The head of the United States Marine Corps says the Marines’ air power could be completely uncrewed within 15 years.
General Robert B. Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, says the technology exists to realize this future. Neller stressed, however, that aircraft would not be completely autonomous, and would still be directed by a human being making key decisions.
The Marine Corps Times quoted Neller from an event at the Brookings Institution saying: “I don’t know what war is going to look like in the future, [but] I think things that fly in the sky, the great majority of them … there will not be human beings at the control. There will be a human somewhere directing that thing.”
The Times further quoted Neller saying, “We can fly everything we get now without a human being in the cockpit,” Neller said. “Any vehicle we have, any airplane we have … to fly that thing I am not sure we need a human being.”
The Marines, which specialize in the close coordination of air and land forces, are making a big push into unmanned air. In November 2017, the service tested the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System, or AACUS, a hardware and software kit that can reportedly be fitted to any known helicopter, allowing it to fly by itself. AACUS could theoretically be fitted to the service’s CH-53E Super Stallion heavy transport helicopter, AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopter, and the UH-1Y utility/light attack helicopter.
The Marines also fly the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, F/A-18 Hornet, and KC-130 Transport, but the commandant’s comments seem directed at shipborne helicopters and perhaps even tiltrotor aircraft. It is not known if AACUS works with the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor transport, but the Osprey is probably the single most important air asset in the Corps’ inventory. Neller’s statement “we can fly everything we get now without a human being” makes it sound like there is indeed an autonomous solution for the tiltrotor.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are both looking at introducing “optional manning” into their aircraft fleets. The Army in particular is looking at the ability to quickly convert helicopters to an uncrewed setup for flying resupply missions while pilots are resting, squeezing as much flight time out of their platforms as possible. All of the services are averse to autonomous helicopters flying human passengers, insisting on human pilots for those missions. In time, as autonomous vehicles become more commonplace, that aversion will probably fade away.
The Marines are also pushing a requirement for a new vertical takeoff and landing drone with combat capabilities. The Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System-Expeditionary, or MUX for short, would operate from ships and could carry missiles and bombs in support of the F-35B or act as a communications node for forces at the farthest edges of the battlefield.