New in 2022: Marines are finally leveling up their drone game

Todd South

Creech and Nellis Airmen coordinated a training flight together on the Nevada Test and Training Range. The Marines lag far behind the other services in their armed drone fleet. (Senior Airman Haley Stevens/Air Force)
The Marine Corps got into the drone game early, experimenting with the then-new technology in the 1980s.

Other priorities, funding and a drone-hungry Air Force put the Corps in the backseat.

The Marines are finally mounting a drone comeback, with its first noticeable acquisitions in 2022.

In recent years the Corps could only point to two armed drones in its fleet, compared to the Air Force which counts 351 such armed drones, according to a November Center for Strategic and International Studies report.

But Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger prioritized building a robust drone fleet early in his tenure and has driven funding and manning in that direction. The Corps will buy six additional MQ-9 Reaper drones in the coming year if its budget request is approved.

In his Force Design 2030 guiding document, Berger called for a doubling of active-duty drone squadrons from three to six.

Marines have operated the RQ-21 Blackjack for years, but in the Corps that’s used as an unarmed, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. The Blackjack is a Group 3-level drone, which comes in at less than 1,300 pounds.

That’s after the Marines spent recent years trying to get a do-it-all drone dubbed the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Unmanned Aerial System, or MUX funded. That drone would act not only as an armed overwatch and reconnaissance platform but include electronic warfare capabilities and work as a hub in a fires network that would like air-ground-sea-space assets at the fingertips of Marines in theater.

But Congress was lackluster on funding for the program as it is already heavily invested in Navy shipbuilding, aviation improvements across the fleet and a host of new Army equipment upgrades and additions.

For now, the MQ-9 Reaper will have to do.

In an October exercise, Marines and Airmen teamed up for the first MQ-9 drone flight from the mainland to Hawaii. In

The same month the Corps announced a new MOS for MQ-9 drone operators, 7318 for officer ranks between second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel to advise commanders on using Group 5 drones such as the Reaper.

This is an excerpt from “19 Things Marines Need To Know For 2022,” in the January print edition of Marine Corps Times.