Pakistan is still blockading NATO war supplies passing through the port of Karachi in response to last month’s killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by an alliance air strike. But inside Afghanistan, supply lines are about to get a lot safer for NATO’s logisticians. On Saturday, the Marine Corps flew history’s very first combat resupply mission using a robot helicopter. The unmanned Kaman K-MAX successfully hauled a sling-load of cargo out to an unspecified base, presumably somewhere in southern Afghanistan.
The successful first flight, plus a couple test runs earlier last week, “were in preparation for sustained operations,” Jeffrey Brown from Lockheed Martin told Paul McLeary of Aviation Week. Lockheed has partnered with Kaman and the Marine Corps to demonstrate two of the unmanned supply choppers in combat.
The Marines’ K-MAX is a pilotless version of a popular twin-rotor helicopter. The GPS-guided robo-K-MAX weighs in at just 2.5 tons, but can carry 3.5 tons of cargo some 250 miles. The K-MAX beat out Boeing’s smaller A160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopter for the Marine Corps demonstration contract. And the Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force are all considering buying robot supply aircraft in large quantities.
The need is clear. The war in Afghanistan is highly dependent on flexible, reliable and secure logistics — even more than the just-ended Iraq war was. NATO troops are widely spread across rough terrain, interrupted by steep mountains, with few paved roads. Helicopters have to handle most of the final delivery for front-line supplies.
But the choppers and their crews are at risk of crashing or being shot down. Robot choppers remove the risk to the crews, and could potentially fly more frequently than manned rotorcraft, considering there is no requirement for crew rest. That’s why the Department of the Navy brought the K-MAX to Afghanistan in October.
Shameless plug: Afghanistan war logistics, cargo robots and K-MAX are all subjects of my new book From A to B, published this month by Potomac.
K-MAX is just getting started in Afghanistan, but robotic logistics goes back years. In 2003, Special Operations Command began using the SnowGoose robotic glider for small-scale deliveries. Responding to escalating casualties among U.S. Army truck drivers, the Army started experimenting in 2007 with driverless cargo trucks. Expect many of the most dangerous logistics jobs of the coming years to be performed by robots.
But that doesn’t mean the Marines aren’t worried about the ‘bots’ safety, too. “Most of the [K-MAX] missions will be conducted at night and at higher altitudes,” said Marine Capt. Caleb Joiner, a K-MAX operator. “This will allow us to keep out of small-arms range.”