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Enlisted Marines reach new heights with UAS capabilities

By 1st Lt. Pawel Puczko | Marine Aviation Training Support Group 22 | Aug. 13, 2019

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —

The first enlisted Marines to be assigned as sensor operators for the MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aircraft System, or UAS, graduated from the Air Force course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Aug. 9.

Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua and Lance Cpl. Tyler, assigned to Marine Aviation Training Support Group 22, stood together with their class of 21 Air Force students as the 19-14 Basic Sensor Operator Course, or BSOC, graduating class with the 558th Flying Training Squadron. Joshua and Tyler are part of the Marine Corps future UAS Initiative.

“The graduation of these two lance corporals is a small step in their training,” said Maj. Matthew Bailey, Marine liaison to the 558th FTS. “It’s probably lost on them how important it is, but this is a major milestone for the Marine Corps UAS community. This is something we have been waiting for a long time. It’s a milestone for moving the Marine Corps towards the group five initiative and will eventually be a major warfighting leap for how the Marine Air Ground Task Force, or MAGTF, operates UAS.”

The UAS community is divided into groups, ranging from one to five. Group one and two cover small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAV, which typically weigh less than 55 pounds and fly below 3,500 feet above the ground. Group three UAV’s have a significant increase in capabilities and can weigh up to 1,320 pounds and fly up to 18,000 feet above sea level.

In the past, group three UAS assets were the highest level that the Marine Corps possessed. Group four UAS capabilities expand to a UAV weighing more than 1,320 pounds, flying up to 18,000 feet above sea level, and at any speed.

The Marine Corps has been on a path to expand it’s UAS assets and enhance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR. capabilities. This brings the push for expanding into group five UASs. Group five UAVs can weigh in at more than 1,320 pounds, normally fly higher than 18,000 feet above sea level, and at any speed. These assets can stay in the air longer, with a much larger payload, and observe a much larger area.

The solution to the Marine Corps’ need for a group five UAS was the MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper has been employed by the Air Force for more than a decade, taking over the roles previously assigned to manned combat aircraft. Tyler and Joshua were put through the same training that has been producing Air Force Reaper sensor operators for the last few years. As a sensor operator, their job will be to support the pilot and provide real-time ISR to supported units on the ground.

“I enjoyed my time here training with the Air Force, and everything that I have learned,” Joshua said. “It seems like it has been a long journey to get here, but I know that I am ready to use what we learned here in the real world. I am looking forward to getting back to working with Marines and supporting boots on the ground.”

Joshua and Tyler completed 220 academic hours of training with the 558th FTS and took part in 36 Predator Reaper Integrated Mission Environment, or PRIME, simulators.

Their final two weeks in the course they worked directly with a UAS pilot undergoing training with 558th FTS to bring together everything they learned and put it in a similar environment to their jobs when they finish training. They will both be moving on to train aboard Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to get their final Reaper specific qualification.

The Reaper was part of a large initiative to fill gaps in what was needed to support the Marine Air Ground Task Force. It is not the final step to supporting the MAGTF in the future. The Reaper will serve as an invaluable asset to the troops on the ground once it becomes available to Marine fleet units.

(Editor’s note: Only first names are given because the Air Force limits disclosure of identifying information to first names for all RPA pilots and sensor operators throughout their careers.)