system.