The K-Max unmanned drone, a rugged 6,000-pound machine, is based at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. (Hope Hodge Seck / Staff)
FOB SABIT QADAM, AFGHANISTAN — Logistics Marines have been employing a secret weapon as they close down forward bases in northern Helmand province: a low-maintenance, heavy-lift drone that can move its own weight in gear and equipment without endangering the life of a pilot.
The K-Max cargo drone has been deployed to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, since 2011, assisting with re-supply missions to troops around Helmand province. But the rugged 6,000-pound machine, now one of only two K-Max unmanned variants operating in the world, has found a new calling as the Corps rapidly empties its remaining bases in preparation for a pullout at the end of the year.
When Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 arrived in Afghanistan late last year, Capt. Frederick Riess, officer in charge of the K-Max cargo resupply system, began surveying the forward operating bases closing in the Marines’ area of operations. He quickly found a niche for the drones in the most kinetic regions of Helmand province, where small-arms fire still poses risks for aircraft or vehicles.
“FOB Nolay [in Sangin district] was dangerous, and they needed our capabilities,” Riess said.
In January, the unit executed a resupply mission to the base, bringing much-needed food after supplies had dwindled to a day’s ration following a snow storm. Soon after, the team used the drone to bring gear back from the base as well.
In February, the system proved its worth here at FOB Sabit Qadam, which is also closing. Base leaders had discovered a problem with Afghan youth penetrating the walled perimeter. Called to assist, the drone system delivered 65,000 pounds of Hesco barriers, Riess said.
In the last months leading up to the Sangin retrograde, the K-Max was flying six to eight missions a day, team officials said, carrying payloads ranging from 4,500-6,000 pounds: anything from the top frames of 7-ton trucks to air conditioning units.
Here at Sabit Qadam, Riess said, the K-Max system carried out more than 150,000 pounds of gear, roughly equivalent to the transport capacity of a convoy of 16 trucks. At FOB Nolay, the gear moved out by drone kept roughly 20 trucks off the road.
The newfound retrograde mission for the K-Max system has translated to plenty of work for the two noncommissioned officers tasked with operating the drone from the various FOBs, work that had previously been done by contractors. Cpls. Matthew Perry and Salvatore Castaldi, the only two Marines in the Corps currently qualified to operate the system, must arrive at an FOB in advance, set up antennas and a generator, then navigate the K-Max safely from the FOB to a designated point at which the command operations center at Leatherneck takes over the mission.
“I think that’s the most responsibility we put on a corporal,” Riess said. “Operating a $14 million aircraft.”
The Marine Corps K-Max mission in Afghanistan is set to conclude before the end of the year, and it’s not clear what is next for the system, which has yet to be designated a Marine Corps program of record. But the future is promising: Officials at Marine Corps Installations and Logistics have expressed interest in making this K-Max system or a future version a key part of the Pacific rebalancing mission.